The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 42      November 21, 2011

Roof fall at Illinois mine
highlights need for union
(front page)
EQUALITY, Ill.—Officials of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration ordered the closure of the Willow Lake coal mine October 28 after a section of the roof in one of the mine’s escape ways caved in, making it unusable in the event of an emergency.

The incident at the Peabody Energy-owned mine comes as a battle for union recognition by miners there seeking to improve safety conditions enters its sixth month.

“The inspector was in the mine to reexamine a part of the belt entry where the roof had fallen the week before,” Greg Fort, a miner at Willow Lake, explained to the Militant. For that collapse MSHA officials cited the company for not having a proper roof control plan. While there, the official found another roof fall, this time blocking an escape way.

“When he saw the second fall he went outside to talk with his office and MSHA decided to close the entire mine,” Fort said.

“Since 2007 the mine has experienced 79 roof falls,” Coal Mine Safety and Health Administrator Kevin Stricklin told local news media TV station WSIL.

“If you go back to 2005,” said Fort, “there have been more than 140 roof falls in the mine.”

Last year a foreman was killed when he was run over by a ram car. That same year Peabody was fined $174,000 at Willow Lake for unsafe conditions, including inadequate roof support, and excessive coal dust, which can lead to explosions.

In May a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge ordered Peabody Energy to turn over files requested by MSHA in 2010 on accidents, injuries and work-related illnesses at Willow Lake and Air Quality Number 1 in Knox County, Indiana. Peabody has thus far refused to comply.

On May 19-20, workers at the mine voted by a 219-206 margin to be represented by the United Mine Workers of America. Miners’ main concerns relate to safety and the lack of any current pension plan and are demanding the right to organize a union safety committee.

Peabody has refused to recognize the union and appealed the vote, accusing UMWA officers of engaging in “intimidation and threats, coercion and fraudulent conduct” to win the election, and misrepresentation.

Lawyers for the UMWA and NLRB have charged that Peabody committed violations of the National Labor Relations Act, including threatening to close the mine; the firing of a well-known union activist; and refusal to recognize and bargain with the union. The NLRB has petitioned to order Peabody to recognize the union. A hearing on the NLRB petition and the bosses’ appeal of the election ended September 30. A decision is still pending.

There are no union mines among the dozen in the area and only one in the entire state of Illinois.

After submitting a new roof control plan for MSHA approval, Willow Lake was allowed to begin operations again on the midnight shift November 4 with MSHA inspectors in the mine.

“A lot of people lost almost a week’s pay because of the mine closure,” Fort said. “The company was responsible for those roof falls. The workers should get paid. We’re entitled to compensation in situations like this under Section 111 of the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.”
Related articles:
2 Kentucky miners killed amid bosses’ profit drive
Coal miners challenge bosses’ racial discrimination in hiring  
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