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.
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
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.
Terrie Albano is co-editor of People's World, www.peoplesworld.org.