Danse Macabre

Danse Macabre (via Cornell University Library)

There seemed to be an otherworldly presence in the hearing room Tuesday when a Congressional committee began formal consideration of new coal mine safety legislation.

I was physically far away, watching on C-SPAN, so I couldn’t tell whether the unseen spirits were the ghosts of the 29 miners killed three months ago in a preventable explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia — or the malignant aura of corporate power that seems to haunt the halls of Congress.

Whatever the source of that oppressive presence, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) seemed determined to cut through any fear and superstition. He made clear that he intends to use his post as chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor to propel ambitious new safety legislation through the House. Backed by the Obama administration and organized labor, Miller aims to strengthen the power of federal regulators to shutter unsafe mines, and to punish the corporate entities that own and operate dangerous coal pits. Further, he would extend new protections to the miners themselves, and broaden those protections to millions of other workers outside the coal fields.

Miller leaned heavily on organized labor for support at Tuesday’s hearing, especially from the United Mine Workers of America (UMW).

One of the principal witnesses, for example, was Joe Main, a thirty-year veteran of the UMW safety office. He was chosen last year by the White House as chief of the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Also testifying in favor of the bill was the fierce UMW leader Cecil Roberts, who has led the union since former president Rich Trumka was elected to high AFL-CIO office in 1995.

The most powerful testimony was provided by Stanley “Goose” Stewart, a working miner who survived the deadly Upper Big Branch blast. A long-time UMW activist. He spoke forcefully of the union’s failed organizing efforts at Massey Energy Inc., the notorious owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine, and of the fear and intimidation of workers inspired by Massey. Even an independent academic expert – Professor  R. Larry Grayson of Penn State – proudly identified himself as a former UMW member.

If Miller and the UMW men sought to honor the ghosts of Upper Big Branch, then it was the Republicans who wanted to banish them.

Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the ranking member of committee, blithely implied that it was Joe Main and his MSHA staff that were responsible for the West Virginia disaster. His most concrete suggestion was that lawmakers delay any action until multiple investigations of the Montcoal disaster are complete, a process that could take a year or more (at least past the mid-term elections). Kline’s muted opposition has already been echoed on the Senate side of Capitol Hill, where two Republicans – Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Johnny Isakson of Georgia – have taken the lead in opposing new worker safety legislations.

It is a delicate dance of death for the Republicans and the corporate lobbyists seeking to delay or defeat Miller’s legislation. (In yet another macabre touch, Miller has rechristened the bill the Robert Byrd Act, in honor of the recently deceased West Virginia senator.) Not wanting to appear insensitive to the pointless and avoidable deaths of coal miners, they all speak of the need to improve safety, while insisting that the Byrd Act is the wrong way to achieve that goal.

Particularly ghastly in this respect was the testimony of lawyer-lobbyist Jonathan Snare, representing a group calling itself the Coalition for Workplace Safety. The “Coalition” – a front group for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) – is not against safety, Snare piously intoned, but is certainly against Miller’s proposal to extend new worker protections outside of the coal industry.

Tellingly, no executive of a coal mining company appeared at the hearing to defend the industry’s appalling record of fatalities. Massey Energy boss Don Blankenship, notorious for his outspoken criticism of government regulations and his hatred of labor unions, was nowhere to be seen. He relied on his proxies from the lobby group National Mining Association and from the law firm Morgan Lewis, where Snare is a senior partner.

Snare’s testimony was dire (if predictable) news for Miller’s bill. It signified full opposition of corporate groups like NAM and the Chamber of Commerce to any ambitious new safety legislation. Although the Chamber and its cohorts appear unlikely to stop Miller’s progress in the House, it has proven to be all-too-effective in marshalling a coalition of Senate Republicans and corporate Democrats. The same coalition that crippled health care legislation, watered down the Wall Street reform bill, and continues to deny extended benefits to unemployed workers, looks poised to do its deadly work on the Byrd Act.

(The staff of House Education and Labor Committee has done an excellent job of making its work available on the net, including written documents and video from Tuesday’s hearing.  See also the superb blog Coal Tattoo http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/, produced by veteran Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr.)