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: