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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 69/No. 01January 11, 2005

lead article
Utah coal miners vote for union
Militant/Teri Moss

Co-Op miners and union organizers gather at town hall parking lot in Huntington, Utah, 6:30 a.m. December 17, prior to union representation election. Left, back: UMWA organizers Roy Fernández and Bob Butero. From left, front: Ricardo Chávez, Alyson Kennedy, Berthila León, Servando Rodríguez, José Contreras, Apolonio Acosta, Jesús Salazar, Raymundo Silva, Miguel Bojorquez, Juan Salazar (kneeling), Avel Olivas, Jesús Leyva, and Ana María Sánchez.

HUNTINGTON, Utah—It was 6:30 a.m. December 17 when 25 Co-Op miners met at the parking lot of the town hall here. It was dark and cold but the coal miners’ spirits were high. After a 15-month struggle they were finally going to cast their ballots in a union representation election for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

All the miners gathered that morning had recently been fired by the Kingstons, the capitalist family that owns the Co-Op mine on the outskirts of Huntington. One week before the union election, C.W. Mining, which operates the mine, discharged nearly 30 foreign-born workers for supposedly not having proper work documents. The miners, some of whom have worked at Co-Op up to a decade, readily point out they have the same papers they showed the company when they were hired and under which they have worked for C.W. Mining throughout their employment.

“Whenever you have a group of immigrants, there’s an assumption that some of them may be undocumented,” UMWA organizer Bob Guilfoyle told the press on the eve of the election. “We don’t know. We’ve never asked, and it’s none of our business as far as we’re concerned. These are our brother and sister miners. They’re workers just like we are. The fact that they were willing to stand up and draw a line in the sand with this employer—I think a lot of people admire their courage.”

At the town hall, miners checked over their lists to see if everyone eligible to vote was on hand. They made phone calls to the few miners who were late and organized other miners to go pick them up. Once leaders of the union effort were convinced that everybody who could have possibly assembled was there, the miners gathered for a photo for the media and then proceeded in a car caravan up the canyon to the mine.

The mood among the miners once they arrived in front of the bathhouse voting station at the mine was festive. They joked about all of the Kingston family members showing up to vote, and congratulated one another for having gotten this far in the struggle.

“I feel very positive about the vote,” said Jesús Leyva, one of the recently fired miners. “We organized ourselves, going in as a group to vote. We showed we were strong.” Miners reported by the end of the voting day that all but one of the workers they were counting on to turn out and help win the election for the UMWA had voted.

Region 27 of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had ruled that no Kingston family members or supervisory personnel could vote in the election. But the owners and the International Association of United Workers Union (IAUWU), which miners say is run by the company, appealed the local board’s ruling to the national NLRB. As a result, miners estimated, more than 100 Kingston family members and management personnel voted. Their ballots, however, were sealed until a decision is made about the Kingston and IAUWU appeal. Similarly, all but a few of the miners’ ballots were challenged by the bosses and those were also placed in sealed envelopes. UMWA organizers told this reporter they expected all but a handful of ballots would be challenged before the end of the voting.

The results won’t be announced until these challenges are resolved. Workers had three choices on the ballot: UMWA, IAUWU, or neither.

The Co-Op bosses seemed irritated by the buoyant mood among the miners. Several foremen could be seen staring at the assembled workers outside the bathhouse. When the miners started pointing at them and joking among themselves about which supervisors were at the window, the bosses turned out the lights so they could continue watching but not be seen.

“We don’t expect an early resolution,” said Bob Butero, UMWA Region 4 director. “Our job now is to try to keep things together, which includes helping miners get other work and do fund-raising to relieve the financial strains until this is resolved.”

Shortly after the miners cast their ballots the morning of December 17, Emery County sheriff’s deputies could be seen going around the neighborhoods here serving court papers. Seventeen Co-Op miners and the UMWA are being sued in federal court for “unfair labor practices” and “defaming” the owners of the mine.  
Further company harassment
Other labor organizations—including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME Council 6, PACE union, and United Auto Workers—are also named as defendants. The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret Morning News—Utah’s two main dailies—and the Militant are cited as well. These defendants are being sued for defamation of the Kingstons, based on either expressing some kind of support for the Co-Op miners or printing articles that quote groups and individuals who support the miners.

The original complaint filed by the Kingstons’ lawyers in federal court in September has now been amended. The new complaint aims to rewrite the story of the strike, Co-Op miners say, and more sharply go after the UMWA and others who have backed the miners’ fight. In an effort to split those supporting the miners, the Kingston’s attorneys have dropped a number of defendants named in the earlier version of the lawsuit. Those no longer cited include all entities related to the Catholic Church, the local newspapers in Carbon and Emery counties, and a number of individual activists who have supported the miners over the past 15 months.

The amended Kingston complaint now accuses the UMWA through one of its “agents” of misrepresenting the actions of the Co-Op mine bosses when they fired Bill Estrada, one of the UMWA backers at the mine, on Sept. 22, 2003.

The lawsuit reads: “On or about September 22, 2004 [sic] CWM [C. W. Mining] suspended Bill Estrada with intent to terminate for cause. Estrada did not seek IAUWU’s help or otherwise challenge his termination through the grievance process of IAUWU’s collective bargaining agreement. While management was meeting with Estrada, some of the workers gathered outside. When Estrada left the meeting he falsely told the waiting workers they had also been fired. This was a material misrepresentation of a presently existing fact, which Estrada made either intentionally or with reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Estrada intended that the workers would rely on his misrepresentation, which they did reasonably rely on to their detriment by, among other things, leaving their jobs, and engaging in a wildcat strike. At all pertinent times Estrada was UMWA’s agent.”

The complaint further states, “The workers have claims against UMWA and its agents including Estrada for unfair labor practices, fraud, intentional interference with their present and prospective economic relationships with CWM and IAUWU, civil conspiracy, and possibly other claims. Defendants Aguilar, Chavez, Hector and Natividad Flores, Daniel and Guillermo Hernandez, Kennedy, Leon, Olivas, Panduro, Rodriguez, Gonzalo, Jesus and Jose Juan Salazar, Sanchez, and Villa [the 16 Co-Op miners who are being sued along with Estrada] in particular have cross claims against UMWA and its agents under the above legal theories for lost wages and punitive damages, as well as claims for indemnity on any judgment that may be entered against them in this action. Pursuant to Utah Rules of Professional Conduct… this gives rise to an irreconcilable conflict of interest that precludes attorneys from representing UMWA and its agents and also representing the workers in this action.”

“The Kingstons are attempting to rewrite history and obscure what miners have been fighting for over the past 15 months,” Bill Estrada told the press, responding to these allegations. “The miners were responding not only to my firing but to two other disciplinary actions by the bosses against workers in the days preceding my firing. After I was fired, the miners as a group were making their opinions known to the bosses that I should be put back on the job, and refusing to back down. That’s when management called the cops, ordered all of the miners off the property, and locked us out.”

C.W. Mining attorneys state their intention in the Kingstons’ lawsuit to prove allegations of defamation by the UMWA and the Militant newspaper through discovery. This legal process, which can be used if the judge is not convinced to dismiss the case in the early stages, opens up the defendants to massive legal expenses as the Kingstons’ lawyers organize a fishing expedition. Through discovery lawyers can legally demand all kinds of correspondence, records, and depositions from the defendants. This process is often used, not primarily to back up allegations but to exhaust opponents and bleed them dry financially.

“This is a frivolous lawsuit,” said Butero. “The union’s attorneys will represent the miners and we will try to get this dismissed.”  
Two-pronged battle
Following the union vote, Co-Op miners held several meetings at the union hall in Price to decide how to continue their fight. Only a couple of union supporters remain working at the mine, which miners said can’t last long. The miners met with their lawyer about the Kingston lawsuit, started organizing to help everyone find work, and discussed the next steps in a fund-raising effort to help miners get through the holidays and survive in the coming weeks.

“This is a two-pronged battle now,” said Butero. “We don’t have a blueprint for how to organize this fight, but we know the fight to win our case before the NLRB about the illegal actions of C.W. Mining, and the fight to win some kind of immigration status for every one of these miners, go hand in hand.

“We have approached members of Congress in Utah and other parts of the country to help resolve this matter. We are also welcoming suggestions on how to do this. The blatant violations by the Kingstons against the rights of these workers—some of whom have been on the mine payroll for years and then getting fired just a week before a union vote—that injustice alone should qualify each and every one of these workers for some kind of status where they can work without fear of these kinds of reprisals.”

The Co-Op miners said they are asking their supporters to help with generous financial contributions, and the need is immediate. Especially during the holiday season, miners expect added expenses and fewer job prospects. Several unions and individuals have already contributed to the miners’ fund. Supporters of the miners’ fight in Salt Lake City are donating turkeys and children’s gifts to the families of the recently fired workers.

Contributions made out to “Co-Op Miners” can be sent to UMWA District 22 at 525 East, 100 South, Price, UT 84501.

Miners are also urging their supporters to write, call, or fax the NLRB to protest the actions of the Co-Op owners and demand the miners be given their jobs back and the election be decided based on the NLRB’s rulings for who was eligible to vote.

Letters to the NLRB should be sent to Region 27, Director B. Allan Benson at 600 17th Street, 7th floor—North Tower, Denver, CO 80202-5433; Tel: (303) 844-3551; Fax: (303) 844-6249. Copies of any messages should be sent to the UMWA at the above address or faxed to (435) 637-9456.
Related articles:
400 at Utah event mark 20 years since Wilberg mine disaster
Bosses’ drive ‘to make the almighty dollar’ killed workers, says mother of deceased miner

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