Friday, April 23rd, 2010
Earlier this month an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine took the lives of 29 miners. Just as they do after every major mining disaster, people ask if the tragedy could have been prevented. And the answer, nearly always, is yes, probably.
Mining, especially underground mining, is inherently dangerous. Until the day all mining is done by remote-controlled robots, there will be injuries and deaths in mines. However, data reveal that there are two factors that make a real difference to the lives of miners: Government regulations and unions.
Today I want to talk about unions. In a union mine, when a miner sees a safety violation he takes it to the union safety committee, which has some authority to demand the problem be resolved. And the whistle blower is protected from retaliation by the mine owners. But in a non-union mine, a miner who stops work because of dangerous conditions risks being fired.
For this reason, union mines have better safety records than non-union mines. In recent years union miners have been one-fourth to one-half as likely to be killed in mine accidents as non-union miners.
Of course, on-the-job accidents are not the only danger in the workplace. Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, also called black lung, kills 1,500 former coal workers in the U.S. every year. Black lung is a preventable disease. Workplace exposure to asbestos is the most common cause of mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer. Safety experts know how to protect workers from asbestos, yet to this day some employers ignore even common-sense safety precaution.
The Upper Big Branch mine, the site of the recent explosion, was not a union mine. Mike Lillis writes in the Washington Independent that the mine owner, Massey Energy, has intimidated its workers into silence about dangers in the mines. Former employees told Lillis that Massey mine workers are afraid to talk to reporters and others for fear of losing their jobs. Lillis also says that workers have been denied time off to go to their co-workers’ funerals (Massey Energy denies this).
“Massey is the economic engine in parts of West Virginia, and there’s a lingering fear among many workers that any grumbling could leave them unemployed,” Lillis writes.
Mine towns tend to be company towns, because mine towns tend to spring up in out-of-the-way places with no other natural resources but minerals, oil or coal. The salaries paid by the mine company are often the lifeblood of a community in which everyone either works for the company or sells goods and services to people who work for the company. And this gives the mine company management a lot of power to do whatever it wants.
If the mine company is big enough, it gains considerably political as well as financial influence. It can pay lobbyists to gut safety regulations and kill bills like the Employee Free Choice Act that would give workers more power to organize unions without being punished by management. Enough money can keep politicians and media looking the other while profits are put ahead of the lives of workers.