What do the Sago and the Alma #1 mine disasters last year in West Virginia, and the Crandell Canyon mine disaster now unfolding in Utah have in common?
The short answer is that all three occurred at non-union mines.
The Crandell Canyon disaster, in which we can and should hope and pray for the lives of six coal miners who remain trapped by a massive cave-in and unaccounted for, occurred in a mine in which the method of mining-- in effect carving out a checkerboard pattern of chambers which are then intentionally caved in after they are worked, is notoriously very dangerous (though considered a 'cash cow' for the company-- it is much cheaper than having to build fixed-chamber mines.) It is very likely during one of these intentional small scale cave-ins that the much larger one occurred. However, even if the miners had a union, in a so-called 'right-to-work' state like Utah, the rules are tilted in favor of the mine operators. The idea that the Federal Government will force the company to comply with workplace safety regulations is laughable at best, especially with the current administration; the Crandell Canyon mine, like the others I mentioned had numerous violations of basic workplace safety rules, and they received little or virtually no punishment for them. Just last month the operators of the Crandell Canyon Mine, after being found to not have done anything about a previous violation, did in fact face the wrath of the Bush administration. They had to pay a $60 fine.
Sixty dollars. That's all, for a repeat violation. In order for a fine to be effective, it has to be for a large enough amount that the violators will find it worthwhile to fix the problem, instead of just including the occasional token fines as part of 'the cost of doing business.'
So if the Federal Government won't do much about mine safety, then who will?
Simple. A union. And I will repost something that I blogged both about the post regarding the aftermath of the Sago mine and the Alma #1 mine.
Would a union have helped prevent this? You bet your sweet patootie they would have. Unions go to court and fight aggressively to have regulations enforced and safety improvements made, and the 'penalty' problem I mentioned in the second question doesn't exist, because employers fear legal action by the union and/or strikes much more than they fear the relative inaction by the government. Three years ago, the union in Pennsylvania (remember that?) pushed for everything from a speedy rescue operation to overtime pay for the trapped men.
The case I alluded to in Pennsylvania was that of the Somerset mine disaster, which occurred in a union mine. Not only is it true that in contrast to the other three we are discussing, that disaster occured because of a poor map showing the location of an underground chamber of water rather than any safety problem with the mine itself, but the Pennsylvania mine had had a much better safety record than any of the other three.
The best friend that a working man or woman has while ina tight spot is a strong union.