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January 11, 2006

The Sago Mine Disaster and the Union

By Jordan Barab. Reprinted from Confined Space.

Although United Mine Workers representatives participated in the attempted rescue of the Sago miners last week, the mine was non-union. And that fact may have contributed to the miners' deaths. According to American Rights at Work Chairman David Bonior:

These workers did not have to die. Accidents happen, but they shouldn’t be as frequent and they don’t have to be fatal. Better safety precautions in the mine could have been achieved had the workers had a voice – a union. This crucial point was echoed yesterday morning when Matt Lauer interviewed John Bennett, whose father James was killed in the mine accident, on the Today Show.

Bennett told Lauer that he repeatedly pleaded with his father to quit working in the mine because of the pervasive dangers his father frequently recounted to him. Lauer asked Mr. Bennett what questions he would like to ask of the mine operators. “It’s not just the men that go down there every day that know the mines is [sic] unsafe…we have no protection for our workers. We need to get the United Mine Workers back in these coal mines, to protect [against] these safety violations, to protect these workers.” Lauer then asked Bennett “You feel as if the miners speak out they are at risk of losing their jobs?” “Yeah” Bennett answered.

Note that Bennett says "we need to get the United Mine Workers back in these coal mines."

Turns out that the Sago mine was once represented by the United Mineworkers when it was owned by Pittston Coal.

But when the Anker Group bought the mine from Pittston, the UMW lost its representation rights. According to UMW attorneys, when UMW mines are depleted or permanently closed and the bargaining unit members are laid off, the coal company that had the agreement with the union sometimes sells the remaining coal reserves to a new company which then develops a new mine on the property.

The courts, which are more concerned with protecting the companies' ability to trade capital unencumbered by labor costs than with the miners' ability to enforce their contractual employment rights, have determined that in some cases, when the new company reenters the old mine portals, the UMWA's representational rights can be lost if the new company does not mine in what the courts are characterize as the pre-existing union "operation".

Because Anker accessed coal from the Sago mine on the old Pittston property through a new mining portal, UMW members, who had been laid off, did not have recall rights. The mine was operated non-union. The Anker Group sold the mine last year to its current owner, International Coal Group.

Crystal clear? Makes sense?

Not if you're a miner hoping to make it out of the mine alive every day.

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Posted by Jordan Barab at January 11, 2006 12:52 AM