The Wall Street Journal has an article today about the plight of the unions, post-midterm elections. It hardly needs to be said that the new Congress won't be spending much time improving the health and safety of workers, patients and communities. Unions, for one, are going to refocus attention on regulatory agencies and the Department of Labor for help on issues most important to workers.
As PopTort fans know, lately we’ve been pretty hard on regulatory agency failures to protect the health and safety of everyday Americans (some examples here, here, here.) It’s the reason why the civil justice system is such an important complement to our regulatory structure, as the U.S. Supreme Court has said.
But we were certainly heartened to see the Labor Department’s unprecedented action yesterday asking a federal judge to shut down immediately Massey Energy's Freedom Mine No. 1 in Pike County, Kentucky “to protect the lives of those who work there.” Those 130 workers, by the way, are non-union, perhaps one reason why safety protections had gotten so out of control.
The Department filed for a preliminary injunction citing the mine’s “persistently dangerous conditions” (like more than 700 safety violations just this year.) This step is “the toughest enforcement action available to federal regulators.” So wow, that’s definitely new. NPR reports,
The move is viewed by mine safety experts as one response to the deadly explosion in April at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Twenty-nine mine workers died in that tragedy, which has triggered civil and criminal investigations.
For 33 years, the agency has had the authority to take mining companies to federal court when they have serious and persistent safety violations. But this "injunctive relief" section of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act has not been invoked until now.
Of course, Massey says it has “struggled to comply with newer MSHA standards” because it's an older and larger mine but “Massey does not believe the mine is unsafe.” (Thank goodness this new Congress won’t be touching MSHA standards - we hope.)
Meanwhile, however, that whole “revolving door” thing is still alive and well, unfortunately. West Virginia's mine safety chief Ron Wooten, “who had led the Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training since August 2006, resigned on Wednesday. No reason was given for his departure, but Wooten had filed papers with the state Ethics Commission earlier this year requesting permission to seek a job in the state's coal industry.”
Fortunately, his replacement – at least for now - is C.A. Phillips, who used to work in the mines “and held several positions with the United Mine Workers of America union.”
“This marks a new day for West Virginia's miners, as there will now be someone in that office who understands what it means to pack a lunch bucket and go to work in a coal mine every day,” [United Mine Workers] union president Cecil Roberts said in a statement. “There is no one more qualified to hold this position than C.A. Phillips.”