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Vol. 76/No. 20      May 21, 2012

Illinois miners win
reinstatement of union stalwart
CHICAGO—One year after winning a union election at the southern Illinois Willow Lake coal mine, workers are still fighting to force the company, Peabody Energy Corp., to bargain with the United Mine Workers of America for a contract.

The miners scored a victory in that broader struggle April 30 when federal Judge G. Patrick Murphy issued an injunction ordering Peabody to rehire Wade Waller, a well-known and outspoken union supporter at the mine in Saline County north of Equality. Waller was fired by Peabody less than a week after the UMWA won a union representation election in May 2011.

The company had charged Waller with threatening to kill another miner, Ron Koerner. Peabody alleged that Waller threatened to run him over with a ram car. But the federal court found that the disagreement between the two men was nothing more than a routine work dispute. “Waller’s alleged threat to kill Koerner was simply the way Big Ridge chose to ‘spin’ the incident between Waller and Koerner as a pretext for discharging one of UMWA’s strongest and most vocal supporters at the Willow Lake mine,” Judge Murphy wrote in the decision.

The injunction also ordered Peabody to halt “threatening employees with mine closure, job loss, or other unspecified reprisals because they support UMWA; promising employees benefits if they oppose UMWA” and “discharging or otherwise discriminating against employees” for supporting the union.

The court decision gave Peabody five days to offer “reinstatement to Wade Waller to his former position.” Waller, who has been out of work for nearly a year, was denied unemployment compensation as a result of the company’s challenge to his claim for benefits.

The question of safety, and in particular the right to a union safety committee, is among the top concerns driving the workers’ unionization effort.

More than 400 workers are employed at Willow Lake. Since 2008 Peabody has been cited and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for dangerous conditions at the mine, including inadequate roof support and excessive coal dust.

In June 2010, two months after the disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners were killed, the Mine Safety and Health Administration threatened legal action against Big Ridge Company, which runs the Willow Lake Mine, and its owner Peabody, citing many instances of unsafe practices. A month later a supervisor at Willow Lake was killed when a shuttle car hauling coal struck him.

The judge wrote in his 20-page order that failure to issue the injunction in the case would send a message to mine employees that Peabody “is too big for the law and not even the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] can do anything to help Willow Lake employees.”

“Peabody has made no public comment on the recent decision, but has filed an appeal of the injunction to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals,” UMWA Communications Director Phil Smith told the Militant in a phone interview.

Meanwhile, the miners at Willow Lake, members of UMWA Local 5929, continue to fight for recognition of their union and a contract.
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