Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
April 12, 2010

Reckless Endangerment
Maybe it wasn’t premeditated murder. They didn’t plan the scenario that led to the temporary closing of a highly profitable mine, the destruction of millions of dollars worth of equipment–and, by the way, the death of 29 men. But morally, if not criminally, Massey Energy, micromanaged by CEO Don Blankenship–a throwback to the kind of all around schmuck muckrakers wrote of a century ago--are guilty of the most callous reckless endangerment.

Unlike mountaintop removal, which has gained so much notoriety in recent years, Upper Big Branch is what’s known as a drift mine–an underground mine created by horizontal drilling in to the side of the mountain. It uses the longwall method of removal–a huge machine with powerful cutting wheels breaks the coal off the vein, allowing it to drop on a conveyor taking it to the outside. This process is many times more productive than standards in place as recently as the Eighties--and requires far fewer miners.

The product coming out of Upper Big Branch isn’t burned at electrical power plants. It is metallurgical coal, needed in basic steel production. It is in high demand primarily in the export market–such as China.

But it’s also known as gassy coal to the miners. Methane oozes out of it and all around it. That can be like natural gas leaking from your furnace or water heater–bad news indeed. Methane concentration as small as one percent of the air can explode with tremendous force if ignited by a tiny spark. Methane buildup is a prime suspect in the devastating explosion in West Virginia.

Legend has it that miners used to take canaries in to the mines to give them early warning of bad air. Today there are electronic monitors that can alert those in harm’s way. But to be effective, these have to be maintained and calibration is legally required every month. Among the hundreds of violations cited by Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors at Upper Big Branch were complaints that calibration of methane monitors was often neglected for several months–rendering them unreliable.

But methane isn’t the only explosive danger in mines–accumulation of coal dust can also produce catastrophic events on the order of what happened at the Massey mine. Unacceptable dust buildup on the conveyors was also among MSHA complaints.

The standard response of Massey–and many mine operators–is to contest citations. Usually they can bargain their way out of many of them, and get proposed fines reduced, while production continues. They figure the worst that can happen is that they will eventually have to fix the problems, and pay the fines, they were supposed to in the first place. But this explosion proved that wasn’t really the worst outcome after all.

The United Mine Workers of America has a proud tradition of defending the safety and health of miners. They do not shrink from shutting down unsafe work. But the UMWA has been shut out of Massey’s fifty some mines and today has less than twenty percent of the industry under contract.

There’s not much in the way of job opportunities in the rural coal fields. Those complaining about conditions in nonunion mines are usually told to find work elsewhere if they’re afraid to do their job. They know the boss will have little trouble replacing them. Unorganized miners have no advocate for their safety other than MSHA.

A New York Times story, In Mine Safety, a Meek Watchdog, summarizes some MSHA weaknesses,

“... it remains fundamentally weak in several areas, and it does not always use the powers it has.

“The agency can seek to close mines that it deems unsafe and to close repeat offenders, but it rarely does so.

“The fines it levies are relatively small, and many go uncollected for years. It lacks subpoena power, a basic investigatory tool. Its investigators are not technically law enforcement officers, like those at other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“And its criminal sanctions are weak, a result of compromises over the 1977 Mine Act that created the agency. Falsifying records is a felony, for example, while deliberate violations of safety standards that lead to deaths are misdemeanors.”

Keep in mind this description of a toothless watchdog comes after labor’s “friends” have been in power for over a year. An assessment of OSHA, the agency covering most workplaces–including the site of the deadly refinery explosion we talked about last week–is hardly better. Agricultural workers have precious few protections of any kind.

The Labor Party program has an extensive section on workplace safety and health issues which includes these demands,

“We call for national legislation to train and deputize workers to be on the job inspectors in each and every workplace. Such inspectors should be protected against corporate harassment and discrimination and should be able to do their job without fear of reprisal. Such inspectors should have the power to shut down hazardous operations and to enforce the right of every worker to refuse unsafe work. Such inspectors should have the power to investigate incidents to uncover their root causes and to force the implementation of their findings. Because we know our work sites, worker-inspectors would be better able to protect the workforce from exposure and the community from disaster. Worker-inspectors will save lives.”

Such worker watchdogs will be a breed apart from the meek guarding us today. They will sniff out danger like a bloodhound and be as fierce as the junkyard mongrel in enforcing our safety. But to get that kind of law we must first revive and build the Labor Party.

Legacy Still A Burden
Last Tuesday the New York Times reported the government’s GAO accountants determined that pensions at General Motors and Chrysler are underfunded by seventeen billion dollars and could fail if the automakers do not return to profitability–by no means a sure bet. Both companies need to make large payments into the plans within the next five years--12.3 billion by GM and 2.6 billion by Chrysler -- to reach minimum funding levels.

If either company’s plan goes down the government would become liable for paying benefits to hundreds of thousands of retirees. The effect on the government’s pension insurer, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, would be “unprecedented,” the report said.

In return for bailout money in the prepackaged bankruptcies, the U.S. Treasury Department currently owns 61 percent of GM and ten percent of Chrysler. The GAO report looks at a couple of different ways the government’s shareholder interests could conflict with those of the pensioners.

“In the event that the companies do not return to profitability in a reasonable time frame, Treasury officials said that they will consider all commercial options for disposing of Treasury’s equity, including forcing the companies into liquidation,” the report said.

Another option,

“...Treasury could decide to sell its equity stake at a time when it would maximize its return on investment, but when the companies’ pension plans were still at risk”

Fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders outweighs promises made to workers every day of the week and twice on Sunday–even when dealing with “friends.”

In Brief...
¶ National Nurses United is sending another contingent to Haiti to work at Sacre Coeur Hospital in the northern part of the country. The group of intensive care, medical/surgical and pediatric nurses from California, Massachusetts and Texas includes NNU Co-President Deborah Burger.

¶ After mass rallies and an 84 percent vote to strike, teaching assistants at the University of Illinois at Chicago won a tentative agreement for a new contract that backed the administration off key takeaway demands.

¶ Canadian unions are preparing a fight to preserve Canada Post. The immediate flashpoint is contracting out hundreds of contact center jobs organized by the Public Service Alliance. Richard Deslauriers, national president of the Union of Postal and Communications Employees, said, “The slippery slope of partial privatization of services will end up with Canada Post in the hands of private companies and Canadians will be deprived of a service they have relied on for decades.”

¶ Thanks to Traven Leyshon for having me on his Equal Time Radio show to talk about the newly formed Alliance for Class and Climate Justice.

As usual, there were many important stories posted on our Daily Labor News Digest that we simply don’t have room to comment on. One of those was the judgment obtained by SEIU against individual leaders of the National Union of Hospital Workers. Just before closing this review I received a copy of Steve Early’s article, SEIU's Courtoom Payday Is Pyrrhic Victory for New Corporate Unionism, which I highly recommend.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice


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