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Vol. 74/No. 15      April 19, 2010

No miner has to die
“In coalfields, work, death in the mines is a way of life,” reads one headline. This message of the coal bosses and their government is a lie. No miner—no worker, period—has to die.

Disasters like the April 5 explosion at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia are not inevitable. What is inevitable is that more lives will be lost as long as mines are not organized and workers don’t use union power to enforce safety on the job.

Miners need union safety committees. They need to be able to use union power to walk off the job when methane levels are too high, as happened at the Massey mine over and over again, or to insist on repairs and proper cleanup when live wires are exposed or coal dust is left to accumulate, also safety violations at the West Virginia mine.

Miners need a union to be able to resist the speedup of the coal bosses as they seek to squeeze every last penny of profit out of workers. In Massey’s case, the mine tripled coal production in 2009. The number of safety violations more than doubled in the same period, with improper ventilation cited numerous times. Government inspectors dutifully recorded the violations, imposed fines, and walked away from the problem.

In January 2006 an explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia killed 12 miners, kicking off a year in which 47 perished in U.S. coal mines. Capitalist politicians wrung their hands, federal safety officials vowed to crack down, and coal bosses promised to do better. Congress adopted a new mine safety law, hailed as a major reform.

Now, four years later, coal operator greed has once again claimed workers’ lives.

The solution is not just more legislation or more inspections. Safety is only guaranteed if it’s in the hands of the workers themselves. That’s true not just for the mines and not just for workers in the United States. An explosion and fire killed five workers at the Tesoro oil refinery in Washington State April 2. Coal mine accidents in China continue to take hundreds of lives. At the Tesoro facility there is a union. But the company is able to appeal corrective action for safety violations, allowing dangerous conditions to continue.

It will take a fighting union movement to halt the mounting threats to life and limb in the mines, refineries, mills, and other industries. That kind of movement arose in the late 1960s in the coalfields, revolutionizing the United Mine Workers union and taking great strides forward for miners’ safety and health.

Such a movement is also capable of defending democratic rights, including the right of miners to speak out against the violations they see every day on the job without fear of retaliation, something that does not exist in the West Virginia mines and communities dominated by the coal bosses.

The coming struggles to unionize the mines and use union power to enforce safety and better work conditions will point to the need for the working class to make a revolution to take the government out of the hands of those who represent coal bosses and other capitalist profiteers. Without bosses, we can organize production to meet human needs without sacrificing workers’ lives.
Related articles:
At least 25 miners die in W. Virginia blast
Washington State: 5 workers killed in refinery explosion  
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