The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 23      June 13, 2011

Illinois miners organize union
to fight for safety and pensions
(front page)
EQUALITY, Illinois—Going in and out of work at the Willow Lake coal mine just north of here May 27, workers proudly wore their union hats and buttons. On May 19 and 20, a majority of miners voted in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

Although the vote was close—219 for the UMWA to 206 for no union—supporters of the union said they had improved their capacity to fight. Safety and pensions are among the main issues of contention between the workers and Big Ridge Company, owned by Peabody Energy.

Until April miners at Willow Lake had been working under a four-year agreement ratified in 2007 between Big Ridge and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers Union. The company stalled for two years before signing the contract, and only did so following a 175-1 vote by miners to go on strike.

Willow Lake miners explained that the 2007 contract did not provide for a pension plan. Instead, it contained a 401(k) savings plan to which the company and individual workers made contributions. A special concern among miners is that there is no union safety committee.

When the contract expired in April, the Boilermakers union agreed to step aside, opening the way for miners to petition for a new union election. Miners at Willow Lake contacted the UMWA, gathered enough support for an election, and went on to win a majority.

The Willow Lake mine, which opened in 2002 and produced 3.4 million tons of coal last year with 444 workers, has a long record of safety violations. Since 2008 Peabody has been fined $230,000 for dangerous conditions at Willow Lake, including inadequate roof support and excessive coal dust. In 2009 the mine had an accident rate more than double the national average.

In June 2010, two months after the disaster at A.T. Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners were killed, the Mine Safety and Health Administration threatened legal action against Big Ridge and Peabody, citing numerous instances of disregard for miners’ safety. Peabody responded that its safety record was improving. A month later, in July 2010, a supervisor at the mine was killed when a shuttle car hauling coal struck him—the first death at the mine.

While workers who voted for the union spoke proudly of their victory, many also said the fight was far from over. Most anticipated that Peabody would challenge the vote (which it did May 26) and that winning a new contract with real pension and safety provisions would be a battle. The union also has the challenge of winning over nearly half the miners who voted not to have a union.

UMWA communications director Phil Smith told the Militant, “We expect the National Labor Relations Board to uphold the election.”

The UMWA election victory has sparked a big discussion among miners and other workers throughout the area about how workers can defend themselves. Willow Lake is one of close to a dozen mines in the area. All the others are nonunion, and there is only one other union mine in the entire state of Illinois.

This reporter along with another Militant volunteer sold 10 subscriptions—five to miners—and more than 20 single issues of the paper during a two-day reporting trip. One subscription and 14 single issues were sold to miners at the Willow Lake mine portal.

One coal miner approached our team at a nearby McDonald’s to say, “Workers didn’t need unions.” He was quite agitated about the Militant’s support for miners joining the UMWA to better defend themselves. He later returned to talk more and apologized for being so strident in the discussion earlier. “Maybe you don’t want to hear my opinion,” he said.

After we explained we were interested in his views, and a couple other workers joined the discussion, we talked about what was happening to working people under the capitalist crisis and how workers need to organize and fight to sweep away this exploitative system. The miner left the discussion with a Militant under his arm, saying he would think more about the questions we had been discussing.  
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