Pray for the Utah Mining Families - and Ask Why

Like everyone else, I'm praying for the families of the Utah miners and the rescue teams whose lives have been taken. And as I think about what they have lost, I'm wondering if we will learn from yet another "disaster" with apparently predictable and preventable causes.

As I write I'm thinking about the mine workers' union members I used to know when I worked in Pennsylvania in the 1970s.

Back then, most of the coal industry was unionized, and bright young miners like Cecil Roberts, who is now the United Mine Workers president, got together to make their union stronger and more effective. When they couldn't get the coal companies to protect their lives on the job, the miners went out on several long national strikes to win, among other things, expanded safety rights. They had safety committees at every mine that had real power to get hazards removed before it was too late or shut down the mines. The number of deaths in unionized mines dropped dramatically. Giving miners a real voice in their safety worked.

But in the decades since then, coal companies have followed the national trend of using intimidation and other tactics to transform their industry to be mostly nonunion. It's no coincidence that every time you hear about a big mine disaster these days, you can pretty well assume that, like the Murray Energy mine in Utah, it's in a nonunion operation where the workers have to accept hazardous conditions or go looking for another job.

As Arianna points out, the impression the public gets from most of the media coverage of these disasters is that they are acts of God. But in most cases, precautions that management could have taken are known. As Cecil Roberts says, these disasters usually are "needless and preventable" -- a matter not of chance but of choice.

In my own union's experience, we had hospital worker members and other health care employees who were exposed to needles that could transmit AIDS and other fatal diseases. Like their Mine Workers union counterparts before them, they marched, held candlelight vigils, testified at hearings, and spoke out in the news media. The result was widespread adoption of safer needles that automatically cover the tip when it leaves the skin so you can't get stuck accidentally and get infected. Like the saying goes, where there's a will there's a way. Health care professionals and their patients are safer because the people who do the work joined together and had a voice.

The success of big corporations in driving down the percentage of workers who have unions in this country - from a high of 33 percent decades ago down to less than 8 percent today in the private sector - has had a lot of obvious effects on everyone in the economy, like lower wage rates, the decline in employer-provided health coverage, and the slow disappearance of employer-paid pensions. But there are also a lot of subtler effects - like deaths and injuries and diseases on the job - that are rarely talked about and rarely covered in the news until disaster strikes..

And now, the industry itself is silent. Why are there no responsible CEOs calling for action to prevent more coal mining families from losing their loved ones? How can it be that no company president is moved by what they see on TV to call for a summit with the United Mine Workers and the government to stop dangerous mining practices and to restore the voice of miners themselves on health and safety issues throughout the industry?

If the country is going to move forward in the 21st century, big corporations have to become part of the solution. Working with miners and their union to prevent more needless losses would be a good place to start.