WASHINGTON -- Deep in a coal mine in Harlan County, Ky., one day in the late 1980s, a large rock began to slip and appeared to be inches away from falling on Scott Howard and his partner.
Mr. Howard refused to continue working in that area. His supervisor told him to go see the mine owner, whose response was curt.
"The next time a boss tells you to do something and you don't do it, you won't work for me anymore," Mr. Howard said the owner told him.
Had the mine been unionized, Mr. Howard could have reported the problem to a member of the union's safety committee and he would have been protected from potential retaliation. Instead, Mr. Howard filed a court action against the company, developing a reputation as a rabble-rouser that, he said, eventually cost him his job.
Former federal mine safety official Tony Oppegard said Mr. Howard's case is indicative of the circumstances faced by miners who lack access to protections from unsafe conditions and management retaliation that a union works to provide.
"In a nonunion mine, a miner is between a rock and a hard place," said Mr. Oppegard, of Lexington, Ky., now a mine safety lawyer who represents Mr. Howard, of Roxana, Ky., and other miners in lawsuits and complaints about safety.
"If you [raise a safety concern] in a nonunion mine, you're probably going to be fired or at least suspended," he said. "You can bring a federal action -- a safety discrimination case. But that's time-consuming and could take a couple of years."
The April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 workers has spurred renewed interest in mine safety, with several investigations under way into the actions of mine owner Massey Energy and the efficacy of safety laws and their enforcement.
Workers at the Upper Big Branch mine are not represented by the United Mine Workers of America. Union officials and others contend that the increased emphasis on safety standards found in union mines could have helped prevent the tragedy there. Their arguments are disputed by industry leaders, and Congress is unlikely to address the trend of declining unionization in the nation's mines as it examines and considers revisions to mine safety laws.
As evidence of superior safety, the UMW cited statistics it has compiled showing about 11 percent of U.S. coal mining fatalities since 2002 -- or 30 fatalities -- have occurred at unionized mines. During that time, 28.6 percent of the work force at U.S mines has been unionized.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and mining industry groups said they do not track safety statistics to reflect work force unionization.
MSHA had cited the Upper Big Branch mine for a series of violations before the deadly blast, which it has said was likely caused by a mixture of coal dust and methane.
If similar concerns about ventilation had surfaced at a unionized mine, the UMW could have withdrawn its workers without penalty for leaving their jobs, union spokesman Phil Smith said.
"If that was happening in a union mine, our members would have been out of there a long time ago, and they wouldn't have been producing any coal," Mr. Smith said. "To the extent that those are the issues and that's what's going on there, there's a tremendous difference between this not being a union mine and being a union mine."
Coal industry leaders, however, questioned the union figures because of the small sample size of fatalities and said safety is of paramount concern to mining companies.
In Pennsylvania, which has only a couple of union mines, Joseph Sbaffoni, director of the state Department of Mine Safety in the Department of Environmental Protection, said he saw no correlation between safety problems and unionization.
"The union mines have safety committees, so they do have an extra set of eyes. So if there's something going on at the mine there might be one additional avenue that we may be aware of," Mr. Sbaffoni said. "But from our perspective, we don't see much of a difference between them."
Mark Segedi, the president of a UMW local in Eighty Four and a former safety committee member, said the committees serve as a buffer between management and miners and a source of information.
The safety committee attends meetings with MSHA or state inspectors and management to keep workers apprised of violations and other issues with working conditions. The committee can also report problems raised by workers directly to MSHA, and committee members have the right to enter a mine at any time to check out a problem -- and pull out workers if they believe conditions warrant that action.
Union officials also noted that miners are more comfortable reporting safety problems to union officials rather than management.
Mr. Howard said few of his friends will speak out when they face dangerous conditions. He said he's worked for intimidating mine operators, including one who addressed workers over a loudspeaker system in the mine to demand that they stop complaining about safety, adding: "I want coal on the belt."
Mr. Howard has been a part of a few efforts to organize at a mine, but all have faced resistance from mine owners and all have failed..
About 20 percent of coal mine workers are unionized now, according to federal labor statistics, down from more than 30 percent a decade ago and much higher rates in previous generations.
Mr. Smith, the UMW spokesman, attributed the decline in part to the fact that many new mines opened in recent years as the price of coal rose -- and most opened as nonunion shops. That makes it more difficult for a union to gain a foothold.
Massey Energy, which owns the Upper Big Branch mine through a subsidiary, mounted an aggressive anti-union campaign in the 1980s; about 1 percent of its employees are represented by the UMW. The largest coal producer in Central Appalachia, Massey owns mines in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.
"Massey was the beginning of the end of the United Mine Workers," said former Washington County miner and union organizer Kipp Dawson.
Chris Hamilton, of the West Virginia Coal Association, which represents the state's coal operators, attributed the recent drop in union membership to a less adversarial climate between management and workers.
"There's been ... basic management concepts and management of the work force that have kept pace with new-age managers and workers," he said.
He and Pennsylvania Coal Association president George Ellis said safety has more to do with the culture of a company and its employees than with what a union does.
"Even from a productivity standpoint -- I don't want to sound callous or anything -- but when you have a fatality, a mine shuts down," Mr. Ellis said. "Nobody's benefiting."
Massey has defended its safety record in the weeks after the Upper Big Branch explosion and has said it will cooperate with the investigations. After President Barack Obama last week called the disaster "a failure first and foremost of management," the company responded in a statement saying "we fear the president has been misinformed about our record."
Massey maintains that its numbers of safety violations and efforts to challenge them are in line with those found elsewhere in the industry. It also noted that last year it received three "Sentinels of Safety" awards from MSHA -- the most ever awarded to one company in a single year.
As Congress investigates the Upper Big Branch fatalities and looks at possible new legislation, unionization is unlikely to play a major role in its deliberations. Last week, both House Education and Labor chairman George Miller, D-Calif., and Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said unions were not a concern of their inquiries.
But Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., the chair of the Education and Labor subcommittee on work force protections, said she hoped the mine disaster would help spark a union resurgence to help enforce the laws Congress writes.
At Upper Big Branch, a union "would have added some spine to [the law] and followed it up and made noise about this operation," Ms. Woolsey said.
"Maybe miners will realize that they need to organize. ... If the workers had each other and they were stronger as a pack -- and unions make that possible -- then I think it would make a difference."
Mr. Smith said the UMW is making a renewed push to organize in mines, including a pair of new ones opening soon in Fayette and Greene counties. He acknowledged that when mounting a campaign, union organizers often talk about safety concerns, but he was hesitant to say Upper Big Branch would be a rallying point.
"We don't want to be using this for what could be seen as personal gain for the union and doing so over the bodies of those guys who died," Mr. Smith said.
"We want to talk about safety from a real perspective, but we also want to do it in a respectful way to those who lost their lives."
Daniel Malloy: email@example.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.