Blankenship found guilty of violating mine safety regulations

A federal jury in Charleston, West Virginia on December 3 found former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety regulations.

Blankenship was CEO of Massey when an explosion at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia killed 29 miners. The explosion was the worst US mining disaster in the last 40 years.

Investigators blamed the explosion on Blankenship’s decision to prioritize profits over worker safety.

Blankenship was also charged with lying to investors and securities regulators about the safety conditions in his mines, but the jury found him not guilty of these charges.

“A measure of justice has been served through the conviction of Don Blankenship on federal charges of conspiring to violate mine safety standards,” said Cecil Roberts international president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). “The truth that was common knowledge in the coalfields – that Don Blankenship cared little for the safety and health of miners working for his company and even less for the laws enforcing their rights – has finally been proven in court.”

Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine was a non-union mine, but after the explosion, UMWA got involved in supporting the victims’ families and their demand that those responsible for the explosion be held accountable.

At the trial, jurors heard testimony that Blankenship ignored  safety concerns raised by subordinates while keeping meticulous track of coal production and that Blankenship weighed the cost of fines the company would receive for safety violations against the expense of fixing safety problems that might incur safety violation citations.

Witnesses also said that the company conspired to thwart safety inspections by federal and state mine safety inspectors.

Three independent investigations conducted after the explosion confirmed this testimony.

One of the investigations was initiated by West Virginia’s then Gov. Joe Manchin.

The report of the investigation’s findings is entitled, “Upper Big Branch Mine, the April 5, 2010 Explosion: A Failure of Basic Coal Mine Safety.” It identifies the causes of the explosion as a poorly maintained ventilation system that allowed dangerous levels of explosive methane gas and coal dust to accumulate and an ill-functioning water spray system that allowed sparks from coal digging equipment to ignite the methane and coal dust.

According to the report, the so-called safety culture at Massey mines such as Upper Big Branch was a sham. Despite the company’s sloganeering, production (and its resulting profits) always took precedence over safety.

For Massey’s miners, the results of this posturing has been deadly.

“From 2000 to 2010, no United States coal company had a worse fatality record than Massey Energy. Fifty-four workers were killed in Massey mines during that time, including the 29 who lost their lives (at the Upper Big Branch explosion),” states the report.

Two other reports, one by the UMWA and the other by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), confirm that the cause of the explosion was due to the buildup of coal dust and methane gas caused by a poorly maintained ventilation system and an ill-functioning water spray system.

They also say that, Massey’s inattention to these serious hazards was just one example of the company’s systemic disregard for basic mine safety.

While Blankenship was found guilty of actions that led to considerable loss of life, he will get off with a relatively light sentence. The maximum penalty for his crime, which is a misdemeanor, is only one year in prison.

He’ll be sentenced in March, and his attorney said that he will appeal the conviction.

Because of the skewed priorities of the US penal code, Blankenship would have faced up to 30 years in prison if had been found guilty as charged of lying to investors.

As a result, there was some disappointment with the outcome of the verdict.

But Roberts tried to put a positive spin on the verdict.

“A message has gone out today to every coal operator in America who is willing to skirt mine safety and health laws: you do so at your own personal risk,” said Roberts. “I thank the jury for having the courage to send this message and establish a clear deterrent to this kind of activity. Hopefully that deterrent will keep more miners alive and intact in the years to come.”

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Unions lampoon Verizon for its greed

The fight for a fair collective bargaining agreement at Verizon took a satirical turn on Black Friday when union members passed out flyers at Verizon stores in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states lampooning Verizon for its greed.

The flyer, entitled “Please Help Verizon,” begins with the statement: “Verizon only makes $1 billion in profits every month and its executives have raked in a measly $249 million in the last five years.

“To get them out of such dire straits,” continues the flyer. “Verizon wants to shift costs to employees – demanding to cut retirement and job security, raise health care costs by thousands of dollars per worker, and even taking away benefits from employees who have been injured on the job. Management is refusing to negotiate better wages or benefits for Verizon Wireless workers.”

Since August when their collective bargaining agreement expired, 39,000 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) who work at Verizon from Massachusetts to Virginia have been working without a contract.

The two sides are continuing to bargain, but according to the CWA, Verizon is stonewalling while continuing to insist on steep concessions.

“We do not have a willing negotiating partner,” said CWA Local 1103 President Kevin Sheil to members at a November 19 rally in Poughkeepsie, NY. “The company’s practicing the art of race-to-the-bottom bargaining. Verizon is literally making over a billion dollars a month in profits, and yet, they still want to destroy our families, our communities, our union, and our contract.”

Since Verizon’s union workers began working without a contract, members have been engaged in a Stand Up to Verizon campaign, a series of  demonstrations, rallies, and job actions expressing their unity and willingness to fight for fair contract.

The Black Friday leafletting at Verizon stores was part of the Stand Up to Verizon campaign.

The “Please Help Verizon” flyer is a mixture of tongue-in-cheek comedy and serious information.

Referring to Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, the flyer laments that “McAdam makes a paltry $18 million a year and only has access to one corporate jet.”

While McAdam is riding high, he’s demanding more sacrifices from Verizon workers.

Verizon workers aren’t the only ones that McAdam and Verizon are taking for a ride.

“In order to keep showering Verizon’s top executives with cash, Verizon customers have also had to make sacrifices,” says the flyer.

According to the unions, Verizon has failed to keep promises it made to extend its FiOS high-speed internet services to communities and has allowed its landline service to deteriorate badly.

The New York Times reports that when New York City granted Verizon a cable franchise in 2008, the company agreed to make FiOS service available to all neighborhoods.

Seven years later, 106,000 New York City residents like Stephanie Brooks of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn are still waiting for FiOS service.

Last summer, the mayors of Syracuse, Kingston, Albany, Utica, and Rome criticized Verizon for not expanding FiOS service to their cities’ low-income neighborhoods.

In October, 14 mayors of Northeastern cities including the mayor of New York City, Philadelphia, and Pittsburg sent a letter to Verizon criticizing the company’s decision not to extend FiOS service to under served communities in their cities.

The letter also criticizes Verizon for “abandoning (its) copper network and traditional landline customers,” who are “experiencing frequent service outages, delays in repairs and installations, and forced migration to the inferior VoiceLink product.”

Landlines and the copper network that keeps them operating provide vital services to many of Verizon’s customers.

Just how vital this service came into sharp focus recently in Poughkeepsie.

The East Duchess Daily Voice on November 12 reported that “Verizon is reporting all landline 911 trunks associated with the 911 phone system are out of service.” The problem was reported in the late afternoon and wasn’t fixed until 9 P.M.

According to CWA, Verizon spends very little maintaining its landline network.–only $3.50 per customer over the last seven years. Meanwhile, the company is charging customers $300 to $375 a year for the service.

The unions have made improved customer service, an important part of the bargaining strategy and have asked regulators in Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey to take action to ensure that Verizon meets its obligation to provide quality services to all customers.

Bargaining between Verizon and the unions is taking place in two locations: Rye, New York for Verizon workers in New England, New York, and New Jersey and Philadelphia for Verizon workers in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington DC, West Virginia, and Virginia.

Bargaining in Rye resumed after a break for Thanksgiving, and CWA District 2-13 informed the company that it ready to continue talks in Philadelphia.