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   Vol. 71/No. 3           January 22, 2007  
United Mine Workers contract ratified;
ends retiree health coverage for new miners
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—Members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) voted December 20 by a 4-1 majority to accept a five-year contract with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA).

For the first time the pact includes a two-tier provision for new miners, who will not be eligible for retiree medical coverage, and gives companies the option to set work schedules for new miners with fewer workdays. The agreement includes a 20 percent pay increase, or $4.50 an hour, spread over five years; a $1,000 bonus; and higher pensions. It also maintains the same health-care provisions for working miners with some improvements for retirees’ health care.

The contract covers only miners employed by Consol Energy, the one remaining company in the BCOA. The UMWA is presenting the pact to other unionized coal operators as the industry-wide pattern. Miners continue to work at these operations under the old contract.

One significant concession in the contract affects miners entering the industry for the first time. In lieu of the free retiree health insurance paid for by the coal operators, which assures medical care for coal miners after their working life, companies will now pay $1 per hour into a tax-deferred savings account for new miners. Working miners can also elect to give up their retiree health benefit in exchange for the same $1 per hour company contribution to an individual savings account. Miners who are disabled will receive the health insurance.

The UMWA represents about 17,000 active miners today, according to press reports, a fraction of the nearly 80,000 working miners. Coal production at union-organized mines is 20 percent of the U.S. total. Over the past two decades coal bosses have opened many new operations nonunion, shifted production to unorganized subsidiaries, and used bankruptcy courts to break union contracts. Much of U.S. coal production has shifted to the largely unorganized coalfields in Wyoming and other western states.

Coal prices are now high and mine operators have been driving to increase production the last three years, with record output in 2005 and an expected increase in total tonnage for 2006. Many miners, at nonunion and union-organized mines alike, are working 10-hour days, six days a week.

In the midst of the bosses’ “productivity drive,” 47 coal miners died on the job last year, more than twice the previous year’s toll and the highest since 1995. And the carnage continues. The first mine fatality in 2007 occurred January 6 when Jeremy Garcia, 26, was killed in the Elk Creek Mine near Somerset, Colorado.

Clay Dennison is a member of UMWA Local 2133 at a mine near Birmingham.
Related articles:
‘A life is worth more than a ton of coal’
Sago miners’ relatives say state report on disaster is ‘a joke’
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