08/27/2010 10:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who Is to Blame for the BP Disaster?

This post is coauthored by Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute and author of Can They Do That? Retaking our Fundamental Rights at Work

Everyone in America seems to have an opinion about who is responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Liberals blame Tony Hayward and the rest of BP's greedy and irresponsible management. Conservatives like to blame President Obama (in general) and the Mineral Management Services incompetent regulation (in particular). Then Sarah "Drill, Baby, Drill" Palin just knows that it isn't her responsibility.

The real answer is, "none of the above." Yes, BP's management and Mineral Management Services share some responsibility, but blaming them entirely ignores the fundamental problem of the 21st century workplace.

Sherlock Holmes once solved a baffling case by noticing that the dog didn't bark. It's the same clue here as well. Every one of the 126 workers on the Deepwater Horizon knew there were serious safety problems. Every one of them knew they were risking their lives every day they went to work. Why didn't they complain? Why didn't they call the OSHA, the EPA, the AFL-CIO, their Member of Congress, or the New York Times? The workers might not have known exactly who to call, but they could have found someone to pay attention. Why didn't they try?

The answer is simple; they didn't want to lose their jobs. Given the horrible choice of risking their lives at work or being unable to put a roof over their family's head, they chose danger. It's why miners work in non-union mines and why workers labor in meatpacking plants where there are more USDA inspectors than OSHA inspectors.

This was no idle fear. BP's past actions made it clear that workers who raised safety questions would be fired. Stuart Sneed was a technician on BP's Alaska pipeline. He noticed a crack in the pipeline. Nearby, a crew was grinding down welding surfaces, an activity that inherently produces sparks. If the pipeline were leaking, a spark from the grinding could have caused a catastrophic explosion that would have killed the entire crew and anyone else in the immediate vicinity. Sneed told the workers to stop grinding while the crack was investigated. Instead of rewarding Sneed for his alertness and initiative, BP fired him. Sneed never worked in the oil industry again. (Later, a crack in a nearby line burst, throwing a 28 foot long section of steel 1,000 feet into the air.)

But wouldn't whistleblower protection laws have protected BP workers who spoke up? No. America's whistleblower protection laws are a joke (except they're not funny). Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project (the country's leading whistleblower protection organization) says that almost all whistleblowers are fired and very few of them ever receive justice. Experts like Devine know what's wrong with current law and have told Congress how to fix it, but no action has been taken.

The BP workers could have spoken up safely if they belonged to a union. Union contracts (called collective bargaining agreements) prohibit firing workers without "just cause". Although the right to join a union is theoretically protected by federal law (the National Labor Relations Act), this law is also part of America's ongoing comedy act when it comes to protecting workers.

When workers try to organize, standard operating procedure is for employers to fire the leaders. This intimidates the workers and the organizing effort disappears. The only penalty (assuming the employer gets caught) is paying the workers who were fired the difference between what they would have made if they hadn't been fired and what they earn at their new job. In practice, the average penalty is about $5,000. From a purely financial perspective, an employer would be foolish not to break the law. And so they do, firing thousands of workers every year who aren't lionized like Norma Rae. 2010-08-25-Norma_raesmall.jpg

Finally, the BP disaster wouldn't have happened if freedom of speech in America didn't stop at the office door. The Constitution prohibits the government from punishing people because they do not like what they say. But the Constitution says nothing about private employers. Your boss can legally fire you because of a bumper sticker on your car, over a comment on your Facebook page, or even what football team you support. (These are all real examples.) No other industrial democracy allows this abuse.

There are many things that need to be done to prevent more catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon. But the first thing we need to do is change our laws so that workers can feel comfortable speaking up when they see something dangerous. Then we can worry about whom to blame for almost letting a disaster happen.