I started to post Pete Seeger's rendition of Malvina Reynolds' "Mrs. Clara Sullivan's Letter," as a tribute to the twelve miners who died after the explosion that trapped them in the Sago Mine on Monday. But I stopped myself because I thought that it might be a stretch to apply the words of the song to this particular situation. This disaster was in West Viriginia; the Reynolds song is about Perry County, KY. This disaster is about safety violations and bad oversight; the Reynolds song is about other labor problems, like "goons on the picket line" who intimidate striking workers.
Turns out there was no reason to hesitate. In one of yesterday's Portside mailings, Jack Radey wrote:
If you really like Dramamine, the NPR reporting on the Sago Disaster was truly charming. They prattled on and on about how the news media got the story wrong, how did this happen? How were the wrong headlines printed?How were people put on this emotional roller coaster?
Then they interviewed a local pastor about the importance of accepting all this and not getting angry. They, like the rest of the media, mentioned in passing that a fight broke out where the families were waiting when the news of the dead was announced. But why were people fighting? There was even mention in one broadcast that the local SWAT team was deployed around the corner from where the families waited, in case disorder broke out. Oh, mine safety violations? Why would that be news? No doubt the families were so angry at the misleading news. Maybe about the fact that 12 of their men were killed in a mine with triple the normal (bad enough) rate of safety violations?
That the local goon squad is there to protect the mine owner and his property from the wrath of the families of the men murdered for his greed?
Oh come now, would anyone suggest that would be news? Remember why our flag (not the one on the courthouse, where no doubt those $25 fine were handed out), our flag, is the color it is?
And then it turns out the Sago Mine is owned by an Ashland, Kentucky company, known as Horizon Natural Resources (HNR). HNR had been facing bankruptcy since 2002 and was bought out in 2004 by the International Coal Group (ICG), led by New York billionaire Wilbur Ross. Ross' m.o. isn't pretty:
After the sale, six union operations previously owned by Horizon were shut down. The nonunion mines remained open.
Under the bankruptcy and reorganization plan, U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Judge William Howard in August agreed that Horizon should not be responsible for $800 million in health insurance contractual obligations to more than 3,000 active and retired United Mine Workers of America union members.
The judge threw out the contract and voided the collective bargaining agreement to make the sale of the mines more appealing to Ross and his partners.
As John Bennett, whose father James was killed in the Sago Mine, said to Matt Lauer on the Today Show (via American Rights At Work):
It’s not just the men that go down there every day that know the mines is [sic] unsafe…we have no protection for our workers. We need to get the United Mine Workers back in these coal mines, to protect [against] these safety violations, to protect these workers.
It's the same old story:
Lauer then asked Bennett “You feel as if the miners speak out they are at risk of losing their jobs?” “Yeah” Bennett answered.
Lest we forget where the rest of the responsibility for these deaths resides, David Corn explained the big picture three and a half years ago (via Jodan Barab), after another mine disaster, in Green Tree, Pa., which, fortunately, was not fatal:
That spirit, though, was not present earlier this year when the Bush administration proposed cutting the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) by $7 million. The administration defended the 6-percent reduction by noting the number of coal mines has been decreasing. Yet coal mining fatalities have gone up for three years in a row. There were 42 mining fatalities in 2001, 29 in 1998. In March, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, maintained the funding cut would cause a 25 percent reduction in the government's mine-safety inspection workforce. As of March, 612 federal mine inspectors were responsible for enforcing safety regulations in 25 states, and there were signs the system has not been functioning well.
Thus Jordan Barab concludes:
And finally, let's take one more step back and take a look at the even bigger picture. This administration has been obsessed with one thing since it took office: tax cuts and favor for its friends. What that translates into is "Shrinking government..." -- at least the part that provides protections for workers -- "to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub" as Bush Administration ideolouge Grover Norquist says.
Well "government" isn't some abstract thing. Shrinking government means that agencies like OSHA and MSHA have less power to enforce the law and maintain safe working conditions. So, while drowning government in a bathtub, we're also asphyxiating workers in a coal mine.
So, then, here's Pete, in memory of the twelve men and in solidarity with the one survivor and with all of the affected families and friends. You can read the lyrics here.