I come from a long line of stone cutters and miners, and I grew up in a small mountain mining town. I don’t know if this gives me any unique insight into the Sago mine tragedy, however. Our mines were lead mines, which are not nearly as hazardous as coal mines since lead is not combustible.
As a small town girl, though, it’s not hard to imagine the impact of those 12 deaths on the small town of Sago. In small towns everybody knows everybody, so everyone in town will have known somebody who died. The impact of the disaster on Sago will be as heavy as the impact of 9/11 on New York City.
Why are we still hearing about coal mine disasters? Surely by now technology exists that would minimize the dangers. And if not, why not? Is cheap coal more important than the lives of miners? Oh, wait …
In small mining towns, everyone’s lives depend on the benevolence of the mine owners. Mining towns tend to be one-industry towns, and if you don’t work for the mining company you will have a sales or service industry job that depends on the mining salaries that flow through the community. Thanks to unions, most miners get decent wages and benefits and have something to say about working conditions. But unions aren’t what they used to be, and in a one-industry town the one industry gets cut a lot of slack.
Joby Warrick reports in the Washington Post that the Sago mine had a history of safety violations. The current owners took possession of the mines only two months ago, but it seems the previous owners allowed conditions in the mines to deteriorate rather badly. And the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration wrote citations but was, apparently, helpless to force the company to actually do anything.
In today’s Boston Globe, Peter Rousmaniere writes about the erosion of worker safety. He is writing about Massachusetts, but most of what he says applies to the nation.
When they sustain a serious work injury they are less able to access the protections of our four-generations-old workers’ compensation system.
It has become easier for employers to cut corners on their legal obligations. If Congress succeeds in criminalizing undocumented worker status, it will become even easier.
This puts a wrinkle on mining safety that hadn’t occurred to me before. Mining jobs have tended to go to the children of miners; in one-industry towns, most young people go from high school to the mine company’s employment office. I haven’t seen a list of the dead, but I expect many of the names are British, and that many of the miners could trace their ancestry back to Welsh, English, and Scottish miners who immigrated in the 19th century. But after reducing the power of unions and weakening federal regulations, I guess the hiring of illegals to work the mines will be the next step.
Although he wasn’t writing about mining, Harold Meyerson’s WaPo essay, “A Gentler Capitalism,” goes along with this story. Meyerson said one thing that pops out — “The American people have a lot more power as voters than they do as workers.” This correlates to what I was ranting about yesterday, that when righties talk about limiting the power of government to regulate business, what they’re really talking about is limiting the power of the people, otherwise known as workers or employees. Take that away, and workers will have no protection at all. Sweatshops and sharecropping, here we come …
Update: See The Super at American Street.