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The 100-Year Struggle for Mine Safety

Children miners in the early 1900s

In one of several memorable moments during last week’s AFL-CIO Presidential Candidate’s Forum in Chicago, Sen. Joe Biden shoved aside a question by a widow of a mine worker who was one of 12 men to die in the Sago Mine collapse last year. Biden short-shrifted his reply to Deborah Hamner’s question on workplace safety and health so he could make a point on a previous topic—U.S. relations with Pakistan. Here’s the exchange.

DEBORAH HAMNER: My husband, George Junior Hamner, was one of the 12 men who were killed in the Sago Mine last year. It’s happening again right now with the six trapped miners in Utah. I feel that the Bush administration has failed workers like my husband by rolling back dozens of important workplace protections. 

My question is, as president, what will you do to improve the health and safety in our coal mines and all of our workplaces across America? (Applause.) 

MR. OLBERMANN: Thank you, Mrs. Hamner. Senator Biden? 

SEN. BIDEN: (Madame ?), I’m sorry about—I understand what it’s like to lose a spouse, and it’s not an easy thing, and my heart goes out to you. I would implement every one of the recommendations that have been already made and have not been implemented. The president of the United Mine Workers is sitting down there. He’s forgotten more about this than most of us know. 

But folks, I got to say something here. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. The truth of the matter is, none of what you heard earlier is correct. It’s already the policy of the United States, has been for four years, that if there was actionable intelligence, we would go into—into Pakistan. That’s the law.

Secondly, it’s already the law, that I wrote into the law, saying that in fact we don’t cooperation from Musharraf, we cut off his money. 

It’s time everybody start to know the facts—the facts.

At this point, the crowd of more than 17,500 union members started booing.

Meanwhile, the families of the six men trapped in Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine continue their vigil, now 11 days since the mine collapsed. 

Last year, Congress passed the first major mine safety laws in more three decades. Mine safety advocates hailed the MINER Act as a good first step in improving mine safety and responding to emergencies.

But, “The job is not done,” Dennis O’Dell, Mine Workers (UMWA) Health and Safety director, told a House panel in late July, just days before the Crandall Coal Mine collapse. O’Dell and other witnesses told the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections that two recently introduced bills (H.R. 2768 and H.R. 2769) address many of the most pressing needs in mine safety and health. (O’Dell’s full testimony is here.)

Among other provisions, the bills:

  • Increase the enforcement powers of the federal MSHA.

  • Increase the penalties against mine operators that have a pattern of safety
    violations or that retaliate against miners who report safety and health

  • Require a more rapid deployment of proven safety technologies, including
    underground communications systems and refuge chambers where miners could escape poisonous smoke and gases.

  • Require employers to provide miners with multigas detectors any time they work

As O’Dell told the subcommittee:

The enhanced enforcement authority this new legislation provides MSHA will also be critical to ensuring the safety and health of miners but, as always, only if the agency embraces that new authority and actually uses it. Irresponsible coal operators need to know that MSHA is serious about enforcing all the laws on the books and also enforcing the penalties for noncompliance.

It’s says a lot about this country that for more than 100 years, our nation’s coal miners have been forced to continually fight for workplace safety. But keeping up the fight to literally stay alive is essential because no matter how far we’ve advanced technologically, miners still must battle “irresponsible coal operators.”

In an interview on “Democracy Now!” this week, longtime mine safety advocate Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, described Crandall Mine owner Robert Murray’s safety and health record (which we touched on at Firedoglake here, here and here).

He first came to my attention in 1993, and it’s because it was a fairly sad case, where a mine foreman lost his arm in one of Mr. Murray’s underground coal mines, and he bled to death before they could get him to the surface. Now, according to a witness, about a week before this accident occurred, Mr. Murray had said to 40 miners that under no circumstances were they to turn off the beltline, because if you can’t move coal out of the mine, you’re not making money. And he said, “I don’t want that belt turned off unless there’s a man in it.” 

A week later, there’s a problem on the beltline. A foreman goes to see what’s wrong. He didn’t turn the belt off, and his arm got caught in the conveyer belt and ripped off. I mean, it was a very, very sad case. Now, they weren’t arguing the point of law of what Mr. Murray said, but the point of law was whether or not this foreman was doing repair and maintenance to the belt, where it should have been turned off. And that was really unclear in the case. But what wasn’t disputed was what Mr. Murray said in front of these miners.

In Ohio, Smith notes that at Murray’s Powhatan No. 6 mine, Murray was

in big arguments with the Mine Safety and Health Administration officials over problems they had there, over citations he got, over the fact that they wanted to close down a longwall section to make the mine safer. And we have meeting notes where he was screaming, “You’re costing me $15,000 an hour! I’m losing tens of millions of dollars!”

Despite seismologists’ confirmation that the collapse was not caused by an earthquake, Murray insists that it was an act of God (which just happens to be legally untouchable) for the accident.

But look at his record. As Forbes reports, the Galatia mine in southern Illinois, owned by Murray subsidiary American Coal Co., has received 869 violations so far this year, leading one mining expert to believe the company is “just going for the production and not going for the safety.”

The United Steelworkers union sums it up this way:

While our thoughts and prayers go out to the trapped miners and their families, we would be remiss in our responsibilities if we do not declare, in our loudest voice, that in order to sustain safe workplaces in the mines and every other place of employment in the nation, workers must have a voice on the job. That voice is strongest when workers’ join together to form a trade union with democratically elected representatives. 

Accidents may still occur. But if workers are empowered to design safe and healthy work sites through a union, accidents will be far fewer and far less serious. Work should be the place where we go to earn a living; not a place to go to die.

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