President Obama ordered flags lowered to half-staff throughout West Virginia April 12 mourning the 29 miners who died in an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine a week earlier.
Rescue teams found the bodies of four missing miners, pushing the death toll to 29, the worst mine disaster in nearly three decades.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts told MSNBC's Ed Show April 9 that the UMW had conducted three campaigns to unionize the huge underground mine, one of 47 Massey mines that employ 5,400 miners, all but a handful of them denied union protection.
Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, a notorious corporate exploiter obsessed with maximum production and profits, spearheaded the campaign to block the union, Roberts charged.
"This guy, making $30-some million in 2005, went inside the coal mine and sat down with every single worker and said: 'If you vote for the union, you're not going to have a job because I will close this mine down.'"
Roberts said the first UMW representation election was a "tie vote," adding, "We lose on all ties. We had 65 to 70 percent of the workers signed cards and they wanted the union but they couldn't get a union."
"If we had had the Employee Free Choice Act, this mine would have been union a long time ago," Roberts said. He was referring to legislation to make it easier for workers to win union rights when a majority sign cards in favor of union recognition.
United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard linked the Massey miners' tragedy to the deaths of five workers at Tesoro Oil's refinery in Anacortes, Wash., April 2.
Both the Massey mine and the Tesoro refinery had been cited repeatedly for safety and health violations. The owners, said Gerard, "consider safety fines just another cost of doing business."
It is time to make penalties so high, and enforced so vigorously, that they sharply cut into profits, he said. "Another crucial factor is the ability to charge CEOs with criminal negligence" for flagrant health and safety violations, the Steelworkers leader said.
"Republicans and Tea Partiers are running around like Chicken Little screaming that government is too big," continued Gerard. "Thirty workers killed in explosions in four days is what happens when government is too small ..."
Roberts pointed out that in the past decade, 49 miners have died in Massey mines, calling it an "intolerable" toll.
Coal companies have tied up 19,000 federal Mine Safety and Health Administration safety and health citations in endless challenges, he said. "MSHA cannot shut them down due to a pattern of violations because this is the appeals process ... We need to fix this right away."
Miners, he charged, are afraid to report explosive gas and coal dust for fear of company retaliation. "What we need to do is put some teeth in it and say you cannot be fired, you cannot be disciplined, you cannot be discharged if you come forward."
Roberts said Republicans gutted a 2006 mine safety bill introduced after the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners. The bill was so weakened that its author, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., voted against it as did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The House enacted a stronger bill in 2008 but President Bush threatened to veto it and the Democrats lacked the votes to override.
Roberts praised Obama for appointing veteran UMW safety official Joe Main to lead MSHA. "For the first time in history... a member of the UMW was appointed to head MSHA. The workers have one of their own running the agency right now," Roberts said.