Friday, April 30, 2010

Working Us to Death

Posted By on Fri, Apr 30, 2010 at 10:52 AM

I wrote this piece a few years ago. Sad to say, nothing really seems to have changed that much. Two more miners died this week in an unsafe mine.

Working Us to Death
All too often, Profit and Political Influence trump Workplace Safety

"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living." - Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, American labor organizer (1837-1930)

Now that other matters have captured their imaginations, most of the American press seems to have forgotten the tragic coal mining deaths earlier this year. In what we like to refer to as the "olden days," many newspapers had reporters who actually covered labor issues on a regular basis. But in an age when workers are known as "Human Resources" - the same sort of resource as pipe wrenches and bearings - we don't need to be bothered with such news.  Now we eagerly read about those corporate heroes who make a profit for stockholders by slashing jobs and benefits.

Not worry, though. Once Congress finds the time, the mine owners will be investigated, photo-ops will be seized, and hands will be wrung. Speeches will be made, editorials will be written, and maybe, just maybe, fines will be levied.

Justice will be served. We can all go home now.

Except for a few little facts which keep jumping up and down in front of us , trying to get our attention. For example, let's tackle the issue of those fines first, shall we? Anyone who has ever worked in a factory is surely aware that fines can often be "negotiated" downward, so that the final amount paid may be much smaller than originally laid against the company.

And our friends in the mining industry already pay the among the smallest fines in the country. When Janet Jackson bared her breast at the 2004 Super Bowl, corrupting thousands of minds both young and old, the fine levied was $550,000.

So if we can charge half a million for a breast, we can really go to town when actual lives are at stake, right? Well, let's see: in 2001, 13 miners in Alabama lost their lives in a mine disaster. The mine owner was fined $435,000.

Okay, hey, it's still close to half a million, you might be saying. Well, yes, except for the fact that later a judge reduced the fine to $3,000. That comes to a little over $230 per life lost.

Probably one of those "activist judges" we've been hearing so much about.

At this point, willing to give folks the benefit of the doubt, after all, you may be muttering, "Give me a break. That's surely an exception."  If you want to cling to that view, maybe you should just stop reading right now.

The truth is that the mining industry, which has showered millions of dollars in campaign contributions on the Bush administration, is barely regulated.  True, mining is safer in the United States than China, where we read of mine deaths on a regular basis, but surely one death is too many deaths?  Ah, Human Resources . . .

And it's not as though those in the halls of power are ignorant of the realities of ming. Why, Comrade Bush's first appointment to the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) was David Lauriski, a former long-time mining management official.

Plus,  2002's Deputy Assistant Secretary of labor for MSHA John Caylor had held management jobs with several mining companies. 

Chief of Health for Coal Melinda Pon: former management, BHP Minerals-Utah International. Even for the not-so-cynical among us, it might be evident that a pattern seems to be emerging.

But the mining industry, with its friends in high places, is far from being alone as far as workplace deaths go.

Several years ago, the Associated Press reported that in Southern and Western states,  Mexican workers die on the job at a rate of four times as often as someone born in this country.  Ten years ago, Mexican employees were 30 percent as likely to die from workplace accidents than their U.S. co-worker counterparts. Now, at the start of the 21st Century, they are 80 percent more likely to die.

How do people die in industrial accidents? They are crushed by robots, they fall from great heights, they suffer head injuries, their limbs are severed, they are impaled, and some are buried alive - and these are just a few of the causes of workplace deaths in the United States.

A lot of this comes down to proper training, and maintenance of safety equipment. And sometimes, particularly in the case of those who are regarded as "cheap labor," proper safety is pretty low on the list of corporate priorities.

This is a grim picture, but it can get better. But nothing will change if we sit back and wait for those in authority to change them for us.  We have to be very vocal about this. Insist that elected officials don't push the issue aside, and that those who cover the news stay on the subject.

We are often cautioned not to play the "Blame Game." interestingly enough, it is almost always those who stand to lose the most if such a game is played who urge us not to follow such a course. Well, I think this country is about ready for a marathon session  of the Blame Game.

Let's  see some real fines levied against companies that allow dangerous conditions to exist. In fact, let's see some honest to God jail time for those who own the companies. Let's see some legislation that would make it possible to dissolve the corporations themselves.

Write letters to newspapers. Talk to your union representatives - if you got ‘em, use ‘em. That's what they are they for. Call and write your senators and representatives in Congress. Hammer the folks at the state level. Make your voices heard. Tell them you want regulatory agencies with
real teeth, capable of inflicting real bites.

This may go against the grain in an atmosphere in which the federal government is seeking to shrink both itself and its responsibilities to the American people, but we are close to a tipping point; if we don't get hold of the horse's bridle now, it may soon be too late.

The last Congressional hearings on mine safety, for example, were held five years ago, in 2001. And since then, only a handful of meetings have been called relating to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). And what did those meetings concern themselves with?

Basically weakening OSHA regulations. Those are the regulations that protect you, my friend.  And who benefits from that?

Ah well, "Human Resources" - plenty more where they came from.

Modern workplaces aren't safer than they were a hundred years ago because a bunch of company owners suddenly started going to church; they are safer because people raised hell, and because people died. Some died in the workplace, and others died because they stood up for others.

Let's start raising some hell ourselves, even if only in a small way.

Though many (I think most) workplace deaths are caused by employer negligence/incompetence, a fair number  are caused by worker error. There are companies which have learned from such errors and ensured that other workers do not follow down that same path. But still . . .

In the early 1990s, one of the more spectacularly stupid supervisors at a Mexican Original plant in Fayetteville ordered me to the top of a corn silo on a bitterly cold winter night, in order to check the levels of corn in the silo.  Even though the metal grating along the catwalk was encrusted with ice, I was still instructed to climb up and "do my job."

It occurred to me, as I held on to the railings for dear life, that I should have refused. I guess my boss wasn't the only stupid one around that night. The only difference between us was that if I refused, only one of us would still have had a job.

You can't always depend on your company to keep you safe. Why not follow the example of Nancy Reagan, and learn to "Just say no."

But you have to say it very, very loudly.

* In various plants I have worked at in Northwest Arkansas, whenever a newspaper had been come into the room, the sports section was usually grabbed first, and great debate would ensue over the sports issues of the day. After the sports section, the general news and comics would be devoured.

Rarely, if ever, were the business pages even looked at. After all, what in the business section could possibly be relevant to an hourly employee? Well, just about everything. Oftentimes, that's where the real news is. Segregated in the business pages are stories about unions, health benefits, CEO bonuses, lawsuits against such employee-friendly folks as Wal-Mart, and other labor news.

There is often more excitement and variety in the business pages than the entire front page of the whole newspaper. Is there some plan to this? Are newspapers hiding the really juicy stuff, or do the folks who put the front pages together really think that this stuff doesn't matter to "regular" people?

The week this article is being written, for example, a glance at the Business and Farm section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reveals:

"Homes outpacing need, study finds."

"Board orders Wal-Mart to stock contraceptive" - this from Massachusetts.

"Tyson closes 2 plants, cuts forecast."

"Critics say tech firms aid China Censorship" - and on a related note, ""Chinese Internet censors facing 'hacktivists' in U.S."

Not only is this important news, it is often the stuff of political high drama. The news in the business pages has a direct affect on you and your family. But don't take my word for it. Check it out for yourself. I'll tell you one thing -  it will be a grim day for the Bush administration and its lackies if workers across the country start to pay as much attention to business news as they do to the sports pages.

Reading the business pages is just another step to taking control of your own life. Knowledge really is power, and those who don't keep up with business news are like the ball in the pinball game - bruised, battered and headed for that deep dark hole at the bottom of the machine, with all the other tiny little balls.

Educate yourselves, and your friends.

"Kids don't have a little brother working in the coal mine, they don't have a little sister coughing her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts from enlightened management. They were fought for, they were bled for, they were died for by working people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that.": Bruce "Utah" Phillips Biography - Songwriter, Storyteller, Humorist, Philosopher, 1935

Richard S. Drake is the author of a novel, Freedom Run, and Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative journalism, 1990-2002.

Little Rock Free Press - March, 2006



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