Mine boss Murray has long antiworker record
The following excerpts of two Militant articles from May 6 and 20, 2002, recount struggles by union miners at the Maple Creek mine, in southwestern Pennsylvania, against attacks by coal operator Robert Murray on job safety, wages, and union rights. Murray is the head of the company that owns the nonunion Crandall Canyon mine, where six miners have been trapped by a collapse since August 6. Forrestal, who worked at the Maple Creek mine from 1999 to 2002, is now working at a Swift meatpacking plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, and is a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1149. Forrestal is currently part of a team of Militant supporters in Utah who are joining with miners there to tell the truth about the unsafe conditions facing miners at Crandall Canyon and about the need to organize all mines into the United Mine Workers of America. He suggested that Militant readers might be interested in the paper’s coverage of the struggles reported below.
Coal boss Murray attacks UMWA miners
BY FRANK FORRESTALAND TONY LANE PITTSBURGH—
The stakes have been raised in the fight by union coal miners against coal boss Robert Murray, owner of Maple Creek mine in Bentleyville, Pennsylvania. In yet another attack on the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), union members going into work April 14 were told that the company would begin "permanent layoffs of its workforce, effective June 16, 2002." The information given to the miners is in accordance with the "Worker Adjustment Retraining Notification Act (WARN)." The company says the reason for the notification is the depletion of coal reserves. There are about 375 union workers at the mine organized by UMWA Local 1248.
Murray is the largest independent, family-held coal producer in the United States. His coal holdings include mines in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, and West Virginia. There are reports that Murray plans to open mines in Utah. Murray-owned mines produced more than 20 million tons of coal in 2000.
In 1995 when the mine reopened, the union agreed to a seven-year contract that now pays about $3 an hour less than miners earn under the BCOA [Bituminous Coal Operators of America] contract. Miners at Murray are united in demanding that the wage gap, which weakens the entire UMWA, be closed. The seven-year contract expires at the end of the year.
Wages are not the only issue at Maple Creek, as became clear when miners read Murray’s proposed amendments and deletions to the contract, which is now tabled. For example, the section on panel rights is deleted, and substantial deletions are made to the employer’s contributions to the pension plan. One $600 lump-sum payment is eliminated. Years of battle by the union For several years, union miners have been locked in battle with Murray. In the fall of 1999, the union struck Maple Creek for three days over antiunion moves by the company. In December 2000 the Maple Creek local rejected a proposed contract by a vote of 335 to 10. The contract proposed an annual 30-cent-an-hour wage increase. Miners demanded that they be paid the same as BCOA miners.
Last summer the union called "Memorial Days" to protest Murray’s opening of a nonunion mine in Ohio and his "abuse of hundreds of coal miners who have accepted frozen wages and made other sacrifices to keep the company’s operations afloat," according to a UMWA press release.
Many skirmishes have occurred over health and safety issues, violations of work rules, and unjust firings. Almost every day the company is hit with state and federal violations. Several times the mine, or sections of it, have been ordered shut down. There have been several dangerous incidents of unacceptable levels of methane gas reported in the mine. Maple Creek has one of the highest lost-time injury rates in the industry.
Workers were also fed up with the so-called company "awareness" meetings. In these bathhouse meetings, it was common for Murray to insult miners to their faces, as well as to hear countless slanders against the union. Murray’s unbecoming behavior has become widely known. The Pennsylvania regional office of the NLRB issued a formal complaint last October against Murray and Maple Creek president D. Lynn Shank for "threatening and vilifying Maple Creek miners’ representative, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and its officers."
On top of this, Murray has filed numerous defamation lawsuits with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the union and leading union officials. Most have been dismissed by the courts. Last fall the NLRB ruled against Murray who charged that the "Memorial Days" taken by miners were illegal.
After seven-year fight, bossesat Maple Creek sign national pact
BY FRANK FORRESTALAND TONY LANE PITTSBURGH—
In a big victory for mine workers here, Maple Creek Mining Inc., has signed the 2002 National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement (NBCWA). This important win for the union nationally comes as a result of seven years of struggle by members of the mine workers union and their solidarity in face of a company antiunion drive.
Starting in 2003, the contract at Maple Creek will cover the terms and conditions of the national agreement. After living with a wage freeze since 1995, the company will increase wages for miners at Maple by $3.15 an hour starting next year. For the first time in almost seven years, wages will be equivalent to all other miners covered by the NBCWA.
In addition, the union contract at Maple Creek will have a common expiration date at the end of 2006 with the rest of the mines covered under the NBCWA pact. This will help strengthen the bargaining power of the national union. Antiunion provisions dropped Also important is the fact that workers at High Quality, where the company will soon begin coal production, will be covered by the same terms. Murray’s plan from the beginning was to treat the new mine as separate and not part of Maple Creek. The fight was whether it would be a union mine. This is what he lost and is at the heart of what the miners won.
Another important concession won by the miners has to do with forced overtime. Mandatory work on Sunday has been eliminated and every third week miners will only have to work five days. While this may not seem like much, miners have been working six-day weeks for years.
To capture the scope of the victory for the UMWA, it is useful to step back and look at some of the key highlights of the battle over the last seven years.
After U.S. Steel Mining Co. closed the mine in 1994, it was purchased by Robert Murray, who is today the largest independent coal operator. Murray won deep contractual concessions from the union and reopened the mine in 1995. From day one it was clear that Murray had every intention of weakening the union. Working conditions in the mine deteriorated rapidly. Grievances piled up, dozens of miners were disciplined, and suspensions multiplied. Many issues involving work rules and safety remained unresolved. Deterioration of safety In 1996 a miner was killed in a haulage accident; the following year, a belt repairman was killed in a rib roll. In this period miners worked up to 60 plus hours a week. In the fall of 1999 there were two major rock falls along the main haulage track in the mine, temporarily shutting the mine down. It was a miracle that no one got hurt or killed.
In April of 1999, without any warning, Maple Creek owners ordered the miners out of the mine and told them to clear out their lockers. The union was not informed of the closure and no explanation was given to the miners, a clear violation of the state’s Worker Adjustment Retraining Notification law. The abrupt closing took place after inspectors with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited the company for serious safety violations. The workers—fuming at this point—were called back to work a few days after this incident.
The battle reached a head in September when miners walked off the job for two days. The strike was over whether the current national Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement or a separate "memorandum of understanding" is the standing contract.
In the wake of the contract rejection in 2000, tensions reached new levels when the union used "memorial days"—where miners do not report to work—to put a spotlight on Murray’s union-busting moves. After the successful memorial days, including a 400-strong rally in Powhatan, Ohio, supported by both the Maple Creek and Powhatan No. 6 locals last summer, Murray filed more lawsuits all of which have gone down to defeat.
Maple Creek miners know that the road ahead will not be smooth. There is concern about the impact the phasing out of Maple Creek will have on jobs and seniority rights when the new portal at High Quality begins production. But miners are in a stronger position today to defend their union and are more confident to meet the inevitable challenges ahead.
Frank Forrestal and Tony Lane are underground miners and members of UMWA Local 1248.