Labor law reform would make mines safer

by National Nurses Movement

Wed Apr 07, 2010 at 12:27:00 PM PST

By now, most of the nation is well aware of the hideous safety record of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine south of Charleston, W. Va. where at least 25 miners died this week in the worst U.S. mining accident in a quarter-century.

As the Washington Post, for example, noted yesterday, "the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Upper Big Branch for 1,342 safety violations from 2005 through Monday, proposing $1.89 million in fines, according to federal records."

But there’s another major part of the story that is missing from most of the media coverage.

An examination of a series of mine disasters in recent years would find a common thread – accidents happen far more often in non-union mines.

One place that point was made was on the Ed Schultz show Tuesday night by United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, whose union is one of two major U.S. unions representing mine workers, along with the United Mine Workers of America.

As Gerard noted, "this is another series of fatalities at another non-union mine."

"I can absolutely say that if these miners were members of a union, they would have been able to refuse unsafe work in our collective agreements, and they would have been able to refuse that work, and would not have been subjected to that kind of atrocious conditions."

Gerard blasted the culture "that developed during the Bush years that was against regulation, against enforcement," and noted, "we’ve seen a marked improvement since the appointments of the Obama administration into Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, despite the holds placed by some Republicans.

But that’s only part of the story, as Gerard noted to Schultz.

"The CEO of Massey promotes himself as a union buster, promotes himself as having a record of fighting unions wherever they show up in his work place. If he spent as much time helping the workers get a union and helping us clean up his workplace we wouldn’t have these fatalities, we wouldn’t have these fines."

Massey’s accident is hardly the first that falls into this category.

Following the death of 12 miners at an explosion in January, 2006 at West Virginia’s Sago Mine, which had been cited for 200 safety violations during the prior two years, a hearing was held by the House Education and Workforce Committee.

Among those testifying were miners who had worked at both union and non-union mines.

"So I got a good taste of both sides of the spectrum," Randy Duckworth of Farmington, West Virginia told the committee.  "When I was at a union-represented mine, I was greeted with a safety committee appointed by the union to oversee the health and welfare of those employees."

At a non-union mine Chuck Knisell of Morgantown, W Va., was ordered to do several things he regarded as unsafe. "I didn’t like to do it, but (my boss) said, ‘if you don’t like it, there’s the track... You’re not going to have a job. We’ve got a stack of applications this thick."

As Rep. George Miller put it, "people are in a situation where they can be intimidated if they speak out because they really don’t have the security of a safety committee" and "union representation."

In a commentary April 29, 2006 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, titled "Stopping another Sago. There’s no question that union mines are safer," writer Charles McCollester was even more emphatic:

"A union presence at the Sago mine might well have prevented the disaster."

McCollester cited the numerous safety precautions won by unions in mines they represent, and added that union mines do a better job resisting efforts by cutthroat employers to slash safety standards or install "dubious products."

Ultimately, the key difference, he noted, is the voice union representation provides for the workers, he wrote:  

"Critically, workers in a union mine are not afraid to speak. In a non-union operation, asking questions or challenging company mining practices or safety procedures can lead to termination. The company’s fear of knowledgeable, independent inspects was illustrated in their attempt to bar the entry of UMWA at Sago."

A union voice protects patients in hospitals too

Nor is the link between union representation and safety confined to the mines – and it goes beyond worker safety, to also mean safer conditions for the public.

Nurses have long known that union representation empowers them to advocate for safer patient care conditions and improved workplace standards for themselves.

A 2002 University of Massachusetts Amherst study of patient care outcomes with a focus on acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) mortality rates at hospitals in California represented by RN unions, mostly the California Nurses Association, cited a striking difference.

The study found "hospitals in California with RN unions have 6 percent lower mortality rates for AMI after accounting for patient and hospital characteristics."

That’s a lot of lives saved. The reason is not hard to find. In unionized hospitals, RNs have the protection to speak up for their patients and challenge the priorities of employers that are mostly very similar to the profit-first priorities of mine owners and other corporate interests.

For those who accommodate or acquiesce to the anti-union rhetoric so pervasive in corporate America, the halls of Congress and state legislatures, and all too often the public airwaves, there is a price. It is more dangerous workplaces, whether a mine or a hospital, and a greater threat to worker and public safety.

During the 2008 campaign, there was a lot of talk about reforming federal labor law which has been so perverted the past three decades by corporate lobbyists and their many advocates in Congress that has made it far, far more difficult for workers who want representation to unionize.

Yet today we are no closer to enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act, or any serious labor law reform that will democratize current labor law.

Leo Gerard is right. Steps are being taken by the current White House to reverse the anti-regulation fervor of the Bush years.

But that is not enough. Until we have real reform that allows all working people to have the right to form unions free from the harassment, intimidation and retaliation so common today, we’ll all be living at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine.