... the Bush administration has dramatically curbed the power of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration .... And Bush's proposed 2006 budget slashes an additional $5 million from federal mine-safety efforts.Yet Leavitt contends that the biggest obstacle to mine safety isn't the Bush administration — it's the fact that
... miners no longer have a powerful union sticking up for them. History shows that when miners have: 1) been organized and angry; and 2) had the strong national leadership of the United Mine Workers of America backing them up, they've been able to push for the legislative changes necessary for lasting advances in safety conditions.
Sadly, neither of those two factors exist today. In fact, mining in the United States is only safer today than it has ever been because organized mine workers pushed hard for reforms a generation ago — reforms that are still in effect. Whether those reforms are enough is now in question.
The majority of mining deaths in the past few years have occurred in nonunion mines. Sago was not a unionized mine, and, according to public records, federal inspectors noted 46 alleged violations of federal mine health and safety rules at the Sago site during an 11-week review that ended in late December.
Is it a coincidence that the nonunion mine was not enforcing existing safety laws? Probably not. Because it's not the laws, it's the unions that matter most. Indeed, it was in response to massive disasters in the early part of the 20th century that miners were among the first groups of workers to organize into unions. In 1950, an extraordinary 90 percent of the nation's 480,000 coal miners belonged to the UMWA.
It was no surprise that in 1952, after a devastating explosion killed 119 underground workers in Illinois, the nation's miners were able to push for the first federal mine-safety act. Under its legendary president, John Lewis ... the UMWA prospered and advocated for national safety standards and aggressive inspection regimens.
... In 1998, the Louisville Courier-Journal reviewed nearly 25,000 federal health records for Kentucky underground coal mines ... The newspaper concluded that "small, non-union mines generally pay less, cheat more on dust tests and don't have union stewards demanding compliance with costly safety regulations."
... even with all the well-meaning legislators rushing to pass new laws this month, the only thing that will save future accident victims will be the long-term collective effort of the miners themselves, pushing hard to make their work, and their lives, count.