WAYNESBURG, Pa. — The banner on the stage declared, “One union, One contract, No exceptions.” Hand-lettered picket signs proclaiming, “We made the profits, where’s our share?” were held high by over 1,800 members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), their families and supporters from the steelworkers, teachers and construction workers unions as they jammed the fairgrounds grandstand here, uniting for justice in the coal fields.
The words of the opening prayer said it all: “What we have here, Lord, is a blessing of unity.”
Despite negotiations that stretched far into the night, 1,200 members of the Mine Workers union struck Foundation Coal Company’s Emerald and Cumberland mines in Greene County, Pa. (population 40,000), and its Wabash mine in Keensburg, Ill. (pop. 250), on April 4. By 10 a.m., workers filled the fairgrounds for a union solidarity rally.
“This is a step that we sincerely hoped we did not have to take and worked hard to avoid,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Foundation subsidiaries which operate these mines left us no choice. Their attempts to divide our membership and pit miner against miner and local union against local union drove us to this point.”
At issue is Foundation Coal’s demand to split off the Wabash mine, as if it were a separate company, from the national union contract recently ratified by 81 percent of UMWA members. Miners at the Wabash mine gave up $30,000 worth of concessions during the previous contract. But now, Foundation Coal wants more wage, health care and pension cuts from the Wabash miners and their families. UMWA members “have done their part,” Roberts said.
“We’re not going to let ’em [Foundation Coal] do it,” quipped a young Pennsylvania miner. “Pennsylvania stands with the boys from Illinois!” Later he told the World, “I got a freezer full of deer meat and it’s trout season. I’m ready. My dad and granpap were union. We all work hard. Made this company a ton of money. We stick together. It’s the only way.”
As the solidarity rally was getting under way, Foundation announced it was closing the Wabash mine.
“That the company chose to make its announcement today is revealing,” said Roberts. “The brutal message in today’s press release from Foundation only serves to strengthen our resolve. We will continue to fight for every miner and family at all three mines. Closing Wabash does not change that fact.”
As miners huddled around fire barrels on the picket lines at the Emerald mine, armed company guards clad in black, military-style uniforms patrolled the gates. Mounted surveillance cameras monitored the roads. Roberts called the company’s tactics “brutal.”
Miners and their families are not alone. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George brought the rally to its feet as he declared, “This fight is our fight. Let these SOBs hear you! It is union time! They want a war? They got one. This is sacred ground. The legacy we built, the wages, health care, pensions, voice at work — that legacy is you.”
Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) Labor Council, delivered the support of its 200 affiliated local unions. He stood shoulder to shoulder with two Greene County commissioners, the county treasurer, a state representative and dozens of union leaders and members of the clergy.
During the strike, the UMWA will provide each striking miner with health care and a weekly check for $225.
Foundation Coal, based near Baltimore, Md., boasts revenues of $900 million a year. Together, miners at Cumberland, Emerald and Wabash mines produced over 15 million tons of coal worth more than $709 million for Foundation in 2005. Foundation closed the Wabash mine even though it says it has contracts with electrical power companies to supply coal from that mine through 2009. Among the top five coal operators in the country, Foundation owns significant holdings in the nation’s largest coal deposit, the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, which is nonunion. In 2006, Foundation sold 70 million tons of coal, 90 percent of which was used to generate electricity.
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