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Mine Safety

March 2, 2006

This post isn’t really a part of the Series of Indeterminate Length on my sense of what “progressivism” is, that began with the post on human nature and morality the other day, but I thought I’d delve into the issue of mine safety in the terms laid out in that post, and attempt to further hash out some thoughts on liberalism. (And, you know: take a break from blood-boiling outrage— and focus on something important in basic human terms, but has that been given short shrift as things like democracy, justice and human dignity are going up in flames.)

Earlier today we linked to a New York Times article on the current administration’s approach to mine safety. Starting with the two opening paragraphs:

In its drive to foster a more cooperative relationship with mining companies, the Bush administration has decreased major fines for safety violations since 2001, and in nearly half the cases, it has not collected the fines, according to a data analysis by The New York Times.

Federal records also show that in the last two years the federal mine safety agency has failed to hand over any delinquent cases to the Treasury Department for further collection efforts, as is supposed to occur after 180 days.

Your Montag is going to be very brave and strong here and avoid expressing the cynicism that makes me think the administration is following this policy simply as a default to corporate interests. The corporate interest in this case— the National Mining Association —thinks the administration’s approach is fantastic, by the way.

A spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, Carol Raulston, agreed.

“The [Mine Safety and Health Administration] agency realized in recent years that you can’t browbeat operators into improved safety, and this general approach has worked,” Ms. Raulston said. “The tragic events of this year have given everyone pause. But I don’t think it means we want to abandon what we have found works.”

Without going too far into the monsters corporations become when left unregulated and they adopt a definition of success based solely on profits, let me simply state that, to my mind, the non-browbeating approach cannot be trusted. It would seem to me that strictly enforced and severe penalties for safety violations would really speak to the corporate interests in the language they understand best: money. But I said I wanted to look at this issue in the terms outlined in the ‘human nature’ post. That is in human terms.

In that post, I posited that one tenet of liberalism (or progressivism) should be something like, “Society should seek justice through empowerment.” Let’s test it.

Who is harmed by lax safety regulations? The miners. Could safety be improved by empowering them? The miners are stakeholders in the mining corporation, so as such they should have the power to affect the policies of the company in terms of safety. And, if the company resists, the workers should have the power to force the company’s hand without fear of reprisal. Laws and regulations that provide for this, but which aren’t enforced, do not actually empower the miners.

Let’s restate the question, “How can we improve mine safety?” in the terms outlined in the ‘human nature’ post:

How do we empower the miners on safety issues when the mine corporation emphasizes profits over people, and the laws meant to empower miners on safety issues are not enforced?

You: Kinda wordy, Montag.

Me: I know.

You: Oh, ok . . . You were testing your tenet, “Society should seek justice through empowerment.”

Me: Uhh . . . yeah . . . Hey, you aren’t usually this helpful.

You: Just get on with it.

Right. You probably see where I’m heading with all of this anyway, but here it is: unions empower workers. If unions are doing their job, then it should be related in the safety statistics of unionized mines compared to non-unionized mines. I’d be very interested to take a look at the numbers. I’ll browse around online and report back if I find anything.

You: Society, Montag. Cut to the chase.

Yes. If even the presence of a union that takes safety issues seriously doesn’t remedy the safety concerns, then there is a societal problem. Which is to say, if a society allows market forces (i.e. the demand for low prices,) to preempt safety concerns— that is, if workers are asked to remain both at risk and disempowered —then it cannot call itself a liberal (or progressive) society.

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7 Comments
  1. March 2, 2006 11:37 PM

    Hmmm…you make me wanna be a better Mary Kay Letourno…

  2. March 3, 2006 3:33 AM

    Gosh, sounds like that “works” real great. You don’t want to “browbeat” the mining companies into protecting their workers now, do you? Why, that would cost the mine owners money! And mine owners, well, they have such a long, lovely history of caring for their workers…

  3. March 3, 2006 4:19 AM

    Many of my older relatives worked in mines (and the railroad) and the stories they told were pretty horrific. I’m not sure how my grandfather survived.

    My question, Montag, is this; what do you call a society that allows itself to be poisoned against organizations (read: Unions, ACLU) created for the express purpose of protecting their best interests? That’s really what’s happened, isn’t it? The average person HATES unions. It’s true.
    This is the great trick behind the Republican rise of the last 30 years; getting people to vote against their best interest

  4. March 3, 2006 7:27 AM

    …what do you call a society that allows itself…?

    Well, the polite answer is in the last paragraph of the post. Other terms that pop into mind: cannibalistic, suicidal…

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