Workers Vanguard No. 897

31 August 2007


Organize Non-Union Mines!

Utah Mine Collapse: Industrial Murder

AUGUST 27—Capitalist profiteering is behind the disaster in the canyons of central Utah, where six miners were trapped on August 6, and three people died ten days later when a rescue tunnel collapsed. With criminal disregard for their safety, the six men were sent 1,500 feet below ground to remove the great chunks of coal that held up the ceiling of the mine. After having placed the miners in harm’s way, Crandall Canyon mine owner Robert Murray, joined by federal mine safety officials, sealed their fate by bungling and then effectively abandoning the rescue effort. The miners’ families, who want to recover the bodies even if the men are dead, have not let Murray get away with this. Yesterday, a seventh borehole was being drilled into the mine and a camera lowered through a separate opening.

Mining at non-union Crandall Canyon was a disaster in the offing. Utah’s mines are tunneled deep to reach wide seams of profitable coal, placing a massive amount of weight on the coal pillars. Not only did the Crandall Canyon tunnels go well beyond the depth considered safe by many engineers, but the section where the cave-in occurred had been abandoned by an earlier owner in part because further mining posed a risk to miners. Shortly after purchasing a 50 percent stake in the mine last August, Murray petitioned the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for permission to extract coal from the pillars, a procedure known as “retreat mining,” which by design triggers tunnel collapses. One United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) official described this practice to Workers Vanguard as “mining with one leg in the grave.” Showing how it is mainly a rubber stamp for the coal barons, MSHA approved this self-evidently dangerous plan.

The bosses repeatedly ignored warning signs of the impending catastrophe. Prior to the cave-in, miners complained to supervisors about the heaving mine floors. The force of the mountain settling above reportedly was so strong that it was breaking coal off the walls and ceiling. A violent shift of the tunnels in March did prompt the mine operators to move the crew—to another section a mere several hundred feet away. Meanwhile, the mine had racked up 325 safety citations since January 2004, including 116 considered life-threatening. For the bosses, the accompanying fines are just a small cost of doing business. The month before the cave-in, for the third time in less than two years the mine owners were cited for failing to provide at least two separate emergency escape routes. The penalty for the previous offense last September: $60.

Whenever he opens his mouth, Murray comes across as especially greedy and deceitful. Last week, he was forced to do a public about-face after his bid to resume production at the mine provoked angry protests by the families and friends of the missing miners. However unhinged Murray might be, his is a typical capitalist enterprise. In fact, many mines have far worse safety records than Crandall Canyon’s, a symptom of the drastic decline in unionization of the coal industry as well as the do-nothing policies of the UMWA leadership. It is no surprise that Murray’s rants have taken aim at the UMWA, as any union representation would make it more difficult for him to toy with miners’ lives.

At the request of Crandall Canyon miners, the UMWA is now helping them in discussions with MSHA. But by the admission of UMWA head Cecil Roberts, the union leadership has made no attempt to organize the mine since Murray took it over. Without aggressive organizing, the UMWA will continue its decline, leaving increasing numbers of non-union miners at the mercy of the ruthless coal barons. As we wrote in WV No. 862 (20 January 2006) following the Sago, West Virginia, mine disaster: “The only way to establish and enforce safety is through mobilizing labor’s power. Any real measure of protection workers have gained in U.S. mines—or elsewhere in industry—was won through hard struggle by the unions.” A strong union can control working conditions and shut down unsafe work sites. By the same token, unless the union fights to defend the lives and livelihoods of its members, it will find it more difficult to organize the unorganized.

The UMWA bureaucracy keeps the union’s power in check by relying on capitalist politicians and government agencies like MSHA while renouncing the class-struggle methods that built the union. For example, following a 1993 strike in West Virginia, the UMWA tops refused to organize an all-out defense of Jerry Dale Lowe, a union safety rep who was framed up and sent to prison for nearly eleven years. Now, Roberts has written to Democratic Party leaders in Congress requesting an “independent” investigation of the Crandall Canyon disaster. Investigations by Democrats currently under way will amount to little more than a smokescreen for the malicious indifference of the bosses.

Government investigations following the Sago disaster resulted in passage of a 2006 law called the MINER Act. Based on a cover-up report on Sago, this legislation gives the coal bosses three years to introduce into the mines already existing wireless communications technology. With an average of over 33 miners killed on the job per year in the U.S. this decade (to say nothing of the countless numbers who have fallen victim to black lung and other diseases), how many more miners’ lives is Congress willing to write off to give the companies this reprieve? As far back as 1969, Congress had mandated MSHA to oversee development of equipment allowing miners to signal their whereabouts. The coal bosses largely ignored this mandate, as they have the safety provisions of the 2006 legislation, to avoid cutting into profits. Other proposals for inclusion in the MINER Act, such as requiring mine shelters stocked with food, water and oxygen, were rejected by Congress out of hand at the coal operators’ insistence.

Most if not all of the deaths in U.S. coal mines in the past year could have been prevented if safety measures had not been blocked and quashed by officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations. Whereas the George W. Bush White House, elected with the support of Big Coal, has outright killed safety measures, MSHA under Bill Clinton routinely put off implementation to allow time for testing and study of the proposals.

When rule changes were to the benefit of the bosses, though, Clinton’s MSHA was all too willing to oblige. To take one example, MSHA at that time did nothing to stop the use of the foam material Omega Block as a seal to close off abandoned mine tunnels, despite inadequate testing. Not until the “test” of the Sago mine explosion, which an Omega Block seal failed to contain, and the deaths of 12 miners did minds change. Bush has turned the top spot at MSHA into a way station for former mine bosses like current director Richard Stickler. But the model for MSHA today was Clinton’s “New OSHA,” defined by its “partnership” with business and “voluntary compliance.”

It will take hard class struggle to defeat the profit-hungry coal barons. In the booming coal industry in the Rocky Mountain area, where growing numbers of people from Mexico and Central America have flocked in recent years to work, this battle is directly linked to the defense of immigrant workers. In fact, three of the trapped miners were born in Mexico. Some 20 miles from Crandall Canyon in Price, Utah, an organizing drive by the UMWA at the Co-Op Mine recently ran straight up against a campaign by the bosses to use workers’ legal status to intimidate and fire them. This underscores the need for the labor movement to demand: Full citizenship rights for all immigrants! No deportations! Organizing the unorganized into the unions will require an uncompromising fight for the independence of the labor movement from the state agencies and political representatives of the capitalist class enemy.