November 24, 2021 - No. 111
In Defence of the Health and Safety of Mining Workers
Our Defence of Safety Is the
Defence of Human Lives
Steelworkers mark 25th anniversary of Westray, May 9, 2017
• Biden Threatens to Use National Guard at Los Angeles Area Ports
In Defence of the Health and Safety of Mining Workers
Sean Staddon is an underground electrician and United Steelworkers Local 6500 shop steward at Vale's Totten Mine in Sudbury.
Workers' Forum: Your intervention at
the Ontario Federation of Labour Convention at the beginning of
November about the need to eliminate disregard for human life at the
workplace, especially in hazardous sectors such as mining, was very
eloquent. Can you briefly repeat what you said there?
Sean Staddon: I was speaking on a resolution asking for the enforcement of the
Westray Act and about our campaign Kill a Worker, Go to Jail.
My brothers and sisters at Local 6500 are all too familiar with the
pain, suffering and grief of workplace fatalities. As
a result, our union executive and our health and safety representatives
have become experts at attending coroners' inquests, something no
family should have to live through. Our work environments are
dangerous, but so too is our employers' repetitive disregard for human
life. What we feel as steelworkers is that when an employer gets to
plea bargain and is not held responsible, that shows a blatant
disregard for human life. We work for a large multinational miner, they
pay fines and continue on with business.
Mining is in the blood of
every Sudburian and has touched every member of our community in some
form or another. We have never accepted and will never accept that
losing lives is "the cost of doing business." If you look at miners
across the global spectrum, with dam bursts and other incidents, it is
pretty evident that minerals are considered more important than human
life in some aspects.
What I wanted to convey is that the Westray mining disaster happened
30 years ago and sure, there were huge changes that were put into
federal law that negligent employers were to be held criminally
responsible. But we have not seen crown prosecutors use that law enough
when it was warranted. It is something that we have advocated for a
while, that crown prosecutors and police be trained to recognize
workplace negligence leading to death, workplace murder really, and
treat it as such.
Just in Ontario alone if you look at the number of contraventions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act
that are written up, with no deterrence for a company to correct the
violation, one of those contraventions is eventually going to lead to a
fatality. And in any mine in Ontario, when Ministry of Labour
inspectors show up they write orders but there is no monetary fine,
just written orders to fix something. There are dozens of those every
visit. There is no real deterrence for a company to do better and stand
up and follow the law. Employers continue to break the law, police and
Crown prosecutors choose not to utilize the legislation, and families
are left to pick up the pieces.
We are hearing a lot from the Ford Conservative government that we
must cut red tape, that we must look at eliminating inefficiencies in
business and I fear that this is going to affect health and safety for
my brothers and sisters even more in the future.
I am a young worker, 35 years old, and I was only five when the
Westray disaster happened 30 years ago. I am worried that Westray may
not even be known by our young people. I am picking up the fight from
stewards and workers before me who are retiring. I am trying to learn
as much as I can about why certain legislation is in place so I can
educate young workers and all workers that I represent that health and
safety standards are there to keep you alive. We can all do better, we
must all involve ourselves in health and safety.
1. The Westray Act is
federal legislation that was adopted on March 31, 2004 and amended the
Canadian Criminal Code. Among other things, it made companies criminally
liable when their negligence causes the death or serious injury of a
worker. The law was passed as a result of the
1992 Westray coal mining disaster in Nova Scotia where 26 miners were
killed after methane gas ignited, causing an explosion. Despite serious
safety concerns raised by workers, union officials and government
inspectors in the period leading up to the tragedy, the company did not
institute changes to protect the health and safety of the workers
and the disaster occurred. The fight of the Steelworkers at the time
was instrumental in the passing of the law. Since then, the cases where
the law has been used to criminally investigate or sue employers have
been very rare.
U.S. President Joe Biden is prepared to use the National Guard at the
privately owned Los Angeles (LA) and Long Beach ports on the country's
west coast, where as of November 16, 84 ships were waiting to unload.
There is also a backlog of containers to be transported to warehouses.
Asked at an October 21 town hall on CNN if he would
consider using the National Guard, President Biden responded, "Yes,
absolutely, positively, I would do that. But in addition to that, what
you got to do is you got to get these ships in and unloaded." He also
said he would use the National Guard men and women as truck drivers to
transport goods from the ports to warehouses, following up his
answer with a threat: "The answer is: Yes, if we can't move --
increase the number of truckers, which we're in the process of doing."
Both LA and Long Beach container terminals are privately owned and
currently process about 40 per cent of all products coming into the
U.S. The President also made clear whose interests he is serving: "I
want to get the ports up and running, and get the railroads and the
rail heads and the trucks in port ready to move, because I've gotten
Walmart and others that say, 'We're going to move stuff off of the
port, into our warehouses.'"
Prior to the town hall, Biden had met with people from Walmart and
similar companies about forcing the port workers to work a 24/7
schedule. This is contrary to the existing contracts of the estimated
5,000 LA and Long Beach port workers who belong to International
Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 13 but was agreed under
the intense pressure from the President and major corporations. Port
workers are also still fighting for sufficient personal protective equipment
(PPE) and safe working conditions, given the continuing COVID-19
concerns. Due to a lack of PPE and safe conditions, more than 700
members have contracted COVID-19, and at least 13 died. Now with
operations going 24/7, concerns about safety remain, something Biden
has completely ignored.
One has to wonder why -- given that he says "you got to get these
ships in and unloaded" -- he does not speak of using the public ports
in San Francisco and Oakland, which have long had 24/7 operations.
There is no backlog at these ports; ships could just as easily dock
there, but they do not. Instead they are concentrating at the LA and
Beach ports. ILWU Local 10, representing Oakland and San Francisco port
workers, has said their workers are ready and waiting. They question
the decision by the shippers -- companies like Walmart -- and now
President Biden, to have ships backed up in LA and Long Beach instead.
At the very least it has created conditions for the threatened and
potential actual use of National Guards against port workers and truck
In addition, the problem for truck drivers -- like the many millions
resigning from work -- is the lack of safe working conditions, wages
and benefits that are acceptable to themselves. The federal minimum
wage of $7.25, far below the poverty line, has not been increased for
years, although 29 states have a higher rate that is still generally at
below $10 an hour. Even the demand for $15 an hour, which some of the
fast food monopolies are currently offering, is poverty level for
families given the great increases in costs for food, gas, housing and
Moving cargo containers from the ports to retail warehouses relies
on the labour of nearly 2 million truck drivers in the U.S. According
to Biden and the trucking monopolies, there is a "shortage" of about
80,000 drivers. Like everywhere else, however, whether in health care,
fast food outlets, dollar stores or many other workplaces, the
problem is unsafe, poorly paid conditions, including forced overtime
and lack of health care benefits.
Before 1980, the average unionized truck driver made more than
$96,000 in today's dollars, and they produced far more than that in
value taken by the private owners. In 1974, membership in the Teamsters
union, the main one representing truck drivers, was more than 2
million. Today there are fewer than 75,000 unionized drivers. The
median wage for drivers is around $45,260, with 40 per cent lacking
health insurance. This has largely been the result of government
deregulation of the industry in the 1980s, which greatly increased
monopolization and undermined wages and working conditions for drivers,
including opening the way for more non-union companies.
Port drivers are joining the millions of others refusing to work in
such conditions. Fast food and dollar store workers, for example, are
resigning together in groups, posting signs on the doors saying "Closed
Because We Quit." The majority of the resignations are occurring in low
wage jobs that have no health benefits, in conditions where
workers deal with the public and COVID-19 remains a problem. Those
resigning include child care workers, who often make only $13-14 an
hour. About three to four million people are resigning monthly.
The millions of resignations are a form of resistance, as are the
many thousands on strike. Workers are taking their stand to refuse to
work without safe conditions, higher wages and health care benefits.
They are also expressing their social consciousness by demanding safe
conditions for all.
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