BY CANDACE WAGNER AND NANCY COLE
HAZLETON, Pennsylvania - Striking anthracite coal miners began the new year solidly behind the job action they were forced to take nine months ago at the Jeddo strip mine.
Nearly 60 miners - members of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) locals 803 and 1531 - struck the mine on March 26 of last year, rejecting the company's so-called last, best offer.
Strikers have little confidence the company, which is owned by Pagnotti Enterprises, is seriously interested in reaching an agreement with the UMWA. Picket captain Robert Lynch said he believes Pagnotti CEO Charles Parente was hired to "deal with the union."
Until 1994, the miners here worked under a master anthracite contract covering workers at the region's four unionized mines. That year the mine owners refused to negotiate a joint contract. The bosses and union settled separate contracts at three of the mines. Jeddo Coal Co. held out. The miners worked without a contract until December of 1997, when Jeddo declared its proposal in effect. Contracts at the other three mines have since expired again and new agreements have been signed.
The "contract" that Jeddo imposed on the miners a year ago, which it had planned to implement in stages, was a serious assault on the union. It granted the company a blank check to impose "reasonable rules" and throw seniority and past practices out the window. The mine owners also asserted the right to subcontract out nearly every job in the mine. They asked for a hefty pay cut.
Strikers believe they have no choice but to hold firm against these union-busting measures, said George Mazur, a drag line shovel operator for more than 20 years at the Jeddo mine. Militant correspondents spoke with Mazur on the picket line January 6. He left to go straight to his afternoon job as a temporary factory worker - at a substantially lower wage than he made at the mine.
The company has not dug coal during the strike but is loading and transporting a by-product coal-and-shale mixture that some power plants burn. The breaker is also processing coal from Pagnotti-owned nonunion mines. Strikers report that besides truckers, both hired by Pagnotti and independent companies, a small number of scabs have been hired to work in the breaker and in loading.
Strikers receive union strike benefits. Every other week, they send a truck to Harrisburg to fill up from a food pantry organized by the AFL-CIO there. In addition, they have received donations from other unions from as far away as Oregon, Lynch said.
On a rainy Monday, January 18, some 10 strikers were on the picket line. In the picket shack a lively discussion took place with Militant reporters. Richard Patskan Sr. has worked for the Pagnotti family for 38 years. He is four years from retirement. Anthony Gabriel Jr. is a drag line operator with 23 years at Jeddo. They and a third miner described the forces allied with the company against them, including the unemployment office, the police, and the federal mine inspection agency.
Gabriel explained initially the state agreed to pay unemployment benefits to miners based on the fact that since the company had imposed its final offer and refused to bargain in good faith, the unionists are in fact locked out. When the company challenged that decision, the benefits were revoked and strikers now must repay up to thousands of dollars each to the state when in the future they qualify for unemployment. "It took them 18 weeks to decide to give it to us and only 3 days to take it away" after the company's challenge, Gabriel said. The union is appealing the decision.
The miners see the demands of the Pagnotti family as part of a campaign to drive the union out of all the anthracite mines. "If they break the union here, they can dig coal at Jeddo and send it to the next mine that's struck," Patskan said.
Over the Christmas holidays, nails were spread out prior to a snow in the area where strikers park their cars. Tires on three or four vehicles were damaged. "Who did it? The same guy who did that," declared Patskan, pointing to the broken window in the picket shack. "Either the company or the scab truckers. It's not the first time."
Workers in the anthracite mines endure regular layoffs, which means that the wages of $12-13 per hour at Jeddo make for a modest income. "In 1990 I made $17,000 and in 1996 I made $12,000," Patskan said. The wages are relatively high for the area though. Many strikers have had a difficult time finding other jobs since the strike began.
The discussion in the picket shack turned to broader topics. What did the Militant reporters think about the GATT and NAFTA trade treaties? The new Labor Party?
Coming up is a spaghetti dinner in solidarity with the strikers and in celebration of a recent court victory in a local campaign to stop a landfill on the Jeddo mine property.
Nancy Cole is a member of the International Association of Machinists and Candace Wagner is a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees in Philadelphia.
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