Wednesday, January 04, 2006

No "Accident" At All

Rare moments of truth on the Today show this morning.

As you know, thirteen miners were trapped over the weekend in a coal mine in West Virginia. Late last night their families were notified that twelve of them were alive and would be rescued. Three hours later they were told that this was untrue and that there was only one survivor.

This morning I watched as Matt Lauer interviewed the grown son of one of the dead miners. He reported that his father complained continually about routine safety violations in the mine, that literally hundreds of safety violations were cited in the last year or two, and that the mineworkers’ union was powerless to advocate for the basic necessities of its members.

This “accident” was no accident, people. The reason why the mining company did not address core safety issues is simple, and readily understandable to any first-semester MBA student: there was no financial incentive to do so.

The way large corporations operate is clear. If it is more profitable to pay fines than improve safety, then safety improvements never happen. The people that matter are the shareholders, not the consumers, employees or their orphaned children and widows. The rhetoric about the “family of employees” or the prayers the CEO sends to the hapless families of his dead workers are meaningless. The stock price and the market share are all that matter. The workers toil in the shadows.

Where were the regulatory agencies, the watchdogs we turn to when workers are placed in danger again and again, in clear violation of the law? Where were the union leaders, who once upon a time ushered in an age of wealth, safety, and middle-class prosperity through the power of collective bargaining? Where were the activists to stand up and remind the world that America does not treat its workers like animals, and that a robust share price on the commodities market is not an acceptable reason to disregard human life?

The answer is simple: they are gone.

Let’s talk about the nineteen-eighties, when the death sentences of these miners, it may be argued, began to be written. Ronald Reagan declared open war on labor unions, and turned our nation into a criminal state by refusing to enforce the labor protections established by international treaty as basic elements of human rights. Prior to that time, industry had experienced a heyday. Meaningful safety regulations were being enacted and unions were able to fight for the quality of life needs of workers, so that everyone prospered.

At about the same time, ideologically driven right-wing millionaire businessmen began the long campaign to take control of the federal government in order to destroy it (that campaign realized its fruition under our current president, a corrupt business insider who has identified himself time and time again as the spiritual child of Reagan). Their movement doesn't feel it is appropriate for the government to be in the business of helping or protecting people.

Look it up. Ask them yourself.

The pattern is now etched in stone: corporate interests and the need for ever-increasing profit rule the day. Screw the worker, the consumer, the law, the na├»ve and quaint concept of “human rights.” The rhetoric fed to the people for decades has been that “government is not the solution to the problem, it is the problem.”

Well, government did not kill those miners. Corporate greed in the name of the shareholder and stock price above all other human considerations killed those miners.

Back to the interview between Matt Lauer and the dead miner’s son:

The son explained that every day he begged his father not to go back to the mine, but that he always did. He knew that a sword of Damocles hung over his head every moment he was in the mine. The man worked under tons of rock and earth for thirty years and knew full well the dangers he had to endure to wrest a living for himself and his family. He also knew that those dangers could have been reduced and that a decision had been made somewhere that they would not be.

He was killed five months before retirement, although in America today, it goes without saying that had he lived, his “retirement” was likely to be a dicey affair anyhow. You see, the same large corporations who disregarded safety rules as inconveniences that could be endured by paying modest fines for so long are now routinely withdrawing the good pensions and benefits that used to be a staple of American workers’ lives.

This is your legacy, America. You voted for it. Enjoy.

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