In short, in the 30-year period prior to enactment of these safety statutes, more than 19,000 miners were killed in the nation's coal mines. Whereas in the 30-year period following enactment of the 1969 Mine Act, there were 86 percent fewer coal-mining deaths. But this steady stream of union-led victories was purchased at a price that's now coming due. During the 1970s, a growing chasm between workers and union officials led to legislative gains but long-term animosity and even longer-term decline. That stormy decade began with the UMWA's former President Tony Boyle being convicted of ordering the murder of one of his rivals and sentenced to life in prison. It ended with his successor, Arnold Miller, resigning because the rank-and-file membership ignored his calls to cooperate with mine owners and the Democratic Party leadership.
The UMWA went into a free fall in 1981, after President Ronald Reagan broke the national air-traffic-controllers' strike. The union's leaders, as was true in other industries, simply threw up their hands and cooperated with the mining companies. In 1982, attorney Richard Trumka became president of the union. In the following years, he continued to override the union's historic commitment to fight by canceling strikes and appeasing owners. The UMWA lost its remaining political leverage and watched its membership evaporate. Today, according to the union's own optimistic estimates, only about 30 percent of all mines are organized.
Cecil E. Roberts, current UMWA president, seems to support safety improvements. He testified before Congress in late January and then hit the media circuit for a couple weeks. He recently partnered with the MSHA to win an injunction in federal district court in West Virginia against Sago's operator after miners' representatives from the UMWA were denied access to the mine during a federal investigation.
Important victories, yes. But, viewed against the UMWA's track record, this rather tepid response to the Sago disaster doesn't measure up. While it is critical that legislators continue to call for improving MSHA's ability to carry out safety inspections and to punish noncompliant mine owners, history suggests that lasting gains in this area can occur only with organized miners at the helm. Because without angry union officials agitating about unsafe working conditions and threatening to call in federal inspectors, there is simply no pressure on owners to make changes. All the new laws in the world are useless without union officials to push for their enforcement.
In 1998, the Louisville Courier-Journal reviewed nearly 25,000 federal health records for Kentucky underground coal mines (96 percent of which, at the time, were nonunion). The newspaper concluded that "small, non-union mines generally pay less, cheat more on dust tests and don't have union stewards demanding compliance with costly safety regulations."
Perhaps more fundamentally, union mines instill—and can at times reward—a greater sense of collective responsibility than nonunion mines. In stark contrast to the Sago disaster, on Jan. 29, the lives of all 72 unionized miners trapped in a Saskatchewan potash mine were saved after a devastating, toxic machine fire trapped them underground. When the workers reached the surface more than 24 hours later, virtually all of them credited the emergency training they had received—including practices and rehearsals. Their union—Communications, Energy and Paperworkers—had pushed for this training, and the union had also agitated to allow miners to earn paid time to prepare for underground disasters.
Newspaper accounts described how the men in Saskatchewan did exactly what they had practiced: At the first sign of fire, they retreated to sealable refuge stations stocked with supplies, beds, and pure oxygen. They calmed each other, led other miners to the "safe zones," and waited for rescue teams. Could stricter safety guidelines, on their own accord, have generated such preparation and cooperation? Maybe, but probably not.
The old-time miners—the ones who remember the UMWA in its prime and yearn for those long-gone days of action and confrontation—know that courts and politicians can be only marginally helpful. They would say that even with all the well-meaning legislators rushing to pass new laws this month, the only thing that will save future accident victims will be the long-term collective effort of the miners themselves, pushing hard to make their work, and their lives, count.