An examination of recent mine disasters reveals that accidents happen far more often in non-union mines.
As United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, whose union is one of two major U.S. unions representing mine workers, said:"This is another series of fatalities at another non-union mine."
"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."
Gerard blasted the culture "that developed during the Bush years that was against regulation, against enforcement," and noted, "we’ve seen a marked improvement since the appointments of the Obama administration into Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, despite the holds placed by some Republicans.
But that’s only part of the story, as Gerard noted:"The CEO of Massey promotes himself as a union buster, promotes himself as having a record of fighting unions wherever they show up in his work place. If he spent as much time helping the workers get a union and helping us clean up his workplace we wouldn’t have these fatalities, we wouldn’t have these fines."
Massey’s accident is hardly the first that falls into this category.
Following the death of 12 miners at an explosion in January, 2006 at West Virginia’s Sago Mine, which had been cited for 200 safety violations during the prior two years, a hearing was held by the House Education and Workforce Committee.
Among those testifying were miners who had worked at both union and non-union mines.
"So I got a good taste of both sides of the spectrum," Randy Duckworth of Farmington, West Virginia told the committee. "When I was at a union-represented mine, I was greeted with a safety committee appointed by the union to oversee the health and welfare of those employees."
At a non-union mine Chuck Knisell of Morgantown, W Va., was ordered to do several things he regarded as unsafe. "I didn’t like to do it, but (my boss) said, ‘if you don’t like it, there’s the track... You’re not going to have a job. We’ve got a stack of applications this thick."
As Rep. George Miller put it, "people are in a situation where they can be intimidated if they speak out because they really don’t have the security of a safety committee" and "union representation."
In a commentary April 29, 2006 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, titled "Stopping another Sago. There’s no question that union mines are safer," writer Charles McCollester was even more emphatic:
"A union presence at the Sago mine might well have prevented the disaster."
McCollester cited the numerous safety precautions won by unions in mines they represent, and added that union mines do a better job resisting efforts by cutthroat employers to slash safety standards or install "dubious products."
Ultimately, the key difference, he noted, is the voice union representation provides for the workers, he wrote:
"Critically, workers in a union mine are not afraid to speak. In a non-union operation, asking questions or challenging company mining practices or safety procedures can lead to termination. The company’s fear of knowledgeable, independent inspects was illustrated in their attempt to bar the entry of UMWA at Sago."