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   Vol. 68/No. 41           November 9, 2004  
UMWA strikes W. Virginia mine to maintain union
(front page)
SMITHERS, West Virginia—The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) called a strike at the Cannelton mine near here October 7. Picket lines went up beginning October 18.

Coal miners said they are fighting to win their jobs back and to keep their union when the mine reopens.

Horizon Natural Resources owned this mine, along with the Starfire mine in Hazard, Kentucky. The company shut down the two mines September 27, after declaring bankruptcy. Massey Energy has since bought both of them as part of the bankruptcy settlement and says it plans to reopen them with a workforce of its choosing after January 1. All of Massey’s mines are nonunion.

On October 21, nearly 1,500 miners, their families, and supporters packed the high school gym here in the town of Smithers, 30 miles southeast of Charleston, West Virginia. It was standing room only inside. The UMWA members and their supporters came to protest the tearing up of the contracts at six union mines by Horizon and to demand that the new owners of the properties recognize the union and negotiate contracts with the UMWA.

Some 5,000 coal miners and retirees lost their health-care benefits and pensions when Horizon voided the union contracts. The company took the action after getting the okay from a bankruptcy court.

Darrell Keyes, president of UMWA Local 5890 in Kentucky, said no strike action is planned at the moment at the Starfire mine. The strike at Cannelton makes UMWA members eligible for medical coverage for six months from the union’s selective strike fund.

UMWA members have set up picket lines at four entrances to the Cannelton mine, which are being staffed around the clock in eight-hour shifts. When Militant reporters visited the picket line October 21, strikers were installing insulation in the walls of the well-constructed shacks, preparing for a long battle through the winter.

Picket lines, at this point, are union outposts for reaching out broadly for support. Many passersby show their support for the strike by honking horns.

Massey Energy guards could be seen videotaping pickets and visitors.

The International Coal Group (ICG) owned by financier Wilbur Ross bought most of Horizon’s mines. Ross specializes in buying up bankrupt companies and ridding them of “contingent liabilities,” like pension and health-care plans. His International Steel Group (ISG)—which bought up Bethlehem Steel, LTV, and Weirton Steel—is now the largest steel producer in the United States.

The ICG subsidiary Lexington Coal notified the UMWA that it would retain the current workforce at the union mines it took over as part of its deal with Horizon and may negotiate with the UMWA.

The October 21 meeting in Smithers was organized by the UMWA after a massive outreach campaign by members of Local 8843, which included visiting some 8,000 homes to win support for the UMWA campaign to keep the former Horizon mines unionized. Organizers set up a large television screen in the lobby for the overflow crowd to follow the meeting. Delegations were recognized from UMWA districts in northern West Virginia and Ohio.

Billed as a community impact hearing, the meeting was presided over by a “Community Impact Board” that took testimony on how the actions by Horizon and Massey, aided by a federal bankruptcy judge, are adversely affecting coal miners and communities surrounding the mines. It will issue a report with recommendations.

UMWA president Cecil Roberts was the first witness. “If Don Blankenship thinks he’s going to scab these mines, we’ll have coal miners in here from everywhere,” he said, referring to Massey’s chief executive officer. Roberts said he expects Massey will try to bring in replacement workers early next year. He pledged to be in the front lines on the road in front of the mine.

Several speakers called for a congressional investigation into the bankruptcy proceedings.

Roberts also said the UMWA is launching a campaign for bankruptcy law reform. “This is not just about what happened in Cannelton, this is not about West Virginia or Kentucky or Ohio,” he said. “This is about public policy in America. This is America’s problem, and America has to fix it.”

He also called for creating a national health care plan. “This bankruptcy didn’t occur because coal miners didn’t work hard enough. It didn’t occur because of low coal prices. It didn’t occur because of bad mining conditions,” Roberts said. He blamed corruption and mismanagement by the Addington brothers, former owners of Addington Enterprises, Inc. (AEI), which was reconstituted in an earlier bankruptcy as Horizon Natural Resources.

This was echoed by other speakers who expressed anger at the coal barons, especially the owners of Horizon and Massey, whose relentless drive for profits has devastating consequences on coal miners, mining communities, and on the environment.

William “Bolts” Willis, UMWA Local 8843 president, charged this was a well-executed plan to circumvent the labor agreements.

“The Addingtons turned a profitable operation into a financial mess,” said Jennifer Tanner, a college student and daughter of a Horizon coal miner. She explained she may no longer be able to afford the asthma medicine she needs or to finish school as a result of what the coal bosses did.

Roberts reminded the audience of the strike against Pittston Coal in 1989 over company plans to eliminate retiree health care. “Sixteen months later, Pittston did provide the health care,” Roberts said. That fight led to the passage of the 1992 Coal Act, a federal law protecting some UMWA retirees’ health-care benefits.

Jay Ressler is a member of UMWA Local 1248 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.  
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