Archive for January, 2006
Monday, January 30th, 2006
Gung Hay Fat Choy: Happy Chinese New Year! As millions, if not billions, of people worldwide celebrate the beginning of the Chinese Lunar New Year, it’s the season for parades, feasts and family. However, if you’re someone born in the upcoming Year of the Dog, you might have good reason to be worried — or maybe not. Conflicting reports out of China indicate that some companies are refusing to hire those born in the Year of the Dog, while other companies are hiring only those born in the same set of years. Setting aside all the obvious puns, such as “working like a dog,” and “dog years,” what’s happening in China could just as easily happen here, especially if Judge Samuel Alito is confirmed to the Supreme Court, and I’m not barking up the wrong tree.
January 29th, the second new moon after the winter solstice, marked the first day of the Chinese New Year, year 4703, with its accompanying symbols: the famous dragon dances, fortune cookies, the familiar red and gold banners, along with traditional foods prepared for good luck. This Year is the Year of the Dog, giving way to last year’s Year of the Rooster: each year is named after an animal like a mascot. (See KBTV4.tv article.)
People born in a particular year are believed to possess particular traits associated with the animal after whom the year is named. People born in the Year of the Dog (which also includes those born in 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, and 1994) possess the best traits of human nature, and are good leaders. They have a deep sense of loyalty, are honest and inspire other people’s confidence because they know how to keep secrets. They care little for wealth, yet somehow always seem to have money. They can be cold emotionally and sometimes distant at parties. They can find fault with many things and are noted for their sharp tongues. (See Norwich Bulletin article.)
Part of this Chinese tradition is that persons born in a certain year will have bad luck all year long when their year rolls around again. For those born in the Year of the Dog, the bad luck started even before the new year arrived, when some Chinese companies looking for new recruits started refusing to hire candidates born as dogs to ward off the bad luck expected for people in years of their same sign. (See Reuters article.) This information was disclosed in a hearing about a new labor law before the Chinese parliament, with one Chinese legislator saying “Workplace discrimination has even reached this ridiculous level.”
Actually, China’s most ridiculous level had probably already been reached several years before the Year of the Dog, when female applicants for a government job in central Hunan province had to show they had symmetrically shaped breasts. (See Philadelphia Inquirer article.) The rule was only rescinded in 2004. We’d like to think that couldn’t happen here (and I do think we can realistically expect that this isn’t a criteria for any government jobs), but you can almost hear the defense argument now: We didn’t discriminate because she was a woman, we discriminated against her because she was asymmetrical. We already have companies who admit to firing women whose weight isn’t perfectly proportional, with hourglass figures (see CBS News article) and whose makeup isn’t up to snuff (see Hotel Online article), so it’s not really that much of a leap, is it?
All is not lost for those unlucky Dogs, however: at least one company is hiring only Dogs these days. Mr. Dong, a personnel manager for a human resources firm in northern China, said that said his company believes people born in dog years are simply more suited to its corporate culture. According to Mr. Dong, “We believe that people born in dog years are born with some good characteristics such as loyalty and honesty….As a human resource company, those characters are exactly what we need.” (See Associated Press article.)
Although some college graduates currently engaged in intense competition for available jobs complained about the practice, Mr. Dong defended it, saying “I think we have the right to choose our employees by our own rule and I don’t see this rule could hurt anybody.” Mr. Dong wasn’t too worried about being prosecuted, either: although Chinese law forbids discrimination in hiring, it doesn’t say what constitutes an offense. Job ads often come with a list of conditions including gender, age, height and even place of birth. (See Associated Press article.)
Sounds a little too much like one certain candidate for Supreme Court justice, doesn’t it? Judge Samuel Alito would throw out cases on summary judgment where “an employer…claims that it, in its business judgment, thought one candidate was better qualified than the other.” (See NELA’s Report on Judge Samuel Alito at p. 9.) So whether it’s a Chinese-run business who thinks those born in the Year of the Dog make better (or worse) employees, or casinos who think that those born with hourglass figures keep gamblers at the tables longer, it’s hard to argue with business judgment, isn’t it, Judge Alito? With the very real possibility that Judge Alito’s nomination will be confirmed, lots of employees could soon be in the doghouse.
Take Action Now: Oppose the Supreme Court Nomination of Judge Samuel Alito
Alito: Should Workers Trust His Actions, Or His Words?
Looking for the Superemployee
[Note: As I was writing this blog entry on January 30, unbeknownst to me, two fired employees were filing a sex discrimination lawsuit against Borgata. (See Reuters article.)]
Tuesday, January 24th, 2006
It’s the time of year when everyone contemplates their past and their future, beginning a self-assessment process designed to make 2006 the best year ever, or at least free of 2005’s mistakes. Is it a time for big changes in your life? Or has something validated that you’re headed in the right direction? One look at a recent Chicago Tribune article has convinced me that there’s more of a need for Workplace Fairness and our work than ever. If the story doesn’t almost bring tears to your eyes, no matter how long that you’ve been involved with fairness issues in the workplace, then perhaps it’s time for your own reassessment.
The title pretty much says it all: Will Work for Less. The article tells the story of Robert Johnson of Decatur, Illinois. Johnson used to make $29/hour at a nuclear power plant, until he was laid off. He now works for $12.24/hour at at the local Caterpillar plant — a job he is lucky to have, since it came along right before being forced to start work for $7/hour at Target. What does Johnson get for that salary? He pays child support for his three children, $285 every other week, leaving him $516 to spend every two weeks. He lives in a small, darkly lit one-bedroom with nearly empty walls, described as the cheapest place in town that he thought he could live in, for $385 a month. He pays $215 monthly for his 2001 Chevy Lumina. He has the minimum car insurance, $30 a month. Food costs $150 a month.
Although he’s diabetic and needs to eat regularly, Johnson rarely can eat at the Caterpillar cafeteria because a slice of pizza costs nearly $3, and that’s beyond his means. He saved for weeks to buy a five-pack of $7 T-shirts. If he doesn’t have gas money, Sunday visits with his kids 53 miles away are out of the question. Unless he works overtime, he can’t afford his necessary doctor visits and medicine, and even then it’s a struggle.
Johnson is surrounded by workers who make significantly more than he does for doing the same work. Caterpillar has reduced its starting wages for new hires from $20/hour to $10/hour, a concession its union was forced to accept to keep its local plant from being closed. Long-term employees, paid under the old scale, are able to have comfortable middle-class lifestyles, while newer hires, like Johnson, are struggling just to survive.
Kent Smith, who has worked at Caterpillar’s Decatur plant for 31 years, makes just over $25 an hour as an electrician. With his Caterpillar job and his wife’s salary as a manager for the local telephone company, he is able to live in a two-story wood-frame house set amid 10 acres of hickory, oak and ash trees, with a tree-shaded 13-foot-deep pond stocked with fish, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle parked in the driveway. Even Smith, who has done well financially, knows not to talk about his lifestyle with new hires at work because “I try not to rub their noses in it.” But he understand what’s at stake for his fellow workers. “Corporations want the American worker to tread water or sink so other workers around the world can catch up with us,” he said. So, too, it strikes him that a job at Caterpillar “used to be a good job, but now it’s just a job.” (See Chicago Tribune article.)
Caterpillar spokeswoman Linda Fairbanks says about the company’s wage cuts: “Our wage and benefit package is competitive in the local market,” she said, adding that the company relied on a vast array of data. Competitive: compared to what? Wal-Mart and Target, perhaps. As one local agency head assisting laid-off workers points out: “Ten years ago, many factory workers were making very decent wages. But I don’t think we’ll see that again.”
For his part, Johnson is surprisingly upbeat, “It’s been a learning experience. It shows me I can do things I once didn’t want to do. … You just have to keep a positive attitude. But a lot of people are giving up,” he said. “The way things are, you know you have to take it as you get it. Johnson has a cat, creatively named “Cat,” to keep him company, even though she costs money he doesn’t have as well. He thinks that in time, his pay will go up, or maybe he will get a better-paying job.”We’re in a cycle right now where corporations have the advantage, and unions don’t,” he said. “But soon the cycle will change.”
Will the cycle change?
Not unless we boost the federal minimum wage so that the lowest paying jobs provide a more liveable wage, and companies are forced to pay even more to attract workers to more physically demanding jobs like those at Caterpillar. Not until we reform health care so that workers like Johnson are able to get the medicines they need without worrying how to pay the rent and car payments. Not until we ensure that workers are able to retire after long-term commitment to the workforce, and often a single employer, without being plunged into instant poverty. Not until workers who want to form unions are able to do so, giving unions much more leverage in salary negotiations with employers. Not until we hold American employers who want to move jobs overseas to decent labor standards, so that Kent Smith’s observations are no longer true.
At Workplace Fairness, we will keep bringing these stories to your attention, until there aren’t so many of them each day, week and month. We want to work with every one of you to be part of the solution to these problems, with workers demanding better from their employers and their political leaders. It’s not just Robert Johnson’s wishful thinking that will change the cycle: there’s too much at stake. It is each and every American worker speaking out who understands just how important it is to have a job that allows you to have a decent life, and not just merely survive, wondering if you can afford to see your kids or take your medicine that week, or even keep the cat fed. That’s what will bring about the kind of change the American worker needs to see.
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Wednesday, January 18th, 2006
Last week, the state of Maryland became the first in the country to pass a bill — by overriding the governor’s veto — which requires large employers to spend a certain percentage of their budget on health insurance for their employees. Officially known as the Fair Share Health Care Fund bill, the measure was unofficially dubbed the “Wal-Mart bill,” as it was designed to ensure that Wal-Mart spends enough on its employees’ health benefits to prevent those employees from utilizing state benefits programs. Maryland’s move paves the way for future success in other state legislatures, but is this a transitory policy move, or will government intervention ultimately be necessary to ensure that Americans get the health coverage that they need?
When the legislature in my new home state, the Maryland General Assembly, resumed this year’s 90-day session in January, it had an important decision to make. Would the Assembly capitulate to Governor Robert Ehrlich’s veto of the “Fair Share Health Care Fund” bill after last year’s session concluded, or marshal enough votes to override the veto? While both houses of the Assembly have a Democratic majority, the vote required a three-fifths majority, so passage was not necessarily assured. (See Washington Post article.) However, within a day of the Assembly resuming its work, enough votes were found in each house to allow the Assembly to override the governor’s veto. (In another worker-friendly move, the Assembly has also just voted to override the governor’s veto of a $1.00 increase in the state minimum wage.)
What Maryland’s Fair Share Health Care Fund bill does is as follows: any private employer in Maryland who employs 10,000 employees in the state is required to spend 8% of its payroll on employee health benefits or make a contribution to the state’s insurance program for the poor. While the bill’s application appears straightforward, it was admittedly designed in a way that would target Wal-Mart. Four employers in Maryland, Johns Hopkins University, Giant Food, Northrup Grumman, and Wal-Mart, employ over 10,000 workers in the state, but among those four employers, Wal-Mart is currently the only one that does not spend the amount required by the bill for its employees’ health benefits.
Other states are sitting up and taking notice, including Washington, West Virginia, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Ohio, for starters. Some news coverage of the issue predicts that similar bills will be introduced in as many as 30 states. (See Los Angeles Times article.) While these bills primarily target Wal-Mart and other mega-employers, there are states, like Massachusetts, that would also require smaller employers, even less likely to offer coverage, to provide coverage to their employees. For example, the Massachusetts measure would require all employers with 10 or more employees to provide coverage, while a California measure passed in 2003 — later repealed through a business-sponsored ballot initiative — would cover all businesses with 50 or more employees.
The victory in Maryland is certainly worth celebrating, and is obviously an inspiration to similar efforts in other states. However, is it the beginning of a significant trend or just a temporary fork in the road while the trend in health insurance coverage mostly moves in a different direction? The number of employers providing health insurance coverage for their employees has already declined significantly in recent years, while the employees’ share of premiums has outpaced wages. (See Short-Changed: critical condition/healthcare.) We’ve previously questioned the wisdom of entrusting employers to adequately cover their employees’ health care needs. (See Should Corporations Be Responsible for Health Care and Pensions?
One of Governor Ehrlich’s staff members fumes that Maryland’s move paves the way for “socialized medicine.” (See Seattle Times article.) One might find that confusing at first blush: how does a measure that requires employers to pay more and the government to pay less for health care equal socialized medicine? However, the passage of more bills like Maryland’s may force policy makers, and the American public, to question whether Americans would be better served by a move away from having employers foot the bill for health care coverage. One editorial about the Maryland decision defines the issue as follows:
Employers don’t pay workers’ car insurance, homeowners’ insurance or grocery bills. They shouldn’t be responsible for picking up their health care tab, either….The United States is alone in the world in tying jobs to health care. The country should be moving away from employer-based health care and toward a tax-financed system that provides health care to all Americans, regardless of where or if they’re employed. What has happened in Maryland should be a wake-up call to businesses all over America to get on board with reforming health care. The best action for employers to take: support the expansion of the existing, tax-financed Medicare program for seniors to cover all Americans.
See Des Moines Register editorial. The most significant aspect of the Maryland victory may not be a significant increase in the number of workers with health insurance. (Wal-Mart has not released an analysis of how many employees increased spending would add to its rolls.) It may be the start of a national dialogue about how best to fix our broken health care system, and whether the government can do a better job of providing adequate health care to its citizens than employers are currently doing for their workers. This dialogue hasn’t happened since Bill Clinton was President, and Hillary Clinton crafted a much derided health care plan which ultimately went nowhere. (See Los Angeles Times article.)
The AFL-CIO just issued its strongest statement yet in favor of universal health coverage. The federation’s president, John W. Sweeney, said, “We need a simple national health care plan that covers everybody – the failure of Bush’s complicated Medicare prescription drug benefit demonstrates that.” Sweeney highlighted that the health system was badly broken because it has left 45 million Americans uninsured and had undercut the competitiveness of American corporations by saddling them with soaring health costs. (See New York Times article.) However, Sweeney then unexplicably said that the unions would continue to support the campaigns in 30 states to enact Maryland-style bills. Let’s hope the national dialogue advances quickly enough that long before the 30th bill is passed, the nation is focused on the need for universal coverage rather than the temporary Maryland-style fixes.
How will the behemoth Wal-Mart respond? It’s fuming, making the usual noises about exploring its options and considering legal action. (See AP article.) Far more interesting, however, is Wal-Mart’s advertising response. Its new campaign will be called “Save More, Smile More,” and will feature a series of lifestyle vignettes that show people using Wal-Mart merchandise. Wal-Mart’s iconic smile appears in each scene. Just what we all need: more Wal-Mart smiley faces!
Wal-Mart has more problems than a smiley face will fix. So do its employees who continue to lack health care coverage, and in many case, are forced to relying on government assistance to get the minimum care they need for themselves and their families. Until we have a better solution, just listen to one columnist’s analysis:
Your faithful correspondent has hit upon the perfect solution to the festering health care and retirement funding crises in this aging country.
It’s a two-step program, so grab a pencil if you need to take
? Don’t get sick.
? Don’t retire.
That may be the best solution most workers have right now, and it’s clearly not enough. No amount of smiling will fix that.
Wednesday, January 11th, 2006
This week, the biggest show in town (Washington, DC, that is, and perhaps the rest of the country too) is the hearings on Samuel Alito’s nomination to be a Supreme Court justice. Senators purport to be hanging on every word Alito says in the hearings to divine whether he will make an appropriate Supreme Court justice. Whether that’s true, or whether instead, most senators minds are pretty much made up, it’s hard to put that much stock in Alito’s testimony at the hearings, when we have so much evidence of his views from his published opinions over his last fifteen years as a federal judge. And that’s not good news for workers, regardless of what Judge Alito says this week.
Our sister organization, the National Employment Lawyers Association, has joined a wide array of over 50 progressive organizations in opposing Alito’s confirmation: strongly opposing, in NELA’s case, as NELA’s “extensive review of Judge Alito’s employment rulings raises serious concerns about whether he will place the interest of employers over the rights of employees.” (See NELA Press Release.) [Since this blog post was initially written, NELA has also issued a report on Alito’s testimony, Judge Samuel Alito’s Testimony About Workplace Rights, which concludes, “Judge Alito’s testimony concerning his earlier rulings in employment cases frequently contained exaggerations, if not outright misstatements, that tended to obscure his record of decisions in employment discrimination cases.”]
NELA joins general advocacy groups involved in judicial nominations such as the Alliance for Justice, Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, and People for the American Way, workers rights organizations such as the AFL-CIO and American Rights at Work, as well as groups representing specific constituencies, such as the National Women’s Law Center, the National Partnership for Women & Families, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, among others, in opposing Alito’s nomination.
If you’ve followed judicial nominations battles before, you might not be surprised by the opposition of all these groups. Those supporting Alito’s nomination would call them the “usual suspects,” when it comes to opposing this Administration’s nominees. But you might be surprised just how many times Judge Alito has had the opportunity to rule in favor of workers, and just how scrupulously he has avoided doing so. Judge Alito’s few opinions that are favorable to victims of employment discrimination are limited to certain kinds of cases involving religious and disability discrimination. However, in the rest of his opinions, he has made it almost impossible for workers to prove they were discriminated against, by ignoring persistent racial and gender stereotyping that still exists in the workplace, and by showing deference to employers’ explanations, rather than letting juries decide whether a particular employer discriminated.
While many examples abound, here are just a few:
Direct Evidence of Age Bias: In the case of Keller v. ORIX Credit Alliance, a 50-year-old executive was told by the company’s CEO that “If you are getting too old for the job, maybe you should go hire one or two young bankers.” This was several months after the plaintiff had been rejected as the company’s chief operating officer, and only five months before the CEO initially decided to terminate him. Judge Alito wrote for the majority that while a jury could infer discrimination from this comment, it alone wasn’t enough to prove a discriminatory motive, referring to the passage of several months before the decision to terminate the plaintiff. He ultimately ruled that no reasonable jury could find that the worker was fired due to age discrimination. We have to ask: if this isn’t enough, what would be enough to show the CEO was biased against older workers?
Excluding Evidence of Discrimination: In Glass v. Philadelphia Electric Co., although the majority of Judge Alito’s colleagues on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that a lower court had erred in excluding evidence of racial harassment which prevented plaintiff from telling his side of the story, Alito disagreed. The plaintiff had not been allowed to present evidence that his allegedly poor work performance earlier in his career, on which his employer justified its decision not to promote him, was the result of racial harassment to which he was subjected in that job assignment. According to Judge Alito, including the evidence would prejudice the employer at trial more than it would contribute to helping the jury to determine what happened. Heaven forbid that a jury might have enough evidence that would allow them to hold an employer responsible for discrimination!
Ignoring Gender Stereotyping in Allowing States to Discriminate: In Chittister v. Dep’t of Community & Economic Development, Judge Alito ruled that Congress did not have the authority to hold states responsible for violating the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA). A state worker who was fired while on leave sued his employer, a state agency. For Congress to pass anti-discrimination laws binding state agencies, the laws must be for the purpose of remedying unconstitutional conduct, such as sex discrimination. Although the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs) found that there was a sufficient history of unconstitutional sex discrimination to warrant the applicability of the FMLA to state agencies, not so for Judge Alito. Judge Alito wrote, “Notably absent [from the FMLA] is any finding concerning the existence, much less the prevalence, in public employment of personal sick leave practices that amounted to intentional gender discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.” Contrast this to what Chief Justice Rehnquist (hardly known for being a flaming liberal) had to say: “the States’ record of unconstitutional participation in, and fostering of, gender-based discrimination in the administration of leave benefits is weighty enough to justify the enactment of [legislation such as the FMLA].”
While all will be eagerly watching to see if Judge Alito disavows some of these opinions (assuming he is aggressively questioned on employment discrimination issues), will you believe what he says now, attempting to convince the U.S. Senate that he was worthy of sitting on the Supreme Court, or what he has said throughout his legal career? If you believe his past actions speak louder than any words he carefully chooses in this week’s hearings, then take action now to oppose Judge Alito’s nomination.
Take Action Now: Oppose the Supreme Court Nomination of Samuel Alito
National Employment Lawyers Association:
Judge Samuel Alito: Hostile to Civil Rights in the Workplace
Judge Samuel Alito’s Testimony About Workplace Rights
Workplace Fairness: Demand Fair Judges
The Importance of Federal Judges
AFL-CIO: Review of Judge Samuel Alito’s Record in Worker Rights Cases
American Association of University Women: AAUW Opposes the Confirmation of
U. S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Nominee Samuel Alito
American Rights at Work: Save Workers’ Rights: Oppose Alito
Alliance for Justice: Report on the Nomination of Samuel A. Alito to the United States Supreme Court
Human Rights Campaign: Why HRC Opposes Alito’s Nomination
Leadership Conference for Civil Rights: Opposition to the Nomination of Samuel A. Alito, Jr.
Judge Samuel Alito’s Disturbing Record on Civil Rights
Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund: Report Regarding the Nomination of Samuel A. Alito, Jr. as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
National Partnership for Women & Families: Tipping the Balance: The Record of Samuel Alito and What’s At Stake for Women
National Women’s Law Center: The Nomination of Samuel Alito: A Watershed Moment for Women
People for the American Way: The Record and Legal Philosophy of Samuel Alito: “No One to the Right of Sam Alito on this Court“
Women Employed: The Nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court Threatens Hard-Won Employment Rights
Thursday, January 5th, 2006
The tragic loss in a West Virginia coal mine of 12 miners last week reminds us that there still are workers in America who risk their lives on a daily basis to produce those things that we cannot live without. Although coal mines, and the workplace in general, are more safe today than in generations past, sacrificing one’s life at work should not be part of anyone’s job description. Accidents happen, employers tell us, but rarely is a workplace death an accident — it is often the result of corners that were cut, rules that were ignored, and even laws that were broken.
Many of us went to bed last Tuesday night thinking a miracle had happened, and that most of the miners trapped after a January 2nd explosion at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, Wast Virginia, had been found alive. However, we later learned the tragic truth, that erroneous information was conveyed to the waiting families and repeated by the news media (see Baltimore Sun article), and all but one miner (still clinging to life as of this post) were ultimately found dead, most likely of carbon monoxide poisoning. (See CNSNews.com article.) As families at this weekend’s funerals (see Chicago Tribune article) tearfully celebrated the lives of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, the rest of us are left to ponder what went wrong at the Sago Mine.
You might think that working in a mine is one of the least safe work occupations, and you would be right. According to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mining industry has the second-highest fatality rate per 100,000 employees, with 28.3 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Only the agriculture industry (which includes forestry, fishing and hunting) has a higher rate of death on the job, with 30.1 fatalities per 100,000 workers. (See Forbes.com article.)
However, hearing about a mine tragedy is less commonplace than it used to be. For an industry that endured at least 1,000 fatalities a year through the 1930s and ’40s, the death toll of 28 in 2004, the latest figure available, is significantly lower. (See Christian Science Monitor article.) In 1968, West Virginia had 152 deaths in coal mines, but in 2005, the state recorded just three deaths in coal mines. (See Seattle Post-Intelligencer article.) Government and mining industry officials would have you believe that the continuing decline is mining deaths is a result of stricter government oversight and corporate compliance. Is that really the case?
It’s too soon to conclude what led to the Sago tragedy, but the visibility of the incident should ensure a thorough investigation. We do know already that the Sago mine had a questionable safety record:
- In 2004, the mine’s accident rate in 2004 was three times higher than the national average.
- In 2005, the mine received 205 orders and citations for health and safety violations, 96 of which carried a “significant and substantial” risk of death or injury.
- Last year, the mine was forced to halt operations 16 times after failing to comply with safety rules. Eight of those citations, which were among the most serious a mine can receive, occurred in the final quarter of the year.
(See Washington Post article.) Did any of these safety violations lead to the so-called “accident?” The families should demand answers.
Was there too long a delay in reaching the trapped miners? The Charleston Gazette thinks so. This newspaper from West Virginia’s capital reports that although a rescue team arrived at 1:30 p.m. after the explosion at 6:30 a.m. last Monday, they couldn’t get started until a backup crew arrived, when didn’t occur until after 5:30 p.m., nearly 12 hours later. Why so long? From 2000 to 2002 alone, the number of MSHA-approved safety teams nationwide dropped by 10 percent. Although the law requires every U.S. coal mine in the United States to have at least two mine rescue crews, as of 2004, there was actually just one rescue team for every four underground coal mines nationwide, according to a computer-assisted analysis of the MSHA data. (See Charleston Gazette article.)
Could the depletion of rescue teams have any link to the cuts to mine safety programs and a scuttled regulatory process which took place at the behest of the Bush Administration in 2002? The Gazette reports that in 2002, “[t]he mine rescue rule was among more than a dozen safety-rule improvements MSHA quietly halted work on, as part of a plan to better “focus” its rulemaking efforts.” (See Charleston Gazette article.) Would that be focusing on making mine owners more wealthy? The quarterly earnings recently reported by International Coal Group, owner of Sago mine since last November, were $158 million. The total fines for Sago’s 205 violations last year total about $25,000; the highest fine imposed for a repeated and serious violation was $878. That was hardly likely to break the bank, as the total amount of fines imposed last year equal about one minute of ICG’s earnings. (See TomPaine.com article.)
Most bureaucrats sitting behind a desk don’t have much danger more serious than a paper cut to fear at work, but there are workers out there who every day risk their lives so that our homes have heat and electricity. We owe it to them and their families to ensure that mines are as safe as we know how to make them, and that obvious safety violations are not so readily ignored in the face of nominal fines. If the scuttled regulations would have prevented this tragedy, we call on our nation’s leaders to resurrect them, as these tragic deaths should provide all the “focus” they need. All workers, regardless of their workplace conditions, deserve the very best safety protections we know how to provide, and tragedies like this should remind us all just how important that is.
Workplace Fairness: in harm’s way health and safety
Confined Space (Jordan Barab’s blog on workplace health and safety issues)
United Mine Workers (the Sago mine was non-unionized)