Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
August 19, 2007

The Depth Of Their Greed
Nathan’s has never made a bigger hot dog than Bob Murray, co-owner of Murray Energy’s Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington, Utah. Selflessly appearing before any camera in sight he explained to the world that an “earthquake” had trapped six miners in his mine and that seismic activity hampered the rescue effort. Of course, Thursday evening another “seismic event” killed three rescue workers and injured several more, leading to an indefinite halt in the attempt to tunnel to the original six.

This small time coal baron counted on most of us being familiar with terms such as seismic, and Richter Scale, only in the context of natural earthquakes, caused mainly by shifts in tectonic plates. Scientists monitoring the area are universally agreed no such natural geological upheaval happened. The disturbances showing up on their Seismometers were no act of God–the mountain was violently reacting to the mining practices of Murray Energy.

My friend Andy Pollack in New York alerted me to the following paragraphs in a Washington Post story–which quickly disappeared from their site:

“The shaking of the earth, called a ‘mountain bump,’ is a reaction to mining coal nearly 2,000-feet underground, Davitt McAteer, former assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, told CNN.

“Emptying the mountain of its seam of coal, which is relatively soft, causes pressure on other rock, which squeezes debris into the mine's tunnels in sudden bursts, McAteer said.

“‘Mother Nature is trying to rectify the fact that you've put these holes in the ground,’ McAteer said. ‘The question is whether you should be in there mining’ at all.”

Of course, the question for the likes of Bob Murray is “can profits be made from sending these men twice as deep as the Empire State Building is tall?”The answer from that perspective is yes. Despite the fact that coal is far and away the dirtiest energy alternative in this time of global warming the global economy can’t get enough of it. American coal production is at an all time high.

Murray has not only gone deeper than anyone else in this country. There are credible reports that, despite his denial, his mines use so-called “retreat mining.” This is an extremely dangerous practice of using pillars of coal–instead of wood or steel–to brace roofs of mined areas which are then intentionally collapsed as the coal plays out. This allows them to scoop up every last morsel of coal while wasting no other materials. This would be a good training exercise for those planning on becoming suicide bombers.

MSHA, especially under the current administration, has proven to be ineffective in protecting miners’ lives. Those working in union mines have additional safeguards through the power and knowledge of their organization. Unfortunately, the UMWA ranks have been dwindling due to industry restructuring and represent less than twenty percent of working miners today.

The coal bosses are determined to keep it that way. Murray is so fearful of unionization he refused the UMWA’s offer to send in its crack rescue team to help safely reach the trapped miners.

Understanding the Yankee Left
The inimitable British magazine, Economist, explains America’s shift to the “left” to Europeans commenting,

“America, even if it shifts to the left, will still be a conservative force on the international stage. Mrs Clinton might be portrayed as a communist on talk radio in Kansas, but set her alongside France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany's Angela Merkel, Britain's David Cameron or any other supposed European conservative, and on virtually every significant issue Mrs Clinton is the more right-wing. She also mentions God more often than the average European bishop. As for foreign policy, the main Democratic candidates are equally staunch in their support of Israel; none of them has ruled out attacking Iran; Mr Obama might take a shot at Pakistan; and few of them want to cede power to multilateral organisations.”

We Should Live So Long
In the early nineties those of us promoting a then promising campaign for single-payer used to say “it’s a disgrace that our country is first in health care spending and 11th in life expectancy.” Well, we can’t make that argument any more. We are, of course, still many laps ahead of our nearest rival in spending. But the USA is now 42nd in average life span. The highest rates are in western Europe, Japan and Singapore but even our Canadian neighbors outlive us by more than two years.

After the AP broke the story on this remarkable relative decline in one of the most fundamental measures of health the New York Times offered up an editorial, “World’s Best Medical Care?” They make some telling points in the inadequacies of our failed system. They point out those other forty-one countries with better records “provide universal health coverage, and most of them have comprehensive benefit packages with no cost-sharing by the patients.”

Unfortunately, the Times doesn’t advocate our country take the same path. Instead they offer the same half measures as the mainstream politicians who brought us where we are today–reduce, not eliminate, the number of uninsured, along with better use of profit-making technology in coordinating services, maintaining records, etc.

That’s sort of like telling the Hummer owner that they’ll get closer to the hybrid’s fuel economy if they lose ten pounds and wash their vehicle regularly. The gas guzzler that passes for our health care system is unsafe at any speed. We need a new vehicle, with an efficient power plant under the hood and air bags that protect all passengers. The only model currently available is called single-payer. Its product number in the congressional catalogue is HR676.

Some are fighting to translate the public outrage stoked by Michael Moore’s SiCKO into a movement that can make the sea change required in American health care. It’s hard to keep up with the e-mail list of SPAN Ohio, the coalition of unions and community organizations working for single-payer in that state, with reports of interventions in hearings, community meetings, and articles in the local press. The All Unions Committee for Single Payer has passed the 300 mark in their goal of getting one thousand union endorsements of HR676. The rest of us should not only praise these efforts but also try to emulate them.

Clericals Prepare Lesson Plan at U of M
Four years ago AFSCME Local 3800 at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus carried out a 15-day strike that departed from today’s norms of collective bargaining. They didn’t try to convince their bosses they were “partners.” Instead they insisted they were entitled to fair compensation for their labor–which they were prepared to withhold until a suitable agreement could be reached. The members had been kept well informed all through negotiations, knew the issues in dispute, and were prepared to back their elected leaders. More than that, they reached out to students who would be affected, took their case to the community, and secured the active support of the rest of the labor movement. At the end of the day they got a settlement they could be proud of.

Now it appears the administration is due for some remedial education. Emboldened by the success of the private sector bosses they serve and imitate, the University management is again playing hard ball with AFSCME. They hope 2003 was a fluke and they can put the uppity clerical workers back in their place.

The university is not poor. Over the past five years inflation adjusted administrative salaries have increased by an average of 27 percent. Faculty salaries have increased 19 percent. But wages for clerical, technical and health care workers have dropped 4.8 percent over the past five years compared to inflation. The “settlement offer” by the administration, to what is now a joint negotiation with four AFSCME locals on several campuses, would offer more of the same. The leadership is recommending, and expects to get, a resounding membership vote to reject–and to authorize a strike.

The locals joint web site says,

“Community support was crucial to the success of the strike by AFSCME 3800 in 2003. This year, all the University AFSCME locals need your support again. We are asking our supporters on campus, in the community, and in the labor movement to help us win a contract that our members, and our members' families, can live with.”

An initial support committee meeting was held yesterday in Minneapolis. This fight by 3500 clerical, health care, and technical workers shaping up in Minnesota warrants wide attention and deserves solidarity support.

That’s all for this week.

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