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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 68/No. 1January 12, 2004


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lead article
Co-Op strikers force gov’t
to investigate mine safety
Union-organizing battle spurred
by dangerous job conditions
Militant/Teri Ross
Co-Op miners, their families, and supporters filled bleachers of Huntington school gym December 13 in largest solidarity rally to date in strike for union recognition, dignity, and safety on the job.

HUNTINGTON, Utah—A special investigator and a Utah inspector from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) interviewed Co-Op miners here December 16. It was the fourth round of interviews of these miners conducted by the government agency in the last two months.

“We decided to go directly to the MSHA to make them fully aware of all the dangers we have seen,” said Rigo Rodríguez, who has worked at Co-Op for 14 years and was a witness to two fatalities. “It’s no good what they do at this mine. It’s time to put a stop to this.”

The coal miners have been on strike for three months against CW Mining, also known here as Co-Op. The company, owned by the Kingston family, locked out the miners September 22 after they had walked off the job to protest the suspension of one of their fellow workers, William Estrada, and unsafe working conditions. The miners were involved in organizing themselves into the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

One of the issues in the strike is the dangerous mining conditions and lack of adequate training for the miners. That is why the Co-Op strikers went to the local MSHA office in Price and demanded an investigation of the situation.

The miners recounted many stories. On Dec. 23, 1996, Rodríguez was working next to a mechanic, Harvey Randall, when a slab of coal—9.5-feet long, 2-4 feet wide, and 1-2 feet thick—slid off the continuous mining machine crushing Randall on his chest and stomach. He died next to Rodríguez, who barely escaped injury. “My lamp battery on my waist got caught between the coal rock and the continuous miner,” said Rodríguez. “I was stepping on Harvey’s feet as I tried to free myself. He laid on the floor dying from the injuries.”

Rodríguez worked in the same mine where Alejandro Medina, a continuous miner operator, died after a rib—13 feet long, 5 feet high, and 3 feet thick—fell on him in 1999. MSHA cited the company at the time with four 104d violations, which mean that the bosses knowingly caused the conditions that led to the death. The investigation concluded that the mine did not have adequate hazard and roof control training and did not have adequate pre-shift and on-shift examinations. The 1999 MSHA report said that “Loose, hazardous rib conditions, that were not taken down (barred down) or supported at the accident site, were the direct cause of the fatal accident on July 15, 1999.” Of the last six fatalities in Utah coal mines, three have taken place at Co-Op.

Rodríguez and 12 other Co-Op miners went to the Utah MSHA Field Office in Price for the first time on October 29. They met for several hours with supervisory MSHA inspector Ted Farmer.

William Estrada was part of this delegation. He said that after several miners described the conditions at the mine, Farmer stopped and said he was going to call the regional MSHA office in Colorado. “Farmer told us that what we were describing was so serious that he needed to get special investigators involved,” Estrada said.

Miners reported to Farmer that the mining certification classes are given by Co-Op employee José Ortega, who charges them between $250 and $300, in cash only. The College of Eastern Utah and a local contractor, Rocky Mountain Miner, offer the same classes in Price for $120.

Ortega, who works at the Co-Op mine, is a rompehuelga, the Spanish word for a scab, several miners pointed out. According to the Co-Op strikers, Ortega makes $18 an hour—compared to the $5.25 to $7 an hour most other miners were paid—and has been visiting strikers at home trying to convince them to cross the picket line. So far, the strikers reported with pride, he has only succeeded in getting one miner to cross.

Just a few days after the October visit in Price, MSHA contacted the miners and said it wanted to begin taking affidavits from them, strikers reported. In November more than 30 Co-Op miners met three MSHA special investigators at the UMWA District 22 office in Price. The investigators only completed eight interviews that day.

“The following week MSHA inspectors went to the mine to investigate the training records and accident reports of the company,” Estrada said. “At one point there were five inspectors inside the mine. We have a notebook in the trailer at the picket line with copies of the violations they wrote up on the mine.”

CW Mining operates the Bear Canyon mines, which are popularly known as the Co-Op mines. There are three portals in this canyon. In one, known as the Hiawatha Seam or Bear Canyon #1, miners have always complained of dangerous roof tops and inadequate roof supports.

“This mine is very dangerous,” said Rodríguez. “After roof falls at the entry way, the bosses sent us in through a hole in the return. That is the only entry and only exit now. We were never sure if we were going to come out after we went in. If the roof collapses there, you’re trapped.”

Rodríguez described how the mine managers wanted to rescue equipment and secure access to water from that mine. “They had five of us going in there to build cribs everywhere to support bad top,” he said. “We rescued the roof bolter, the feeder, much of the belt and rollers. Others rescued the transformers, water pipes, and other small equipment in the middle of these conditions. I never saw an MSHA inspector at this mine during all this time. The company got away with using the short 48-inch bolts to secure the roof. That was a big part of the problem.”

Three serious roof falls occurred in the first six months of 2003 at Bear Canyon #1. The most dangerous took place on January 14 when a roof top 120 feet long and 20 feet high suddenly collapsed. A coal hauler operator jumped out and ran over to safety. The hauler equipment remains buried under the mountain, a miner reported.

Five MSHA investigators, one fluent in Spanish, returned to finish the interviews. They came to the picket line trailer to do the job. Miners said that the trailer was packed all day with strikers waiting to describe their experiences at the Co-Op mine.

On December 16, the investigators came back to get additional testimony. Several miners described the lack of training they received. The Mine Health and Safety Act requires coal operators to provide eight hours of annual refresher training classes. One miner said he told the investigators that he received only two hours of training and was charged $100 for the class given to him by José Ortega. According to several miners who reported similar problems, the investigators said it is illegal to charge for the eight-hour annual refresher.

Another miner said that the initial training he received from Ortega lasted three days, two hours per day, at Ortega’s house. He was charged $300 and was told by Ortega to say he had gotten 40 hours of new miner training—instead of six—if he was asked by MSHA inspectors or the bosses.

Several miners pointed out that the classes given in Price were offered only in English, so they had no option but to take the classes by Ortega because he gave them in Spanish.

One miner said he explained to investigators that bosses used intimidation and threats against the workers who complained about unsafe conditions or injuries on a regular basis. He said the crew he was on would ride up the steep mountain into the mine in the back of an open pick up truck driven by a boss. On one shift the crew told the boss to stop at the office for supplies. The boss slammed on the brakes, throwing the crew in the back all around. The miner said he was thrown against the side of the truck jamming his finger. When he described the incident and the injury to the production foreman, he replied, “I don’t want to hear you complaining about your boss or you won’t have a job here anymore,” the miner said.

One of the miners interviewed was Jesús Salazar, who has worked at the Co-Op mine for four years as a mechanic. “During all the time I have worked at Co-Op, the company has always forced workers to operate unsafe equipment,” Salazar said. “Even after an MSHA inspector tagged equipment out of service, the foremen would order the workers to operate it unrepaired, after the inspector left. Numerous injuries occurred because of it.”
Related articles:
At Christmas party, Co-Op miners get strong support from nearby UMWA local
Co-Op miners salute striking meat packers

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