If we win, it will be a victory for all miners in the region, said Juan Salazar, a leader of the miners fighting for UMWA representation. If we lose, other coal companies will be bolder in trying to do the same things Co-Op did, he added, referring to low wages, unsafe working conditions, and harassment by the bosses on the job. Addressing the challenge of organizing workers who largely labor in nonunion mines throughout the western United States, Salazar said, All miners need the UMWA. Not just for better pay, but for safety and for dignity on the job, and to protect ourselves against the attempts by the bosses to victimize us.
Mike Dalpiaz, UMWA international at-large vice president, addressed the meeting. Other speakers included UMWA officers from Arizona and representatives of the Operating Engineers, another union that organizes coal miners in the West.
My Hispanic brothers and sisters here are up against the Kingstons, the owners of C.W. Mining, said Wilburg Willey of UMWA Local 1332, based in Window Rock, Arizona. I and my Navajo brothers and sisters feel it is our fight also. Most of the workers at that mine are Navajo.
Wars Peterman, president of International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 953, drove up from New Mexico to attend the event. This local organizes coal miners at BHP mines in the Farmington, New Mexico, area as well as other workers throughout that state and western Texas. 2006 is a big contract year for underground miners at BHP, Peterman said. We will be facing company demands to take away medical benefits. In the event of a strike, the IUOE miners will look for the solidarity and experience of the Co-Op miners to help them stay strong.
How Co-Op fight unfolded
In his presentation, Salazar walked through the history of the fight. On Sept. 22, 2003, the company fired 75 miners for union activity, sticking up for one another, he said. From there, we turned a lockout into a strike. After 10 months on the picket line, we were able to force the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] to order the company to take all the workers back.
We won a back-pay settlement for our time on strike. But we have yet to receive a penny, Salazar said. The miners returned to work last July. The NLRB subsequently authorized a union representation election, based on a petition the UMWA had filed on behalf of the striking miners.
Salazar said the miners worked for five months, often under attack from the company. He cited several examples of harassment by the bosses, including the case of Ricardo Chávez, who was discriminated against when the company kept him from working, claiming he had improper training. The Mine Safety and Health Administration [MSHA] ruled he is entitled to compensation. But the company has not paid this either, Salazar said. So, while that ruling was important, we have been handed another symbolic victory. And we dont want a symbolic victory. We want a real victory. We want union representation at the mine.
Bill Estrada, another leader of the organizing struggle, also spoke. It is long overdue for the NLRB to count the ballots that 27 pro-UMWA miners cast December 17 in the union election, and reinstate the 30 miners fired for union activity shortly before the vote, he said, encouraging supporters of the fight to keep the pressure on.
We are fighting not only the company but the stalling by the NLRB and the indifference of MSHA, Estrada said. We have no illusions that these government agencies will hand us a victory.
One week before the December 17 union representation election, C.W. Mining fired most UMWA backers at the mine saying that the workers would not provide additional proof of their eligibility to work in the United States. Salazar said the firings were a violation of the NLRB agreement that stated the company could not use immigration threats against workers. But that is exactly what they did. The firings had nothing to do with immigration status. They fired us for union activity. Miners pointed out several of them worked at Co-Op for many years with the same documentation that only became an issue shortly before the union vote.
Unsafe conditions, harassment lawsuit
Estrada painted a picture of what nonunion miners in the area face beyond the Co-Op mine, highlighting why miners need the union to fight for safety.
A mine 10 miles from here was recently shut down for two days for excessive accumulations of methane gas, he said, referring to the Andalex Tower mine. Methane is a highly explosive gas present in coal seams. He recounted a discussion with a worker at this mine who explained he and other co-workers are regularly instructed by the bosses to work under methane levels twice the amount allowed by law.
At the nearby Dugout mine, Estrada said, a miner was almost killed when the roof fell in last fall. MSHA blamed the injured worker, he said. And MSHA blamed his co-workers for rushing in to save him without first supporting the roof. MSHA cited the two workers who rushed to remove a massive rock from the miner for not placing jack stands in the area before helping their injured co-worker. Such a delay could have cost the miner his life, Estrada said.
The conditions most miners are forced to labor under today mean the unions are the present and future for working people, he added. They are not a thing of the past.
Estrada also detailed the attempt by the Kingston family to try to shut us up through a harassment lawsuit launched against 17 miners, the UMWA, supporters of the organizing fight, and several newspapers. In this way, he said, The bosses hope to intimidate people from speaking up. We are not afraid of being sued because we are speaking the truth. A public face is the best way to respond.
Mike Dalpiaz, representing the UMWA, described the cooperation of UMWA attorneys in filing a response to the Kingston lawsuit for the union and for the 17 miners with attorneys for the Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret Morning News, and other defendants. He explained the motions to dismiss the Kingston lawsuit on behalf of nearly 100 defendants draw on each other. It has been a united effort, he noted. (See also coverage in last weeks Militant and related article in this issue.)
Stakes are high
Bob Fivecoat, a member of UMWA Local 9958, chaired the program and recognized several people present. Among them were Tain Curtis and Tom Memmott of Deer Creek UMWA Local 1769, Ed Hinkle from UMWA local 1984 at the Deserado mine in Colorado, and George Neckel from Utah Jobs with Justice.
Two miners from the Seneca mine in Colorado, members of UMWA Local 1385, attended as well. A week earlier four Co-Op miners had taken part in that locals monthly meeting. Seneca is a surface mine, owned by Peabody Coal, that employs 100 miners. It is one of only two mines organized by the UMWA in northwest Colorado. Peabody announced it will close Seneca at the end of this year and increase production at its nonunion Twenty-Mile mine from 8 million to 12 million tons annually in three years.
Ann and Bob Fivecoat handle the Co-Op Miners Fund. They receive many messages, some of which Ann read to the crowd. One of them, signed by 60 miners, read: We are members of Local 1248 in Pennsylvania. We can understand your situation more now as we just lost our jobs permanently, because of the Greedy Coal Boss, Bob Murray, who laid us off at the beginning of March. These attacks are what bosses are trying to do all over the country. We congratulate you on the fight you have put up for 17 months and salute your efforts to get the union in and win back your jobs. Miners who signed the message worked at the Maple Creek mine in Fallowfield Township, Pennsylvania. More than 300 workers who have lost their jobs are represented by the UMWA.
They can fire us, they can put us in jail, they can threaten us, but we will win, said Wilburg Willey of UMWA Local 1332, which has gone through four strikes in the last 30 years. Because our mine is 90 percent Navajo, the company has tried to put us down. They tried to take away our medical insurance, Willey said. We have won our strikes. We have always believed in no steps backwards. Were going to win here too!
Wars Peterman of the Operating Engineers invited participants to a womens conference co-sponsored by his union and the University of New Mexico Law School on April 18. The union is building The Changing Woman Conference among women miners at BHP and other working women. Peterman said the conference idea was developed by a number of women who are union members and work at the BHP surface and underground mines. The conference will include workshops and other presentations on issues such as discrimination in the workplace and sexual harassment.
Before the presentations, everyone enjoyed a Mexican meal of posole and flautas, and huge platters of turkey and salad. The mealwhich was topped off with tres leches cake for desertwas prepared by Co-Op miners, their families, and supporters.
After the program ended, a raffle was drawn that included many prizesfrom union pins and hats to books on the history of the labor movement and handicrafts donated by supporters of the miners.
Raffle ticket sales during the previous four weeks netted more than $1,500. Proceeds came from tables miners and their supporters set up in the nearby towns of Huntington and Sunnyside, at union meetings in Utah and Colorado, at political events in Salt Lake City, and by people selling them to their co-workers and neighbors. Participants contributed another $2,300 at the event for the Co-Op Miners Fund.
Fight to organize the non-union mines
George Neckel of Utah Jobs with Justice worked with a food pantry in Salt Lake City to box up some three tons of food to bring to the miners. Neckel said 10 people came to the Union Labor Center in Salt Lake City early in the morning with further donationsincluding diapers, toiletries, and soapafter reading an article in the Salt Lake Tribune announcing that cars would caravan from that spot to the rally in Price.
Two university students from Salt Lake filmed the event and conducted interviews. They are gathering footage for a documentary on the Co-Op fight.
Tom Memmott, a union miner at the Deer Creek mine in Huntington who has worked in the mines for 27 years, commended the Co-Op miners for sticking it out and not running when the Kingstons fired them . We used to think of miners at nonunion mines as scabs, but I dont think that anymore. Most of the mines around here are not union right now, and I understand you have to work. I call them nonunion miners and well be there for them when they fight to organize these mines.
Leaders of the Co-Op fight urged supporters to keep up the pressure on the NLRB. Letters protesting the firing of the Co-Op miners and demanding their reinstatement, and urging the NLRB to count the votes of the pro-UMWA miners, should be addressed to: B. Allan Benson, NLRB Region 27 Director, 600 17th St. 7th FloorNorth Tower, Denver, CO 80202-5433. Tel: (303) 844-3551; Fax: (303) 844-6249.
Contributions, messages of support, and copies of letters to the NLRB should be sent to Co-Op Miners Fund c/o UMWA District 22, 525 East 100 South, Price, UT 84501.
Turning victim into criminal
Latest news in Kingston harassment lawsuit
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