by Celeste Monforton 

Max Follmer of The Huffington Post reports that MSHA has rebuffed a request from the Crandall Canyon families to designate the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to serve as their representative during MSHA’s formal accident investigation. 

“In a statement e-mailed to The Huffington Post, MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot defended the agency’s actions, saying federal officials have spent ‘untold hours’ briefing the families of the missing miners.  We are disappointed that the UMWA is trying to use a law enforcement investigation for its own purposes.”

Hmmm.  Where have I heard this before? 

Early on in the disaster, when the TV cameras couldn’t get enough of the Crandall Canyon operator, Mr. Bob Murray lambasted the miners’ union, along with Davitt McAteer and Tony Oppegard, and accussed them of trying to organize workers at the mine. (here)   Now, MSHA’s spokesman Dirk Fillpot is using Murray’s script??   Could things get any worse for miners’ safety in this country?

The Huffington Post piece explains that: 

“‘All six of the families had signed documents designating the union as their representative in the investigation,’ UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said.  MSHA told the union’s attorneys on Monday that the agency would not heed the request.  ‘MSHA requires that miners sign these papers, but the miners in question were unable because the are trapped inside the mine.'”

The Mine Act of 1977 gives every miner the right to designate a representative (Section 103) who then is given an official role in MSHA inspections and investigations.  The right is guaranteed whether or not miners belong to a formal labor organization, like the UMWA, or simply designate a co-worker or other person for the duty. 

The procedure is simple.  Put in writing the following statement:

“We the undersigned, are miners employed by XYZ coal company, whose address is 123 Street in Mining Town, USA.  We designate Alice Hamilton as our representative of miners pursuant to 30 C.F.R. 40.3(a)(3).  Please do (or do not) withhold our names from the mine operator.”

The letter must be dated and signed by at least two workers employed at the mine.  Once the letter is received by MSHA and the agency confirms that the miners are employed at the mine, the miners’ representative becomes official.*

Huffington‘s Max Follner goes on to explain:

“In the aftermath of the Sago tragedy in 2006, the owner of that mine sought to block the union’s access to the site, even though a group of miners appointed the UMWA as their representative. MSHA attorneys obtained a court order that compelled the mine owner to allow union officials onto the property (and here). The distinction being drawn in the Crandall Canyon situation is that the miners’ families — rather than the miners themselves — signed the documents requesting the union’s participation.”

He reports that MSHA spokesman Fillpot wrote:

“The Mine Safety and Health Act is clear on who can seek representation in these investigations.”

Obviously, Mr. Fillpot believes it is not family members of the trapped miners.  The Mine Act is indeed clear that miners have the right to designate a representative.  But, because these six trapped miners cannot speak for themselves, MSHA should show some compassion and allow the widows, daughters and sons to speak on their lost miners’ behalf.  The situation may be unprecedented, but tell me, what is the harm? 

Knowing MSHA, as I do, I’m sure the Solicitor of Labor’s office played a key role in deciding how the Mine Act should be interpreted.  Rather than erring on the side of protecting miners’ rights, they trip over themselves in their abundance of legal caution.  They play out the legal what-ifs and conclude that if they grant the widows their request for the UMWA to serve as the miners’ representative, Big-Bad Bob Murray will take them to court.  Oh, that’s so very scary.  Pleese. 

In their minds, Murray Energy will claim that the Mine Act only allows untrapped (or they may be so callous as to say “non-deceased miners) to designate a representative.  I say: so what!  Let the company lawyers make that argument if they want.  Callous bastards.

Again, I say: So what if Murray Energy and Utah America takes MSHA to court to argue something so unsympathetic?  Won’t that just reinforce the bad image of a heartless coal mine operator?  And, what’s the worst that could happen?  The company prevails?  Think about that.  They’d lose even more respect from the public if they actually tried to halt grieving widows from having an official representative sit in on MSHA’s  investigation.

For me, it’s a complete no-brainer for MSHA no matter how you slice it.  From the perspective of showing compassion for the families, or legal strategy, or just the cold-hard politics of the matter.  But on all counts (and as has been my experience over the years trying to interpret the Bush Administration’s decisions) I’m left here scratching my head.

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*If the miners indicate in their letter that they do NOT want the mine operator to learn their names, MSHA inspectors will be as discrete as possible to confirm that the miners are employed at the mine.  For example, they can request a complete payroll list from the mine and look for the miners’ names on the roster.

Celeste Monforton, MPH was a career federal employee who worked in MSHA’s Assistant Secretary’s office from 1996-2001, and at OSHA from 1991-1995.  When she’s not working for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP), she’s supposed to be writing her doctoral dissertation.

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