Organize the mines! (front page/editorial) The collapse of the Crandall Canyon coal mine in central Utah, which has trapped six workers 1,500 feet underground since August 6, highlights one fact above all. The only effective way miners can fight for control over job conditions is to organize a union and use workers’ collective power to enforce safety.
Coal mine disasters are not due to “acts of God” as Murray Energy Corp. claims. Dangerous job conditions are the result of decisions by bosses to squeeze maximum profits out of our labor, including by seeing how much they can get away with cutting corners on safety and health. That’s how capitalism works.
This is the brutal reality, especially in nonunion mines—from the Murray-owned operations to the Sago mine in West Virginia, where 12 miners were killed by employer greed in January 2006.
In March, two sections of the Crandall Canyon mine collapsed. Instead of closing the mine, “operators moved to another section and continued chipping away,” the Associated Press reported. That’s what can happen when workers lack a union to enforce basic safety conditions.
A number of workers have spoken to the Militant about conditions in that mine but asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired. How can safety problems be addressed when workers can’t freely report or discuss them? But those are the pressures workers are under when they are not organized as a union to fight for safety.
Miners certainly cannot rely on the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which had approved retreat mining at Crandall Canyon, with its known dangers, and refused to shut the mine after the March collapse.
The bosses like to instill fatalism: “nothing can be done—hazards come with mining.” But mine roofs can be secured, worn electrical wires replaced, and coal dust and explosive gases neutralized. Mines can be shut down until dangerous conditions are fixed. But it takes time and money, and bosses would rather devote these to production and profit.
When workers are unionized they can make a difference in enforcing job conditions. In coal mines owned by Murray in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, the United Mine Workers union waged struggles several years ago that beat back the company’s efforts to undermine safety, cut wages, and weaken workers’ rights on the job (see articles on page 5). And in Utah, the two-year battle by workers at the Co-Op mine for a UMWA local gave a powerful example of how miners could stand up to attacks by the coal barons.
This perspective—captured in the headline of last week’s special Militant supplement, “Safety is a union question! No miner has to die!”—has struck a chord among the many working people who, in response to the Utah mine collapse, are discussing the need for unions.