Pike River, Andrew Little & the union that did nothing

Photoshopped image credit: Pixy

Andrew Little is leading the charge to reopen Pike River mine and to send people into unknown and possibly dangerous conditions to find the remains of the 29 men who died in the mine. It is a tragic situation which has been politicised by the government in a way that is truly disgraceful. Nothing can be achieved by doing this; no one will be found alive, and whatever remains are there will almost certainly not be recognisable. Better to leave the mine as a grave and a memorial. The families know where their sons and brothers are. Let them rest in peace.

But then I came across this article which puts a whole different slant on the matter and shows the government to be hypocritical at best, and Andrew Little himself to be possibly complicit in the disaster that happened 8 years ago.

How Andrew Little failed the Pike River miners is a disturbing article, and I recommend you read it in its entirety if you want some background into the matter. Please note that the original article was written in 2012. quote.

WHEN THE  Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River mining disaster issued its report  this week, the response of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) was immediate. It issued a press statement welcoming  the  report and is encouraging the Government to implement the recommended  changes as soon as possible.

This report is a damning indictment of New Zealand’s deregulated health and safety regime. Pike River Coal Ltd should never have been allowed to operate in the way it did, and in other countries it wouldn’t have been allowed to.

The report makes clear that the tragic loss of life at Pike River could have been prevented with stronger regulations, an independent and well-resourced mine safety inspectorate and genuine worker involvement in health and safety.

This statement represents a complete change of heart by the EPMU officialdom because it was never critical of  Pike River Coal (PRC) during the time that  the mine was open. The EPMU represented approximately half of the 140 miners on the site.

After the first explosion the EPMU strongly defended the management of PRC.

EPMU National secretary Andrew Little (now a Labour MP)  told the New Zealand Herald on November 22  2010 that  there was “nothing unusual about Pike River or this mine that we’ve been particularly concerned about”.

Andrew Little’s conciliatory views toward  PRC management were echoed by Labour MP Damien O’Connor. He suggested that no one was responsible for the accident and that the  disaster was “just one of these things that the West Coast unfortunately has had to get used to over the years”. end quote.

Yes, it is true that the West Coast has struggled with mining accidents over the years, but in the 21st century, with health and safety regulations being robust, such accidents were no longer expected to happen.

So, here we had the government, the opposition and the union lining up to defend the PRC management. quote.

The views of Andrew Little and the EPMU flew in the face of expert opinion.

While Andrew Little  was defending PRC an Australian gas drainage engineer, who wished to remain anonymous because he feared ‘recriminations’, said he visited Pike River in 2009  and observed that its  operating standards were “extremely poor”.

He said  that he had been told by miners  that the mine was flooded with methane gas about three weeks before the first explosion.

But despite the overwhelming evidence that there was  something seriously and dangerously wrong at the Pike Rive mine, the officials of the  EPMU did nothing.

The mine opened in November 2008  and on not one occasion did the EPMU  initiate industrial action or even criticise PRC’S  safety standards, even after a group of workers  walked off the job to protest the lack of basic emergency equipment. end quote.

The union did not support their workers when they walked off the job over safety concerns. quote.

It was exactly this benevolent attitude  by the EPMU that allowed PRC – and the Department of Labour – to continue as if it was just ‘business a usual’. It appears that no-one was  protecting the interests and concerns of the workers on the mining site. The EPMU failed to organise industrial action  to address safety concerns  at the  mine in favour of  ‘cooperating’ with management, what it and the CTU sometimes  refer to as ‘modern unionism’.

There won’t be any resignations from within the EPMU for dereliction of duty and, of course, Andrew Little  has escaped to Parliament. end quote.

If unions are not there to protect their workers, then why do they exist at all?

So while Andrew Little stands up to the media and says that re-entry is ‘fulfilling a promise’ to the families, is praised by Duncan Garner for his ‘integrity’ over the announcement to re-enter the mine, and pours scorn on the previous government for a ‘cover up’, we should all stop for a moment and consider just one small thing.

If Andrew Little, as the National Secretary of the EPMU at the time the mine was established (and when the explosions occurred) had done his job properly and taken the safety of his workers seriously, the Pike River mine disaster might never have happened.

No amount of ‘fulfilling a promise to the families’ is going to change the fact that their sons, husbands and brothers could have come home that day if the EPMU had done the job they are supposed to do, which is to look after the safety of their workers.

But they didn’t.


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Accountant. Boring. Loves tax. Needs to get out more. Loves the environment, but hates the Greens. Has been called a dinosaur. Wears it with pride.

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