Danse Macabre: The Republicans, the Corporate Lobbyists, and the Ghosts of Dead Coal Miners


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.  . . . (more…)

Danse Macabre: The Republicans, the corporate lobbyists, and the ghosts of dead coal miners


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.)

Can Congress (Finally) Get Coal Mine Safety Right?

Rep. George Miller (photo: House Committee on Education and Labor on Flickr)

(Bruce H. Vail is a former journalist who has commented at FDL in the past under the name laborite57. Based in Baltimore, MD, he has covered labor issues for a number of specialized publications, and has also worked as a union staffer.)

Tomorrow afternoon, Congress will once again take up new legislative proposals to improve coal mine safety. After decades of repeated mining disasters, countless unnecessary deaths and injuries, and continual demands for remedial action, can Congress finally get mining safety legislation right?

The outward signs are not encouraging. Congress passed its first mine safety law during the presidential administration of Benjamin Harrison (1891) and has tried again and again to strengthen the safety laws, most recently in 2006. But all of the efforts of the intervening 115 years couldn’t save the lives of the 29 men who perished April 5 in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.V. The cause of that disaster is believed to be a massive methane explosion, hardly a new phenomenon in coal mining and an imminently preventable cause of death.

It is the April 5 tragedy that has prompted the proposed new legislation, jointly sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA). In crafting the new law, Miller and Harkin worked closely with Joe Main, President Obama’s appointee as head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The proposed legislation is remarkable because it clearly assumes that responsibility for the deaths at Upper Big Branch lies entirely with the mine’s owner/operator – Massey Energy Inc., and its odious chief executive Don Blankenship.

Below are the six main features of the legislation, as summarized by Rep. Miller’s staff at the House Committee on Education and Labor (Miller is chairman of House committee, while Harkin is chairman of the Senate counterpart). All are aimed directly or indirectly at Massey, but note particularly the fourth and final paragraphs: (more…)

Can Congress (finally) Get Coal Mine Safety Right?

(Bruce H. Vail is a former journalist who has commented at FDL in the past under the name laborite57. Based in Baltimore, MD, he has covered labor issues for a number of specialized publications, and has also worked as a union staffer.)

Tomorrow afternoon, Congress will once again take up new legislative proposals to improve coal mine safety. After decades of repeated mining disasters, countless unnecessary deaths and injuries, and continual demands for remedial action, can Congress finally get mining safety legislation right?

The outward signs are not encouraging. Congress passed its first mine safety law during the presidential administration of Benjamin Harrison (1891) and has tried again and again to strengthen the safety laws, most recently in 2006. But all of the efforts of the intervening 115 years couldn’t save the lives of the 29 men who perished April 5 in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.V. The cause of that disaster is believed to be a massive methane explosion, hardly a new phenomenon in coal mining and an imminently preventable cause of death.

Rep. George Miller
Rep. George Miller

It is the April 5 tragedy that has prompted the proposed new legislation, jointly sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA). In crafting the new law, Miller and Harkin worked closely with Joe Main, President Obama’s appointee as head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The proposed legislation is remarkable because it clearly assumes that responsibility for the deaths at Upper Big Branch lies entirely with the mine’s owner/operator – Massey Energy Inc., and its odious chief executive Don Blankenship.

Below are the six main features of the legislation, as summarized by Rep. Miller’s staff at the House Committee on Education and Labor (Miller is chairman of House committee, while Harkin is chairman of the Senate counterpart). All are aimed directly or indirectly at Massey, but note particularly the fourth and final paragraphs:

  1. Making Mines with Serious and Repeated Violations Safe – Criteria for ‘pattern of violations’ sanctions would be revamped to ensure that the nation’s most dangerous mine operations improve safety dramatically.
  2. Ensuring Irresponsible Operators are Held Accountable – Maximum criminal and civil penalties would be increased and operators would be required to pay penalties in a timely manner.
  3. Giving MSHA Better Enforcement Tools – MSHA would be given the authority to subpoena documents and testimony. The agency could seek a court order to close a mine when there is a continuing threat to the health and safety of miners. MSHA could require more training of miners in unsafe mines. Increased rock dusting would be required to prevent coal dust explosions.
  4. Protecting Miners Who Speak out on Unsafe Conditions – Miners would be granted the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. Protections for workers who speak out about unsafe conditions would be strengthened, and miners would not lose pay for safety-related closures. In addition, miners would receive protections so they can speak freely during investigations.
  5. Increasing MSHA’s Accountability – The legislative outline provides for an independent investigation of the most serious accidents. It would require that mine personnel are well-qualified, and ensure that inspections are comprehensive and well-targeted. Additionally, it requires pre-shift reviews of mine conditions and communication to ensure that appropriate safety information is transmitted.
  6. Guaranteeing Basic Protections in All Other Workplaces – To ensure that all workplaces have basic protections, whistleblower protections would be strengthened, criminal and civil penalties would be increased, and hazard abatement would be sped up. In addition, victims of accidents and their family members would be provided greater rights during investigations and enforcement actions.
MSHA Administrator Joe Main
MSHA Administrator Joe Main

The fourth feature alone is just stunning in its implication: It would give the miners themselves the right to close mines that THEY – not the owners or the government – believe to be unsafe. And they would be protected from losing their jobs, or even losing a days’ pay for such safety closures. In essence, it would guarantee to all miners the same rights that are now enjoyed only by workers organized into strong unions. This revolutionary feature will be attributed to MSHA’s Joe Main, who spent many years as a safety expert at the United Mine Workers before being appointed to his current post. The UMW, not coincidentally, has long been a bitter adversary of Massey Energy’s Blankenship.

And the sixth feature would transform the bill from a simple mine safety measure to a fundamental expansion of the workplace safety regime everywhere the country. It seems aimed at creating a sort of “Workplace Safety Bill of Rights” that is long overdue, and will almost certainly be opposed by business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturing.

Predictably, the Republicans are already cool to the new mine bill. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), the ranking member on the Senate labor committee, appeared wary of criticizing increased mine safety per se, but nevertheless slammed the Democrats for what he insisted was undue partisanship by Miller and Harkin.

“We are disappointed that the Democrats have chosen to move forward in partisan fashion on this important issue…. Instead of pursuing that productive approach, Democrats have chosen to introduce a sweeping piece of legislation that affects every business in this country and only amplifies the adversarial role of the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations and MSHA, without increasing safety….Whether Republicans are included and minority ideas are incorporated as we move forward will be a clear demonstration of the Majority’s true intention of developing a bill that we can all support and that will make a difference in the name of safety.”

Now Enzi is a particularly dull-witted legislator and it is predictable that he would think worker safety is a partisan issue. In his clouded mind, any expansion of workplace safety rights is anti-business, and therefore anti-Republican. His criticism is not a good sign for the future of the Miller-Harkin bill. More opposition should appear at the Tuesday House hearing, where MSHA’s Main is scheduled to appear. The ferocity of the attacks on Main will provide an early indicator on whether any effective improvement in coal mine safety is possible this year…or anytime in the foreseeable future.

Two Unions Launch Major Organizing Drives at Delta Air Lines

There has been a lot of grumbling in labor circles that Obama hasn’t done enough for the unions that supported him so strongly in the 2008 election, but you are not likely to hear much of that in the inner circles of two airline unions that launched major organizing campaigns on Thursday. The unions anticipate that these campaigns may bring some 25,000 Delta Air Line workers into the union fold.

Two labor organizations — the Association of Flight Attendants and the International Association of Machinists — filed the paperwork July 1 with the National Mediation Board to set in motion union elections among Delta’s cabin crew members, baggage handlers, fleet service workers, customer service agents, and others at dozens of airports nationwide. Unless the elections get tangled in new technical or legal challenges, most of the results should be in by the end of the year.

The more dramatic and compelling story belongs to the Flight Attendants, which has waged a long and valiant struggle against hostile and aggressive executives at Delta. Affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, the AFA-CWA began preparing a major organizing drive at Delta back in 1997, only to suffer stinging election defeats in 2001 and again in 2008. Things look much brighter for the union now, thanks to new Obama appointees at the National Mediation Board which oversees labor relations in the airline and railroad sectors, and the recently completed merger of Delta with Northwest Airlines.

July 1 should represent a new Independence Day of its own for Delta flight attendants, according to AFA-CWA representative Corey Caldwell, because it means freedom from an arcane and restrictive Mediation Board election rule that prevented unionization in the past. One initiative of the Obama-dominated Board was to eliminate a 75-year-old rule that specified that a union representation election could only succeed if the pro-union voters amassed more than 50 percent of ALL workers in the specific bargaining unit, as opposed to a simple plurality of the employees participating in the election (as has long been the case in National Labor Relations Board elections). The Mediation Board announced the rule change earlier this year, and after swatting back a legal challenge from the anti-union trade group Air Transport Association, put the new rule into effect July 1. It was at the hour that the revised rule went into effect that ATA-CWA and the Machinists both filed their petitions to begin the new elections process at Delta.

However obscure the election rule may seem to outsiders, it is of tremendous relevance to Delta flight attendants, Caldwell said yesterday. In the failed 2008 union election, for example, the AFA-CWA did extremely well among the employees that voted – of the 5,375 votes cast, fully 5,306 were in favor of the union. But the Mediation Board had determined there were a total of 13,380 eligible voters in that election, and having failed to meet the threshold of 50 percent of ALL eligible employees, the AFA-CWA went down to defeat. The defeat was discouraging but not surprising: AFA-CWA had also won the 2001 election among the Delta flight attendants who had actually voted, but had also failed to meet the 50 percent threshold.

The Mediation Board election rule change helps the AFA-CWA, but Delta’s purchase of Northwest Airlines (announced in 2008 but only formally completed in January of this year) may be equally important in the upcoming election. Northwest flight attendants had been union members for many years before the merger, and combining the workforces of the two air lines means integrating the unionized flight attendants at Northwest with their non-union counterparts at Delta. Under related Mediation Board rules, the upcoming election will include a total of some 20,000 Delta/Northwest flight attendants, with the overwhelming majority of the voters coming from the unionized ranks of Northwest. Caldwell estimates that about 12,500 eligible voters will come from the unionized employees from the old Northwest organization, with the remaining 7,500 coming from the old non-union Delta. AFA-CWA leaders are confident that these numbers will add up to victory.

The same set of Mediation Board rules apply to the efforts by the Machinists union to organize at Delta – although the total number of workers involved looks to reach much higher, according to union spokesman Frank Larkin. He predicted that there were would be a series of representation elections in 2010-2011 that will ultimately involve about 30,000 workers. Of these, about 12,500 are currently unionized under the old Northwest collective bargaining agreements, with a larger group of about 17,500 men and women from the non-unionized group at Delta.

Like AFA-CWA, the Machinists are confident that the change in the Mediation Board election rule will give the union a better shot at success than was ever possible under the pre-Obama rule. But for the Machinists it will be a longer, more drawn-out process, Larkin said, as bargaining units will be divided into a series of distinct groups with separate elections (baggage handlers, customer service agents, etc.). The multiple Machinists elections will probably be staggered on a schedule that will stretch through much of 2011, and will not be coordinated directly with the AFA-CWA, he said.

Both unions are fully united, however, in their wariness of the senior executives of Delta. There has been no sign yet of the full-throated opposition to unions that AFA-CWA saw in the 2001 and 2008 representation elections, and that may be a good sign. However, Delta executives have in the past shown themselves to be skillful and hard-headed in their fights with employees. Although union leaders may have reason to grumble about the executives at Delta, they no longer have much reason to do so about the Obama administration.

Hyatt to Boston Hotel Housekeepers: Drop Dead

"Statement Regarding Boston Hotel Housekeeping Staff – 9.18.09

At Hyatt, we value and respect all our associates, care about the communities in which we operate
and deeply regret whenever staff reductions are necessary. The difficult decision to outsource the
housekeeping function at our Boston properties was made in response to the unprecedented
economic challenges those hotels are facing in the current business environment. It was not made
lightly.

A precipitous drop in revenues at our Boston hotels has made major cost cutting measures
necessary. The decision to outsource the housekeeping function is the most recent in a long series
of efforts to control costs. We have eliminated management positions at all three hotels, reduced
staff in multiple departments and made significant cuts in sales, marketing and administrative
budgets.

Though the business downturn has necessitated difficult decisions for us as it has for so many other
employers, Hyatt always strives to treat its employees with care and consideration. Despite what
has been reported, the hotels in Boston have treated their housekeepers with fairness and dignity.
Press reports suggesting that we “tricked our associates into training their replacements” are
absolutely false. The transition to contract housekeeping services was not sudden and secretive. In
fact, the company providing housekeeping services to our Boston Hotels – Hospitality Staffing
Solutions (HSS) – has been working with two of the three hotels for more than three years, with
Hyatt and HSS employees working side?by?side every day. When the properties completed the
transition to all contract personnel in housekeeping on August 31 approximately half of the
housekeeping staff at two of the three Boston Hyatt Hotels were HSS employees.

We are providing resources and support to assist employees who have lost their jobs as they seek
new employment.
o The housekeepers were invited to apply for open positions at the three hotels, however
there are very few positions available due to economic conditions. They will continue
to be welcome to apply for jobs at Hyatt hotels as positions become available.
o We worked with local hotels and provided each housekeeper with current job openings.
o We provided them with an Employee Assistance helpline, assisted them with benefit
transition paperwork.
o We provided severance benefits.

Because we have a longstanding relationship with HSS, we’re confident that HSS personnel working
according to Hyatt standards can provide Hyatt?quality housekeeping services. The savings realized from
these arrangements contribute significantly to the financial stability of our properties, which allows us to
continue to provide services to our guests and enables Hyatt properties to continue to be major
employers in the Boston area.

The HSS employees serving our properties in Boston are living in the area. They are not from outside of
the community. So the notion that jobs were exported to somewhere outside of Boston is inaccurate.
Contrary to published reports, HSS does offer a wide range of benefits to its employees.
Hyatt properties continue to be significant employers in Massachusetts with approximately 600
employees."

Another Kind of Summit

The White House issued this seemingly noncontroversial statement today:

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary
_____________________________________________________________________________
For Immediate Release July 31, 2009

Readout of the President’s meeting with business leaders today:

As part of the President’s ongoing outreach to the business community he invited Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon and Chairman of the Business Roundtable, Mike Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart, Dan DiMicco, CEO of Nucor and Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks to join him for lunch in the Private Dining Room this afternoon. They had a wide ranging conversation about the state of the economy, health care reform and energy during the 75 minute lunch. The President and his economic team look forward to continuing to hold informal meetings with members of the business community to seek their input.

What the statement fails to acknowledge is that these CEOs represent some of the worst anti-union gangsters in the country. Most of us have heard about Wal-Mart, but Nucor and Starbucks are just as bad. For its part, Verizon is currently engaged in hammer-and-tong contract talks with the Communications Workers of America.

It would be interesting to know what these four thugs said to Obama about EFCA, and even more interesting to know what Obama said in return.

Ships, Pirates and Unions

The Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (AFL-CIO) is just out with its most recent issue of the union’s bi-monthly magazine "Marine Officer," containing a full version the remarkable story of the pirate attack on the U.S.-flag containership Maersk Alabama.

see The Real Story of the MAERSK ALABAMA.pdf

It’s a nice piece of work by editor Marco Cannistraro, who pulls together most of the disparate elements of the story, and its aftermath. It has some great photos that you will see nowhere else.

It’s an appropriate Fourth of July salute to the men and women of the American Merchant Marine, who often work in obscurity and are often unjustly criticized.