Union Mines, Safer Mines

Subscribe to Monthly Review!

A union presence at the Sago mine might well have prevented the disaster.

Training at a union mine is strictly enforced.  Workers, in rotation, walk the three alternate escape routes monthly and train on priorities in case of an emergency.  Barricading as was done at Sago is the fourth and final resort.

There were no substantial physical barriers to the Sago miners walking out while they still had oxygen.  Rescuers on the other hand couldn’t advance to the men because of the danger of further explosions.  Article XVI of a union contract itemizes extensive orientation and retraining requirements focused on health and safety with the proviso that all “training programs shall emphasize health and safety in addition to the requirements of the job.”

The decline of governmental oversight and enforcement under the present administration is a scandal.  The Mine Safety and Health Administration levies fines but rarely collects and fails to go to court to enforce.

In a non-union mine, the inspector has no back-up.  It’s his word against the company.  The union has the right to accompany inspectors and provide documentation and testimony.  The heart of the union presence, the local Mine Committee, meets monthly, receives additional training, has the right to inspect any part of the mine including its access, and must perform full inspections at least every two months.

Critically, workers in a union mine are not afraid to speak.  In a non-union operation, asking questions or challenging company mining practices or safety procedures can lead to termination.  The company’s fear of knowledgeable, independent inspections was illustrated in their attempt to bar the entry of UMWA representatives at Sago.

Union mines resist efforts to cut corners including the installation of dubious products like foam Omega blocks that the government now allows to replace previously mandated two-foot thick poured concrete or block walls.

Two successive roof fall deaths at the non-union Rosebud mine in Armstrong County were in an area with recognized poor roof conditions, but the company was not test drilling to effectively gauge conditions.  It continued to take deep cuts (in excess of 20 feet) using 36- and 42-inch roof bolts when conditions called for longer ones.  The failure to drill test bores was a contributing factor in the mine flooding at the non-union Quecreek operation.

Present with mine rescue teams, the UMWA was kept out of the command center at Sago where the company ruled.  Three hours of false word about the survival of all but one of the miners would not have been possible if the union had been present.  Workers and their families had no representation in the command center.

Wilbur Ross is the billionaire investor who formed International Coal Group in May 2004.  He disavowed responsibility for the explosion, claiming ICG had only taken over Anker Coal’s Sago operation in June 2005.  In reality, however, Mr. Ross had been deeply involved in Anker for a decade as an investor.  By early 2001 WL Ross & Co. controlled 40 percent of Anker stock and helped guide the company into bankruptcy where it shed obligations to bondholders and retirees.

Mr. Ross’ companies eliminated health benefits to retired miners and their families.  ICG proclaimed in November 2005: “We believe that compared to other publicly traded U.S. coal producers, we have the lowest cost post-retirement employee obligations.”  What is at stake for ICG in Anker is 707 million tons of bituminous coal and long-term contracts with several major Eastern utilities.

All of ICG’s underground mines in West Virginia have accident rates that are worse than the national average.  Anker’s Stoney River Mine has a rate 4.3 times and Sago mine three times the national average.  Safety at the Sago Mine actually deteriorated after June 2005 when ICG took over managerial control of the mine.  All of ICG’s Anker mines are non-union.

Wilbur Ross has been termed by steel researcher Mark Reuter “a ’boutique’ private entity investor looking for value in distressed companies” and “a lone hunter seeking out big game.”  He targets companies with large cash flow, but high labor costs that global investors want cut.  Starting with bankrupt LTV Steel in 2002, Mr. Ross arranged to buy legendary steel companies like Bethlehem, Republic and Weirton after a bankruptcy judge ruled that the companies did not have to honor contracts that guaranteed health benefits to retirees and the workers’ pensions were taken over by the PBGC.

When Mr. Ross created International Steel Group, more than 150,000 retired steelworkers lost health-care benefits, but some union steel jobs were preserved.  In 2005, he sold his bundled steel properties to Indian-owned Mittal Steel for a $267 million personal profit.

The human and organizational factors inside and outside the individual coal mine need to be considered when investigating the mounting number of coal fatalities.

Charles McCollester is a professor in the Department of Industrial and Labor Relations and director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  This article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on 29 April 2006 and is republished here with the author’s permission.