Bush policies threaten miners health

Four years ago, President Bush appointed Dave D. Lauriski to be assistant secretary of labor in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). This is the federal agency that is supposed to enforce federal regulations to protect miners.

Lauriski stepped down from his post effective Nov. 19, and his acting replacement is MSHA’s deputy assistant secretary, David G. Dye, who is expected to carry out the same policies.

At the time of his appointment, Lauriski was president of his own consulting firm in Price, Utah, having previously served as general manager at Energy West Mining Company and as director of health, safety, environmental and government affairs at Interwest Mining Company.

In keeping with GOP practice, the White House filled a regulatory position overseeing a critical industry with a top executive from that very same industry. It was another case of the fox being asked to guard the chicken coop.

When Lauriski first arrived on the job, J. Davitt McAteer, the Clinton administration’s MSHA administrator, had 26 safety and health rules in the pipeline, 17 of them moving toward final resolution. Lauriski spiked them all.

Keeping track of the number of dead, injured and disabled miners each year is a critical part of measuring progress in safeguarding workers’ safety and health. Under Lauriski, the MSHA claimed a reduction in mine death and injuries, but the United Mine Workers of America disagreed, charging the Bush administration with a public relations ploy. It said Lauriski redefined what a “mining site” is, and the new definition results in a gross undercounting of work-related injuries and deaths.

These are the same kind of Madison Avenue tactics that Bush uses to lie about other domestic and foreign situations, all calculated to brainwash the general public and to put over his anti-people, anti-worker policies. It’s reminiscent of the old days, when mine operators used to claim coal dust was good for you.

Incidentally, the new “creative” Bush administration statistics remove deaths from Black Lung disease, still a problem in the mines, from the MSHA death tally.

The UMWA has a short list of urgent steps needed to improve miners’ safety and health, including self-rescue respiratory devices; expansion of rescue teams; regulating the use of super-large trucks in and around mines; fire-resistant conveyor belts in mines; and measures to improve air quality. These all seem like common-sense measures, and they are, but each one represents expenses to the employer and a reduction in company profits.

While these measures can to some extent be demanded and won from employers who have to face a union representative each day, where there are no unions such demands run into a brick wall. Without unions, federal mine inspectors are virtually the miners’ sole line of defense against injury and death on the job.

Lauriski’s MSHA has acted in the same way as Bush’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration: it’s been “employer friendly.” The Bush administration is not openly killing MSHA and OSHA — that would not look good to the public. Instead, it emphasizes “employer-based education and training,” and offering “assistance” to employers.

What that means, in practice, is that a MSHA inspector will call up a mine owner, make an appointment, and the two of them will discuss health and safety problems. The union is not involved, even if there is a union. This visit is then listed by MSHA as an official inspection, boosting MSHA’s numbers.

The miners need allies if they are to successfully defeat the schemes of the coal operators and their cronies in the Bush administration, particularly if coal production expands, something that Bush is pushing for. Potential allies include other industrial unions and the labor movement more generally, of course.

But other, less obvious, allies must be drawn into this fight — including environmentalists, who also struggle for better OSHA protections and share the miners’ concern about their deteriorating environment on the job and in their communities. (Coal operators in West Virginia, for example, have leveled whole mountaintops, despoiling the countryside and creating huge problems for nearby mining communities).

This coalition won’t be an easy one to organize, but it has been done before and must be again.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.