ANKARA, Turkey - Turkey's four union federations called a one-day general strike on May 15 over the coal mine disaster in Soma, 150 miles southwest of Istanbul, where a fire, explosion and toxic gases on May 13 killed at least 284 miners and left more than 100 others missing. It was Turkey's worst mine disaster, in a nation with a high coal mine death rate.
"The TURK-IS executive board decided to exercise their right to stop work for one day following the Soma tragedy", the union, the largest and oldest of the four federations, said on May 14. It called the results of the explosion and fire "murders." Members of TURK-IS, the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions, are also striking against the excessive use of "subcontract work," it said.
The strike targeted the mine's owners and also Turkish Prime Minister Reycip Erdogan, whose government has been lax in enforcing safety rules and which has refused to ratify an International Labour Organization convention covering mine safety, said the European-based union federation IndustriALL. It includes the union, Maden, which represents Soma's miners.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a third-generation coal miner and former United Mine Workers president, also mourned the dead miners. Flags in front of the federation's headquarters were at half-staff. "The thoughts and prayers of millions of workers go out to their families and communities," Trumka said.
"This disaster is a stark reminder of the danger workers face every day around the world due to corporate negligence and the failure of governments to protect their citizens," he said.
"There are steps we can and should take to ensure no worker has to choose between a day's pay and their life. Our concerns are grounded in reams of evidence that show the reach of corporate irresponsibility and government incapacity knows no borders. We must dedicate our efforts to ensuring every workplace is safe. He said, "the challenge ahead" is "to ensure that every worker can live without fear of workplace injury or death."
United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts issued the following statement Thursday:
"The horrific news coming from the coal mine near Soma is a punch in the gut for every coal miner everywhere in the world. The hearts and prayers of every UMWA member and our families are with the families of the miners who lost their lives, and we sincerely hope that rescue efforts are possible and successful for those who remain trapped.
"The magnitude of this tragedy is appalling. I see where the media is calling this an industrial 'accident,' but a disaster on this scale is no accident. This mine was clearly a bomb waiting to go off. There could not have been any regulatory enforcement or company oversight of what went on in that mine.
"It has been nearly a century since we have seen disasters on this scale in the United States or Canada. Through strong laws and regulations, we have been able to develop workplace protections that keep our miners safe from the kinds of conditions that must have existed in that Turkish mine.
"What we have done here isn't magical. It can be and has been applied elsewhere in the world. We stand ready to work with the Turkish miners and their government to help develop safety and health procedures that can help put an end to the possibility of these sorts of massive disasters in the future."
IndustriALL reported "an electrical fault triggered a transformer to explode causing a large fire...The fire caused a power cut in the mine rendering mine cages unusable and the majority of workers trapped two kilometers underground and four kilometers from the exit."
Mining engineer Ãetin Uygur, former chair of the Underground Mine Workers Trade Union, called the explosion and fire "the greatest workplace massacre in the history of the Turkish working class." He also noted there are close ties between Erdogan's party and the mine's owners, ranging from state subsidies to personal relationships. "Subcontracting of unskilled mining labor was one of the main factors in reducing the costs," at Soma "as the average monthly wage of nearly 5,000 mine workers is only $500," Uygur said.
There have been prior, smaller accidents in the Soma mine, as well as accidents elsewhere, Uygur added. Opposition lawmakers in the Turkish parliament proposed an investigation of the past Soma accidents on April 29, but Erdogan's majority defeated it.
Photo: Miners and members of the rescue services at the mine in Soma, western Turkey, May 15. Lefteris Pitarakis/AP