Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts says that Massey Energy Co.’s continued inaction on safety violations at its Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 West Virginia coal miners died in an April 5 explosion, should send Massey CEO Donald Blankenship to jail.
In a speech at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention yesterday, Roberts said, “If there is any justice in America,”
U.S. Marshals should go to where he lives, get him, handcuff him, put him in chains, take him to jail, set his fine at $40 million.
He told the delegates the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors had “shut this mine down over and over and over again.”
They brought the men outside, they brought them to a safe place. But as soon as they left the same thing happened again and again. They didn’t correct the violations.
In 2009, MSHA proposed nearly $1 million in fines for more than 450 safety violations at the nonunion mine. Just last month, MSHA cited the mine for 57 safety violations that included repeatedly failing to develop and follow the ventilation plan. Ventilation is vital to prevent the build-up of highly explosive methane gas, which is most likely the cause of the April blast.
Roberts said the Massey mine was cited several times for “failure to abate.”
What does that mean? They were told to do something by the United States government. They said here’s a violation you are being cited for. I’ll be back in five days and this better be corrected. This inspector came back over and over again and they didn’t correct the violations.
Some people, Roberts said, say mining is inherently dangerous and these things will happen and “there’s nothing we can do about it.”
They are damn sure wrong. We need good laws, we need those laws to be obeyed and we need those laws to be enforced and those who fail to obey those laws should be punished.
One of the miners killed, 25-year-old Josh Napper, was concerned about safety, especially ventilation problems at the Upper Big Branch Mine, his mother told CNN reporters after the blast. Roberts said he left a letter for his family before he went to the mine April 5. Napper “left it with his mother and fiancé and his baby fearing he was not going to survive working in this coal mine.”
There is something wrong with this picture. When young men go off to war, they write these kinds of letters, saying how much we love our mothers, our fathers, our wives and our kids. But in America, you’re not supposed to write that letter when you’re going off to work.
Meanwhile, Art Levine at the Huffington Post explores coal field union-busting campaigns, especially Massey’s attacks on workers, and the relation between nonunion mines and disasters like the one at Upper Big Branch.
With the union weakened by closed mines and the rise of untrammeled union-busting, unsafe, deadly conditions were allowed to continue unchallenged at the growing percentage of non-union mines that put profits above safety.
In contrast, “what unions, particularly in a dangerous profession like mining, mean is that they give workers protection and the leverage of a working group with management to vocalize and bring forward concerns about safety without fear of retribution,” says Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of American Rights at Work. She adds, “In the absence of a union, in hard economic times, workers feel more vulnerable about losing their jobs and less confident about expressing their concerns about safety.”
UMWA Communications director Phil Smith tells Levine that while three out of 10 coal miners are UMWA members, only “about one in every 10 fatalities is a union miner.”
And he notes that the fatalities involving union miners generally involve individual accidents, not mine-wide disasters like fires and explosions that periodically shock the country and, it seems, are soon forgotten by the federal government’s generally lackluster regulators.
Miners at Upper Big Branch tried to organize three times with the UMWA, the last time in 2005, Roberts told MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” last week. But Blankenship launched a full-out attack:
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 down.”
Roberts said the first election was a “tie vote,” adding, “We lose on all ties. We had 65 percent to 70 percent of the workers signed cards and they wanted the union but they couldn’t get a union.”
In his 2008 book, Coal River, Michael Shnayerson looks at the Massey empire. He told ABC News that when it came to defeating the union, Blankenship “made it his own personal campaign.”
He began flying in every week in his helicopter. He gave pep talks. He took a whole bunch of [Upper Big Branch miners and their families] on trips to Dollywood, where they went to concerts. He went with them and bonded with them. New cars started turning up in their driveways.
He also said as soon as the union was gone, Blankenship shifted gears. Work hours increased from eight hours to 12 hours. Bonuses were cut. If miners got injured, their jobs were at risk.