One year ago today:
The explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia ended up claiming the lives of twenty-nine miners. Yet, to this day, no one is certain exactly what went wrong on that day, or why.
But here are some things we do know:
- The Upper Big Branch mine, owned by the large coal producer Massey Energy, had a sordid history of safety violations. After the disaster, miners testified that even before the explosion they did not feel safe going to work every day. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) ruled that the disaster was “preventable” – had the mine been in compliance with safety regulations.
- Massey Energy’s CEO, Don Blankenship, had a long history of unionbusting, having viciously thwarted attempts of the United Mine Workers (UMW) to organize the Upper Big Branch Mine. Under intense scrutiny after the explosion at his mine, Blankenship denied that there were safety problems and called the explosion an act of God.
- Also in December 2010, a bill (H.R. 6495) that would have strengthened the ability of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) to protect miners and hold companies accountable was defeated in the U.S. House – not because it didn’t get enough votes, but because Republicans with ties to the coal industry used parliamentary tactics to require a two-thirds majority.
As we arrive at the one year anniversary, here are three things to remember:
1. Dangerous work conditions are not a thing of the past. Men and women across America still leave their families every morning not knowing if they will return – whether they go down into a coal mine, off to an oil rig, into a burning building, up in an airplane, or to patrol dangerous neighborhoods.
2. Workers acting through their unions can advocate for their safety. Without unions, they can’t. The miners at Upper Big Branch were scared for their safety, but given Massey’s fierce anti-union stance, there was no way for them to organize and speak up. Without a union, what’s to stop a supervisor from simply firing a miner who refuses to work in unsafe conditions?
3. Elections matter. Elections matter. Elections matter. Our vote is the only leverage we have with the people we send to our state capitols and to Washington, D.C. The GOP representatives who killed the mine safety bill were not afraid of the voters back home, but they were afraid of their coal industry donors turning against them. Only your vote can change that.
Please keep the 29 West Virginia miners and their families in your thoughts today.