United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts issued the following statement on Thursday, May 15, 2014:
“The horrific news coming from the coal mine near Soma, Turkey, where nearly 300 miners have been killed and scores more are missing is a punch in the gut for every coal miner everywhere in the world. The hearts and prayers of every UMWA member and our families are with the families of the miners who lost their lives, and we sincerely hope that rescue efforts are possible and successful for those who remain trapped.
“The magnitude of this tragedy is appalling. I see where the media is calling this an industrial ‘accident,’ but a disaster on this scale is no accident. This mine was clearly a bomb waiting to go off. There could not have been any regulatory enforcement or company oversight of what went on in that mine.
“It has been nearly a century since we have seen disasters on this scale in the United States or Canada. Through strong laws and regulations, we have been able to develop workplace protections that keep our miners safe from the kinds of conditions that must have existed in that Turkish mine.
“What we have done here isn’t magical. It can be and has been applied elsewhere in the world. We stand ready to work with the Turkish miners and their government to help develop safety and health procedures that can help put an end to the possibility of these sorts of massive disasters in the future.”
The Labor Fightback Network applauds this statement and believes it is in line to add the following comments:
First, as Brother Roberts notes, “This mine was clearly a bomb waiting to go off.” Among other safety defects, the alarm system was not working, there were no “safe rooms” to protect miners from the toxic fumes, and gas masks provided workers were 15 years past expiration dates, functioning for only 45 minutes instead of the two hours that a modern mask would be capable of.
Second, as a result of the privatization that the Turkish government legislated in 2005, effective inspections, regulation and oversight of the mine were discarded.
Third, the union protested the privatization and warned that it made the Soma mine more dangerous. The opposition party in Turkey‘s parliament (CHP) demanded that the mine’s safety be investigated but the ruling (AKP) party used its majority votes to reject any investigation. This occurred after a series of incidents at the Soma mine jeopardizing workers’ safety and lives; it occurred only weeks before the May 13 disaster.
A similar tragedy could occur in the U.S. if labor and its community allies don’t stop corporate America‘s privatization and deregulation onslaught.
Fourth, in the aftermath of the mine’s explosion, which the government now says resulted in the loss of 301 lives, the government responded to the growing protests with harsh repression.
By way of response, unions went on a one-day strike, charging the government with failure to prevent workplace calamities with inadequate inspections. At the same time, around 800 protesters marched behind a banner declaring “This is Not An Accident, but Murder. The Government is Responsible!” and shouted anti-government slogans. They tried to march from Middle East Technical University (METU) to the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources building in Ankara. Hundreds of demonstrators also gathered outside the headquarters of the company which owns the mine, Soma Holding, in İstanbul. Some had sprayed “Murderers” on the walls. During protests in Soma, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared to push a man, telling him, “You denounce the Prime Minister, this is what you get.” Erdoğan’s deputy chief of staff, Yusuf Yerkel, kicked a protester four times as he lay helplessly on the ground being held there by two soldiers. This beating was captured on tape and went viral on the Internet, compounding the deeply felt anger of the people.
Riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to drive protesters off the streets. The prime minister dismissed all allegations of irresponsibility by cavalierly stating that other countries had “accidents” in mines, so no big deal with what happened at Soma. Both the government and the company denied negligence.
Incidentally, the Erdoğan government is riddled with corruption and well before Soma, was facing widespread public opposition, fueled by the harsh austerity measures it directed at workers to deal with Turkey‘s economic crisis.
We have not heard the last of the outcry against the mine disaster in Turkey. The country’s five major unions issued a joint statement declaring, “Hundreds of our worker brothers in Soma have been left to die from the very start by being forced to work in brutal production processes in order to achieve maximum profits. We call for the working class, laborers and friends of laborers to stand up for our brothers in Soma.”
This is a call for international solidarity which the U.S. labor movement should respond to as massively as possible. We urge statements and resolutions by labor bodies at all levels denouncing the Turkish government and the coal company for their responsibility in the Soma disaster, calling for maximum punishment for everyone culpable for causing that disaster, and demanding that workers’ safety be placed above the mining companies’ unconscionable drive for profits. Even the May 22 Wall Street Journal acknowledged: “The links between the government and mining companies…have spawned government policy that encourages mines to produce as much coal as possible at a low price, irrespective of the risk to workers.”
Turkey is a key ally in Washington‘s expansionist imperial policy, so Washington’s failure to speak out is to be expected. But the U.S. working class should have no reservations in making its voice heard in solidarity with Turkey‘s miners.