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Richard Trumka

Richard Trumka

Posted: October 14, 2010 09:52 AM

It is a rare blessing when the earth gives back up those it has trapped within.

Early Wednesday morning, as I watched a live video feed of the first of 33 Chilean miners emerge safety from the San Jose mine after 69 days, I was overcome with emotion.

It was a feeling any miner would relate to. As Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said, "miners everywhere cheered the fulfillment of our hopes and prayers."

And yet I couldn't help but think of the lack of safety protections for miners in all parts of the world -- in China and in the United States as well as in Chile.

This is a subject that's very personal for me. Long before the idea that I would or could serve working people on a national level, I followed my father and grandfather into the Pennsylvania coal mines. My seven years underground taught me more than I can easily say, but one thing that was burned deep into my heart was the preciousness of life, of fresh air, of returning home after a day's work.

Yet too often, in the blind pursuit of profit, safety becomes a corner to be cut -- not just for miners but for every type of worker. Our lives become nothing more sacred than a commodity.

In this environment, disasters can't be simply dismissed as accidental -- any more than a drunk-driving death can be chocked up as another little mishap on the road. Even if that's what CEOs like Don Blankenship of Massey Energy and Republican senatorial hopefuls Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Raese of West Virginia might want to do.

Despite a deplorable safety record at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, Massey Energy's Blankenship shrugged off the explosion that killed 29 miners last spring as "unavoidable." Raese, meanwhile, wants to "unshackle" business from government regulation -- like the kind that keeps miners alive.

Last summer, two young coal miners died in western Kentucky when a roof collapsed. Amid allegations of safety violations, candidate Rand Paul's response was to say "sometimes accidents happen."

So while I cheered for the miners coming up from the ground beneath the Atacama Desert, it was painful to recognize yet another sign of the dangerous, corporate-driven agenda that has far more regard for the bottom line than for working people.

Raese doesn't only want to get rid of regulations on business. He's vowed to kill the minimum wage and--like too many other candidates in his party--he's railed against Social Security and unemployment benefits. They want to erase whatever America has put in place over our history to make life for working families safe, secure, decent and livable.

That's not my vision of America. Too many people have given their blood for this country -- from the mines to the battlefields -- to see us become a heartless nation in which only wealth equals power and value.

Mines don't fall apart by accident. Neither do economies. They crumble from choices and policies that put profits ahead of people -- and leave working people in the rubble.

But we can -- and I believe we will -- rise from America's economic disaster just like those Chilean miners. They're strong. So are we.