Price too high to pay

After the death of more than two dozen miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine south of Charleston, West Virginia, mine safety is at the top of the national agenda.

The tragedy comes after too many years during which the Bush administration devoted itself to conspiring with companies to circumvent safety laws. They did it to maximize production and they did it at the expense of the safety and the lives of miners.

The good news is that the Obama administration has been radically different in this regard. With the appointment of mine safety expert Joe Main to head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, for the first time in history, MSHA, a division of the Department of Labor, is headed by a union person.

The bad news is that eight years of ant-labor policies under Bush had consequences. Incredible amounts of damage have to be undone.

Agencies such as the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission are still battered. This agency, which reviews challenges by mining companies to assessments of safety violations and penalties, is overwhelmed with backlogs. While the Obama administration has taken steps to add 26 judges to the panel of 10, cooperation has not been forthcoming from Republicans.

The GOP’s resistance to the president’s National Labor Relations Board appointments were a blow to job safety not just in the mines, but in all of the dangerous industries across America. It is the non-union mines that have proven most dangerous and it is the NLRB that is supposed to protect workers who want to form unions so they can have a safer workplace. By crippling the NLRB the GOP was saying that none of that mattered.

The disaster in West Virginia is another one of many that have occurred at non-union mines. If the men who dieds were union members they would have been able to refuse the unsafe work that led to their deaths, without fear that by speaking up they would lose their jobs and their livelihood.

Let those in the halls of Congress, the media and elsewhere who relish attacking unions, who subvert the right of workers to organize and specifically, who oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, understand that their attacks and their opposition exact a price. That price was paid by more than two dozen workers in West Virginia this week. It is too high a price.  

Photo: In Whitesville, W.Va., Libby Scott, left, and Reva Smith, a server at the City Diner, search for the correct station to watch a news conference about the mine explosion, April 7.  Jon C. Hancock/AP