Monday, August 13, 2007

The Need For Unions

The questions raised on workplace safety and unionization rights are now more pressing than ever in the wake of continuing efforts to recover six workers trapped in the collapsed Crandall Canyon mine owned by Murray Energy Corp,in Utah. Despite unions ensuring that miners work in safe environments, President Bush has gone to lengths to gut workplace safety standards and union strength. While the exact cause of the mine collapse is currently under debate, the tragedy has raised important questions about the safety standards of the miners that have been neglected under the Bush administration. The Crandall Canyon mine, which employed non-union labor, has run up "a record of more than 300 safety violations, of which 118 were considered to be serious enough to cause injury or death." The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union is sharply critical of the mine's safety record. "If it were one of our union mines, we wouldn't allow the pattern to continue," said Bob Butero of the UMWA, noting that an effort to organize mine workers failed six or seven years ago. Mine owner Bob Murray (pictured)-- who yesterday boasted about his "non-union mine" -- is notorious among miners for his union-busting history. After 13 miners were trapped and killed in the Sago mine in West Virginia in early 2006, Murray attacked proposed state safety reforms as "seriously flawed, knee-jerk" reactions. In Ohio, he refused to hire union workers because of their "costly health and pension benefits"; in another operation, he paid his workers "less than $3 an hour." At a press briefing yesterday, Murray used a media appearance to criticize global warming proponents, and only later "emphasized that his heart and his priorities are with the trapped miners and their families." He urged the press to "not believe anything [the UMWA] says about the disaster." Mine safety standards have plummeted under the Bush administration. Last year, 40 miners were killed on the job, more than any year since 2001. Early in his administration, Bush appointed mining executive David Lauriski to head the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA), who then rescinded "more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer." In 2006, Bush recess-appointed former Murray Energy executive Richard Stickler, whom the Senate had twice rejected because the mines he managed "incurred injury rates double the national average." In March 2007, the AFL-CIO warned that MSHA was "moving too slowly on mine safety" and that "another Sago [is] possible."The Utah tragedy "happened too soon" for reforms after Sago to be implemented, as "government-mandated changes involving communication and tracking equipment do not take effect until 2009." "Manufacturing delays" prevented the Utah mine from stockpiling the required four days of food, water and oxygen. "In all, the Bush administration abandoned or delayed implementation of 18 proposed safety rules that were in the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's regulatory pipeline in early 2001, a review of agency records shows." Nonetheless, Stickler believes that "no new laws or regulations are needed." Several of Bush's top regulatory appointments -- from Susan Dudley to Michael Baroody (who later withdrew his nomination) -- are industry allies who oppose stringent worker and consumer safety requirements. In April, a New York Times expose showed how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, "charged with overseeing workplace safety," has placed safety "in the hands of industry." The agency "had killed dozens of existing and proposed regulations and delayed adopting others" by the end of 2001, and it has since "vowed to limit new rules and roll back what it considered cumbersome regulations that imposed unnecessary costs on businesses and consumers." From opposing the Employee Free Choice Act to appointing "easily the most anti-worker labor board in history," the Bush administration has denied the right to organize to at least "8 million workers in 200 occupations."

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