On April 28 of each year, the labor movement observes Workers Memorial Day to remember those killed or injured on the job and to commemorate the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Workplace hazards and accidents kill more than 5,000 workers a year-16 people a day-and more than 50,000 die annually of occupational diseases.
Sadly, like most regulations to protect workers, consumers and ordinary people, the statute has not been updated and enforcement generally has weakened in the past 40 years. President George W. Bush's policy of voluntary compliance and the failure to apply the weak penalties already in effect for safety violations are just one example.
The predecessor to OSHA was the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, a significant improvement but-as shown by the recent deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia-not enough. We have seen progress in mine safety regulation only after tragedies and miners' deaths, such as the Sago and Utah mine disasters of 2006 and 2007. And I must note that of the 50,000 deaths yearly from occupational disease, a thousand to several thousand are due to black lung disease from breathing coal dust.
The West Virginia disaster this month occurred in a mine owned and operated by Massey Energy. Massey had been cited for 639 safety violations at this mine just since 2008 and had been assessed civil penalties of more than $1 million, most of which it contested. In 2006, Massey was responsible for a fire at another West Virginia mine that trapped 12 miners, killing two of them, because coal dust had been allowed to accumulate around a conveyor and missing safety walls had let smoke enter the mine's air intake and emergency exit passage.
Massey, which had a gross profit of nearly $300 million in 2009, may simply view these fines as a normal cost of doing business, not as a reason to comply with the law and protect workers from injury and death. Sadly, Massey and its multimillionaire CEO, Don Blankenship, are not anomalies; thousands of employers make the decision to ignore safety regulations and pay token penalties as a cost of doing business.
This is why labor's legislative agenda includes passing the Protecting America's Workers Act (H.R. 2067). This bill would expand protection to federal and other workers not covered under OSHA, require that hazards be corrected while violations are being contested by companies, enhance whistleblower protections for workers raising safety concerns, give victims of injuries and illnesses and their family members the right to be heard in OSHA investigations and, most importantly, allow felony prosecutions of employers that commit willful violations resulting in death or serious injury-extending the penalties to responsible corporate officers.
In my view, Massey and Blankenship should be held accountable for the West Virginia mine tragedy. It should come as no surprise that YouTube has video of Blankenship speaking at a "Friends of America" rally last year, railing against government regulation.
After the latest disaster, President Barack Obama ordered more inspections for mines that federal officials regard as especially dangerous, called the tragedy a result of management failure and declared, "I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply the cost of doing business."
Like Capt. Renault in "Casablanca"-who collected his winnings at Rick's nightclub while declaring, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"-mine owners were "shocked" that the president would rush to judgment and claimed to have a great safety record. I will not be surprised to see the corporate wagons circled and the message go forth that more regulation means higher costs, fewer jobs, higher electric bills and more "socialist" intrusion into private business.
Some people will buy these lies because corporate funding will dominate the mainstream media as it does our politics. Corporate executives and lobbyists have already contributed $473 million to federal campaigns for the 2010 election cycle, most of it before the Supreme Court removed limits in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Federal reporting requirements show that there were more than 11,000 corporate lobbyists in Washington and that corporations spent nearly $3 billion on lobbying last year. This amount is more than six times what was spent by all consumer, environmental, labor and other non-corporate groups combined.
It has been said that a lie can travel around the world before the truth is out the door, but lies tend not to hold up over time. Lies from corporate front groups like Dick Armey's "FreedomWorks" fueled the tea party protests on Tax Day. But in the mainstream media and the tea party crowd it was almost impossible to find an awareness of the fact that President Obama's 2009 tax cut of $173 billion has given us the lowest federal taxation level in 50 years. Even when one adds $28 billion in state tax increases during the recession, the total for all 50 states trying to maintain essential services, we are at the second-lowest tax rate in 50 years.
Under President Obama it takes 99 days to pay your annual taxes, about two weeks less than under George W. Bush. Two weeks' pay is more than many workers have seen in real wage increases for a decade or more.
In the current environment, passage of the Protecting America's Workers Act will be difficult. However, I would be willing to bet that if the heads of the Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and Unshackle Herbert Hoover had to meet with the families and co-workers of the 29 miners killed in West Virginia, the lie that greater safety protection means more government control and Obama socialism would not get out the door.
James Bertolone is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also is president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 215.
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