Mine safety has for more than a century been a serious political issue in the United States. And, like any issue of consequence, it has provoked divisions along partisan and ideological lines.
While it might be reassuring to imagine that politics has nothing to do with the question of whether the men and women who work in one of the country's most dangerous industries are protected on the job, that has never been the case.
The corporations that run mines have too frequently fought for lax regulation, and they have usually been able to find allies in Congress.
Those alliances have not always been predictable, however.
Once upon a time, Republicans were the champions of mine safety, prodded by United Mine Workers (UMW) union president John L. Lewis. A Republican, Lewis was so well regarded by his party's national leadership in the not-particularly labor friendly 1920s that he was offered the post of Secretary of Labor by Republican President Calvin Coolidge.
Well into the 1990s, there were congressional Republicans earned -- and deserved -- endorsements from the UMW because of their stalwart support of mine safety.
During the Bush-Cheney years, however, Republicans moved closer and closer to the big energy companies -- including the coal corporations -- that sought to increase profits by decreasing health-and-safety regulations.
Now, with mine safety back on the agenda in a big way, following the deaths of of more than two dozen miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine south of Charleston, West Virginia, GOP members of Congress have an opportunity to work with Democrats to do the right thing.
That's not an unreasonable expectation. Within living memory, congressional Republicans helped to write and enact mine safety regulations and took the lead in assuring that they were enforced. The question is whether they will renew that commitment or maintain the atrocious approach adopted during the Bush presidency, when energy companies and their executives (including Massey CEO Don Blankenship gave generously to the GOP and defined party policy with regard to workplace safety.)
The death of a dozen miners at West Virginia's Sago Mine in 2006 should have inspired a swift and sweeping recommitment by the federal government to protect workers in one of this country's most dangerous industries.
Instead, as Congressman George Miller, the California Democrat who has for decades been the House's most passionate proponent of workplace safety, noted:
After five years of GOP funding and staffing cuts to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, U.S. miners suffered a series of fatal mining accidents in 2006. The Republican Congress failed to invite any miners, family members or rescue workers to tell their stories in a congressional hearing. Democrats were forced to hold an un-official forum on mine safety to give miners and their families their only opportunity on Capitol Hill to tell Congress what needed to be done to stop mining deaths. This forum and pressure from Democrats, miners, and their families forced the House Republicans to finally consider a Senate compromise bill to improve mine safety. When Democrats offered three simple amendments to that bill--guaranteeing at least 48 hours of breathable air to trapped miners, mandating nationwide inspections of breathing devices which had failed at Sago and other mines, and speeding up the timeframe for providing miners with underground communications--House Republicans refused to allow a vote.
Then, over the objections of Democrats, President Bush used a recess appointment to put a bungling apologist for the worst excesses of the mine companies, Richard Stickler, in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Republicans who represented coal-mining states -- including former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum -- joined the Democrats in objecting to Stickler, who unions accused of being indifferent to safety concerns. But Bush dismissed those concerns, as did Republicans leaders in the House and Senate, even though the mineworkers union identified Stickler as someone who had spent an entire career working with mining companies "to figure out how to circumvent safety laws so they can increase the productivity."
To suggest that the Bush White House and GOP congressional leaders were at odds with mine safety initiatives would be an unstatement of epic proportions.
The Obama administration has been different, as my colleague Esther Kaplan detailed in her terrific piece on the revitalization of the Department of Labor under Secretary Hilda Solis -- the most progressive member of the president's Cabinet. The piece focused on the appointment of mine safety expert Joe Main to head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. As Kaplan noted: "for the first time in its history, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a division of the Department of Labor (DoL), is headed by a union man."
That's the good news.
The bad news is that there is an immense amount of work to be done to clean up battered agencies and overseers, such as Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which reviews challenges by mining firms to assessments of safety violations and penalties. The commission's 10-judge panel is overwhelmed. It needs a total of 26 new judges to significantly reduce the backlog. The Obama administration has made some initial steps to create new judgeships but Republican cooperation is going to be required to advance the process quickly.
And when it comes to labor and workplace safety, Senate Republicans have not been cooperative.
GOP senators put long holds on appointments Obama sought to make to the National Labor Relations Board, a move designed to undermine the ability of the board to protect the ability of unions to organize workers and represent them on job sites -- including the right to demand safety protections for workers in dangerous industries.
The president finally filled the two NLRB vacancies with recess appointments in late March -- employing the same authority Bush once used to place anti-labor appointees in positions of authority to now install pro-labor appointees.
Does it matter to make it easier for unions to make their voices heard on job sites?
You bet, says Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union that, with the United Mine Workers of America, represents workers at America's unionized mines.
Reviewing the details of the disaster at the non-union Massey mine -- which racked up 1,342 safety violations from 2005 through this month -- in an appearance on MSNBC's "Ed Schultz Show," Gerard bluntly declared:
"(This) is another series of fatalities at another non-union mine. I can absolutely say that if these miners were members of a union, they would have been able to refuse unsafe work in our collective agreements, and they would have been able to refuse that work, and would not have been subjected to that kind of atrocious conditions."
Union representation matters when it comes to enforcing health and safety rules in workplaces.
An anti-union NLRB, or even a lax NLRB, makes it harder for unions to protect workers -- not just their own members but non-members, as well.
Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette several years ago, former Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations director Charles McCollester made the essential point: "There's no question that union mines are safer."
"Critically, workers in a union mine are not afraid to speak," explained McCollester. "In a non-union operation, asking questions or challenging company mining practices or safety procedures can lead to termination."
That's why union's matter.
That's why a fair and functional NLRB matters.
It is, as well, why labor law reform is needed.
The National Nurses Organizing Committee, which has been in the forefront of workplace safety fights, sums the issue up in a response to the Massey Mine disaster that argues:
For those who accommodate or acquiesce to the anti-union rhetoric so pervasive in corporate America, the halls of Congress and state legislatures, and all too often the public airwaves, there is a price. It is more dangerous workplaces, whether a mine or a hospital, and a greater threat to worker and public safety.
During the 2008 campaign, there was a lot of talk about reforming federal labor law which has been so perverted the past three decades by corporate lobbyists and their many advocates in Congress that has made it far, far more difficult for workers who want representation to unionize.
Yet today we are no closer to enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act, or any serious labor law reform that will democratize current labor law.
Leo Gerard is right. Steps are being taken by the current White House to reverse the anti-regulation fervor of the Bush years.
But that is not enough. Until we have real reform that allows all working people to have the right to form unions free from the harassment, intimidation and retaliation so common today, we’ll all be living at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine.
Workers have a right to be safe on the job, and to be able to object when they feel their safety is threatened. But unions give that right meaning. And a strong NLRB, along with fair labor laws, make it a reality.
This is something that Republicans once understood as well as Democrats. And that understanding needs to be renewed.
After all, it was a Republican, John L. Lewis, who declared: "Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America."
And it was another Republican who outlined the core values of a party that once sought to be not the champion not the few on Wall Street but the many on the Main Streets, in the farm fields, in the factories and, yes, in the mines of America.
"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital," said Abraham Lincoln. "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if Labor had not first existed. Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.