January 20, 2016
By Micah Landau
Reprinted from NEW YORK TEACHER http://www.uft.org/labor-spotlight
New York, NY – Five years after a West Virginia coal mine explosion killed 29 miners, a federal jury convicted the former CEO of Massey Energy of criminal conspiracy to violate mine safety standards. The trial laid bare rampant neglect of basic mine safety regulations. Over the years, thousands of violations involving ventilation and coal dust precautions had piled up at Upper Big Branch, the site of the disaster.
Donald Blankenship, who was acquitted of the most serious charges, faces up to a year in prison for the misdemeanor. Since 1970, there have been more than 390,000 worker deaths on the job, yet in this same period only 88 cases have been prosecuted for violating workplace safety laws, according to the AFL-CIO.
“Employers don’t see that there are real penalties,” said Nadia Marín-Molina, a safety and health specialist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.
The Upper Big Branch explosion brings to light an important fact: Union mines — and unionized workplaces in general — are far safer than those without unions, like the Upper Big Branch. Fatalities occur disproportionately in mines without union representation, according to data compiled by the United Mine Workers of America. From 2013 to date, just one of the 47 miners killed on the job belonged to the union. Overall, the fatality statistics show, unionized mines are about twice as safe as nonunion mines.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the Mine Workers, attributed the difference to the union’s ability to enforce safety standards and the willingness of unionized mine workers to speak up because they know the union will protect them. At the Upper Big Branch mine, by contrast, where nonunion workers feared for their jobs, workers had not filed a safety complaint since 2006.
“Our contract gives us the power to withdraw from an area we deem to be unsafe until the unsafe condition is corrected,” said Smith. “In a nonunion setting, if a miner says, ‘That’s unsafe, I don’t want to work there,’ the boss can say, ‘That’s OK, you go home and I’ll find someone else who will.’”
In the New York City construction industry, being in a union can also be a matter of life or death: Of the 16 deaths so far this year in construction, 14 have been on nonunion sites.
Most construction fatalities over the last two years could have been “completely avoidable,” according to a review of accidents by The New York Times. At most construction sites where workers were killed, The Times found, basic safety steps to prevent workers from falling, such as the use of harnesses, were not taken.
“The union is always present to make sure the men are safe,” said Lindsay Leborgne, a fourth-generation union ironworker who attended a rally on Dec. 10 to demand greater safety measures on construction sites in New York City. “You just tell your steward if something is unsafe.”
Many of the construction safety rules were created by the unions, said Peter Gavaghen, a veteran ironworker and the union’s shop steward at the Hudson Yards construction site.
“We created these rules ourselves,” Gavaghen said. “Guys went on strike to create these rules.”