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

United States
 Biden Threatens to Use National Guard at Los Angeles Area Ports


In Defence of the Health and Safety of Mining Workers

Our Defence of Safety Is the Defence of Human Lives

Sean Staddon is an underground electrician and United Steelworkers Local 6500 shop steward at Vale's Totten Mine in Sudbury.

Workers' ForumYour 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.[1] 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.

Note

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.

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United States

Biden Threatens to Use National Guard at
Los Angeles Area Ports

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 Long 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 drivers.

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 or 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 health care.

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.

(Photo: ILWU)

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