A miner's life is like a sailor's
'Board a ship to cross the waves
Every day his life's in danger
Still he ventures being brave
—Traditional labor song
A new study shows that unionization is a sure way to dramatically lessen the many deaths and serious injuries that have been all too common in the nation's coal mines.
That's the unequivocal conclusion of the independent study of coal mining between 1993 and 2008 conducted by Stanford law professor Allson Morantz and funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
There's no doubting it: Workers in unionized mines are far less likely to be killed or seriously injured than are workers in non-union mines.
The study indicates that the number of fatalities in individual non-union mines can decline by one-third up to nearly three-fourths and serious injuries decline by as much as one-third if the mines unionize.
It's no coincidence, notes President Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers Union, that several major mine disasters recently were at non-union mines. That includes the explosion at Massey Energies' Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners last year, the Crandell Canyon, Utah, blast that killed nine miners in 2007 and the Sago explosion in West Virginia in 2006 that killed 12.
"The simple truth," Roberts concludes, "is that union mines are safer mines, and this study proves that."
He gets ready agreement for that obvious truth from union leaders and members at all levels of the labor movement, right up to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. He was a coal miner himself, as were his father and grandfather.
Trumka says he learned firsthand "the vital importance of workers having a voice on the job through their union."
Spreading unionization throughout the coal mining industry is a key mission of the United Mine Workers. But though that doubtlessly would lead to greater coal mine safety, the union's Democratic Party allies must meanwhile continue pressing for stronger mine safety laws – and stronger enforcement of the laws.
Those steps and the labor-management cooperation in collective bargaining and otherwise that the steps would require would guarantee that coal mine job safety would continue to improve – perhaps at even a faster rate than shown by Professor Morantz' study.
Labor, management and government would be in a far better position to do much more of what's needed to continue lowering the still high number of mine worker fatalities.
That's not just a daydream. Listen to the AFL-CIO's Mike Hall. He knows. Says Hall: "With all we know today, and all the avenues of protection available, there is simply no need for even one life to be lost on the job."
One of Congress' most outspoken and effective safety advocates, veteran Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, sees the study as unassailable evidence that unionization leads to greater safety.
Miller, ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, is certain that "when workers have a voice in the mine through their union, they are safer. In union mines, workers are empowered to point out dangerous conditions to inspectors without fear of retaliation from management."
It clearly demonstrates that "by giving miners the support they need to speak out, unions can save miners lives." So can the United Mine Workers' stepped-up campaign to bring more workers under the direct protection of the union and the union's expanding safety training programs for miners everywhere.
Saving lives. No union could have a greater purpose.
Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.