Monday, August 20, 2007

Mines, Unions, and Safety

For the past 15 days we have been hearing about the mining tragedy in Huntington, Utah. This mining tragedy has highlighted several issues, and has caused much discussion however what has not been emphasized (and ought to be) is the link with Unions, workplace safety and the Bush administration.

First, the Crandall Canyon Mine is a non-union mine. In fact, 2 of the 9 unions in central Utah are non-unionized. Apart from employer intimidation, economic problems in the mining industry, and legal obstacles that the United Mine Workers face; Utah is also one of 22 free-rider states (so called right to work) in which Unions are not allowed to ask that everyone who receives the benefits the Unions provides (safety, wages etc.) pay a due to the Union so that it can continue to fight for the workers. In the words of miner Wally Francin, Crandall Canyon mine co-owner Robert Murray doesn't like Unions because, "Union People tend to make him follow the rules and do things right."

Murray has tried to deflect blame from himself by blaming an earthquake for the collapse of the mine. However nearly everyone, from miners to seismologists agree that any seismological activity was caused by the mine caving in not by any natural earth movement. As the Daily Utah Chronicle reports,
While owners of the Crandall Canyon mine say an earthquake is responsible for the mine's initial collapse and subsequent seismic "bumps" that caused Thursday's cave-in, scientists disagree.

Kris Pankow, assistant director of the U's Seismograph Stations, said what was mistaken for a 3.9-magnitude quake appears to have been the mine caving in on itself -- not a natural shift in the earth.

"What probably happened is that you had coal pillars collapse," Pankow said. "The data is not consistent with an earthquake."
Why is Robert Murray so intent on deflecting blame from his company and himself by claiming this was an act of God? Probably because he knows that he could have saved all 9 lives that have been lost if he had invested a little more in safety. As this post lays out, Robert Murray ought to have been well aware of the dangers at Crandall Canyon. Murray was solely concerned about the bottom-line about making a profit and without a union to keep him in check he was able to push his workers around and forced them to sacrifice their safety for his his wallet. As CNN reports:

In recent weeks, the floors in that part of the mine had been "heaving," or buckling up, from intense pressure, said the source, who has intimate knowledge of the conditions in the mine.

Supervisors at the mine knew of the problem, he said.

Several miners -- reportedly including Manuel Sanchez, who is among the trapped men -- were becoming apprehensive, the source said.

"I've never heard that," Bob Murray, president and CEO of Murray Energy, told CNN's Ted Rowlands when asked why someone would have been worried about that section of the mine. "I have no idea. It's probably a rumor, and I'm not going to respond to rumors."

Asked why they did not complain about their safety concerns, several miners said complaining means the loss of a job.

Murray denied that. "If you're getting that from the community, then those miners must work for another mining company. I don't operate that way," he said.

Not so, said Paul Riddle, who used to work in one of Murray's mines. "Always profits before safety, that's my opinion, my feeling, my experience," he said.

Miners who work for Murray are sometimes forced to push the envelope when it comes to safety, he said, and are afraid to speak up for fear of being fired.

"I'm not the only one," he said. "There are many, many people that feel this way and are afraid to speak up."

Not only was the mine structure itself unsafe, but the mine was also engaged in a practice known as retreat mining, or "greeding" in which the support columns are removed in order to get more coal. As John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO points out:

Safety concerns about the Crandall Canyon mine surfaced months ago, and safety experts warned of particular dangers in the "retreat mining" technique used there after it was approved by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. In retreat mining, coalminers essentially pull out roof-supporting pillars of coal as they work their way out of the mine. The retreat mining plan at Crandall Canyon, says United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, "appears to have been flawed, to say the least. In our opinion, that plan should never have been approved."

No one should be surprised it was approved, though. The Bush administration has been systematically dismantling and cutting funding for workplace safety rules and oversight since it came into office.

Every day in 2005 (the most recent data available), 16 workers died on the job and 12,000 were made sick--and that doesn't include the occupational diseases that kill 50,000 to 60,000 more workers each year. In many if not most of these cases, one of two things occurred: An employer disregarded the law, or the law wasn't strong enough to protect workers.

So much for workplace safety. The Bush administration has shown that it has little regard for the worker when workplace safety interferes with profit. Just take a look at Mine Safety Czar Richard Stickler, Stickler is the man who was in charge of approving the mine safety plan that so clearly failed in Utah. Stickler was twice rejected for his job by a Senate concerned about his own safety record and President Bush insisted on appointing him by using a recess appointment (much like he did for John Bolton). As Max Follmer wrote for the Huffington Post:

In addition to concerns about the safety record at his mines, Stickler also faced opposition from senators, union leaders and relatives of those killed in mine accidents who felt an industry insider should not oversee safety inspectors.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said that miners "could not tolerate" another industry executive overseeing their health and safety.

"Too often these mining executives place priority on productivity, but fail to focus on miners' health and safety," Roberts told Mike Hall at the AFL-CIO's blog in June 2006.

The wife and daughter of a miner killed at Sago wrote a letter to lawmakers that same month urging them to reject Stickler's nomination.

Like most of the problems that have faced the United States in the past 6 years, this too leads back to problems in the White House.

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