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  I was sputtering last night (do you ever yell at your television?) and I still am this morning about the "60 Minutes" piece last night about the death and injuries to American mine workers. Not once in the entire program did correspondent Bob Simon utter the word "union"--not once--in explaining why unusually high numbers of mine workers are dying in mines--all of which, in the segment, are non-union mines. Can I say that again? Not once did Simon talk about unions. I'm not sure if this has to do with some explicit anti-union bias or just plain laziness and stupidity on the part of Simon and his producers. Follow me here. And, if after you've read this, you believe "60 Minutes" blundered badly, call the program at 212-975-3247

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   It is not a heavy lift to get this information. Even if you aren't a film buff (not to mention if you do not have a single brain cell that is reserved for union history), all it would require would be to go to Google and enter the words "Harlan County" and one of the first entries you get is one that references Barbara Kopple's 1976 Academy-Award winning film, "Harlan County, U.S.A." And you might, then, be lead to that great union analyst, Roger Ebert, who, years later at a tribute for the movie, gave a rave to Kopple's film as "the story of a miners' strike in Kentucky where the company employed armed goons to escort scabs into the mines, and the most effective picketers were the miners' wives -- articulate, indominable, courageous." Ebert, then, says: "Kopple also shared the stage with Utah miners who are currently on strike; although the national average pay for coal miners is $15 to $16 an hour, these workers -- who are striking for a union contract -- are paid $7 for the backbreaking and dangerous work."

   Now, if Simon or his producer had done that work--took me all of two minutes--they might, then, have thought, "huh, unions, strikes...maybe that's part of the story." And they could have done what I did--call the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and talk to Dennis O'Dell who is in the union's Safety and Health Department (O'Dell is not hard to find: His name and phone number are right there on the UMWA's website).

   Admittedly, I knew exactly what O'Dell would have and what he could show in raw numbers: union mines are far safer than non-union mines. The reason disasters are happening at such a rapid pace is the growth of non-union plants and the continued indifference paid to miners' lives by the coal operators. Check out this information. I'm sorry if I'm boring you with a lot of data--but these are human lives we are dealing with, lives that could easily be saved if people had a union.

    The first column is the total of underground fatalities (UG), the second column is the total of fatalities on the surface (S), and, then, the third column is the total for both. The first group of numbers to the left is the total overall, the second group below are totals for unionized facilities. The final group below are the totals for the non-union mines (with apologies for not making the numbers look all nice and aligned...)

Coal Fatalities (2002 to present)
        UG       S       T                    
2002    17      10      27              
2003    17      13      30              
2004    17      11      28              
2005    16      6       22           
2006    39         8       47              
2007    3          0        3              

Total:    109      48     157           

2002    3          0          3
2003    6          0          6
2004    4          1          5
2005    4       0       4
2006    5       1       6
2007    0       0       0
Total   22      2       24

        UG      S       T
2002    14         10         24
2003    11      13      24
2004    13      10      23
2005    12      6       18
2006    34      7       41
2007    3       0        3
Total:    87      46      133

Get it? Just 24 of the people killed died in unionized mines and just 2 in surface incidents. A miner is almost six times as likely to be killed in a non-union mine than a union mine.

You want to talk injuries, which often saddle someone with a life-long chronic challenge, check this out. Same set-up: first group is total, then you can see below the injuries in union mines and, finally, below the injuries in non-union mines:

          UG         S       T                      
2002     4,192    1,847   6,039       
2003     3,647    1,521   5,168       
2004     3,709    1,420   5,129       
2005     3,732    1,450   5,182       
2006     3,700    1,467   5,167       
2007      302       118     420           
Total:  19,282    7,823   27,105       

2002    1,047   413     1,460
2003    1,061   276     1,337
2004    1,116   274     1,390
2005    1,068   207     1,275
2006      969   226     1,195
2007      101   221        23
Total:   5,362  1,418   6,780

           UG       S       T
2002    3,145   1,434   4,579
2003    2,586   1,245   3,831
2004    2,593   1,146   3,739
2005    2,664   1,243   3,907
2006    2,731   1,241   3,972
2007      201      96     297
Total:   13,920  6,405  20,325

In other words, injuries are at least three times more likely at non-union  mines. Duh.

None of this is rocket science: every measure taken about health and safety in union mines--and, frankly, all unionized work places--shows that union workplaces are safer. Why? Because the union makes sure that basic laws are followed and the union acts as a watchdog over a corporation, a role the government can never play because, at the very least, it does not have the resources to do so.

As an aside, here is another pearl: Simon interviews the head of the Labor Department's Mine Safety And Health, Richard Stickler--and fails to mention that Stickler is serving as a recess appointee because he engendered opposition in the Congress as being a mouthpiece for the industry. As Jordan Barab pointed out, "Most of his career was spent in industry where the mines he managed had injury rates that were double the national average, according to government data assembled by the United Mineworkers." Having said that, Stickler did say on the program: "The majority of the fatalities occur because of the lack of compliance with the mine health and safety laws.By the operators."

This whole exercise took me, what, a few minutes on the phone to O'Dell, he emails me a spreadsheet...in other words, this is easily within the capability of a vaunted operation like "60 Minutes." The fact that the program failed to do so is shameful--and reinforced to me why I rarely watch "60 Minutes" anymore--the program has declined dramatically, in my humble opinion.

Again, the reason I spent so much time on the information and the reason "60 Minutes" needs to be held accountable is that this is a question of human life: people die when they don't have a union to protect their rights.

UPDATE:

I couple of people asked a legitimate question: how do the numbers of union miners compare to non-union miners?

Using 2005 as an example (the latest year that the Energy Information Admin. has for union/non-union membership -- http://www.eia.doe.gov/...), total union membership was 33% of all underground miners, 21% of all surface miners, making a total of 28% of all miners regardless of type of operation.

So, for fatalities:

Union:    4 underground    25% of the 16 underground fatalities
             0 surface              0% of the 6 surface fatalities

Injuries:

Union:    29% of reported underground injuries occurred in union mines (4 percentage points less than overall
                representation);
            14% of reported surface injuries occurred in union mines (6 percentage points less than overall representation)
            24% of all injuries occured in union-represented mines (4 percentage points less than overall representation)

  I don't think anyone would argue that accidents don't happen in union mines--coal mining is a very dangerous job. But, the reported injury ratio is still lower in union mines than actual representation ratios and injuries are much more likely to be reported in union mines than in non-union mines because of the fear factor non-union miners have when it comes to reporting an injury, especially one that doesn't require many, if any, lost days at work.

   According to the union, "overall representation numbers haven't changed all that much from 2005." So, if you look at the the underground accident ratio for 2006, it was 26% union/74% non-union and at surface mines the ratio was 15% union/85% non-union. The ratios for fatalities were even wider. That means the union safety advantage was even more pronounced in 2006.  

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Tasini on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 07:25 AM PDT.

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