BY CANDACE WAGNER AND PETE SEIDMAN
EBERVALE, Pennsylvania - Striking members of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Locals 803 and 1531 voted March 4 to reject a proposed contract from the Jeddo Coal Co., just outside of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Sixty miners voted against the contract and two in favor. The strike is approaching its first anniversary. Miners walked out March 26, 1998.
"Everything was bad in that contract," Bill DeRienzo, a strike captain, told Militant reporters visiting the picket line on March 8.
Most important to DeRienzo and fellow striker Richard P. Patskan, Sr., were the proposed changes in seniority. "The company imposed its own seniority list, including employees from other Pagnotti mines," said DeRienzo. The Jeddo mine is owned by the Pagnotti family.
The two strikers pointed out the company aims to pick and choose which miners are laid off and recalled. The company also seeks to extend to a week the amount of time that workers can be laid off out of seniority.
"The HMO they offered? Yoúd have to be attacked by a gorilla to be covered by it," DeRienzo added, referring to the proposed health plan.
Another reason miners rejected the contract proposal was its failure to offer parity in vacation pay and personal days off with the three other UMWA-organized anthracite mines. In 1994, the mine operators refused to sign a common contract covering all union workers in the industry as had been the case previously. The three companies besides Jeddo signed separate, but similar contracts. Pagnotti refused, demanding drastic concessions. Jeddo imposed its "last, best" offer in December, 1997. That imposed contract is what provoked the strike a few months later.
Striker Bob Lynch emphasized the importance of fighting for parity in a phone interview with the Militant. "This is a rough industry," he said. "These new coal barons here haven't changed their mentality. Once they smell blood they're coming after you. One opportunity they'd have is if one of the companies fell behind the benchmark on wages, vacations, or personal days."
In a phone interview, Joe Lupcho, a shovel operator and Local 803 president, also blasted the contract. "In one paragraph they gave you something and in the next they took it back," he said. "You had to be a lawyer to understand it. They wanted a disciplinary program where if you weren't a saint, you'd get fired." Patskan added the company wants to gut past practices, including the right to use "man's language" when debating with foremen.
"They want us to call in three or four hours ahead if we're going to be out, but they send you home with no notice at all," Lupcho declared. Lupcho also explained why vacation pay was such a hot issue. "The proposed $830 per year doesn't even total a two-week paycheck," he said.
Another important issue in the strike is whether Pagnotti's Eckley, Pennsylvania, plant will be union. The contract offer stated that if Pagnotti began mining it, the workers there would be UMWA. But if a contractor came in to mine the coal, the pit could be nonunion. This is unacceptable to the union members.
The miners said that when they retire, they will receive a pension of only $90 per month - no matter how many years they worked. If they die, their wives will receive nothing. Strikers are looking for a raise in the company contribution to the 401K retirement plan that is tied to the stock market. "That plan was started too late for Billy and me," said Patskan, Sr. "We'll get the $90." Both have worked at the mine since the early 1960s.
The only improvement workers saw in the new offer was a wage increase of $1.33 per hour. This would bring the workers up to the wage scale of the other UMWA locals of anthracite miners. But as Lynch explained, "The real sticking points are in the noneconomic areas."
Lynch stressed the importance of the solidarity the strike has won in the region. "We've gotten money from UNITE, from IBEW, USWA, Carpenters, Masons, UFCW, and more. We want to show workers here that if you hang tight for something you can win. Don't give up."
While these reporters were on the picket line, a 24-car coal train pulled into the struck breaker plant. Miners estimate that this train hauled out the last of the massive coal stockpile the company had built up before the strike, and that with no coal being mined, jeddo is under pressure to fill its contracts.
The strikers' morale after rejecting the proposed agreement? "great, real good," exclaimed Joe Lupcho. "We can't go backwards."
Candace Wagner and Pete Seidman are members of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. Andy Buchanan contributed to this article.
EBERVALE, Pennsylvania - Three members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) at USAirways in Philadelphia delivered solidarity to striking Jeddo coal miners here March 3. The form was a message of support signed by 137 airport workers and a collection of $390.
Unionists at the airport in Philadelphia spent a week collecting the solidarity and received a welcomed response from workers, some of whom had grandfathers or other relatives who worked and died prematurely as coal miners in the once gigantic anthracite region of Pennsylvania.
Joe Kowalick, a cleaner at USAirways, is the first generation in his family not to be coal miners. His father worked in the strip mines near Centralia, Pennsylvania, as a heavy equipment operator, and his grandfather was an underground miner who died of black lung. "My grandfather, Daniel Walsh, was a singer and his records are in the Library of Congress," Kowalick proudly reported. His father worked for Louis Pagnotti, the grandfather of today's president of Jeddo Coal, James Pagnotti. "Louis Pagnotti used to strip the whole operation and then just forfeit the bond he had put up to guarantee he would fill the land back in, because it was cheaper that way."
The contributions and petitions of support were presented to strikers on the picket line the day before they voted to reject their proposed contract 60-2. Picket captain Bob Lynch took time from the many discussions going on that day among strikers to talk with the airport workers about the history and mechanics of the operation at Jeddo and some of the long- standing issues with the company. One of these is merging the two locals of the stripping and breaker operations and their seniority so that they can in some way cross-utilize the miners.
"That's exactly what's happening with us at USAirways," responded IAM member Wendell Bright. "They would like for us to unload the bags, run up and clean the plane, load the bags, and then push it back from the gate."
The UMWA uses strike contributions to buy food at the South Central Pennsylvania Food Bank outside Harrisburg. Every $200 gets them one ton of food.
Nancy Cole is a member of the IAM at the Philadelphia
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