It isn't a matter a matter of speculation. If you're an underground coal miner, your chances of emerging alive at the end of your shift are better if you work in a union mine than if you don't.
A report from the March 28, 2007, hearing on Protecting the Health and Safety of America's Mine Workers released by the House Committee on Education and Labor contains the following statistics for the five-year period of 2002-2006:
Underground coal injuries: 19,282
In union mines: 5,362 (or 27.8% of total)
Underground coal fatalities: 109
In union mines: 22 (or 20.2%)
According to the United Mine Workers of America, in 2007-2009, there were 45 underground coal-mining fatalities. Six of these were in union mines. Thus, for the 15-year period, less than one-fifth of the fatalities occurred in union mines.
Four years ago, Charles McCollester, then a professor in the Department of Industrial and Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, wrote:
In a non-union mine, the inspector has no back-up. It's his word against the company. The union has the right to accompany inspectors and provide documentation and testimony. The heart of the union presence, the local Mine Committee, meets monthly, receives additional training, has the right to inspect any part of the mine including its access, and must perform full inspections at least every two months.
Critically, workers in a union mine are not afraid to speak. In a non-union operation, asking questions or challenging company mining practices or safety procedures can lead to termination. The company's fear of knowledgeable, independent inspections was illustrated in their attempt to bar the entry of UMWA representatives at Sago [where 12 miners were killed in 2006].
In fact, union mines may have a higher number of citations for safety violations than non-union mines. That is because union inspectors accompany Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors when they check out a mine. They are far less likely to pass over problem situations than are inspectors who are being pressed by company officials to finish up and get out of their hair so they can get back to digging. Union inspectors seek those citations because they want to prevent injury and death.
In non-union mines, it's not just an issue of operators not being pro-active on safety issues. It is, as the Associated Press reported today, a case of ferociously fighting citations of safety violations and fines levied by MSHA. Those citations and fines got tougher after Sago.
Five years ago, companies contested only 6 percent of citations and fines. Last year, they contested 27 percent. Massey Energy Co., whose subsidiary Performance Coal Company runs the Upper Big Branch Mine-South, where the current disaster occurred, has paid 16 percent of the $1 million in fines imposed on it by MSHA last year. It has contested nearly half the citations. The biggest fines were imposed in January for the company's failure to develop and follow a proper ventilation system. Although it is early days yet, the lack of such a system may be what caused the explosion that killed the miners there.
For workers in non-union mines like Upper Big Branch, Sago, Aracoma and Crandall Canyon, to name just a few where miners have died in the past decade, workers are afraid to speak up on safety issues. That's for a very good reason. Anyone who talks too much about them not only gets fired, they also can be blackballed by the whole industry. Many of the statistics the industry uses are worthless. Miners are pressured to work injured, or to not report injuries, to keep that "XX days without a lot time accident" sign ticking along. You do not want to be the guy who causes that sign to change. There is a grin-and-bear-it culture. Miners have no one to turn to and see no options in their lives. If they lose their jobs, they are ostracized by their communities.
Without the big move to non-union operations that has been plaguing the coal industry for more than two decades, there's a good possibility that 25 dead and four missing miners in West Virginia tonight would be sitting down to dinner with their families instead of being mourned by them.
[Update]: As noted by several commenters, the statistics do not include union vs. non-union underground mines: The number of underground union miners, according to the Energy Information Administration, is around 27%.