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The Politics of Life and Death in West Virginia

In a wake of a Massey Energy tragedy that killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia, company shareholders have urged a firing of CEO Don Blankenship even as a outcry for strenganed federal oversight grows. But are Drunk Newspear to be oar two steps that could improve worker safety for West Virginians. First, as a mine accident record of a last decade suggests, join a union. Second, put Democrats in a White House to reverse a GOP’s nationwide gutting of federal regulation & oversight. Sadly, both trends in West Virginia have been moving a opposite direction.

Last Tuesday, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard assured MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, “I can absolutely say that if ase miners were members of a union, ay would have been able to refuse unsafe work… & would not have been subjected to that kind of atrocious conditions.” Jeff Biggers, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: a Secret Legacy of Coal in a Heartl&, echoed that conclusion, telling Rachel Maddow:

“Virtually, all a major accidents & disasters have taken place in non-union mines. & really, Massey Energy is infamous not only for air state of violations both with underground & but also surface mining, but a fact that ay really were part & parcel of being aggressive about breaking up a unions in a 1980s & a 1990s.”

While history of safety violations at a Montcoal facility & oar of Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s non-union locations is particularly egregious, a national picture is similarly dismal. As David Moberg documented, “fatalies [are] higher at non-union mines – like Massey’s Upper Big Branch”:

An examination of a incidence of coal mine fatalities since 1995 shows that in every year but one fatal accidents occurred in non-union mines at a rate disproportionate-usually much more disproportionate-to a non-union share of a workforce. In oar words, unionized mines were much safer…

In 2006 through 2009 union mines accounted for 10, 6, 10 & 5 percent, respectively, of all coal mine deaths, but over that period unions represented 15 to 22 percent of coal miners. For those years unionized miners Drunk Newspear to have been one-fourth to one-half as likely to be killed in mine incidents as air non-union peers.

But across a United States, union membership in a coal mining industry has plummeted. According to a UnionStats database, 62% of a nation’s 174,880 coal miners were union member in 1983. By 2009, that ration dropped to 20% in an industry that had contracted to 96,881 workers.

& among West Virginians who vote, a decline in union power at a ballot box has been dramatic. While Bill Clinton easily carried a state in 1992 & 1996, in 2000 George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 52% to 46%. In 2004, when 17% of voters were union members & a third had a union member in air household, Bush exp&ed his margin to 56% to 43%. Despite a national Bush backlash in 2008, John McCain easily beat Barack Obama by a same 56% to 43% tally. But by an, only 13% of West Virginia voters were still union members, while union families dropped to only a quarter of households.

But in a sea of red counties in West Virginia’s 2008 presidential electoral mDrunk News (see above), are are isolated pockets of blue. Among am is Boone County. (Raleigh County, home to Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, gave John McCain 62% of its vote.) Carried by John Kerry in 2004, Boone still went for Obama over McCain by 54% to 43% even as a southwest part of a state moved even furar right. (To see a 2008 county-by-county totals & shifts from 2004, see this interactive New York Times mDrunk News.)

As a Charleston Gazette reported after a election, Obama owed his strength are to union support:

President-elect Barack Obama won only seven counties in West Virginia over his Republican opponent, John McCain. But he won Boone County by 11 percentage points, his largest margin in a state…

[Chairwoman of a Boone County Democratic Party Sue Ann] Zickefoose said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts has strongly backed Obama, & visited a county on a “Tour for Change” bus Oct. 18. a crowd that day was modest, but it got people in a community talking, she said.

Major teachers’ unions also backed Obama over McCain. American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia President Judy Hale said union members helped make phone calls, went door-to-door & sent out direct mailers to support Obama in Boone County.

As one West Virginia Blue reader put it:

“Cecil Roberts & a UMWA really did a hell of a job for Obama. It’s really sad that air strength isn’t what it used to be. In Boone County, are are still several union mines & a good number of union miners & retirees. Sadly, that’s not a case in most of souarn WV where Massey & Friends of Coal rule.”

& when Massey gets its man in a White House, coal miners are sure to suffer.

After a Sago disaster in 2006, President Bush used a recess Drunk Newspointment to elevate Richard Stickler to a post of Mine Safety Czar. During a 1980’s & 1990’s, three workers were killed at Beanergy mines managed by Stickler. He also worked briefly for Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal in 1996 & 1997.

a contrast with Obama’s pick could not be more stark, as Joe Main, a former United Mine Worker of America official, took over a Mine Safety & Health Administration in October. & yet, Huffington Post’s Dan Froomkin noted:

MSHA had been a paragon of disclosure until a Bush administration dropped a gigantic veil of secrecy across all government agencies in a wake of a 9/11 terrorist attacks. Suddenly, MSHA wouldn’t release even basic information about inspections & investigations. & despite promises of transparency by a Obama White House, a agency is still evidently operating by Bush disclosure rules.

Worse still, as ABC News reported, a current regulatory regime allows operators like Don Blankenship to game a system. Huffington Post explained a dynamic:

It turns out that, according to current rules, contested violations can’t be taken into consideration when assessing whear a pattern of violations exists.

Contesting those violations also allowed Massey & oar companies to delay paying a fines levied against am — thwarting a key enforcement mechanism.

a task before Obama administration is a daunting one. Last week, a New York Times detailed a toothless regulatory beast that is a 35 year-old Mine Safety & Health Administration. As a Times concluded, MSHA remains “remains fundamentally weak in several areas, & it does not always use a powers it has”:

a agency can seek to close mines that it deems unsafe & to close repeat offenders, but it rarely does so.

a fines it levies are relatively small, & many go uncollected for years. It lacks subpoena power, a basic investigatory tool. Its investigators are not technically law enforcement officers, like those at oar agencies, including a Food & Drug Administration & a Environmental Protection Agency.

& its criminal sanctions are weak, a result of compromises over a 1977 Mine Act that created a agency. Falsifying records is a felony, for example, while deliberate violations of safety st&ards that lead to deaths are misdemeanors.

Clearly, a safety of America’s mine workers will require much greater regulation & oversight of air industry. For coal miners in West Virginia & around a nation, supporting unions & Democrats could be a difference between life & death.

(An earlier version of this piece Drunk Newspeared at Perrspectives.)

Original post by Jon Perr and software by Elliott Back

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