2006-01-27 / Columnists

The Progressive

Life And Death
By John Paul Culotta

The year 2006 began with enormous media attention on the increasing role of energy for our modern society to exist and prosper. Russia decided to stop the flow of natural gas to the Ukraine unless that country was willing to pay market prices for the supplied by Russia. Western Europe, which receives natural gas from the same pipelines that flow through Ukraine, had concerns regarding the needs for the gas to withstand the cold of winter and have their economies run at top speed. Drivers across this country witnessed the price of gasoline rise substantially. Hurricane Katrina still has an effect on our nation’s supply of petroleum products. Refineries are not able to function at the same capacity as before the storm.

It would appear coal and other nuclear energy again is becoming increasingly seen as sources of energy. Italy is considering nuclear power as a source of energy. Italians are generally skeptical of the use of this type of energy source. As a result, politicians have banned nuclear reactors in the peninsular nation. China has closed many coalmines because of safety concerns. Thousands of coal miners are killed in China because of unsafe mine conditions each year.

In this country, we all watched a community in West Virginia suffer the loss of twelve coal miners because of an explosion in a mine. Our nation’s media covered every aspect of the human tragedy without concentrating on the economic and social issues raised by corporate greed and government indifference to the plight of American workers. Every day American workers are killed in accidents and suffer workplace violence. In the past, Americans coal miners were almost universally union members. Many of the most violent incidents in American labor history occurred in coal mining areas. Workers that mined in that tragic West Virginia mine were not union members. Increasingly, corporations that are involved in coal mining resist collective bargaining and as a result miners are forced to rely solely on the government inspectors for safety regulations. Miners and most American workers are voiceless in their workplace because they lack any organized representation. There was no comment from the media as to whether the miners who were in the mine that tragic January 2 were being paid holiday pay-it was the official New Year Day federal holiday. Fox News, which had a campaign regarding the observance of Christmas and the attacks on the holidays by secularists, did not seem concerned enough to inquire as to the corporate assault of family holiday observance regarding the miners who, because of economic necessity, were working, perhaps without additional compensation, in an unsafe mine on New Year’s day. The same week the twelve miners died, IBM, an American corporate icon, decided to change its pension formula from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan for its workers. Corporate greed can kill Americans and change American life styles with as much certainly as a foreign or domestic terrorist can.

Our media concentrated their attention of the relatives’ dismay after being informed their loved ones were saved and the subsequent announcement of their demise. There was little coverage that the mine in question had over 200 safety violations. Many who work in blue-collar professions feel the Occupation Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has watered down the standards that exist in our coalmines, steel mills, and construction sites. Most workers are not capable of making reports to the appropriate governmental agencies because of fear of reprisals or because they are undocumented workers. Again, it would appear free and honest union representation may be of assistance not only to these workers but also to our collective national well-being. Fox News did an excellent job relating the human-interest angle of the West Virginia tragedy. One Fox news commentator minimized the safety violations cited by the government before the tragedy, stating some were frivolous. His example of a frivolous citation was the lack of sanitary tissue for workers. I do not consider this frivolous. Workers deserve to be accorded human respect at work. Sanitary tissue, hot water and clean sanitary facilities should be a part of any workplace. Recently, transit workers in New York City took a job action (which Fox News headlines described each day as an Illegal Strike) and one of their major grievances was the lack of respect the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) showed their employees. One of their examples of this lack of respect was the condition of sanitary facilities given to MTA employees. Our political, social, and corporate leaders must balance the needs of a growing and vibrant economy with the human needs of American workers. It is a matter of human rights and social justice. Our nation needs to balance the need for energy and the human needs of American workers. It is a matter of life and death.

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