Last Friday, Rush Limbaugh asked why a coal miner union didn’t protect the 29 miners who were killed when Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV, exploded under unsafe conditions:
Was there no union responsibility for improving mine safety? Where was the union here? Where was the union? The union is generally holding these companies up demanding all kinds of safety. Why were these miners continuing to work in what apparently was an unsafe atmosphere?
There’s a simple reason the union didn’t protect the miners: the Upper Big Branch Mine, like nearly all of the mines under Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s control, is non-union. In fact, the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) “tried three times to organize the Upper Big Branch mine, but even with getting nearly 70 percent of workers to sign cards saying they wanted to vote for a union, Blankenship personally met with workers to threaten them with closing down the mine and losing their jobs if they voted for a union.”
Blankenship rose in Massey’s ranks by breaking its union mines in the 1980s. Blankenship said then that busting unions is “invaluable” to profits, as non-union companies can “sell coal cheaper and drive union coal out of business.”
Union mines have a significantly better safety record than non-union mines especially for major disasters, as union miners can refuse unsafe work and report dangerous conditions without fear of retaliation. In addition to preventing Blankenship-style intimidation, the proposed Employee Free Choice Act would increase whistleblower protections for non-union and union workers alike. Under Blankenship’s direction, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association have spent millions to oppose passage of such legislation for worker rights, comparing it to a “firestorm bordering on Armageddon.”
Immediately following the tragedy, the UMW sent trained support personnel to the disaster site. “We are all brothers and sisters in the coalfields at times like this,” UMW President Cecil Roberts said in a statement offering the assistance, which was refused by Massey company officials.