Utah miners fight mass firings
days before union election
UMWA: blatant retaliation
by bosses against union backers
Militant photos by Teri Moss
Left: UMWA Local 6363 members, retired from Hiawatha mine, at UMWA District 22 office in Price, Utah, voted December 15 to donate $500 to Co-Op miners' union-organizing struggle. Local president Dean Young is leaning on briefcase. In foreground is Sun Advocate reporter Melanie Steele. That day the union received a sample ballot for December 17 representation election. Right, from left: UMWA retiree Juan Gutiérrez, and Co-Op miners Jesús Leyva (holding ballot), Bill Estrada, José Contreras, Ricardo Chávez, Alyson Kennedy, and Jesús Galaviz.
BY RÓGER CALERO
AND KATHERINE BENNETT
PRICE, UtahOn the eve of a union representation election scheduled for December 17, coal miners at the Co-Op mine near Huntington, Utah, and their supporters are mobilizing to respond to the firing of 30 miners, and to make sure every supporter of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) makes it to the voting booth to cast a ballot in support of the union.
In the face of a looming victory for the UMWA in the election, bosses at C.W. Mining, which runs the Co-Op mine, moved December 9 to fire all but a handful of the Mexican-born workers for allegedly not having valid documentation showing eligibility to work in the United States.
Here we are, less than a week away from a vote for union representation, and the mine operator has conveniently decided to fire a significant number of the miners who are eligible voters, said UMWA president Cecil Roberts in a statement the union released to the press December 10. He called the firings blatant retaliation by the Co-Op owners against the miners for their effort to win UMWA representation.
As part of the stepped-up campaign of intimidation against UMWA supporters, four of the 17 miners listed in a federal lawsuit filed in September by C.W. Mining and the International Association of United Workers Union (IAUWU), which workers say is run by the company, have been served with court papers.
The lawsuit charges the UMWA, its officers, and 17 current and former Co-Op miners, as well as organizations and individuals who have extended support to the Co-Op miners fight, with unlawful labor practices and defamation against the company and the IAUWU. The original list of defendants in the lawsuit reads like a whos who of those supporting the Co-Op miners fight for justice, and includes media outlets that have given some coverage to the miners side of the story. In an effort to divide backers of the miners struggle, the plaintiffs have dropped some defendants named in the original suit in a recently submitted amended complaint. Those who no longer appear on the list of defendants include: the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City and its bishop, George Niederauer; the two local newspapers in this coal mining region: the Price Sun Advocate and the Emery County Progress; local Salt Lake City radio stations; the National Organization for Women; and individually named activists, particularly from the Salt Lake City area.
The UMWA and its officers, the individual Co-Op miners, and the Militant, Salt Lake Tribune, and Deseret Morning News remain prominent targets of the suit. Most labor groups supporting the Co-Op miners also remain as defendants.
Firings of potential union supporters
On Thursday, December 9, Co-Op bosses took coal miners out of the mine an hour before the end of their shift. The workers were asked to report to the mine managers office to discuss their work documents. As they individually walked into the office, workers were confronted by bosses with running tape recorders, said Juan Salazar, an underground miner. We were told the deadline for providing new documentation was up, and since we had not complied with the company demand we were suspended for three days with intent to fire, and were all sent home, Salazar said.
December 9 was the deadline set by the mine bosses for Co-Op miners to provide new documentation showing their eligibility to work in this country. Many of the miners have worked at Co-Op for several years, and in some cases for a decade or two. Miners denounced this move by the company to demand immigration documentation one week before the union election as a blatant attempt to intimidate the miners in hopes they wont vote for the UMWA. The workers also said the move is a violation of an agreement brokered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last summer, prohibiting the company from using immigration threats to retaliate against miners who are working to establish UMWA representation.
C.W. Mining has allowed many of these so-called undocumented workers to labor in the Co-Op mine for years without questioning the status of their citizenship. It was only after these miners finally decided to fight to improve their livelihoods through legitimate union representation that the employer started playing hard ball, including threats, intimidation and now firings, said UMWA president Cecil Roberts. This is blatant employer retaliation against these miners, and the UMWA stands ready to pursue unfair labor practice charges to ensure these workers receive a fair shakeand that justice prevails.
The day after the firings, 20 miners, including four who have never attended union-organized activities before, along with two UMWA retirees and UMWA organizers working with the Co-Op miners, met to map out a plan to make house visits to all 39 eligible voters approved by the NLRB. According to a November 18 NLRB ruling, these miners will be able to vote in the union representation election even if fired by the company before the vote.
Gathered around a table at the union headquarters here, the miners said they listed on a board the names of every miner eligible to vote, and discussed one-by-one where each stood in regard to their support for the UMWA. Among those listed as solid supporters included miners who had crossed the line during the nearly 10-month-long strike at the Co-Op mine. The strike started in September 2003, after C.W. Mining locked out the 75 workers for demanding safe working conditions and protesting company victimization of UMWA supporters. Miners returned to work in July, after the NLRB ruled the workers had been fired illegally and ordered the company to make an unconditional offer to return to all the strikers.
Dividing into teams, supporters of the union said they visited other Co-Op miners in the Huntington and Price areas to talk about the anti-union firings by the company, and the importance of voting for the UMWA.
While preparing for these visits, Rosa Salazar, wife of Co-Op miner Juan Salazar, said this was one more act of injustice by the company. They are trying to get the miners to obediently come back to work and keep their heads down, she said. Demanding new documents does strike fear in some. Not most, but some.
Co-Op miners Alyson Kennedy and Berthila León, Rosa Salazar, and another local miner sat around the kitchen table over coffee discussing what to do next. León said there were rumors that one or two miners were thinking about returning to Mexico, and that they should go talk to them about staying. Right now it is important that we stick together, said León.
León added that a couple of people who had crossed the line during the strike had not been fired and were not asked to provide new documentation. The company feels sure they have those votes in the election, so they did not fire those workers, said León. The UMWA supporters have prioritized visiting these miners.
We face another Christmas without work, said Salazar. Last Christmas the miners were on strike, having been on the picket lines for three months. Many of the Co-Op miners remember with gratitude the solidarity from the labor movement and others a year ago so that families of Co-Op miners could celebrate the holiday in spite of the hardship of being on strike.
As the company was firing most of its workforce, workers report management was encouraging the miners to come back and meet with IAUWU representatives to see if things cant be worked out. While some workers prepared to formally file grievances through the IAUWU, none of the workers took the bosses bait to work out an individual deal with the company.
The bosses used the supposed discovery of new information, gathered through several grievance procedure hearings held in October, following the firing of Co-Op miner and UMWA supporter Celso Panduro, to launch this latest round of attacks on the largely Mexican-born workforce at the mine. Initially terminated for refusal to work, Panduro went through several days of tape-recorded hearings about his firing in the hostile environment of meetings alone up against management, IAUWU officials, and a so-called impartial mediator.
In the end, the company and its union agreed Panduro should not have been fired for disobeying a work order. But then the bosses and the IAUWU also agreedbecause, during these stacked and intimidating hearings, they claim Panduro admitted to not having proper work papersit was unfortunate but necessary he remain fired.
In the November 22 letter given individually to most foreign-born Co-Op miners, C.W. Mining manager Charles Reynolds blames an unnamed Co-Op miner for starting the firing campaign of the company. In October, a C.W. Mining Co. employee admitted that the documentation he provided to the company when he was hired was invalid and that he was illegal. This same worker alleged that other current and former C.W. Mining Co. employees also provided invalid documentation and are or were working here illegally.
This is the pretext the company is using to fire nearly all foreign-born workers at the mine, a solid majority of whom, miners say, plan to vote for the UMWA.
The company is using what it thinks is its strongest suit to discourage support for the miners and to intimidate those of us who are foreign-born from fighting for a union, said Bill Estrada, a leader of the effort to win UMWA representation. No one is going to be fooled by what the company is doing. It is a blatant attempt at intimidation and division.
Union election, public campaign
A request by the UMWA to move the site of the election to a more neutral location was denied by the NLRB. Miners say that holding the election on company property gives the company more ways to try to intimidate workers from voting for the union. To help minimize potential intimidation by the bosses on the day of the vote, the miners are organizing to gather together and drive over to the polls. The miners are also asking supporters of their fight to be on hand on the day of the voting, which has been set for December 17.
Two Co-Op miners, Ricardo Chávez and Alyson Kennedy, met with supporters of their struggle in Salt Lake City December 13. They reported that Cory Hilton from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and several others at the meeting said they are planning to come to Huntington the day of the union election to show their support for the miners.
The struggle at Co-Op has received widespread media coverage in the area and is being closely watched by coal miners and other working people in Utah and throughout the western United States. Ten coal mines now operate in Utah. All have been hiring new employees because of the recent boom in demand for coal worldwide. Only two of these minesConsolidation Coals Emery Mine and the Deer Creek Mine owned by Energy Westare organized by the UMWA.
Co-Op miners are asking their supporters to continue calling, writing, and faxing the NLRB and the Kingston mine owners protesting the illegal company moves to thwart the union organizing effort.
Ed Mayne, a Utah state senator, faxed such a letter to Co-Op manager Charles Reynolds on December 8, the day before the mass firings. It has been brought to my attention that just days before a scheduled union election, you have terminated and are threatening mass firings of Co-Op miners, the letter says. These actions by C.W. Mining are a direct violation of the July 1, 2004 National Labor Relations Board settlement that prohibits discharge, harassment, and threats against workers for union activities. I strongly urge you to stop these illegal activities and allow the elections to go forward.
A day earlier, Arturo Chavarria-Balleza, Mexicos consul in Salt Lake City, sent a similar letter to Reynolds. We have received copies of the November 22 letters that you sent to employees of your company, the Mexican consul said. These letters were sent to Mexican surname employees threatening to fire these workers…. After reviewing these letters with our legal staff we feel that you are violating these workers rights…. Your company will be subject to legal actions should you proceed. The Consulate of Mexico will be monitoring this situation and plan to lend our assistance to these workers.
Letters to the labor board should be sent to NLRB Region 27 Director B. Allan Benson at 600 17th Street, 7th floorNorth Tower, Denver, CO 80202-5433; Tel: (303) 844-3551; Fax: (303) 844-6249.
Letters to C.W. Mining can be faxed to Charles Reynolds at (435) 687-5724.
Copies of such letters and other messages of support and financial donations should be sent to the Co-Op miners at: UMWA District 22 at 525 East, 100 South, Price, UT 84501. Tel: (435) 637-2037; Fax: (435) 637-9456.
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