At a packed meeting at the Footedale fire hall September 30, the miners decided to return to work that day. The strike was over whether the current national Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement or a separate "memorandum of understanding" is the standing contract. The union signed a seven-year labor agreement with Maple Creek in 1995.
The company claims the UMWA job action violated a no-strike clause in that agreement, and the federal court agreed. The court also said that the mine's owner, Robert Murray, must meet with the union to determine which agreement is in place, and ordered the mine company to process grievances.
Several miners at the meeting, who asked not to be quoted by name, said working conditions in the mine are bad. They complained of company harassment of workers who file grievances, forced overtime of up to 60 hours per week, and dangerous safety practices. In recent years Maple Creek has hired a layer of younger miners, and this was their first strike.
According to a retired Maple Creek miner who started at the mine in 1947, Footedale is an old company town that used to be owned by U.S. Steel Corp. At one time Maple Creek, which sits near the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania, was one of U.S. Steel's "captive" mines. In 1995 Murray bought the mine and preparation plant in New Eagle, Pennsylvania, from U.S. Steel Mining Co. It is one of the largest underground mines in the region, extending 11 miles underground.
The two-day strike comes on top of other recent disputes at the mine. In April the company ordered miners out of the mine and told them to clean out their lockers. The union was not informed of the closure and no explanation was given to the miners. This infuriated union members. The mine closing was also a clear violation of the state's Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification law that require a 60-day notification for plant or mine closures.
The abrupt closing took place after inspectors with the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited the company for serious safety violations. According to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "MSHA spokeswoman Kathy Snyder said there was an excessive accumulation of coal dust near a main belt conveyor used to transport coal. That led inspectors to order a partial withdrawal affecting only 10 mine employees." According to the MSHA report, six to eighteen inches deep of coal dust was found on the roof, roof supports, mine floor, and belt structure. Coal dust is a fire and explosion hazard, and causes Black Lung disease.
Meanwhile, new facts have come to light on the disaster that killed two coal miners and injured two others at the Powhatan No. 4 mine in southeast Ohio. The September 24 accident was not a roof cave-in, as last week's Militant reported, but a roof fall, according to a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
The collapse occurred about 700 feet underground and about half a mile in. It is estimated that between 20 and 50 tons, covering a 20-foot-by-50-foot area, collapsed on three of the four miners working there to recover equipment from the mine. The protective roof (canopy) contains several layers of steel, a wire screen, and stone.
According to the coroner's report, the roof fall was of such force that it killed William Florence, 49, and Gerald Eble, 57, almost instantly. The funerals for the two miners were announced on the front pages of the local papers.
Wayne Peters, 56, and Anthony Patch, 56, were treated and released for injuries sustained during the collapse. Peters suffered a broken arm, cuts and bruises. Patch suffered a broken shoulder. The following report from the Monroe County Beacon, a weekly newspaper, is an account based on an interview with Patch on what happened:
"Soon lunch break was over and the miners returned to work. The two [Patch and Peters] walked around the motor to retrieve the last pipe it would take to load the car. That's when Patch heard a snap. 'Something threw me 10-feet to the out-by and covered the other three up,' said Patch.
"Patch landed on his head and shoulder, and then on his back and the self-rescuer strapped there. He was dazed, and it was too dusty to see anything.
"He heard the voice of Peters calling out for help. 'Wait until I can see,' he called back to his friend. Patch didn't want to do anything to cause further collapse. When the dust cleared, he could see that he was under good top. He moved to the area where Peters and the others were buried. He said Peters was covered with 4x6 inch planks about four feet long, 60-pound (per foot) rail (used to shore up the passageway), rocks, dirt and debris.
"Peters was having difficulty breathing, not because his head was covered, but because he was being crushed.
" 'I yelled for a jack, but there was no one around,' said Patch. He was able to move a rail a few inches so Peters could breathe easier. Shortly, someone threw the a jack from the opposite side of the fall. Patch dug a hole for the jack and began moving the beams — he got to one of Peters' legs…there were four more planks over his other leg. In faith, Patch began digging with his hands. 'I had to get him out,' he said noting that Peters was in 'much pain.' It took about half-an-hour for Patch to free his co-worker."
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources inspected the mine September 14-16 and said it was safe. The cause of the collapse remains under investigation. The UMWA is also part of the investigation. The mine, which employed around 1,000 people in the early 1970s, had been closed since May. A small maintenance crew had been working to close down the mine. Most of the 178 UMWA miners who worked there have been laid off.
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