The non-union Whitesville mine had a long record of safety violations before the explosion, including violations just last month for repeatedly failing to develop and implement a ventilation plan for explosive gases. The Massey Energy Company also had a long record of paying civil and criminal fines for endangering mine workers, which Massey apparently treated as just another operating cost to pay and forget about. And surely Massey executives knew that if they waited long enough, the political winds in Washington would shift and the federal government's Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) would once again be staffed by representatives of the mining industry--basically coal companies policing coal companies. All the while, worker safety was just another cost to cut.
The Wangjialing mine is part of China's most deadly mining industry in the world. Even the Chinese government's official numbers of annual mine fatalities are at war-like levels. In 2003, at least 6,700 workers died in Chinese mines, but many suspect the actual number of deaths per year is closer to 20,000. Simply put, the Chinese government is racing to "modernize" the country--workers (and environment) be damned. In China, there are 7.29 deaths per million tons of coal produced, compared to 0.04 deaths in the United States.
Whether we're talking about West Virginia or Shanxi province, America's fourth largest coal company or the authoritarian Chinese government, mine workers are treated as pawns by the powerful interests that own and control the mines. A worker who speaks up about safety issues in a non-union mine in West Virginia will very likely be fired and also blacklisted by other mining companies. In China, that worker is likely to get prison or worse.
Others in the progressive blogosphere are right to say that if we want safer mines we should unionize them. Unionized mines in America are safer than non-union mines for a number of reasons. Union workers get better training, union workers are less afraid of company reprisals when they speak up with safety concerns, and union workers can accompany MSHA inspectors to make sure the regulators aren't just whistling through the inspections. In China on the other hand, independent unions (not controlled by the CCP or the government) of mine workers would be a societal game changer. Not only would independent unions improve the lot of China's 5 million coal miners--a big and strategic part of the economy--but they would also expose as a sham the Communist Party's claim that it represents China's working class. Independent unions are the bane of any authoritarian state but especially of authoritarian states that claim to be socialist.
So yes, we should unionize the mines. Unionize the mines everywhere. That ought to be a given. That ought to be the conservative approach to mine safety.
Why not take it a step further? Imagine if the workers at any given coal mine in Appalachia were also the owners of the mine. Of course they would be better off financially and so would their communities. But it would also mean that safety decisions are made by the very people whose safety is at stake. The workers would make sure they're as safe as possible while also controlling costs and running a profitable mine. Who better to find that balance than the workers themselves? No more tug-of-war between coal companies and Washington-based safety regulators. The worker-owners would have every incentive to regulate themselves.
Coal mine cooperatives. It's been done before, and it's been done well. In 1994, 239 miners in south Wales pooled together and bought their coal mine after British Coal decided to close it. They ran Tower Colliery profitably, maintaining hundreds of good jobs, for 13 years. They gave themselves good pay, a good pension system, 38 days holiday a year, and they put profits back into local community projects. And no boss ever put them in danger to make an extra buck. The mine was closed in 2008, when the coal deposit was finally exhausted, with a community celebration that was similar to the parade in 1994 when workers marched behind their union banner up to the mine they had just taken over.
Miners at the worker-owned Tower Colliery in Hirwaun, South Wales, 2008. (BBC)
The victory at Tower Colliery could be a model for coal mines everywhere. Right now miners' families are grieving in West Virginia and Shanxi and the world is grieving with them. But at some point we've got to ask, Who needs the bosses anyway? At some point there's got to be a movement to put all the power in the mines in the hands of the miners.