He told a story about conversations that occurred frequently in coal mines in the early 1900s. The mine boss would say to the miner, “Don’t you put that mule anyplace it can get hurt,” and the miner would ask, “What about me?” The mine boss would reply, “I can hire another man. I have to buy another mule.”
Over the years, said Roberts, with mining disaster following mining disaster with little change in working conditions, “there have been enough tears shed in this coal field to fill a lake.”
He pointed out that as late the 1930s, there was no federal legislation to protect miners. The first legislation passed to protect miners was in 1969, following a number of multiple fatality incidents at mines, and President Richard Nixon threatened to veto it. John L. Lewis, the legendary UMWA president, responded by threatening to shut down every union mine in the country. Nixon signed.
“It has been the union and workers that have dragged our government along for the ride,” claimed Roberts, to applause from the audience.
Which brought his discussion to the Big Branch South mining disaster in April, in which 29 miners lost their lives in an explosion. “I’ve been asked, ‘Why do you care? That was a non-union mine,’” said Roberts.
He cares, he said, because what happened at the Upper Big Branch could have been predicted, based on Massey Energy’s history of environmental and workplace safety violations. The company received a $20 million EPA fine when one of its sludge ponds broke open, polluting two rivers. Massey received the largest criminal fine at the time in 2006 when two miners were caught in a fire at a mine owned by Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. Inc. The company was sued by MSHA to force it to turn over relevant documentation to investigators following that incident. The Upper Big Branch had been shut down 48 times in 2009 for various safety-related incidents, said Roberts, and had received hundreds of citations for failure to abate hazards found during MSHA inspections.
He pointed out that 23 miners had been killed in Massey-owned mines in the 10 years before the Big Branch South mine disaster. Added to the 29 men who lost their lives this year, “That’s 52 miners in 10 years!” Roberts exclaimed.
He discussed letters written by one young miner to his mother and his fiancé, in which he speculated that he would die in the mine.
“I’ve seen men write letters like that home from Vietnam, from W.W. II, from Korea, from Afghanistan,” said Roberts, “But you’re not supposed to write letters like this when you’re getting your lunch bucket and going to work. There’s something inherently wrong with that.”
Pointing to the 5,000 workers killed on the job each year across all occupations and industries and the estimated 50,000 who die from occupational illness and disease, Roberts called for stronger workplace safety laws. “Three hundred thousand workers have died since the OSH Act was passed,” said Roberts. “The laws don’t work, they are inadequate, they aren’t being enforced and we need new laws.”
“Congress has bailed out the banks, the billionaires, the auto industry. How about bailing out the American worker and letting them have a safe place to work?” said Roberts. The audience responded with a standing ovation.