Being in the UMWA is very important, says Derek Bragg, a 25-year-old roof bolter at the Robinson Run mine in West Virginia. Robinson Run is the nearest union mine to the nonunion Sago operation where 12 miners were killed after be-ing trapped for nearly two days fol-lowing a January 2 explosion.
If we see something not safe, the union backs us up, Bragg told the Militant. At nonunion mines, I know from experience you do what the boss says or lose your job.
That is the growing conviction of both union and nonunion miners throughout the coalfields. A convic-tion bolstered by the deaths of 15 workers at two West Virginia mines and a third in Kentucky the first three weeks of 2006.
The stakes are high for all working people, not just miners. As competition for profits intensifies worldwide, the health and safety of workers and farmers are on the capi-talists chopping block, along with our wages, pensions, medical care, and simple dignity on the job. With utter disregard for the human toll, employers are speeding up pro-duction in mines, mills, factories, and among rail workers, truckers, and air-lines employees. Deaths and maimings are mounting among farmers strug-gling to cover rising costs and meet interest payments to the banks.
Many daily papers carrying news of the miners who just died in Melville also reported a study showing that 20 percent of day laborers in the United States suffered injuries last year requiring medical attentionin six out of 10 cases causing them to miss more than a week of work.
Class conscious workers must be able to assert with complete confidence and integrity that the stronger and more militant the union, the safer the operations of the industry, whatever it may be, Socialist Workers Party national secretary Jack Barnes explained in a 1995 talk printed in Capitalisms World Disorder (see ad on page 6). This is a fundamental matter of class pride, of self-respect, of the morale of the working class. It is a question of the working class taking the moral high ground in the battle against the exploiting class and for human solidarity.
With UMWA safety committees in every mine, coal miners can use union power to walk off the job if mine roofs are inadequately secured. They can refuse to work if explosive coal dust levels are high or very com-bustible gases are building up. They can insist on the repair of faulty con-veyor belts, exposed wiring, or other defective equipment before any coal is cut. They can say no to the bypassing of safety devices on mine machinery.
Left to their own profit greed, the coal bosses will never take such measures. With coal prices at record levels, they are stretching out the workweek, cranking up output, and slashing costs. They couldnt care less about the limbs, lungsand livesof workers. And as recent events show, government regulatory agencies such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) either wink at violations or levy fines so smalla few hundred bucks for the most serious infractionsas to be contemptible.
The coal barons, their Wall Street underwriters, and their kept Democratic and Republican politicians cannot state these callous profit calculations outright. So, they come up with rationalizations. Coal mining, by its nature, is extremely dangerous, a so-called analyst for the Morgan Stanley brokerage house told the Wall Street Journal January 21. And Sago Mine owner Wilbur Ross said his fervent hope is to reduce the risk the next time a miner is underground.
But these are self-serving lies. There is nothing inherently unsafe about coal mining or other jobs. Not a single worker has to be killed or injured in a mine or any other workplace. Its possi-ble to eliminate risks, not just reduce them. That needs to be labors goal.
Thats not the goal of Wilbur Ross or other big-business owners, however. Rosss goal, as he told the Journal, is to make his International Coal Group the low-cost producer in the industry. The companys plan for Sago, where miners produced 350,000 tons of coal last year, is to mine 900,000 tons in 2006!
As Democratic and Republican politicians always do for a week or two after mine disasters, West Virginia governor Joseph Manchin and U.S. senator John Rockefeller have wagged their fingers and pledged new state and federal mine safety laws. While additional such measures are certainly called for, it was not inadequate legislation that led to the 15 deaths over the last three weeks. MSHA, for example, had cited the Sago Mine 208 times last year for violations of already-existing regulations. Yes, Wilbur Ross told Fortune magazine, they found violations, but not enough to close it down.
Working people cannot rely on MSHA or other agencies of local, state, and federal governments, all of which speak and act on behalf of the employing class. In fact, the mine agencys most vigorous effort in 2005-06 has been to point the finger at workers. To hear it from MSHA and the coal bosses, alcohol and drug use among miners is the biggest safety issue in the mines!
Tens of millions of working people know better. We know the bosses profit drive is responsi-ble for unsafe and unhealthy condi-tions on the job. We know government inspectors officially mandated to pro-tect workers and the public are in fact beholden to the wealthy businesses they are supposedly regulating.
Progress by coal miners in or-ganizing the mines can set an example and be a source of inspiration, practi-cal lessons, and solidarity for workers in other industries seeking to use un-ion power to counter the bosses attacks. Thats the road to defending life and limb of working people and our allies, not only in the United States but the world over. Support all struggles by miners to unionize!
Coal boss greed kills two more miners in West Virginia
Toll: 15 in three weeks
Join effort to win 1,000 Militant sub renewals
Letter from the editor
Build support for Militant Fighting Fund
Safety violations rampant in western coal mines
Deaths on the job, racism sparked 1968 Memphis strike
Marxism, or why join the communist movement
New York event takes up contradictory development of labor vanguard
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