Working us to Death | Street Jazz

Friday, August 17, 2007

Working us to Death

Posted By on Fri, Aug 17, 2007 at 6:27 PM

I wrote this last year after the last round of mine disasters. I suspect that nothing much will change between now and next year, either.

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

Written by Richard S. Drake

"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.

"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." He can
be contacted at:

rsdrake@nwark.com

@2006
Richard S. Drake


 

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