(Photo: ChuckHolton / Flickr)
Speaking at the memorial of the 29 miners killed in a West Virginia mine explosion, President Obama praised the risks the miners had taken daily to provide for their families. President Obama said, "So these miners lived - as they died - in pursuit of the American dream."
Unfortunately, those miners had been denied one of the basic tenets of the American Dream - the right to join a union. The miners at the Upper Big Branch mine had tried to organize to be part of a union three separate times. Each time they tried, 65-70 percent of the workers signed cards saying they wanted to be members of a union. And each time, the Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship drew out the election process for months while he threatened illegally to close the mine if the workers voted for a union. And each time, the workers gave into the months of intimidation tactics and voted against joining a union in order to save their jobs.
Those miners died because of the intimidation and union-busting tactics of Blankenship. Make no doubt about it; had those workers been members of a union, they would probably still be alive today.
Union mines are far safer than nonunion mines. While only one out of every six miners is in a union, only about one of every ten fatalities is a union miner. Between 2007-2009, there were 45 underground, coal-mining fatalities; only six of these occurred in unionized mines. In union mines, unions sent up their own inspection squads to assist regulators in finding safety violations and ways to address them.
More importantly, union miners can refuse to go down into mines that are unsafe without fear of losing their job. Miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine knew it was unsafe and potentially deadly. However, they had been denied the union they desired and were forced to risk their lives in an unsafe mine in order to provide for their families.
President Obama could have said to grieving workers in his eulogy, "Don't Mourn; Organize!" He could have said there would no better tribute to the death of those miners then putting an end to illegal union busting, which is used in 91 percent of union organizing campaigns, by passing the Employee Free Choice Act. He could have started by denouncing the CEO. President Obama told Business Week he admired Fed-Ex CEO Frederick Smith, who illegally classifies all of his truck drivers as independent contractor/owners so they can't join a union. Obama could have said that in order to honor the lives of these miners who had been illegally forbidden from joining a union that he was going to forbid any CEO engaging in union busting from doing business with the government, effective immediately - easily within the president's power to do.
President Obama could have pledged to appear at rallies supporting workers attempting to join unions as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the Great Depression. The United Mine Workers of America organized Appalachia, putting up billboards reading, "President Roosevelt wants you to join a union." It gave legitimacy to the union movement and encouragement to workers struggling under attacks from union busters. He did none of these things; he didn't even mention the word union in his eulogy.
Instead, the president called for increased mine safety laws. After every mines disaster, new one gets implemented, and new ones quickly get ignored as journalist Mike Lillis has chronicled. The only way we can make the mine safer is if miners can refuse to go down into unsafe mines without fear of losing their jobs. And the only way miners can do that is if they are members of unions. The president lost a teachable moment to talk to the nation to talk about the true horrors of union busting.
President Obama ran on a campaign of "Yes, we can," that we could each individually improve our own lot. There is no better way for workers to improve their own lives than to a join a union. However, Obama has abandoned this approach by failing to give even a single major speech in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act. If President Obama really wanted to honor the lives of those killed in West Virginia he could call on workers to "Don't Mourn; Organize," and then help them do it.