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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 68/No. 27July 27, 2004

lead article
Utah coal miners march back to work at Co-Op
Vow to change job conditions on way to winning union election
Militant/Terri Moss
Co-Op coal miners lead march to mine July 6, following unconditional company offer to return after 10-month strike.

HUNTINGTON, Utah—On the morning of July 6, about 100 coal miners and their supporters gathered at a local baseball field here. They prepared to march up the hill on Bear Canyon Road to the Co-Op mine to deliver 50 individually signed letters from Co-Op strikers notifying the company they are getting back on the job after an unconditional offer by the bosses to return to work.

“We are letting the mine owners know we are coming back to work stronger than we were last September,” Juan Salazar, one of the strike leaders, told the gathering. “We know our rights. We are not going to let them intimidate us. They can’t interfere with our efforts to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), to put union stickers on our hard hats, to join together. We are going to win this election.”

Bill Estrada, another strike leader, said, “We are determined to win the struggle for a union and a contract. That will only be won by fighting at the same time to better the conditions in the mine. From day one, we will have a safety committee in the mine to defend miners’ rights.”

“When we go back we will defend ourselves against any attack by the company,” Salazar added, to loud applause and whistling. “We will be united and we are not going to let them get away with injustices, like they did before.”

After the kick-off rally, the miners and their backers set off on a 25-car caravan that took them close to the mine entrance, where they met another two van loads of supporters organized by a UMWA retiree from the area.

The march stepped off with the Co-Op miners in the lead carrying the banner of UMWA District 22, which organizes miners in the West. Dozens of supporters from Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico followed. For many of the miners, on strike for the past 10 months, it was their first time on this road since they were fired for union activity on September 22 of last year.

In a breakthrough in the miners’ battle to be represented by the UMWA, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had ruled at the end of June that the 75 miners had been fired illegally and ordered C.W. Mining Co. to reinstate all of them.

Representatives of the Kingston family, which owns the mine, had vowed never to rehire the strikers.

This victory sets the stage for the next round in the miners’ fight for UMWA representation, with an NLRB-mandated union election coming up in August, to be followed by the fight for a contract, workers said.

Rather than reporting to the company separately, the miners had decided to march together to the mine, and invited strike supporters to come with them.

Chants of “S se puede!” (Yes, we can), “Union, Now!” “UMWA, UMWA!” and “Union Yes!” reverberated as the miners and their backers marched half a mile up the hill on Bear Canyon Road to the Co-Op mine.

Among those in the march were representatives of UMWA Local 1769 from the nearby Dear Creek Mine; retired miners from UMWA Local 9958, a retirees local in Sunnyside, Utah; a representative of UMWA Local 1332 on the Navajo Nation near the Arizona and New Mexico border; and a coal miner from UMWA Local 1984 at the Deserado mine near Rangely, Colorado.

Also on hand were several carloads of trade unionists and other strike supporters from Salt Lake City, and members of the Catholic Church from Huntington, Price, and Salt Lake City.

Grant Howell, a UMWA retiree from Local 6788, organized two van loads from the Carbon County Senior Citizens Center in Price. Most of these 28 strike supporters were widows of miners.

Members of International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 953 at the BHP mine near Farmington, New Mexico, arrived after the march and joined a barbecue and rally that wound up the day’s events.  
Co-Op bosses respond
Charles Reynolds, Co-Op personnel manager, met the miners’ contingent in front of the scale house where coal trucks are weighed before leaving the mine. Bob Butero, UMWA Region 4 director, presented Reynolds with the 50 letters signed by the illegally fired miners stating they accepted the company’s unconditional offer to go back to work.

Upon receiving the letters, Reynolds said the Co-Op bosses plan to abide by the recent NLRB ruling. He also stated that the mine currently has a contract with another “union,” the so-called International Association of United Workers Union (IAUWU). This is a sham outfit controlled by the Co-Op bosses and Kingston family members, miners say.

Standing next to Reynolds in front of the scale house, Chris Grundvig introduced himself to the media as the president of the IAUWU. After a few questions from the press, he was immediately confronted by a group of miners as he tried to answer questions about this so-called union. More miners gathered as the exchange heated up.  
Workers want a real union
“I’ve worked in this mine for 17 years and I’ve never been invited to a union meeting--not once,” said Guillermo Hernndez, responding to Grundvig’s claim that the miners did not have to seek representation from the UMWA. “It’s a lie there is a union here.”

“When was the last union meeting?” asked another miner, challenging Grundvig.

“How were you elected president? How many votes did you get?” a third miner asked.

Jess Salazar reminded Grundvig of the day Salazar broke his finger on the job and the company-run “union” did nothing to defend him when the bosses tried to force him back to work. “How can you be president of the union when you are a boss at the mine?” Salazar said.

Grundvig defended the $5.50 an hour wage paid to many Co-Op miners by claiming they were “inexperienced” and no other company would hire them. He also claimed experienced workers at the mine make up to $16 an hour. But when pressed by the miners to say how many earn those wages, Grundvig said he only knew of one worker who made that much. Increasingly on the defensive, Grundvig alleged that the miners confronting him hadn’t worked at the mine long enough to really know what was going on.

Jess Galaviz, a utility worker, countered that he had worked at the mine for six years and was paid less than $6 an hour. Others told similar stories. Prior to the September 22 lockout there were less than 15 “yellow hats” in the mine, said a number of miners. They were referring to the yellow-colored hardhat worn by workers who have been in the mine less than a year. Most of the strikers are “black hats,” meaning they have had at least one year of experience in working underground. Many Co-Op miners have also worked in other mines in the region.

“I’ve never worked a day in this mine, but I know exactly what is going on here against the workers,” said Ed Hinkle, a veteran miner from the Deserado mine, speaking to the mine boss dressed up as a “union representative.”

A reporter asked Grundvig about the allegations made by some of the scabs working in the mine during the strike, who said that the mine superintendent has attended the IAUWU meetings held since last September.

Grundvig said the boss is invited and welcome at the “union” meetings.

As it became obvious that the company’s stunt was backfiring, Reynolds intervened, saying the miners and their supporters were slowing down production and would have to leave.

As the miners marched back down the hill to their cars, Ed Hinkle led a chant, with everyone joining in, “Hey hey, ho ho; phony union has got to go!”

The march did not go unnoticed by some of the miners who had crossed the picket line during the strike. A number of them watched from the windows of the bathhouse as the spirited march left the mine property.  
Miners’ fight for safety
The miners made it clear to the Co-Op bosses they do not plan to settle for business as usual after returning to work, and prior to the union election in August. Before the miners had begun their march back down Bear Canyon Road, Reynolds said they would have to take an eight-hour refresher safety course before returning to their jobs.

Suspecting that the Co-Op bosses would attempt to continue their practice of having someone they consider a company stool pigeon give the classes, several strikers yelled out, “Who’s going to give the safety training?”

When Reynolds responded that Jos Ortega would likely give the classes, many miners shouted back, “We don’t want him!”

Jos Ortega is under investigation, several miners said, insisting, “he is not going to train us.” The miners have submitted testimony to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) about the inadequate safety training many of them received from Ortega prior to the strike. Several miners pointed out that Ortega routinely gave only five or six hours of instruction for the federally-mandated 32-hour course. Not only was the training inadequate, the miners explained, but Ortega also gouged every potential miner up to $350 for the classes—a service that costs $120 at the local college.

“With the assistance of the UMWA, the miners will elect a safety committee,” said Bob Butero, speaking with reporters. “Under the federal Mine Safety and Health Act, workers at any coal mine—union or nonunion—can elect their own representatives to monitor and respond to safety violations in their worksite.”

The Co-Op strikers said they plan to use this provision in federal law to fight the bosses’ attempts to force them and any other miners already inside the mine to work under the same unsafe conditions as those before the strike.  
NLRB settlement
As part of the NLRB settlement between the UMWA and C.W. Mining, the miners are to return to work by July 12. The NLRB ruled that the miners were fired illegally and will get their chance to vote for the union of their choice.

According to the settlement, the company must post on the mine bulletin board a notice to employees explaining the provisions of the NLRB-brokered agreement. The notice is to be posted in English and Spanish and stay up for 60 days.

The notice says that “federal law gives you the right to form, join or assist a union; choose representatives to bargain with us on your behalf; act together with other employees for your benefit and protection.”

The company, the notice says, “will not discharge, give oral or written warnings to, suspend, or otherwise discriminate against you because you engage in concerted activity protected by Section 7 of the Act or other activity on behalf of United Mine Workers of America,” referring to the National Labor Relations Act. “We will not question you about your union or other concerted activity,” it continues. “We will not threaten you with discharge because you participate in union or other concerted activity. We will not threaten to attend meetings or bring immigration officials to meetings where you are engaged in union or other concerted activity. We will not watch you or give you the impression that we are watching you while you participate in union or other concerted activity. We will not in any like or related manner, interfere with, restrain, or coerce you in the exercise of the rights guaranteed you by Section 7 of the Act.”

The settlement also includes a back pay provision, the amount awarded to be negotiated between the company and the UMWA, which may be settled in court. The agreement states that miners who were fired have the right to pursue legal claims for damages against the company because of loss of wages or other benefits.  
Prominent press coverage
The NLRB settlement and the July 6 events received prominent press coverage in Utah. Most major state media sent reporters to cover the march to the Co-Op mine.

The July 3 Salt Lake City Tribune published a front-page article titled “Miners win back their jobs; Huntington workers aren’t celebrating, say safety, wages remain an issue.” The daily ran another front-page article in its July 7 issue with the headline, “Show of force; Armed with a settlement, miners march back to work.”

The same day, the Deseret Morning News published an article on the miners’ July 6 march, titled, “Co-Op miners say battle has just begun.” An editorial in the July 8 edition of the same paper concluded, “Next week, the miners have an opportunity to start fresh and, one hopes, negotiate a contract with the mine owners that ensures them a living wage and safe working conditions. Considering that this victory was a result of the miners’ dogged determination (illustrated by their round-the-clock picket at the mine since the lockout began last fall), and the assistance of local, state and international union activists, religious leaders and volunteers dedicated to the cause of social justice, ongoing attention will be required to ensure that the Co-Op miners achieve the dignity they seek.”  
New stage of struggle just beginning
The Co-Op miners put on a barbeque and another rally following the march to prepare their forces for the fight that lies ahead.

UMWA international executive board member Mike Dalpiaz pledged the union’s ongoing support to this fight. He saluted the courage of the miners to fight their way to this point. “The next steps will be to win the union election, and then to win a contract,” he said.

Bob Butero, one of the UMWA organizers who—along with Roy Fernandez, Larry Huestis, and Dallas Wolf—has worked with the strikers unstintingly over the past 10 months, thanked the many unions and other organizations that have responded with financial contributions, food, and other forms of solidarity for the Co-Op strikers. “We are only at the beginning,” he told those present.

Strike leaders are organizing discussions among the strikers to ensure that as many supporters of the union as possible return to work and join in helping to win the union-organizing battle. The company is hoping that some backers of the union will not come back, and that those who do can be persuaded or intimidated to abandon the struggle for the UMWA. A number of miners took other jobs during the strike, some of which pay substantially more than the Co-Op miners can expect to earn before winning the union and a contract.

An important NLRB hearing, which will be open to the public, is scheduled for July 20-22 in Price, Utah, to determine who will be eligible to vote in the union election.

Company union president Chris Grundvig, talking to reporters, claimed Co-Op already has more than 100 people working in the mine.

The miners said that 75 worked at Co-Op before the strike last year. They pointed out that Grundvig’s claim of 100 means the company is organizing to count every boss and numerous Kingston family members and close relatives as members of the company “union” in order to get them certified by the NLRB to vote in the union election to defeat the UMWA.  
Ongoing support for Co-Op miners
At the barbeque, union officials and others pledged ongoing support for the Co-Op miners.

Ed Mayne, president of the Utah AFL-CIO, brought greetings of solidarity from John Sweeney, president of the national union federation. Mayne also said that the Co-Op fight had inspired many in the labor movement. He invited the strikers to be featured speakers at the Rocky Mountain Labor School being held July 10-14 at the College of Eastern Utah in Price, where more than 200 union organizers and other officials from across the West will be meeting.

Sandy Jesus, a Navajo miner and president of UMWA Local 1332 near Gallup, New Mexico, also offered his local’s backing. “From my experience—and our local has plenty since we were on long strikes in 1974, 1987, 1995, and 2000—you need plenty of support,” he said. “The employers have all the laws on their side; our strength is in our numbers. The Co-Op miners have done an exemplary job—from the UMWA convention, to speaking before locals—in reaching out for solidarity.

“The Co-Op miners are different people today from when I first met them last year,” Jesus continued. “The march up to the mine today showed that. They are confident, and a UMWA local in that mine is really going to represent the workers. I am proud of what they have done.”

Miners at the giant BHP coal complex near Farmington, New Mexico, were also on hand to commit their help for the duration. Wars Peterman, president of the Operating Engineers local at BHP, explained, “Companies look at minorities like Navajos or Latinos and they say, ‘we can discriminate against them, we can pay them less.’ This has to stop. We are standing up today.”

Chris Barbee, a district representative of the same union, who also works at the BHP mine, added, “Miners must remain vigilant, together, and strong for the rest of our lives. We are dealing with an opponent who is not destroyed, and as long as that is the case we must remain vigilant and ready to fight, ready to support each other.”

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