A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 64/No. 32August 21, 2000
86,000 phone workers strike Click here for article
Western coal miners: 'No 12 hours! We win!'
UMWA strikers beat back concessions, ratify contracts
BY DANNY WILSON
KEMMERER, Wyoming--"No 12 Hours!" "We Win! You Lose!" "UMWA Proud!"
Triumphantly holding up signs with these slogans, members of Local 1307 of the United Mine Workers of America celebrated the ratification of a contract by a vote of 148 to 32. They had been on strike against Pittsburg and Midway Coal Co. (P&M) for two months.
A few days later, the Kemmerer miners' sister local in New Mexico had a similar celebration after ratifying a contract with P&M, a division of Chevron Corp. The 330 miners there, members of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local 1332, had been on strike at P&M's McKinley mine since May 15.
Just after the August 1 vote results in Kemmerer were in, 100 members and supporters held a victory celebration at the "three-way," the street intersection where trucks hauling coal from the nonunion Black Butte mine go into the Pacific Power and Light power plant. The Kemmerer mine was the sole supplier to the plant prior to the strike. The three-way was a regular scene of rallies organized by Miners' Backbone, the organization of miners' wives and other supporters of the strike.
The 230 members of Local 1307 struck P&M May 28 after rejecting the company's demand of a seven-day work schedule and 12-hour shifts. The company, which under the expired contract covered health-care costs, wanted the workers to pay part of their medical premiums. Other disputed issues were pensions, wages, the right to retire after 20 years of service, and overtime pay.
The celebration was the culmination of "hard work and the willingness of our members to stand up and say no to P&M," said Mike Hunzie, a shovel operator who has worked at the mine for 32 years. "In all my years I've been in the union I have never seen us as strong as we are now."
"Unity and solidarity is what helped us win," stated Annette Juvan, a member of Miners' Backbone whose husband works in the mine. "We had solidarity among ourselves and we got strong support from the community, along with other unions and individuals we didn't even know from other parts of the country."
In a press release issued after the vote, local president Elbert Harman stated, "Because of our solidarity we were able to achieve a contract that has no concessions." The statement added that Local 1307 pledged to support striking members of UMWA Local 1332 in "whatever they need: finances, food bank, and bodies to help resolve their ongoing labor dispute."
The miners began returning to work the next morning. Greeting the first workers going in were 20 members of Miners' Backbone. They held signs saying, "We Won!" while passing out red armbands to miners as they went into the gate to signify their victory and show solidarity with those who were still on strike against P&M at McKinley.
No major concessions
The approved contract, which lasts six years, drops all references to 12-hour shifts and a seven-day production schedule. In fact, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) demanded by the company was reduced from eight pages to one paragraph. The shortened MOU gives the company the right to propose alternative work schedules, but they must be approved by a majority of the workers affected.
The new contract gives miners a $1,000 signing bonus and raises in hourly pay of 30 cents per year for a $1.80 across-the-board raise. It allows miners to retire after 20 years of service if the mine is closed or a miner will not be recalled after a layoff. This provision brings them up to par with UMWA locals where the companies are members of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA).
Monthly pensions were increased by $8.00 per year of service retroactive to a miner's seniority date. Under the old contract a miner who retired after 20 years of service and was 62 years old would receive a pension of $750.50 a month, and after 30 years $1,017.50. With the new contract, a miner after 20 years of service will receive a pension of $910.50, increasing to $1257.50 after 30 years of service.
The company will continue to pay 100 percent of the miners' health-care premiums. On the other hand, miners will pay an increase from $5.00 to $7.50 for prescription drugs and from $5.00 to $15.00 for doctors' visits.
Retired and disabled miners and widows of miners will receive yearly bonuses over the life of the contract, and those 65 and older will have no increase in co-payments for prescriptions or doctors' visits. Retirees will also see an increase in their pensions.
Marlin Long, a dozer operator who has worked at the Kemmerer mine for 27 years, explained in an interview, "This contract is not a perfect contract and I don't think there is anyone in the local that would tell you it is. I was not all that concerned about the wages. When the company proposed the 12 hours I knew right then I and others were not going to change our lifestyles. We've been taking it on the chin for so many years from companies like P&M.
"I was really concerned at first that P&M would have its way. I thought: we might get hammered on 12 hours. As the support and solidarity from inside and outside our local kept growing we just kept getting stronger. And after that first vote where we rejected P&M's proposal by a strong majority, I knew we were a different union than before."
Long added, "We showed a lot of people you can fight a company and win. We didn't win for ourselves. We showed if you stick together and get support, you can come out of fights like this a lot stronger."
He cautioned, "We've won this battle but the war is not over. We have to get ready for more battles. The whole labor movement has to get stronger, including the nonunion workers."
For most of the strike P&M refused to negotiate with the miners. Six weeks into the walkout, four strikers crossed the picket line, two of them union members.
That week, more solidarity began to arrive for the strikers. Members of the Steelworkers union from the nearby trona (soda ash) mines brought important contributions. A lunch and rally was held with their delegation. Women supporters of the strike organized a march and expanded picket to "greet" those who crossed the line and to show P&M they were standing firm. They also organized a pro-union honk-a-thon in the downtown triangle in Kemmerer. These actions were an important turning point in the miners' fight.
The local newspaper ran articles quoting P&M officials accusing strikers of violence. According to local president Harmon, P&M spokespeople visited businesses in the area and threatened them with withdrawing their accounts if the store owners didn't stop supporting the UMWA strikers.
On July 19, after the first contract proposal in the strike was overwhelmingly rejected, P&M sent a letter to Jerry Jones, UMWA international vice president and chief union negotiator. The letter declared that an impasse had been reached and that the rejected contract was now in force. It invited the strikers who wanted to come back to work to do so.
The strikers responded by holding more rallies and expanded pickets, leading up to the successful July 26 march and rally organized by UMWA Region 4 in front of P&M's headquarters in Denver.
During the course of this fight the workers faced harassment from cops and private security guards. Pickets were videotaped. Strike supporters were stopped arbitrarily and threatened with arrest for disturbing the peace and other frivolous charges.
At a local motel where coal truck drivers who hauled coal into the power plant stayed, members of the Miners' Backbone began organizing regular rallies. A few days prior to the contract vote they held a rally, winning support from some passing Teamster drivers. The Teamsters stopped their trucks and joined the protest, only to have cops threaten some unionists with arrest for obstructing traffic.
Many of the miners at Kemmerer expressed the need to turn now to the UMWA members whose contracts expire at the end of August at four coal mines owned by Peabody Coal. These are the Kayenta and Black Mesa mines on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Seneca mine in Colorado, and the Big Sky mine in Montana.
"This was an important victory for us," said Matt Krall, who has worked at the Kemmerer mine for 27 years. "There were no major concessions. In fact, we went forward from the last contract. We have never been stronger in this local." He added, "Now we have to help the McKinley workers, and we may need to help the miners against Peabody. What we were able to do here will be a plus for their negotiations and what they face with the company."
Local 1307 president Elbert Harmon said in an interview, "I honestly believe we have set a pattern for the Western Division and for the whole UMWA. Out of this, already several of the nonunion miners have asked to join the union."
"The solidarity the miners got was the key to winning this thing. I believe without it they could not have done it. The whole UMWA owes a debt of gratitude to these fighters. If 1307 didn't beat back the 12 hours we would be facing a lot of grief," Ed Hinkle told the Militant. Hinkle, a member of UMWA Local 1984 at Blue Mountain Energy's Deserado mine in Rangely, Colorado, helped his local organize solidarity with the strikers at Kemmerer.
Local 1307 received many contributions from area store owners and individuals, as well as locals of the Teamsters, Letter Carriers, Communication Workers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and other UMWA locals in Region 4, along with state AFL-CIO bodies in the West.
Some of the largest contributions came from two United Steelworkers of America locals from the nearby trona mines near Rock Springs, Wyoming. Sizable donations came from workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Los Angeles who belong to the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical, and Energy Workers International Union (PACE). Strikers from P&M went to the Chevron plant gate and leafleted workers there. The miners were planning similar visits to workers at the Chevron refinery in Salt Lake City and a protest at Chevron headquarters in San Francisco.
The UMWA local at P&M's North River mine, just outside Birmingham, Alabama, organized solidarity with the strikers. Unionists there wore red armbands to work in solidarity with the strikes and organized at least two miners "memorial days"--days off work--to show their support.
The contributions helped keep the strikers' Food Pantry, organized and run by the Miners' Backbone, well stocked.
Miners' Backbone was formed shortly after the four workers crossed the picket line. Mary Service, one of its leaders, explained to the Militant, "I have never been on a picket line before this strike. I was scared my first time on the line. I saw the look on the miners faces the day when their own members crossed that picket line. After that I said to myself: we have got to help these guys."
Service said, "That's when this strike became everybody's. We pulled together as a union family. We formed the Miners' Backbone and started to organize rallies and solidarity for our strike. We started our weekly meetings with 15 women. We then went to 25 and then we had 35 and then 40 women coming to our Wednesday meetings helping to organize our work. At the beginning of the strike, who would have thought we would have gotten as strong as we have? We're going to keep this going."
Sue Hunzie, another leader of the Miners' Backbone, told the Militant, "We are not going to stop organizing now that the strike is over. With the Peabody contracts coming up, maybe we can help them with organizing support and solidarity with what we learned here.
She stated, "We are going to do what we can to help other unions on strike. We owe a lot of people for the support they gave to us but we learned that you have to have solidarity and unity to win."
On August 19 the Miners' Backbone will be hosting a "Victory Dance" at the Eagles Lodge to celebrate the strike victory.
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