"We marched to show, first of all, that if we fight, we can win. The crowd responded very positively to our fight", said Rubén Sandovar, a kill floor worker with 24 years at the plant.
This election win was a rebound from a representation election in November 2000 in which the union lost the vote 238-150. Defeated but not crushed, veterans of that organizing drive regrouped. They founded a new workers committee that confidently led workers throughout the hard-fought campaign. "This time around we weren’t afraid," said Juan Valadez, a leader of the committee. "We’ve learned a lot throughout this fight."
"The workers at the front of this fight always knew we were capable of winning. I’m so happy that we won this victory, which at one time we had thought would be impossible," said Eleuterio Valadez, a 25-year veteran at the plant. He participated in a 1980 strike to win a union that ended in defeat.
One of the key organizing tools used by the workers committee throughout the drive was an in-plant fact sheet entitled La Neta--slang for "the truth." It has been embraced by workers at the plant as a newsletter that tells it like it is, responding to company attacks and updating workers on developments in their fight. Members and supporters of the workers committee have organized distribution of each issue of La Neta throughout the day, starting at 5:15 a.m. in the parking lot of the plant.
Published from its inception in Spanish and English, La Neta included a "union yes" message in Arabic in a recent issue. This was an important step, taken by the workers committee to draw co-workers who have immigrated from the Sudan into the struggle. One such worker helped with the translation.
As election day approached, the confidence of the workers grew. A Sí se puede! hand signal spread throughout the plant, with workers holding up three fingers to each other signifying May 3. Boisterous hook and knife banging, and shouts of "Sí se puede!" sporadically erupted as workers voiced their unity. One day a boss "came into our area, the tripe room," said one kill floor worker. "We all screamed ‘Sí se puede!’ and ‘Fuera!’ (get out). He left in 10 seconds, red-faced."
La Neta encouraged co-workers to listen to La Máquina Musical, the only Spanish-language radio station in town, before and after work. Working together with a UFCW official, five leaders of the workers committee wrote and recorded messages for the program, encouraging their co-workers to vote "union yes" on May 3. The punchy messages, accompanied by background mariachi music, were heard by Latino workers throughout Omaha. "Many co-workers heard the messages. It helped a lot," said Sandovar.
Father Damian Zuerlein, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, sent a mailing to parishioners and meat packers, inviting them to attend a solidarity Mass followed by a lunch. "Courageous and wise workers have decided to lead this effort. I applaud them and encourage you to join them in their efforts to build solidarity among the workers."
About 400 people packed the church, including nearly 100 meat packers from various plants. Organizing drive leaders Tiberio Chávez and Olga Espinoza addressed the gathering, updating supporters on their fight and urging continued solidarity.
The company campaigned throughout the drive to try to intimidate workers and undermine the union’s growing support. In addition to a 30-cent pay raise, they put on a chicken dinner to "congratulate workers on tremendous production." One worker, seeing through the tactic, screamed "Chicken yes! Union yes!" La Neta helped to counter this company tactic.
A barrage of antiunion literature, full of lies and distortions, was posted regularly in locked glass display cases. "It had to be protected behind glass," said Lisa Rottach, a kill floor worker. "Things they posted in the open were quickly removed by workers." Copies of a newspaper article with an antiunion bias were also distributed by the company in the cafeteria the day before the election.
Turning the tables on the company
The company also began to organize a series of captive-audience meetings of roughly 30 workers in early morning hours and after work. Many workers resented having to sit through the litany of misinformation, off production hours, and with no opportunity to speak. During the second round of meetings, workers organized to chant "Sí se puede!" at the end of the meeting, shocking bosses with their shouts. Subsequent meetings fell flat, with most workers not attending.
In a last-ditch effort on May 1 to convince workers to "entrust their future to the company," the bosses stopped production for a half hour in both the fabrication and kill departments. At the end of their meeting, fabrication workers erupted into chants of "Sí se puede!" and "Union!" On the kill floor, leaders of the committee got wind of the impending meeting and organized a response over lunch. When the chain stopped, workers were herded into the large kill room, with carcasses still hanging on the line. Two company officials appealed for calm to be able to begin the event, as the raucous and enthusiastic chanting was drowning them out.
The would-be antiunion meeting was rapidly transformed. The bosses replayed their same plea to trust the company, claiming that the union cannot improve working conditions and that there is no cap on union dues. When they asserted that workers already have a voice at ConAgra, one Black worker demanded to be given the microphone. At the end of the appeal, management thanked workers and told them it was time to go back to work.
Olga Espinoza raised her hand, and with other leaders of the workers committee, moved to the platform. When it became clear the bosses would not cede the floor, workers chanted in Spanish, "Let her speak." The company official reluctantly gave her the mike. Another leader shoehorned her way to the front to translate Espinoza’s comments into English.
"My intention in going up there to speak was to show others that there’s no reason to be afraid, that everyone needs to be fearless," said Espinoza. Before the assembled workers, she demanded to know why the company hasn’t made any safety improvements to the dangerous area where a mechanic, Tiberio Chávez, had fallen. The company responded that her question could be answered in the office, then turned off the sound equipment and sent everyone back to work.
Workers, groups of union officials, and students from Creighton University, as well as members of Omaha Together One Community, turned out for a plant gate rally May 2, greeting workers with shouts of support as they exited the plant.
On election day some 50 supporters arrived at 4:30 a.m. for a rally at the plant gate. A couple of dozen workers distributed La Neta in the parking lot with the message, "Fabrication, Kill floor--united--will never be defeated. Vote yes!" As music played and maracas rattled, the crowd encouraged workers as they entered the plant.
A dozen or so workers stayed past quitting time to witness the count. As the "yes" votes began to pull ahead, the workers held back from a victory celebration until the government officials completed their official tally sheet.
"I thought I was going to faint from happiness," said Juan Valadez. "This fight has just begun," Olga Espinoza added. "We fought to win this victory, but now we must keep fighting to win a contract."
Workers have scheduled a meeting to "plan out the next steps for a good contract. We are the union," reported La Neta.
After seven-year fight, bosses
at Maple Creek sign national pact
BY FRANK FORRESTAL
AND TONY LANE
PITTSBURGH--In a big victory for mine workers here, Maple Creek Mining Inc., has signed the 2002 National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement (NBCWA). This important win for the union nationally comes as a result of seven years of struggle by members of the mine workers union and their solidarity in face of a company antiunion drive.
Two weeks ago Maple Creek bosses handed miners layoff notices in what the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) described as a "cruel game" aimed at intimidating them into accepting concessions demanded by the company. The miners didn’t budge.
In response to Maple Creek’s decision to sign the NBCWA contract the union organized two membership meetings May 3. Both meetings were well attended, and while the mood was upbeat, there was also a feeling of disbelief among many in attendance over the company’s move. A sizable layer of mostly seasoned miners are taking a wait-and-see attitude. But at the same time there was also a strong feeling of pride among miners over what they had accomplished. They knew they were on the right side and that it pays off to stick to your guns.
The membership meetings were opened by UMWA Local 1248 president Frank Wydo. At both meetings Carlo Tarley, the secretary-treasurer of the UMWA International, and International union president Cecil Roberts also spoke. Many miners participated in the discussion. In a April 25 letter to Maple Creek miners, Roberts emphasized that "your steadfast commitment to the effort has been of paramount importance to this success."
Starting in 2003, the contract at Maple Creek will cover the terms and conditions of the national agreement. After living with a wage freeze since 1995, the company will increase wages for miners at Maple by $3.15 an hour starting next year. For the first time in almost seven years, wages will be equivalent to all other miners covered by the NBCWA.
In countless communications to miners over the past few years Maple Creek owners have said they had drawn the line on paying wages earned by union members under the national agreement. Owner Robert Murray and his main spokesman at Maple Creek, D. Lynn Shanks, have claimed that Maple Creek miners have the lowest production rate of any longwall mine in the country and were therefore undeserving of union-scale wages.
In addition, the union contract at Maple Creek will have a common expiration date at the end of 2006 with the rest of the mines covered under the NBCWA pact. This will help strengthen the bargaining power of the national union.
The victory at Murray comes as several large coal operators have recently signed the 2002 NBCWA without modifications. These include RAG mines in Pennsylvania, and U.S. Steel Mining, Jim Walters, and Drummond, all of which have mines in Alabama. The only difference between the NBCWA agreement and the Maple Creek contract is the start date. The Maple Creek contract will take effect Jan. 1, 2003.
Antiunion provisions dropped
Also important is the fact that workers at High Quality, where the company will soon begin coal production, will be covered by the same terms. Murray’s plan from the beginning was to treat the new mine as separate and not part of Maple Creek. The fight was whether it would be a union mine. This is what he lost and is at the heart of what the miners won.
The numerous "Memorandum of Understandings," which significantly weakened the union and were part of the previous agreement, have been dropped.
Another important concession won by the miners has to do with forced overtime. Mandatory work on Sunday has been eliminated and every third week miners will only have to work five days. While this may not seem like much, miners have been working six-day weeks for years.
Many miners suspect that U.S. Steel, which buys a large percentage of its coal from Maple Creek, had a hand in Murray’s change of course. Without the coal supplied from Maple Creek, U.S. Steel would be faced with a big gap in its supplies. The company had recently made it clear to Murray it would go elsewhere to get its coal.
To capture the scope of the victory for the UMWA, it is useful to step back and look at some of the key highlights of the battle over the last seven years.
After U.S. Steel Mining Co. closed the mine in 1994, it was purchased by Robert Murray, who is today the largest independent coal operator. Murray won deep contractual concessions from the union and reopened the mine in 1995. From day one it was clear that Murray had every intention of weakening the union. Working conditions in the mine deteriorated rapidly. Grievances piled up, dozens of miners were disciplined, and suspensions multiplied. Many issues involving work rules and safety remained unresolved.
Deterioration of safety
In 1996 a miner was killed in a haulage accident; the following year, a belt repairman was killed in a rib roll. In this period miners worked up to 60 plus hours a week. In the fall of 1999 there were two major rock falls along the main haulage track in the mine, temporarily shutting the mine down. It was a miracle that no one got hurt or killed.
In April of 1999, without any warning, Maple Creek owners ordered the miners out of the mine and told them to clear out their lockers. The union was not informed of the closure and no explanation was given to the miners, a clear violation of the state’s Worker Adjustment Retraining Notification law. The abrupt closing took place after inspectors with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited the company for serious safety violations. The workers--fuming at this point--were called back to work a few days after this incident.
The battle reached a head in September when miners walked off the job for two days. The strike was over whether the current national Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement or a separate "memorandum of understanding" is the standing contract. The company claimed that the job action violated a no-strike clause in that agreement, and the federal court agreed. Coming out of this conflict, the company filed a $1.7 million lawsuit against the union. As part of the recent contract, the lawsuit has been dropped.
Tensions were ratcheted up again in December 2000 after Maple Creek miners rejected a proposed contract extension 335 to 10. Following the vote Murray sent a letter to all Maple Creek miners where he said that by rejecting the contract, miners had "made a terrible mistake" and "had no idea what [they] were really doing." His letter went on to say, "You turned down the only Agreement that Maple Creek can afford and that our lenders will allow. Because we suspect mischief in this vote, I am giving the hourly employees of Maple Creek" another chance to vote. The union rejected this undemocratic move. Later, Murray said there "are 500 people who will be in the unemployment line."
Referring to the union’s voting down of the contract, the big-business coal publication Coal Outlook said "that rejection probably means union leadership this time isn’t in the mood to talk about concessions." The same publication noted that "the Murray/UMWA relationship has also been strained lately over a fight about lack of union representation at a new Murray longwall mine in Ohio."
Murray operates two mines in southeastern Ohio. Powhatan No. 6, represented by UMWA Local 1810, is working under a concession contract. Nearby, Murray recently opened the Century mine as a nonunion operation. Like the situation at Maple Creek, relations are tense, especially as Murray expands production at the Century mine.
There is talk among miners in Local 1248, including at the recent union meetings, of using the momentum from Maple Creek to give a helping hand to their fight and to aid the organizing efforts at the Century mine. The fight in Ohio will now take on more importance. In a recent UMWA press release, Roberts said, "While the UMWA is happy it was able to reach an agreement at Maple Creek, the union will continue working to resolve its current differences with Robert Murray at his Ohio Valley Coal Co. Powhatan No. 6 operation."
In the wake of the contract rejection in 2000, tensions reached new levels when the union used "memorial days"--where miners do not report to work--to put a spotlight on Murray’s union-busting moves. After the successful memorial days, including a 400-strong rally in Powhatan, Ohio, supported by both the Maple Creek and Powhatan No. 6 locals last summer, Murray filed more lawsuits all of which have gone down to defeat.
Experienced miners take pride in telling new miners about the history of Local 1248 and how it fought for the strongest contract. Some of these miners will point to the role the local played in the Miners for Democracy movement in the early 1970s. They were a part of a powerful movement that fought for rank-and-file democracy against then UMWA president Tony Boyle. In 1972 Boyle and his corrupt, entrenched bureaucracy, were defeated by the Miners for Democracy slate, headed by Arnold Miller.
Maple Creek miners know that the road ahead will not be smooth. There is concern about the impact the phasing out of Maple Creek will have on jobs and seniority rights when the new portal at High Quality begins production. But miners are in a stronger position today to defend their union and are more confident to meet the inevitable challenges ahead.
Frank Forrestal and Tony Lane are underground miners and members of United Mine Workers of America Local 1248.