Monday, March 31, 2003

Acts of God, Acts of Man, and Faith-based Health and Safety

Here we clarify a little recent history. This story, like much of our most important history, contains lessons that should never be forgotten. Unfortunately, most people will never know about it in the first place, much less remember it or do something about it.

The Nation
ran an excellent article in its March 17 edition about the real story behind last year's "miraculous" Somerset County, Pennsylvania mine rescue.

Written by Charles McCollester, director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the article describes how "The flooding of the nonunion Quecreek mine reveals much about government inadequacy stemming from chronic underfunding; government incompetence and/or complicity with powerful vested interests; corporate irresponsibility and greed; and coordinated anti-union activity."

Prior to the flooding of the mine there had been multiple warnings about the inadequacy of the 1957 map that showed the adjoining Saxman mine that was flooded with water and was the source of the flood in the Quecreek mine. After the disaster, several elderly former Saxman miners claimed on local television that they had gone to the owner of the mine, Black Wolf, in the months just preceding the breach to warn the company that its map was inadequate and that Black Wolf was nearing the Saxman Coal Harrison #2 mine workings.

Despite these warnings, Black Wolf owner-operator David Rebuck called the flooding an "act of God" in one local TV interview. As McCollester wrote, "The flood of testimonials to the mercy of God threatens to obscure the very human factors that led to the near-disaster. God may well have had a hand in the rescue, but human avarice and more than a century of fierce corporate manipulation and struggle for profit and control were behind the wall of water that swept into the Quecreek mine."

(Note from JB: The "Act of God" excuse was often used, in my experience, to explain such "unfathomable" processes as the collapse of a 12 foot deep trench on top of construction workers or the asphyxiation of sewer workers in an unmonitored confined space. "Who could have predicted it?" "Brave men, dangerous job, tsk, tsk." A related scapegoat was Mother Nature, as in "Yup, that trench just gave way. Who could have known? Just one of those terrible unpredictable things when you're dealing with Mother nature.")

These "excuses" often worked -- at least for public consumption -- because they were generally quoted in the typical one-day article in the local newspaper. By the time experts are found (if anyone bothers) or the OSHA report comes out (assuming they weren't public employees who had no OSHA coverage), the local media had lost interest. But I digress...)

The article notes "The ultimate act of political cynicism was reserved for President Bush, who made a choreographed whistle-stop visit to the rescued miners on his way to a million-dollar campaign fundraiser in Pittsburgh."

The UMWA had attempted to organize the mine, but "Repeated attempts to organize Quecreek had broken down because the majority of the miners were intimidated. [According to] UMWA organizer Nick Molnar (now retired): "The company gets wind of our presence and first you get threats to fire individuals who support the union; that's followed by veiled threats about closing the mine. In a depressed area, such actions are extremely effective."

"If Quecreek had been union, workers might have been more candid about company responsibility immediately after the rescue, when some of them supported management's claim of normal mining conditions. If the union had been recognized, the workers could have refused to continue advancing--without fear for their jobs--as they saw conditions worsening."

Union health and safety activists understand that the best guarantor of a safe workplace is not OSHA and not (for God's sake) Workers Compensation, but a strong, knowledgeable and active union. (Some think it's even possible that health and safety problems would make a good organizing issue.)