Earlier this month, Steve Skvara, a disabled, retired steel worker who can't afford his wife's health care, shook the AFL-CIO's Presidential Candidates Forum by asking tearfully, "What's wrong with America?"
We should all be asking that question today.
We've got six coal miners trapped beneath more than 1,500 feet of Utah coal and rock, three brave men who struggled to rescue them are dead and six more are injured.
And it's not because of an act of God. It's because of the acts of man.
The disaster still unfolding at the Crandall Canyon mine did not have to happen. It was preventable--as were the deaths of 12 coal miners last year in the Sago Mine in West Virginia. As have been many, many more deaths of workers in America's coal mines and factories, fishing vessels, offices and construction sites.
Safety concerns about the Crandall Canyon mine surfaced months ago, and safety experts warned of particular dangers in the "retreat mining" technique used there after it was approved by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. In retreat mining, coalminers essentially pull out roof-supporting pillars of coal as they work their way out of the mine. The retreat mining plan at Crandall Canyon, says United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, "appears to have been flawed, to say the least. In our opinion, that plan should never have been approved."
No one should be surprised it was approved, though. The Bush administration has been systematically dismantling and cutting funding for workplace safety rules and oversight since it came into office.
Every day in 2005 (the most recent data available), 16 workers died on the job and 12,000 were made sick--and that doesn't include the occupational diseases that kill 50,000 to 60,000 more workers each year. In many if not most of these cases, one of two things occurred: An employer disregarded the law, or the law wasn't strong enough to protect workers.
Something is deeply wrong with America today. Working men and women have lost their value to the people who have been running this country for too long. Ruthless CEOs wring working people dry and the neocon ideologues in the White House help them.
Our wages are stagnant, our benefits are disappearing, the middle class is shrinking and, for the first time, there's a good chance our children will not be better off than our generation. We're the most productive workers in the world but we have to work more hours, more jobs and send more family members into the workforce just to keep up.
The heroes who rushed to Ground Zero to save lives and who dug and sweated and struggled for months after Sept. 11, 2001, are suffering today from neglect and indifference. Neglect and indifference left thousands stranded on rooftops and in a dark convention center after Hurricane Katrina. Neglect and indifference meant deplorable conditions for veterans recovering at Walter Reed. Neglect and indifference kill far too many of us on the job.
There's a reason so many people who never will step foot in a coal mine are riveted by the story of the trapped, dead and injured miners. There's a reason Steve Skvara's comment at our presidential forum moved so many people. There's a reason candidates committed to improving the well-being of working men and women took back Congress last year and will take back the White House next year.
Working men and women--the great majority in this country--want to fix what's wrong with America.