BY ANDY STERN/ PRESIDENT SERVICE EMPLOYEE INTERNATIONAL UNION As I write I’m thinking about the mine workers’ union members I used to know when I worked in Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Back then, most of the coal industry was unionized, and bright young miners like Cecil Roberts, who is now the United Mine Workers president, got together to make their union stronger and more effective.
When they couldn’t get the coal companies to protect their lives on the job, the miners went out on several long national strikes to win, among other things, expanded safety rights. They had safety committees at every mine that had real power to get hazards removed before it was too late or shut down the mines. The number of deaths in unionized mines dropped dramatically. Giving miners a real voice in their safety worked.
But in the decades since then, coal companies have followed the national trend of using intimidation and other tactics to transform their industry to be mostly nonunion. It’s no coincidence that every time you hear about a big mine disaster these days, you can pretty well assume that, like the Murray Energy mine in Utah, it’s in a nonunion operation where the workers have to accept hazardous conditions or go looking for another job.
The impression the public gets from most of the media coverage of these disasters is that they are acts of God. But in most cases, precautions that management could have taken are known. As Cecil Roberts says, these disasters usually are “needless and preventable” — a matter not of chance but of choice.