Sunday, August 19, 2007

Every Man for Himself

Six miners lost thousands of feet underground after a cave-in in the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah. Three rescue workers killed and six wounded trying to save them. This is one more illustration of how little concern Americans have for one another as workers. One of my most frustrating issues as an American is how easily working class Americans are divided.

In January 2006, 12 miners were killed after an explosion in the Sago Mine in West Virginia. (In fact, in all of 2006, 47 miners were killed). This tragedy caused great hue and cry and a call for stricter mine safety laws. West Virginia quickly passed legislation establishing a mining emergency operations center and requiring miners to wear wireless communications devices. The state of Ohio debated similar legislation.

Robert E Murray, owner of the Crandall Canyon mine, said about the new safety laws, "they are seriously flawed, knee-jerk reactions". Ohio eventually passed a weaker package of mine safety legislation.

In case anyone thinks such information is relevant, federal mine safety regulators have levied $260,073 in fines against Murray since 1995. Since the beginning of 2007, this particular mine has received 32 safety violations. In 2003, four top employees of KenAmerican Resources, also owned by Robert Murray, were convicted in a federal court in Kentucky of conspiring to violate federal mine safety rules.

Robert E Murray asserts that an earthquake caused the mine collapse, something that is denied by geological evidence. Instead, it seems pretty certain that "retreat mining" was being done at Crandall Canyon. Retreat mining is a particularly dangerous operation that involves removing the last of the coal in a seam by blowing up the pillars of coal that support the ceiling and walls of the shaft.

In the same year as the Sago Mine tragedy, 2006, while there was all this discussion going on about mine safety, President George Bush was adamantly pushing his choice of William Sickler as his Mine Safety Czar. Naturally, in the way of so many Bush appointees, Sickler previously worked for the very industry he was now to be put in charge of policing, having managed mining operations for BethEnergy Mines, a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel. As a coal company executive, Sickler had his own safety issues. Three workers died in BethEnergy mines during his tenure. In one incident, as reported in the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette, one mechanic died and six others were injured when a portal bus carrying them to the bottom of a mine shaft derailed. A report regarding this incident issued alleged that the bus had not been properly maintained.

Sickler didn't have much support for his nomination as Mine Safety Czar. He was opposed by the United Mine Workers, the families of miners, and both Democratic and Republican congress members. President Bush first nominated Sickler to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration in in 2005. By May, it looked pretty certain that his nomination would be rejected. In July, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, hired Sickler as a consultant, while vowing and declaring that she had absolutely no intention of making an end run around the nominating process. In August and September, the Republican-controlled Senate voted twice to send Sickler's name back to the president. In October of 2006, Bush installed Sickler as the Mine Safety Czar as a recess appointment in defiance of senators on both sides of the aisle.

Arlen Spector, Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, said he didn't think Sickler was "the right man for the job." Rick Santorum, also a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, said he was "disappointed". Isn't this whole process just so typical of George Bush? He will have what he wants and to hell with what anyone else thinks.

So now we have the perfect storm regarding mine safety - six miners trapped in the Crandall Canyon mine, an arrogant mine owner with a less than sterling record on protecting his workers, and a Mine Safety Czar who seems to be missing in action.

The larger question is: what will Americans do about this? Will they rally to the defense of the miners and other wage earners? Will they begin to insist with their voices and their votes that workers be given a voice at the political table when it comes to labor issues. Or will they just watch their pay and their pensions and their health insurance fade away without protest? Will we do as we have so often done and be more jealous than supportive of people who earn more than us or get more benefits?

I always find it laughable when pundits and politicians tell us we must not engage in "class warfare" when they mean the poor against the rich, but Americans have never been into that kind of class warfare - we're more into being at war with one another.

*Note - the latest news from Crandall Canyon is not good. A test of the air in the mine shows that the quality is too poor to support life. The owner now says, it is likely that the bodies will never be found.