Like Canada's Westray tragedy in 1992, the deaths of 29 coal miners in West Virginia could have been prevented with tougher laws to crack down on negligent corporate operators.
Ottawa (10 April 2010) - The coal mine disaster that has claimed 29 lives in West Virginia is prompting new calls for tougher laws to crack down on negligent mine owners.
The sad circumstances in rural West Virginia bring back dark memories in Canada of the long and arduous fight to pass the so-called Westray Bill following a similar deadly mining tragedy that killed 26 coal miners in 1992 at the doomed Westray Mine in Nova Scotia.
|Grief-stricken families outside West Virginia coal mine|
Despite the obvious need for tougher laws, it took Canadian politicians more than 10 years before Parliament finally enacted Bill C-45. The long-debated Criminal Code changes, passed in 2003 and proclaimed law in 2004, are meant to hold corporations, directors and executives criminally accountable when they put workers' lives at risk.
Many critics, including the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the United Steelworkers (USW) unions, are calling once again – as they have often in the past – for similar legal action in the United States to crack down on corporate negligence.
The unions say new laws are badly needed to deal with rogue companies like Massey Energy, the operator of the notorious mine at Montcoal in Raleigh County, W.Va., where the latest tragedy occurred. Like Westray, Massey's Upper Big Branch mine was non-unionized.
Massey had an odious safety record, having been cited since 2005 with more than 3,000 safety violations and numerous fines. Its Montcoal mine seeped as much as two million cubic feet of deadly methane gas daily.
"Absolutely, this could have been prevented," USW president Leo Gerard, a Canadian, told Ed Schultz of MSNBC's The Ed Show this week.
Gerard said the methane explosion in West Virginia is the latest in a long list of tragedies that could be prevented if tougher laws were imposed by governments on corporate mine operators and if the workers had a union on their side.
"Who stands up for them?" Gerard asked. "This is another series of fatalities at another non-union mine. The united Mine Workers stand up for them. The United Steelworkers stand up for them. We're the two major mining unions (in the U.S.), the mine workers with coal and the steelworkers with hard rock mining," he said.
"The question is, 'Have we not learned anything? When is it that we're going to put workers' safety as the number one priority?' During the Bush years, they went to voluntary compliance. We all know that doesn't work. If you gave people voluntary compliance on the highway, what would happen?"
Gerard said a culture has developed in the U.S. – "certainly during the eight years of the Bush regime" – that has downplayed the need for regulation and enforcement. Only since the Obama administration took over have improvements begun to happen, he added.
"The CEO of Massey promotes himself as a union buster," Gerard noted. "He promotes himself as having a record of fighting unions wherever they show up in his workplace. If he spent as much time helping the workers get a union, helping us then clean up his workplaces, we wouldn't have these fatalities..."
NUPGE calls for special prosecutors
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) has campaigned since the passage of the Westray law for greater enforcement to protect workers on the job and to put the legislation to greater use.
NUPGE president James Clancy called last year for the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate workplace deaths and serious injuries, arguing that the law has been all but ignored since it was passed.
"For improvement in occupational health and safety, employers need to understand that they will be held fully accountable for failing to adhere to legislation and regulation," Clancy argues.
"Special prosecutors must be trained in the field of workplace health and safety and the existing laws and regulations. This will demonstrate to employers that the government is prepared to take the deaths of workers seriously and will hold those responsible accountable."
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE