Earlier this month, Gary May, who was a superintendent at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia when a 2010 explosion killed 29 workers, was sentenced to 21 months in prison.
May had pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges filed after the worst mining accident in the United States in 40 years. He’d confessed that between 2008 and 2010 he and other officials regularly alerted miners when Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors were coming so that they could conceal – rather than correct – known safety violations.
May also admitted that he ordered subordinates to falsify records and disable a methane monitor to make the mine appear safer.
The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) called the UBB disaster industrial homicide concluding that by knowingly circumventing safety regulations, Massey Energy, which owned UBB, had all but assured a fatal accident would occur eventually.
Massey also further endangered workers by waging a war on organized labor. Because unions fight to uphold workers’ rights, Massy, like other large mining companies, spent decades trying to reduce unionized work forces, either by closing unionized mines or by intimidating workers who tried to organize.
In a study of the impact of unionization on mine safety, Stanford Law Professor Alison Morantz found that “unionization predicts a substantial and significant decline in traumatic mining injuries and fatalities,” with fatal accidents reduced by as much as 68 percent.
Union workplaces are safer because union safety committees oversee working conditions and regularly check for hazards and safety violations. A non-union worker risks suspension or firing for reporting safety issues, but union safety committees can report directly to MSHA or state inspectors with less fear of retaliation because the union will protect safety committeemen who are targeted by employers.
UMWA President Cecil Roberts said that there were three union organizing efforts at the UBB mine before the explosion. He believes that unionization failed because Massey CEO Don Blankenship threatened to close the mine if the workers organized.
Even though UBB was not a union mine, the remaining workers nevertheless turned to the UMWA to represent their interests in the accident investigation, confident that the UMWA would expose the truth. After concluding its investigation, the UMWA determined that the explosion was entirely preventable and that systematic disregard for worker safety was nothing more than a way to increase corporate profits.
“In its focus to increase production,” the report said, “the company turned a blind eye to the requirements that ensure a safe and healthy work environment for miners. Massey ignored the statutory requirements under the [Mine Safety and Health] Act in it its drive for ever-greater coal production at any cost.”
Before the explosion, Massey had a well-established pattern of safety violations. In the fifteen months leading up to the explosion, MSHA issued 639 citations for safety violations at the UBB mine, many of them serious. Massey contested many of these citations to delay paying fines and avoid implementing changes.
U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger said at May’s sentencing that his jail term should serve as a warning to others in the coal industry who might be tempted to put business interests ahead of worker safety.
Posted January 29, 2013 at 3:55 pm, in Union Matters