Editor’s Note: The mine explosion in West Virginia on April 5 is the worst since a 1984 accident at Wilberg, Utah. As a union safety expert, Joe Main was on the scene then; he’s now the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration at the Department of Labor, which under Hilda Solis is taking a tough stand on labor law violations.
In 1984, on the Wasatch Plateau in southern Utah, the Wilberg coal mine, a property of Emery Mining, exploded into flames. Witnesses described plumes of dark gray smoke billowing up into the heavens. Twenty-seven coal miners were trapped inside. By the following night it was clear none of them would make it out alive. "If hell existed," the Salt Lake Tribune reported, "it was down in the Wilberg mine."
David Lauriski was Emery’s chief safety officer when Wilberg caught fire, an accident later attributed to numerous violations at the mine. The owners, it turned out, had been trying for a one-day production record. Seventeen years after the disaster, Lauriski became George W. Bush’s first mine safety chief, a perch from which he halted a dozen new safety regulations initiated under Clinton, advocating instead a more "collaborative" approach with industry. His successor was also from private industry; during a stint as a state regulator, his lax enforcement played a role in another mining disaster, this one at the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania.
Now, 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, Joe Main. Main began his working life as a teenager in 1967, doing the precarious work of sinking a coal mine shaft in West Virginia. By 19 he was a mine safety committeeman, later joining the United Mine Workers’ health and safety department, where he worked for decades. He was working for the union at the time of the Wilberg fire and rushed to the scene. He recalls spending four or five days there during the grueling rescue and recovery operation. "It took us a year to recover the last miner," he recalls, "and I dealt with the families a lot during that time. It’s something that’s stayed with me my whole life." Main was confirmed by the Senate in late October; six weeks later he launched a major national initiative to end black lung disease.
During the Bush years, the Department of Labor became a cautionary tale about what happens when foxes are asked to guard the henhouse. But since California Congresswoman Hilda Solis became labor secretary last winter, she has brought on board a team of lifelong advocates for working people–some of whom come from the ranks of organized labor–and has hired hundreds of new investigators and enforcers.
President Obama calls Solis part of his economic team, but the truth is she’s not part of the daily huddle at the White House with Summers and Geithner and Orszag. She’s tapped instead as a lead voice in the "jobs, jobs, jobs" choir, advocating for Obama’s latest stimulus package. She has tiptoed into the realm of financial regulation, organizing a joint hearing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on the abysmal performance of target date retirement funds during the market crash, and she doles out hundreds of millions of dollars in job training funds, a decent chunk of which she has used to shape policy by channeling it to green industries. But Solis understands that her real influence lies in her power to enforce the nation’s labor laws–the primary mission of the DoL. It’s a role she embraced with relish at her swearing-in, where she announced with a grin, "To those who have for too long abused workers, put them in harm’s way, denied them fair pay, let me be clear: there is a new sheriff in town."