“Fight Till You’re Blue in the Face”

2010 June 24
by Ellen Noonan

The story of the Deepwater Horizon well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is an environmental catastrophe that will be with us for generations to come. But it is also the story of working people and lapses in workplace safety that can erupt into tragedy.

Like the miners who died in the April 5th Upper Big Branch mine explosion (remember that? it took 29 lives a mere 15 days before the Deepwater Horizon accident killed 11 men), the rig  workers did not belong to a labor union. Both current research and history tell us that unions play a critical role in achieving and maintaining workplace safety.  A century ago, two industrial disasters in particular galvanized the public and spurred workplace safety reform.  The Monagh mine explosion in 1907 took 362 lives–it was hardly the only mining accident of its era, but it was the biggest. After a few years of steady pressure, Congress established the Bureau of Mines in 1910, which even so was fairly toothless. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire sent 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, to horrific deaths. Between 1912 and 1914 the state of New York passed a number of laws regulating sanitation, fire safety, and working hours for women and children in industrial workplaces. In both of these cases, government action, while critical, was neither sufficient nor the final word:  it was existing unions that continued to push for stronger legislation and enforcement of the laws once they were on the books.

Today’s political context is far different than the Progressive Era that produced such reforms. The economic recession has increased the drumbeat from the right that labor unions are parasitic, serving only to protect incompetent members and negotiate crippling pensions for them. At the same time, high unemployment has heightened the sense among workers that they should be grateful for the jobs they have rather than fighting to unionize them. Unions would do well to use their own public relations resources to remind Americans that collective bargaining agreements provide workers with essential  knowledge and tools to resist the safety shortcuts so many corporations find irresistible.

Will Deepwater Horizon join Triangle and Monongah as infamous industrial disasters that result in workplace safety reforms? Natalie Roshto hopes so. GQ has a riveting piece that details the accident itself (and its aftermath) from the perspective of the workers on the rig. Natalie’s 22 year old husband Shane was among the dead, leaving behind Natalie and their three year old son Blaine. She filed a wrongful death suit against BP and its subcontractor, Transocean, Ltd., and not only to recover some kind of financial support for herself and her young child. As she explains to GQ:

“Shane always told me, ‘If anything ever happens to me out there, you better fight till you’re blue in the face,'” she says. Because if something ever happened to Shane, that meant something went wrong—something that shouldn’t have gone wrong and shouldn’t go wrong again—and usually it takes a judge and a jury to get that point across with any authority. “I want to be able to sit down with Blaine twenty years from now and tell him something really bad happened one night,” she says, “but here are all the good things that came out of it. Here are the safety rules that changed, here are the regulations that changed.”

Last 5 posts by Ellen Noonan

No Comments

Comments are closed for this entry.