One Nation, Underground

Why new mining legislation is like throwing a pebble into a mine shaft.

The life-or-death struggle of Randall McCloy Jr., the only survivor of the Jan. 2 Sago mining tragedy, tells an important story about workers’ rights in the 21st century. It also raises troublesome questions about the limits of the power of legal reforms to save lives, and it suggests that no matter how promising new legislation may look on paper, the lack of an organized workforce will render legislative gains temporary at best.

Last month’s deaths of 12 Sago workers generated a national outpouring of concern for the miners and a renewed national interest in mine-safety conditions. In Washington, Democrats have been clamoring for congressional hearings. In West Virginia, state legislators knocked each other over to pass yet more mine-safety laws. After a few quick sessions, they agreed on a new statute requiring mines to use electronic devices to track trapped miners and to stockpile oxygen to keep miners alive until help arrives. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin signed this new legislation and vowed to pursue any other needed changes in safety laws because, he said, it’s what God would want him to do. Indeed, on Feb. 1, he went one step further and closed all West Virginia coal mines for safety checks.

Judging from such widespread efforts, one might imagine that mine-safety conditions are at a near-crisis point in America. And, judging from the governor’s strong language, we might believe that miners will be spared future safety lapses so long as politicians are willing to sign more bills.

Both impressions would be exactly wrong. In fact, mining conditions in the United States are safer than they’ve ever been. In 2005 the death toll was 22—a historic low.

Admittedly, the Bush administration has dramatically curbed the power  of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Bush has also gutted funding for mine-safety oversight. As a direct result of federal budget cuts, in the past five years MSHA has cut nearly 170 staff members, accounting for 10 percent of the government’s entire mine-safety group. And Bush’s proposed 2006 budget slashes an additional $5 million from federal mine-safety efforts.

But, the administration’s neglect isn’t the biggest problem for miners. The real obstacle to safety reform is that miners no longer have a powerful union sticking up for them. History shows that when miners have: 1) been organized and angry; and 2) had the strong national leadership of the United Mine Workers of America backing them up, they’ve been able to push for the legislative changes necessary for lasting advances in safety conditions. Sadly, neither of those two factors exist today. In fact, mining in the United States is only safer today than it has ever been because organized mine workers pushed hard for reforms a generation ago—reforms that are still in effect. Whether those reforms are enough is now in question.

The majority of mining deaths in the past few years have occurred in nonunion mines. Sago was not a unionized mine, and, according to public records, federal inspectors noted 46 alleged violations of federal mine health and safety rules at the Sago site during an 11-week review that ended in late December.

Is it a coincidence that the nonunion mine was not enforcing existing safety laws? Probably not. Because it’s not the laws, it’s the unions that matter most.

Indeed, it was in response to massive disasters in the early part of the 20th century that miners were among the first groups of workers to organize into unions. In 1950, an extraordinary 90 percent of the nation’s 480,000 coal miners belonged to the UMWA. It was no surprise that in 1952, after a devastating explosion killed 119 underground workers in Illinois, the nation’s miners were able to push for the first federal mine-safety act. Under its legendary president, John Lewis, who worked collaboratively with rank-and-file members from 1920 to 1960, the UMWA prospered and advocated for national safety standards and aggressive inspection regimens.

In 1968, a massive explosion in Farmington, W.Va., killed 78 miners (including Gov. Manchin’s uncle). Miners across the country again rallied, and in 1969, again due to the leadership of the UMWA, and despite a threatened veto by President Richard Nixon, Congress passed the landmark Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which greatly expanded enforcement powers of federal inspectors and established mandatory health and safety standards for all mines. These measures led to an almost 50 percent decrease in coal-mining fatality rates between 1971 and 1975. In testimony before Congress in 2000, a UMWA spokesperson called this law “one of the most effective pieces of worker health and safety legislation in the history of this country.”

And, again it was at the instigation of unionized miners that, in 1977, Congress created the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, which combined numerous federal safety and health regulations for all mines—coal and others—under the same piece of legislation and provided more consistent legal avenues for redress.

In short, in the 30-year period prior to enactment of these safety statutes, more than 19,000 miners were killed in the nation’s coal mines. Whereas in the 30-year period following enactment of the 1969 Mine Act, there were 86 percent fewer coal-mining deaths. But this steady stream of union-led victories was purchased at a price that’s now coming due. During the 1970s, a growing chasm between workers and union officials led to legislative gains but long-term animosity and even longer-term decline. That stormy decade began with the UMWA’s former President Tony Boyle being convicted of ordering the murder of one of his rivals and sentenced to life in prison. It ended with his successor, Arnold Miller, resigning because the rank-and-file membership ignored his calls to cooperate with mine owners and the Democratic Party leadership.

The UMWA went into a free fall in 1981, after President Ronald Reagan broke the national air-traffic-controllers’ strike. The union’s leaders, as was true in other industries, simply threw up their hands and cooperated with the mining companies. In 1982, attorney Richard Trumka became president of the union. In the following years, he continued to override the union’s historic commitment to fight by canceling strikes and appeasing owners. The UMWA lost its remaining political leverage and watched its membership evaporate. Today, according to the union’s own optimistic estimates, only about 30 percent of all mines are organized.

Cecil E. Roberts, current UMWA president, seems to support safety improvements. He testified before Congress in late January and then hit the media circuit for a couple weeks. He recently partnered with the MSHA to win an injunction in federal district court in West Virginia against Sago’s operator after miners’ representatives from the UMWA were denied access to the mine during a federal investigation.

Important victories, yes. But, viewed against the UMWA’s track record, this rather tepid response to the Sago disaster doesn’t measure up. While it is critical that legislators continue to call for improving MSHA’s ability to carry out safety inspections and to punish noncompliant mine owners, history suggests that lasting gains in this area can occur only with organized miners at the helm. Because without angry union officials agitating about unsafe working conditions and threatening to call in federal inspectors, there is simply no pressure on owners to make changes. All the new laws in the world are useless without union officials to push for their enforcement.

In 1998, the Louisville Courier-Journal reviewed nearly 25,000 federal health records for Kentucky underground coal mines (96 percent of which, at the time, were nonunion). The newspaper concluded that “small, non-union mines generally pay less, cheat more on dust tests and don’t have union stewards demanding compliance with costly safety regulations.”

Perhaps more fundamentally, union mines instill—and can at times reward—a greater sense of collective responsibility than nonunion mines. In stark contrast to the Sago disaster, on Jan. 29, the lives of all 72 unionized miners trapped in a Saskatchewan potash mine were saved after a devastating, toxic machine fire trapped them underground. When the workers reached the surface more than 24 hours later, virtually all of them credited the emergency training they had received—including practices and rehearsals. Their union—Communications, Energy and Paperworkers—had pushed for this training, and the union had also agitated to allow miners to earn paid time to prepare for underground disasters.

Newspaper accounts described how the men in Saskatchewan did exactly what they had practiced: At the first sign of fire, they retreated to sealable refuge stations stocked with supplies, beds, and pure oxygen. They calmed each other, led other miners to the “safe zones,” and waited for rescue teams. Could stricter safety guidelines, on their own accord, have generated such preparation and cooperation? Maybe, but probably not.

The old-time miners—the ones who remember the UMWA in its prime and yearn for those long-gone days of action and confrontation—know that courts and politicians can be only marginally helpful. They would say that even with all the well-meaning legislators rushing to pass new laws this month, the only thing that will save future accident victims will be the long-term collective effort of the miners themselves, pushing hard to make their work, and their lives, count.