PITTSBURGH — Despite a rare, pro-labor ruling from the National Labor Relations Board, union coal miners who once worked at the Mammoth Mine in Kanawha County, W.Va., near Charleston, have still not been allowed to return to work.
Although the mine is operating, the unionized coal miners — roughly half the workforce until three years ago — lost their jobs when the previous owner Horizon went bankrupt and the mine was bought by Massey Energy. Massey quickly weeded out the union members and reopened the mine as a nonunion operation.
Late last month, NLRB Administrative Law Judge Paul Bogas ruled that Massey had discriminated against the union miners, members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), because of their union affiliation.
The evidence presented by the union on behalf of the miners was so compelling that Judge Bogas was forced to rule in their favor. One smoking gun was a spreadsheet provided to Mammoth Mine’s Human Relations Director Kevin Doss by Massey official Jeff Gillenwater detailing the “union time” of every miner. Eighty-five miners lost their jobs based on this data.
According to NLRB documents, Bogas ordered the company to rehire the miners, pay back wages and bargain with the union.
In his ruling following a 16-day trial, Bogas wrote that a bankruptcy court’s earlier decision to toss out the union contract at the Mammoth Mine when Massey bought it was unjustified. Bankruptcy does not grant a green light to new owners to break the union, he wrote. His ruling goes against a longstanding interpretation of the law that dates back to the Reagan era.
The judge further noted that since the mine became nonunion, production at the Mammoth Mine has fallen from 35 tons a day per miner in 2003 to 23 tons per miner today.
But the coal miners see this important and rare victory as bittersweet. The NLRB process allows Mammoth Energy to appeal the decision and keep the union miners out of work.
“If things went as the Lord intended, those miners would be back at work for the holidays, but they are not,” UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said in a phone interview with the World. “All 160 miners at Mammoth would be working under the 2002 agreement right now, and we would meeting with Massey working out terms negotiated under our new contracts. That is not the case.”
Even with Bogas’ favorable ruling, Smith blames the NLRB for a pattern of anti-union decisions. “This is a unique decision,” said Smith, “but the NLRB has been a mess for years and is only getting worse. It was supposed to promote collective bargaining; now it busts unions.”
“We are fighting back, injunction ready, to get union miners back to work,” he said. “We will go through the court, but it is the fight on the ground that makes the difference. Our new contracts represent progress, but that only came after the tremendous strike against Foundation Coal right there in Pennsylvania.”
The new five-year contracts between the UMWA and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, signed in July, raises wages to a top rate of $24.42 by the end of the agreement in 2011, increases pensions and preserves full health care coverage for active and retired miners. Co-payments for health care are frozen.
In an era where raises are unheard of and health care a distant memory, the new contracts for workers who keep the lights on and the steel rolling stand out.
The impact of decent, unionized jobs on small, struggling communities throughout Appalachia is a sparkling light, a season of hope, at the end of long, dismal tunnel.