The contract between the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) was agreed upon a year ahead of the expiration of the current agreement, signed in 1998, and will last five years until the end of 2006. At the UMWA convention in 2000, union officials said they intended to seek an early contract ratification.
The union reported that the strongest support for the contract came from southern West Virginia and the Midwest. Union officials have not released official tallies of the December 21 vote, but from discussions with miners in this region not one union mine voted in favor of the new pact. These include workers at large underground mines in Pennsylvania such as 84, Dilworth, Emerald, Cumberland, and Maple Creek, as well as McElroy and Blacksville No. 2 in northern West Virginia.
UMWA-organized mines in Alabama also voted against the agreement, including all three Jim Walters mines, among them No. 5, where a mine explosion killed 12 UMWA miners last September.
The main signatories to the contract are three of the country's biggest coal operators: Peabody Energy, the largest, Arch Coal, and Consol Energy. The contract sets the standard for most of the union's 26,000 working miners, many of whose contracts have "me-too" clauses with the national contract. A further 75,000 laid-off and retired miners will also be affected by the contract.
The main features of the new pact are wage increases of $1.50 over the life of the contract; a new "30-and-out" pension provision, which goes into full effect in 2003; and small increases in benefits and allowances. The contract gives coal companies more room to purge laid-off miners from recall lists, also known as "panels."
A worker at the Cumberland mine owned by RAG American Coal near here remarked, "There's not enough of a pay raise. We're underpaid for what we do. They [international union officials] did real good on the pensions, but the pay.... Gee whiz, let the young guys make a living." In the nine years from the beginning of the 1998 contract to the end of the new agreement, miners will have received a total of only $2.50 an hour in wage increases. Meanwhile. the price of coal has risen to record levels.
Many workers interviewed at the Maple Creek mine opposed the agreement because of its five-year length and because the old contract had not expired. The touted "30-and-out" pension will result in a substantial pay cut for workers who retire, and will leave them without health coverage until age 55.
UMWA president Cecil Roberts called the agreement a "tremendous victory for UMWA members nationwide" and a "win-win" for both the union and the coal bosses. "Signatory operators know that they will enjoy labor stability for the next five years," Roberts said.
The UMWA president also said the negotiations were not easy because "the economic situation of our country, especially in the wake of the September 11 tragedy, cast a shadow over everything we did at the bargaining table."
The UMWA officialdom has looked at other campaigns in a similar manner. Writing in the UMWA Journal about the union campaign against independent coal operator Robert Murray, UMWA secretary-treasurer Carlo Tarley said that "the UMWA scaled back its campaign in wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks."
Articles in Coal Outlook, an industry magazine, said the contract was not a memorable agreement as far as breaking new ground. "Everything is related to retirement and some wage increases.... It looks like a severance package overall," noted one article. Another pointed out the new contract gives operators the ability to more quickly purge large panel lists of laid-off miners. It also remarked that the agreement does not appear to offer provisions designed to increase UMWA organizing efforts--a chief goal in recent BCOA contracts.
Of the large coal operators who signed the agreement, Consol Energy had the most at stake as almost half of its more than 7,000-person workforce is in the union. An industry magazine said Consol was "the most vulnerable major producer if there was a coal strike in 2002 or 2003." It has large operations in the Pittsburgh seam in northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania, including two large nonunion mines, Bailey and Enlow Fork, which combined for a record 20 million tons produced in 2000. The union mines Consol operates in the area, including the expanding McElroy mine in the West Virginia panhandle, produce over 30 million tons.
Strengthening union in coalfields
For more than a decade, the major coal operators have expanded their nonunion operations in order to drive down production costs and further weaken the UMWA. Today about one-third of coal miners are in the UMWA--26,000 out of 77,000 miners across the country.
The UMWA has sought to force the bosses to hire union members when a new mine--union or nonunion--is opened up. This provision was won in the 1988 national contract and became the major issue in the BCOA strike in 1993. Through a seven-month selective strike of 18,000 coal miners--one-third of the active union miners at the time--unionists stood firm on this crucial issue.
However, coal giants like Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Massey, and independent coal operator Murray, have continued their drive to rid their operations of the union. Peabody Energy has shifted nearly all of its Illinois Basin production from union mines to nonunion Black Beauty Coal operations. It has expanded in the almost exclusively nonunion Powder River Basin in the West. Arch Coal has shut down its union mines in the Illinois Basin and expanded nonunion operations in the Powder River Basin. Peabody's workforce is 37 percent union; Arch Coal's is 14 percent.
Massey Energy, which has substantial operations in southern West Virginia, is only four percent unionized. Murray, who began with two union mines in Ohio and Pennsylvania, is continuing to expand his nonunion operations, opening the nonunion Century mine right next door to the union Powhatan No. 6 mine in Ohio.
In the past year, the UMWA has begun activities aimed at regaining some of this lost ground. Rallies were held in front of Massey Energy operations in southern West Virginia and in front of Peabody's Black Beauty operations in Indiana. Union members at Murray-owned Maple Creek and Powhatan No. 6 mines have been part of a campaign that has included a joint rally and union-sanctioned "memorial days" that shut down the two mines.
Reflecting the challenge that miners face to reverse the decline in union representation, the UMWA lost four important union-organizing efforts in 2001 at Coastal Coal in northern West Virginia, Cumberland Resources in Virginia, and Arch's Samples surface mine and Peabody's Kanawha Eagle operation in southern West Virginia. The union is contesting the election at Kanawha Eagle.
Several examples of successful organizing drives came out of the last major battles the union waged, which took place around the union contract in 1993. At the time of the signing of the 1998 contract, union president Roberts referred to the 1993 national strike as "a very good demonstration of how things should not be done." However, as union miners exercised their power in 1993, 1,200 miners joined the UMWA in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Workers at Marrowbone, Wolf Creek, Pontiki, and Cyprus Mountain led these drives and used each victory to spur the fight at the next mine.
Tony Lane and Frank Forrestal are members of United Mine Workers of America Local 1248 at Maple Creek mine.
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