All too often, miners are in the news for the wrong reasons — not for helping meet the nation's energy needs but for losing their lives in doing so. And in a recent string of sad events lies a message about why unions in the workplace are as important as ever, despite claims to the contrary from some quarters.
Just this past Thursday, a roof collapse at a mine in Kentucky left two miners dead. This follows last month's explosion at the Massey Mine in West Virginia, which produced 29 fatalities in the deadliest mine tragedy in four decades.
These two incidents differed in many ways but in one aspect they were identical: The mines were nonunion facilities. And this adds to a growing trend. A total of 35 miners already have been killed this year (too high a toll even for this dangerous trade) — none of them a union member.
Think this is an aberration? Of the 18 miners killed last year, only one belonged to the United Mine Workers of America. So, in the past year and a quarter, 53 miners have perished, and 52 of them worked at nonunion operations.
While the UMWA represents 30 percent of the nation's mines, less than 2 percent of those who have perished in the mines in 2009 and 2010 were union members.
Before Massey, we saw national attention focused on miners during the Sago drama of January 2006, when a dozen miners died and one survivor emerged. Sago, too, was a nonunion operation. Over that year, the total of 47 miner deaths marked the worst toll in more than a decade. Only five were UMWA members, meaning just 11 percent of the year's fatalities involved union miners — even though 32 percent of mines were organized at the time. Moreover, none of the five union cases involved multiple victims, where broader mine failures and systemic safety factors are most likely to be at issue.
No coincidence here. The tie-in between a robust union presence and mine safety is a simple proposition. On the national level, a strong union can help craft safety legislation and push for enforcement, while seeking adequate resources and monitoring federal appointments to agencies such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration (which, not incidentally, had no permanent director when Sago occurred).
On the local level, a union can monitor that federal policies are actually carried out in a given facility, and that mine operators aren't gambling with miners' lives to save money or boost productivity. And the union safety committee, which is part of any mine union contract, can call in federal safety officials at any time, and it participates in inspections when they show up.
Individual miners have the right to withdraw from work in any area deemed unsafe by the committee until the problem is fixed, and they are shielded from employer sanctions. In a nonunion mine, whatever safeguards exist in theory, in practice a worried miner may be told to go down the shaft or go home.
But union levels at the nation's mines have tumbled in recent decades, from a high of 85 to 90 percent in the 1950s and 1960s, meaning that not only are fewer mines under union contracts but also that the UMWA is weaker at the federal level as well — and less able to provide a counterbalance to industry pressures for relaxed regulation.
This drop is the result of the rise of alternative sources of energy as well as the factors that account for labor's overall decline — more aggressive employers, a change in the tone of labor-management relations sparked by President Reagan's breaking of the air traffic controllers union 30 years ago, and the exporting of jobs. Much as representation by the UMWA has declined by about two-thirds, so too has the overall labor movement, which a half-century ago represented about 35 percent of the work force but now accounts for only 11 percent.
The absence from the public dialogue of this type of discussion reflects two related trends: Labor's difficulty communicating to the public why it still matters, and the media's proclivity for ignoring the sustained role played by unions in the daily life of a workplace.
But the next time you hear — or assume — that the labor movement is no longer relevant, rather a mere relic of a bygone era, ponder this: If a relative or friend of yours earned his living mining coal, would you prefer he do so in a place with or without a union?
• Philip Dine, author of "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence," is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.