Dick Meister: Unions save lives



A miner's life is like a sailor's

'Board a ship to cross the waves

Every day his life's in danger

Still he ventures being brave

---Traditional labor song

A new study shows that unionization is a sure way to dramatically lessen the many deaths and serious injuries that have been all too common in the nation's coal mines.

That 's the unequivocal conclusion of the independent study of coal mining between 1993 and 2008 conducted by Stanford law professor Allson Morantz and funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

There's no doubting it: Workers in unionized mines are far less likely to be killed or seriously injured than are workers in non-union mines.

The study indicates that the number of fatalities in individual non-union mines can decline by one-third up to nearly three-fourths and serious injuries decline by as much as one-third if the mines unionize.

It's no coincidence, notes President Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers Union, that several major mine disasters recently were at non-union mines. That includes the explosion at Massey Energies' Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners last year, the Crandell Canyon, Utah, blast that killed nine miners in 2007 and the Sago explosion in West Virginia in 2006 that killed 12.

"The simple truth," Roberts concludes, "is that union mines are safer mines, and this study proves that."

He gets ready agreement for that obvious truth from union leaders and members at all levels of the labor movement, right up to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. He was a coal miner himself, as were his father and grandfather.

Trumka says he learned firsthand "the vital importance of workers having a voice on the job through their union."

Spreading unionization throughout the coal mining industry is a key mission of the United Mine Workers. But though that doubtlessly would lead to greater coal mine safety, the union's Democratic Party allies must meanwhile continue pressing for stronger mine safety laws – and stronger enforcement of the laws.

Those steps and the labor-management cooperation in collective bargaining and otherwise that the steps would require would guarantee that coal mine job safety would continue to improve – perhaps at even a faster rate than shown by Professor Morantz' study.

Labor, management and government would be in a far better position to do much more of what's needed to continue lowering the still high number of mine worker fatalities.

That's not just a daydream. Listen to the AFL-CIO's Mike Hall. He knows. Says Hall: "With all we know today, and all the avenues of protection available, there is simply no need for even one life to be lost on the job."

One of Congress' most outspoken and effective safety advocates, veteran Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, sees the study as unassailable evidence that unionization leads to greater safety.

Miller, ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, is certain that "when workers have a voice in the mine through their union, they are safer. In union mines, workers are empowered to point out dangerous conditions to inspectors without fear of retaliation from management."

It clearly demonstrates that "by giving miners the support they need to speak out, unions can save miners lives."  So can the United Mine Workers' stepped-up campaign to bring more workers under the direct protection of the union and the union's expanding safety training programs for miners everywhere.

Saving lives. No union could have a greater purpose.


Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 300 of his columns.



I live in southeastern Kentucky, where coal is the primary industry and has been for decades. I am not a miner but most of my family has been at one time or another, and now I have a 21 year-old son trying to get in the mines although I am encouraging him to look elsewhere. But I do know that miners are among the hardest working folks you can find. I'm not sure I could work under a mountain every day, many times not even being able to stand up during the whole shift but having to work on your knees. This is the type of men these miners are. Good, family men willing to put in a hard days work but they deserve not only good pay and benefits, but they deserve respect and acceptable safety precautions! Any miner knows when he walks in the mine, his life might end before he comes back out. They are not afraid to take these risks for their families and their buddies. But they deserve to have every advantage humanly possible to make sure their work conditions are as safe as possible.

Union coal has a long history in eastern Kentucky. The infamous "Bloody" Harlan County directly adjoins my county. Most of my family were union miners when they were in the mines (70's through early 90's). Sadly however, very few if any union mines remain in eastern Kentucky.

One consolation from the terrible Big Branch disaster is that regulators seem to be cracking down more on flagrant safety violators. But with the Republicans crying foul over any increase in regulatory powers in the coal and other industries, I don't think the overall effect will help much.

Thank God for unions. I only hope we can get them back in more of our mines. And soon!

Posted by Steve on Jun. 12, 2011 @ 1:13 am