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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 68/No. 46December 14, 2004

lead article
Utah: Co-Op miners expose unsafe working conditions
Fight bosses’ threats to fire UMWA supporters
Militant photos by Terri Moss
November 29 press conference outside MSHA office in Price, Utah (left). From left: Dee Rowland, of Catholic diocese in Salt Lake City, and John Rowland; Co-Op miner Timoteo González; Renée López, spouse of UMWA retiree; Co-Op miner Bill Estrada; and UMWA retiree Raymond Cisneros. With back to camera is Ann Fivecoat, wife of retired miner. Accident at nearby Dugout Canyon mine, owned by Arch Coal, nearly killed coal miner Pat Dirks, to whom Co-Op miners sent get-well card. Skyline Mine (right) is also owned by Arch Coal.

PRICE, Utah—“We the miners at Co-Op and other miners heard about your serious accident at the Dugout Mine and want to extend our solidarity. We know that the coal companies are always pushing so hard for production, and that is what causes accidents. Coal miners have to depend on ourselves for safer mines. Get well soon.”

So reads the get-well card to Pat Dirks signed by more than 30 miners. Dirks, a roof bolter at the Dugout Canyon mine owned by Arch Coal, suffered near-fatal injuries November 22 when he was struck by a massive slab of rock that fell from the roof.

The solidarity gesture was a centerpiece of the statement by Bill Estrada, a leader of the Co-Op miners’ union-organizing struggle, to a news conference held in front of the offices of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) here November 29.

Estrada was backed by a delegation of Co-Op miners, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) retirees, and Dee Rowland, a representative of the Salt Lake City diocese of the Catholic Church. The Co-Op miners, fighting to win representation by the UMWA and standing up to threats of wholesale firings by their bosses, assembled to place before MSHA a list of safety violations at Co-Op.

The list included illegal cuts of 55 feet into the coal seam, when the maximum allowed in that mine is 40 feet. Estrada informed those present that the Co-Op management has failed to make readily available to the miners for their review the roof control plan for Co-Op’s #4 mine. He also said workers are exposed to diesel exhaust fumes from the mechanics shop on the surface due to inadequate ventilation.

Estrada described other recent attacks by the company. “C.W. Mining managers have been threatening mass firings of Co-Op miners,” he said. “They are using new and arbitrary production standards as well as claims that foreign-born miners don’t have proper documentation.”

Retired miner Bob Fivecoat later told the Militant that he sees these attacks as the company’s attempt to intimidate and threaten supporters of the UMWA. “They are trying to get rid of the leaders of this fight,” he said. “They figure that if they fire them the rest will get in line.”

These escalating attacks on the miners come in the wake of rulings against C.W. Mining by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in November of this year. The NLRB ruled that 47 miners were entitled to back pay for the nearly 10 months they were on strike between September 2003, when they were illegally fired, and July of this year. The labor board also ruled that members of the Kingston family, which owns the mine, will be excluded from voting in the union representation election.

In response to the recent attacks, two dozen Co-Op miners signed the following petition to the NLRB: “We the undersigned demand that the National Labor Relations Board, Region 27, immediately sanction C.W. Mining for ongoing harassment on the job, threats of mass firings, and physical abuse against employees involved in a union organizing effort at the Co-Op mine in Huntington, Utah in violation of the settlement agreement between C.W. Mining and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) signed by both parties July 2004, case number: 27-CA-18764-1.”

This petition is being circulated more widely. Speaking on behalf of the Catholic Church diocese in Salt Lake City, Rowland stated that she would start gathering signatures on the miners’ petition and would call and fax the NLRB. She added that this fight would be reported in the Intermountain Catholic News.

In the settlement agreement cited in the petition the Co-Op owners said, “We 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 the United Mine Workers of America.” The law referred to here is the National Labor Relations Act.

Alyson Kennedy, one of the Co-Op miners, filed a police report November 22 after a supervisor shoved her. The attack took place in the foremen’s office as Kennedy and two other miners—Jesús Leyva and Bill Estrada—were speaking with another supervisor who was threatening to fire Kennedy and other workers for alleged failure to meet arbitrary production standards.

Letters by Co-Op mine manager Charles Reynolds threatening to fire those who cannot prove proper documentation to work have been given to most foreign-born workers at the mine. A sample was made available at the news conference. These letters state: “You must provide to C.W. Mining Co., on or before December 9, 2004, valid documentation showing your eligibility to work. Failure to provide such documentation will result in your termination.”

The company deadline is only seven days before the tentative date set for the union election—December 16.

UMWA representatives and Co-Op miners are organizing to visit every worker in the mine eligible to vote in the upcoming election.

“We are going out to visit miners in the coming days,” UMWA organizer Roy Fernandez told the Militant. “The UMWA is organizing volunteers, including a list of retired miners who have volunteered to speak with Co-Op miners about voting for the union.”

Fernandez also expressed the opposition of the UMWA to the recent letter by Co-Op mine manager Charles Reynolds threatening miners with dismissals. “This is another scare tactic by the company to harass employees,” said Fernandez. “This could be an unfair labor practice charge. The company can not intimidate or coerce employees before an election.”

Following the news conference, miners and their supporters met with MSHA officials to present their safety complaints. Miners reported that more examples of safety violations by C.W. Mining were discussed in the two-hour session. One noted that a piece of mining equipment makes unbearably loud noises and that miners have to pay for additional ear protection. Another said that the company informs department foremen ahead of time when MSHA inspectors enter the property and organizes to stop miners from carrying out their normal work until the inspectors leave.

“They tell us to stop welding and clean the area or cover it up and to clear any smoke that’s in the shop,” said Timoteo González, a welder in the shop located on the surface of the mine. “It would be good to have a safety committee. We could name an organizer and the committee could take responsibility in reporting to MSHA.”

Miners said that MSHA officials urged them to call as soon as possible after an unsafe practice is observed.

“We have the right to choose the United Mine Workers of America as our union,” Estrada told the press. “We call on all working people, trade unionists, religious and social justice groups, as well as immigrant rights advocates to support us against the desperate attacks by C.W. Mining that have failed to block our fight for union representation, safer working conditions, and dignity on the job.”

Estrada urged supporters to write or call the MSHA; write, call, or fax NLRB Region 27 Director B. Allan Benson; and send copies of such letters and messages of support to the Co-Op miners.

The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret Morning News, Utah’s two main dailies, and the Price Sun Advocate covered the news conference outside the MSHA office.

The MSHA can be contacted at 215. E. Main Street, Price, UT 84501; Tel: (435) 637-3051.

Letters to the National Labor Relations Board should be sent to NLRB 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 letters to the MSHA and NLRB and messages of support should be sent to the Co-Op Miners, UMWA District 22, 525 East, 100 South, Price, UT 84501. Tel: (435) 637-2037; Fax: (435) 637-9456.
Related articles:
Fight for safety on the job

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