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Upper Big Branch Mine and the Race to the Bottom

I strongly support labor unions. Obama, Duncan, Bloomberg, and Klein, the educational czars in the United States and New York City do not. But I have always worked for a living, and they are either members of the privileged rich or identify with them.

I have been a member of different unions for over 40 years and I have often had a lot of issues with them. In the 1970s I drove a delivery truck and was a member of a corrupt, crime-infested, teamster local. But the worse crime was that the local really worked for the employers, instead of for the workers. In the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) I was always in the political opposition and we had to fight to get our voices heard in what was supposed to be a democratic institution. As a college professor, I am represented by a pretend union (AAUP) whose members do not want to jeopardize their individual perks.

My best experience as a union member was as a bus driver and member of New York City’s Transport Workers Union Local 100 in the 1970s. The shop stewards were clear that they represented the drivers and not management and the union was not afraid to strike to get a decent contract, even when it meant challenging state laws.

All of these unions could have been better, but they were all better than having no union. Individually, no one has to listen to working people, not bosses, and not politicians. But when we are organized together, they have no choice but to hear our voices. I solidarity, there is possibility.

In 1975, during an earlier financial crisis, New York City laid-off 13,000 teachers including me; 5,000 of us were laid-off permanently. Without enough teachers, the Board of Education and Mayor cut back the school day, eliminated electives, and put 60 students into high school classrooms designed for 32. Kids were hanging out of the windows and no learning took place. It was only the teachers’ union that forced government officials to reduce class size and transform the schools from warehouses into places where students learn.

When I was finally rehired three years later, the Board of Education (today the Department of Education) tried to deny me pension credit from my previous service, claiming I was only a temporary employee. It was the teachers’ union that forced them to credit me with time put in. When principals and other administrators played favorites with teaching, building, and room assignments, it was always the union chapter that insisted that we all be treated equitably.

Recently, the nation has been rocked by a methane gas explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, about 30 miles from Charleston. As of this writing, there were twenty-nine reported deaths. This is a coal mine and a company, Massey Energy, that has repeatedly been cited by the for violations by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, a total of 1,342 violations since 2005.

Massey Energy, the nation’s fourth largest coal company, made $104 million profit in 2009. According to a NASDAQ report, the company enhanced its profits through a cost-cutting campaign that included the elimination of 700 jobs, and significant wage and benefit reductions. Meanwhile, since 2000, at least 45 people have died in “accidents” at mines operated by Massey, its subsidiaries or subcontractors.

Massey gets away with murder because it buys friends in high places. In 2002, George Bush named a former Massey Energy official to the review commission that decides legal matters under the Federal Mine Act. West Virginia’s Supreme Court justices have received millions in campaign contributions Massey. The governor of the state was even given a free ride by Massey on one of the corporate jets back to West Virginia from a vacation in Florida after the mine disaster.

What the mainstream media has ignored in its coverage is that Upper Big Branch is a non-union mine. The United Mine Workers of America has virtually collapsed since 1978, its active membership declining from over 120,000 members to 14,152. Without union representation, workers are afraid to report unsafe conditions because they will be fired. Without union representation to pressure coal companies, politicians, and federal regulators, the American coal industry is in a race to the bottom as it enforces third world labor standards and economic and safety conditions on its workers.

The New York Times in an April 14, 2010 editorial pretended to explain “Lessons From the Big Branch Tragedy.” The editorial is an embarrassment. It cited Massey’s repeated citations for safety violations and called for reform of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. But it never mentions that this was a non-union mine or the decimation of the UMWA by profit hungry employers. There will be no reform, no enforcement, and no safety without a strong mine workers union toempower workers so they can monitor the coal companies, prod politicians, and suspend work when necessary. Without the union, West Virginia stays in the Third World and families will keep on burying their dead.

That brings me back to the nation’s schools.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are pushing “reforms” that will emasculate, if not destroy, teachers’ unions. Race to the Top grants are predicated on ending union protection for teachers. Anti-union cities and states like Tennessee, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, and Washington DC are lauded as models for change.

The interests of unionized teachers and their students are not always identical. But they live together for six hours and twenty minutes a day, five days a week, 180 days a year. They develop bonds that connect them. While parents get stressed out by the pressures of life, teachers generally remain the best advocates for our children.

Obama may be a good man, I am not always sure, but the best politicians in the United States in supposedly progressive states like New Jersey and New York, politicians who run for office telling us how much they love kids and how they will be educational governors and representatives, are sharpening axes to chop up education budgets.

Just as in the coal mines, the destruction of teachers’ unions will silence the very voices that need to be heard. Without effective unions, teachers, who are in contact with students every day, who have the most experience motivating them and helping them learn, will be ignored by the pencil pushers and budget cutters who control the schools. Just as in the coal mines, Race to the Top will become a race to the bottom and our children will get screwed.

Alan Singer is a professor of secondary education at Hofstra University, Hempstead NY 11549. He is the author of Social Studies for Secondary School (Routledge, 2008) and New York and Slavery, Time to Teach the Truth (SUNY Press, 2008).

 

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