Put Safety Over Profits

Events this past spring in the coal country of West Virginia and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico have proven that corporations cannot be trusted to act in the interest of their employees or in the interest of the public.

Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where an explosion claimed the lives of 29 coal miners April 5, was only the most fatal workplace disaster in April. Seven workers died in an explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Acortes, Wash. (April 2), 11 oil workers were killed following an explosion of BP/Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico (April 20), one coal miner died of injuries from an accident at the Pocahontas Mine in Beckley, W.V. (April 22), and two coal miners were killed in a roof failure at the Dotki Mine in western Kentucky (April 28). All three mines were non-union, as was the offshore drilling platform.

The AFL-CIO reported that 5,214 American workers died on jobs in 2008 (the last year for which data are available), another 50,000 workers died from occupational diseases and at least 4.6 million workers were reported injured. Unreported injuries could push that total to as many as 14 million workers, the AFL-CIO said.

David Moberg noted at InTheseTimes.com (April 9) that miners were less likely to be killed in unionized mines than in non-union mines. “In 2006 through 2009 union mines accounted for 10, 6, 10 and 5 percent, respectively, of all coal mine deaths, but over that period unions represented 15 to 22 percent of coal miners. For those years unionized miners appear to have been one-fourth to one-half as likely to be killed in mine incidents as their non-union peers,” Moberg wrote.

“In some other years, union mines are only slightly more safe than non-union, but overall the trend is for union mines to be about twice as safe, as indicated by fatalities. (Fatalities, which can’t be easily covered over, are a reliable safety indicator, much more than injuries, since non-union mines often cover up or fail to report injuries.)

“The bad news is that union representation is down dramatically. In 1996, for example, 42% of miners were in unions. In 2009 only 20% belonged to a union.”

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, which represents some mine workers, noted that the non-union Massey mine racked up 1,342 safety violations from 2005 through March. In an appearance on MSNBC’s Ed Schultz Show (April 6), Gerard said union representation would have made a difference. “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.”

A union crew also might have made a difference on the Deepwater Horizon platform, where BP officials are accused of cutting corners as they tried to finish the drilling process and workers had little recourse but to follow orders. But according to the United Steelworkers, which represents oil workers, offshore oil rigs generally are not unionized (though the helicopter pilots that fly oil workers to the rigs are). Only 5.1% of the 62,616 workers employed in oil and gas extraction in the US were union members in 2009, according to Barry T. Hirsch’s and David A. Macpherson’s UnionStats.com.

Part of the challenge in organizing oilfield “roughnecks” is that drilling rig crews tend to come and go. Unions have better luck organizing refineries, which stay put. Of 178,519 employed in petroleum refining in the US, 20.1% were union members, UnionStats reported, but unions tend to be in the major refineries. Unionized plants refine 77% of the nation’s oil, according to the United Steelworkers, which represents many refinery workers, and they have health and safety provisions in their contracts.

Two bills before Congress would take positive steps to improve workplace safety. The top priority for organized labor is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to be represented by a union, but Republicans and the business community appear to be unrelenting in their hostility to organized labor, so reaching 60 votes in the Senate appears unlikely.

Unions also are promoting the Protecting America’s Workers Act (HR 2067), which would be the first major strengthening of the Occupational Safety and Health Act since it was enacted in 1971. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), would expand OSHA to include state and local public employees and federal government workers, as well as airline and railroad employees and government contractors. It would raise penalties for health and safety violations, allow felony prosecutions of employers who commit willful violations that result in death or serious injury and requires OSHA to investigate all cases of death and serious injury on the job.

The bill also codifies the right of workers to refuse hazardous work and improves whistleblower protections. Since OSHA does not have enough inspectors to physically inspect each of the eight million workplaces in the US, the AFL-CIO’s Chief Counsel Lynn Rhinehart testified to the House Committee on Education and Labor April 28, “OSHA needs workers to be the eyes and ears on the ground, bringing problems and hazards to the attention of their employers to bring about prompt, corrective action before injuries, illnesses, and fatalities occur.” But anti-retaliation provisions under the current law are very weak and workers who are fired or face retaliatory action for filing an OSHA complaint or raising concerns about workplace hazards are left with little recourse unless they are covered by a union contract.

HR 2067 would extend the statute of limitations for filing complaints from the current 30 days to 180 days, which is more consistent with other whistleblower statutes; it establishes clear timetables for the Department of Labor to complete investigations and authorizes workers to pursue their cases when those deadlines are missed; and it provides for the labor secretary to order reinstatement of workers in cases where the secretary finds reasonable cause to believe that a violation has occurred. The bill also allows workers to appeal decisions.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration, a division of the Department of Labor, has hired hundreds of new inspectors and stepped up enforcement since 2006, when the Sago, W.V., mine disaster claimed 12 lives. Citations by inspectors have increased by about 30%, the Washington Post reported (April 7). But that has prompted more appeals that have overwhelmed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which has said it needs 26 new judges to significantly reduce the backlog in appeals.

One of the mines cited was Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, which regulators proposed to shut down last September, but 16 separate “withdrawal orders” issued by inspectors to force miners to be removed until significant hazards were eliminated were delayed pending final resolution of Massey’s appeals, Ken Ward reported in the Charleston, W.V., Gazette (April 11).

Republicans senators also have blocked Obama’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, which was unable to act on labor-management disputes because it lacked a quorum for more than a year until Obama in March named two “recess appointees” to serve through the end of the current term of Congress.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts applauded Obama’s statement that miners must have the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. “UMWA members have that right written into our contracts, but nonunion miners do not have the protection of a contract and are at risk of being fired if they refuse to work in conditions that threaten their lives or their health,” he said. Roberts noted that before Congress approved the Coal and Mine Acts in 1970, an average of 809 miners were killed in coal mines each year. In the 40 years since then, an average of 83 miners were killed. We can do better. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2010


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