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|Statement by American Rights at Work Board Chair David Bonior on the Sago Mine Tragedy|
Yesterday’s ultimately tragic truth that 12 of the 13 men trapped in a West Virginia coal mine did not survive reminds America just how dangerous the mining industry continues to be. It shouldn’t take explosions and cave-ins to focus attention on perilous working conditions, lax regulations, and haphazard enforcement and inspections which permeate the industry.
These workers did not have to die. Accidents happen, but they shouldn’t be as frequent and they don’t have to be fatal. Better safety precautions in the mine could have been achieved had the workers had a voice – a union. This crucial point was echoed yesterday morning when Matt Lauer interviewed John Bennett, whose father James was killed in the mine accident, on the Today Show. Bennett told Lauer that he repeatedly pleaded with his father to quit working in the mine because of the pervasive dangers his father frequently recounted to him. Lauer asked Mr. Bennett what questions he would like to ask of the mine operators. “It’s not just the men that go down there every day that know the mines is [sic] unsafe…we have no protection for our workers. We need to get the United Mine Workers back in these coal mines, to protect [against] these safety violations, to protect these workers.” Lauer then asked Bennett “You feel as if the miners speak out they are at risk of losing their jobs?” “Yeah” Bennett answered.
Just because coal miners work underground shouldn’t render them faceless to the American people and the agencies in charge of enforcing bare safety minimums. It is no coincidence that the Sago mine produced safety infractions at several times the industry norm, and that it is a non-union mine, where workers did not enjoy the job protection to speak out. Concerns about safety and health risks are one of the most compelling reasons why workers seek unions on the job in the first place.
A nation which can send a man to the moon can certainly apply that technological vigor and know-how to better insure the safety of its workers. All it takes is for government and its representatives at the federal and state levels to make it a priority.
The grief of the families who lost loved ones this week is of course unimaginable. What was foreseeable is an accident like this was inevitable at a mine with so many consistent safety violations. In all workplaces there should be fewer obstacles to forming a union. Swift action must be taken to improve working conditions in the mining industry, including increasing fines for safety violations to the point where companies will actually be motivated not to ignore them. This would be a lasting and valuable legacy for the lost miners and their loved ones.
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American Rights at Work is a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to promoting the freedom of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively with employers.