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Posts Tagged ‘mineworkers union’

After Battle with Mining Giant Peabody, Willow Lake Coal Miners Win Union

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Workers at the Willow Lake coal mine in southern Illinois are now represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified the union’s victory in a rank-and-file election.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) published a notice of its certification on September 4, following a lengthy series of administrative delays and legal actions. UMWA won a closely fought representation election on May 20, 2011, at the mine in rural Equality, Ill., about 150 miles east of St. Louis, Mo.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts called on the owner of the mine, Peabody Energy Corp., to quit stalling and negotiate a new contract for the 440 miners and production worker represented by the union. “It’s long past time for…Peabody Energy to finally accept the rule of law, sit down with its workers and negotiate a fair and equitable contract,” Roberts stated in a September 6 press release.

Peabody is the largest coal producer in the world, with extensive mining operations in the United States and Australia. Headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., it reported “record-setting financial performance” of $1.02 billion in profits last year, according to a statement from Peabody CEO Greg Boyce.

The NLRB’s action last week comes in the wake of a major court victory for labor against Peabody and its subsidiary, Big Ridge Inc. On April 30, U.S. District Court Judge G. Patrick Murphy ordered the company to cease an illegal anti-union campaign against the UMWA, and to reinstate Wade Waller, an outspoken Big Ridge employee who had been fired for supporting the union.

In issuing his order, Judge Murphy recounted the history of the UMWA organizing drive at Willow Lake. He stated that “Big Ridge proceeded to conduct a vigorous ant-union campaign” at about the same time that the UMWA sought a representation election at the mine.

“Big Ridge held a series of group meetings with employees, which included slide shows, films, and presentations by officials of Peabody Energy. … Big Ridge distributed flyers with employee paychecks, mailed letters and videotapes to employees’ homes, and made anti-union stickers available for employees to wear on their hardhats,” Judge Murphy’s wrote. The decision also noted the company “directed supervisors to make one-on-one contact with employees to encourage them to vote against UMWA representation.”

Despite the anti-union campaign, the UMWA prevailed in the election in a narrow vote of 219-206, according to NLRB records. But the company challenged the vote and fired Waller, a seven-year employee of Big Ridge with an outstanding work record. The only credible explanation for the firing, Judge Murphy determined, was that Waller “was one of the strongest and most outspoken UMWA supporters at the Willow Lake mine.”

Since the court action in favor of the union and Waller, Peabody has refused to begin contract talks, says UMWA Director of Communications Phil Smith. The NLRB’s recent certification of the union has not changed that, he says, and union lawyers will not be surprised if Peabody seeks a court appeal and further delay.

Meanwhile, UMWA faces a challenge from Peabody on an entirely different front.

According to UMWA, Peabody is abusing the legal process so as to avoid paying out millions in health care benefits that it owes to more than 20,000 former Peabody employees, retirees and family members.

In 2007, Peabody created a new company, Patriot Coal Corp., to operate most of its unionized coal mines in Appalachia. As part of the deal, Patriot assumed the liabilities for healthcare benefits for thousand of former Peabody employees and retirees, in addition to benefits for many dependents, UMWA said.

But in July, Patriot filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in federal court, saying it could no longer sustain its healthcare costs, which it estimated might exceed $100 million this year.

UMWA’s Roberts has charged that the spinoff of Patriot and the subsequent bankruptcy are both part of a deliberate attempt by Peabody to avoid paying the benefits that are due to union members and their families.

On Aug. 30, Roberts kicked off a new “Fight for Fairness at Patriot” campaign at a mass meeting of 3,000 union miners in Charleston, West Va. “We are prepared to go to he mat over this. This is an enormous challenge to our union,” Roberts told local reporters.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Shafted: Reflecting on Miners, Media and Margaret Thatcher

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

kari-lydersenMany coal-fired power plants in the United States are closing because of cheap natural gas prices, and while the closings are cheered for environmental and health reasons, some unions lament the loss of jobs. Many who are happy to see coal plants close are also frustrated that the change is driven by a rush for gas that could curb investment in clean wind power and the “green jobs” mass wind farm construction could create. Others mourn waning interest in the development of “clean coal” technology that arguably could let the United States tap its vast domestic coal reserves more responsibly.

Three decades ago, Great Britain had its own “Dash for Gas,” during which coal power plants and coal mines were closed as the country turned to natural gas to generate electricity. But the primary motive then was neither cheap and abundant natural gas nor environmental concern. Rather, it was then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s determined campaign to smash the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the labor movement in general, and to privatize public industries.

Given current conversations about our energy futures in the United States and worldwide —not to mention scandals in British media and U.S. battles over public union rights—I think it is worth revisiting the 2009 book, Shafted: The Media, The Miners Strike and the Aftermath.

Edited by Granville Williams, this compilation explores the role of spin, solidarity and strategy in the bitter 1984-1985 strike by miners and sympathetic union members as the Thatcher government and police acting on its behalf moved to gut the miners union and close many coal mines. Chapters written by prominent journalists and others detail the seedy ethics of many mainstream media outlets; the role of alternative media; early examples of community and “citizen journalism;” and the power of propaganda and popular organizing wielded by various parties to the conflict.

There are juicy and shameful examples of media outlets’ questionable ethics and bald partisanship, juxtaposed with the solidarity stands of union journalists and printers who refused to publish slanderous propaganda or who invoked equal-time policies to demand the miners be given a chance to tell their side.

The book notes The Sun’s plans to publish a photo of union leader Arthur Scargill cropped to make it appear he was doing a Nazi salute, The Daily Mirror’s claims that union leaders paid their mortgages with Libyan cash when they didn’t even have mortgages, and the BBC’s manipulation of camera footage to make it appear miners rather than police were the first to become violent in the seminal clash at Orgreaves.
Regarding the Libyan story, which was supplied by a union staffer who approached the tabloid, author Robin Ramsay notes wryly, “Ah, the logic of the tabloid journalist: he didn’t ask for money, so he must be telling the truth.”

Shafted, published with a grant from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, criticizes journalistic laziness and the lack of context that plagued even the less-abhorrent coverage. For example, the Tory government’s statements about the “uneconomic” nature of certain union mines and the wisdom of burning up limited North Sea gas reserves in lieu of coal went unquestioned, according to Shafted, and the conflict was too often portrayed as a battle between colorful adversaries (namely Thatcher and Scargill) than a showdown that would determine the well-being of working people for many years to come.

As a counter to most of the mainstream media’s performance, Shafted celebrates the role of the grassroots alternative media, the NUM’s own journal, and documentaries and articles by miners and community members, produced with the help of grassroots media organizations and the public Channel 4.

The book notes that journalists at alternative outlets with names like Leeds Other Paper, Islington Gutter Press and Sheep Worrying could personally relate to the DIY mentality and sense of mission and passion of the union miners and their supporters. Along with print media, the book also examines music, poetry and major movies like Billy Elliott and The Full Monty. It catalogues the use of music to raise funds and awareness, from local punk shows to benefits by the likes of Chumbawumba and Billy Bragg.

One chapter about movies and plays in decades after the strike describes how popular pieces like Billy Elliott furthered the Thatcherite idea of individualism triumphing over collectivism, and the glossing over of the impacts on depressed “pit villages” where to paraphrase sources, now heroin instead of coal runs in the veins of youth.

Perhaps the most insightful chapter is a soul-searching essay by former BBC journalist Nicholas Jones, who looks back with dismay at how he and other journalists unquestioningly bought into the Thatcher narrative of militant trade unions as the “enemy within.” He takes a more nuanced view than other contributors of mainstream media’s performance, and notes that union leader Scargill’s portrayal of the media as the enemy was counter-productive since it meant journalists were often received with scorn or violence in pit villages, and thus understandably less likely to tell the people’s stories. (Other chapters also describe how police brutally attacked and arrested journalists trying to report objectively on the conflict.)

Jones also describes how the birth of the 24-hour highly competitive news cycle contributed to flawed coverage of the strike, and dissects why media coverage of mass protests against more pit closures in the early 1990s was by contrast highly sympathetic to the miners. Jones writes:

With the benefit of hindsight, and subsequent evidence of a vindictive pit closure programme which continued during the decade which followed the strike, perhaps the news media should own up to a collective failure of judgment comparative to that during the buildup to the Iraq war.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

Rescued Chilean Miners Greeted As Heroes -- but They're Also Victims

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

mikeelkfotoThe 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days have been treated like heroes since their rescue this week. They were invited to the country’s presidential palace for a special soccer game. A Greek mining executive offered to pay for them to take an all-expense paid trip to Greece to just relax for a few weeks on Greek beaches. Many other companies have made huge donations to their families.

They are being viewed as heroes, but some disagree with this characterization.

“The miners are not ‘heroes,’ as they have been called around the world for surviving underground for over two months,” Néstor Jorquera, president of the Chilean mineworkers union, CONFEMIN, told the Inter Press Service. “They are victims.” Many in the international labor movement have complained that news accounts have ignored the poor treatment of workers by the mining company, which intially refused to pay their wages after the miners were trapped underground on Aug. 5.

San Esteban, the company that operates the mine, claimed they had no money to pay the workers who were trapped under the mine. In fact, the company was apparently so broke that it couldn’t even pay the costs of the recovery. The government of Chile was forced to pay for a rescue that some say could cost anywhere between $10- $20 million.

As a result, the president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, vowed to make major changes to the way workers are treated in Chile. “Never again in our country will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman as they worked in the San Jose Mine, and in many other places in our country,” he said.

It’s important to note that working conditions in Chile are notoriously unsafe. There were more than 191,000 workplace accidents, including 443 deaths, in a country with only a population of 17 million people in 2009, an astronomical rate for such a small country.

President Pinera set up a commission in August to write a report on workplace safety, which is due to be delivered on Nov. 22. The president also announced the creation of a new mining agency to more strictly enforce mining safety laws and increase funding for safety programs.

But Jorquera, president of CONFEMIN, says this is not enough. He called for Chile to agree to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention 176 on Safety and Health in Mines, like most industrialized countries around the world have done.

Whether or not Chile signs on to that convention will make clear how serious the country’s leaders are about reforming mine safety laws. It won’t be much of a surprise if the media, which often neglects workplace safety issues, quickly moves on after the rescue and ignores mining safety issues in Chile and elsewhere. But let’s hope Pinera, and the rest of Chile’s leaders in government, act now to ensure we never have to watch another harrowing subterranean story like this unfold.

This article was originally published on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). Currently, he works at the Campaign for America’s Future in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he has worked as a staffer on the Obama-Biden Campaign and conducted research on worker owned cooperatives at the Instituto Marques de Salamanca in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When Mike is not reading twenty blogs at a time, he enjoys jazz, golden retrievers, and playing horseshoes.

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