Striking Utah miners tour Northwest seeking help from union members
By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Utah coal miners Juan Salazar and Alyson Kennedy came to Portland June 9 with a story to tell.
At the Bear Canyon Mine in Huntington, near the center of Utah (also known as the Co-op Mine), coal miners were working for $5.25 to $7 an hour, with no health benefits or pension, with even the price of their tools deducted from their pay, and with dues taken out of their paychecks to support a company-controlled union. On top of that, they faced constant threat from dangerous working conditions and abusive management.
Some of the miners began to complain about safety and talk of joining the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). In response, management began singling out pro-union workers for discipline.
When in September 2003 the company suspended pro-union miner William Estrada for refusing to sign a disciplinary warning (the third UMWA supporter targeted in a several-week period), workers decided they’d had enough. They went out on strike Sept. 22, 2003, demanding Estrada’s reinstatement.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Kennedy said. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we just decided that we were at a point where things were unacceptable.”
The company promptly fired the strikers (in violation of labor law, the UMWA contends.)
“They brought the sheriff to walk us out,” Salazar recalled, in Spanish.
Bear Canyon Mine is owned by CW Mining Company, which is one of 160 businesses in the portfolio of Utah’s infamous “Kingston clan.” The Kingston clan is a polygamous Mormon family with 1,500 members and a $150 million business empire in Utah and six other Western states, including pawn shops, food markets, and a garbage company. The clan is led by Salt Lake City resident Paul Kingston, who is said to have 30 wives and over 50 children. The Kingstons have been the subject of a well-publicized welfare fraud case, as well as a criminal case in which a 16-year-old girl was beaten after she tried to escape a polygamous marriage to an uncle.
Members of the Kingston family are also apparently among the leaders of the company-dominated union at the Bear Canyon Mine, a union in which stewards double as company foremen. “Company unions” are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. But at Bear Canyon, the National Labor Relations Board has granted recognition since 1979 to the improbably named International Association of United Workers Union. Workers at the mine are made to fill out yellow forms with a lion logo, authorizing company deductions for dues.
Reports filed with the Department of Labor list a Huntington, Utah, post office box as the union’s address. And according to the reports, the union has just over 100 members, virtually no assets, no paid staff and no office. Nor does the union have meetings, or elections, Salazar and Kennedy say. In fact, the head of the union stood with management as the miners demanded Estrada’s reinstatement.
With the mine shut down by the wildcat walkout, management brought in strikebreakers to work it, including members of the Kingston family.
Strikers put up an around-the-clock picketline and sent out strikers to other unions, asking for support.
Across Utah and the Western United States, UMWA locals responded, as did other labor and community groups. Miners have spoken in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, and gotten support from union members as far away as Great Britain and Australia, though not, as yet, from CW Mining customers like Pacificorp in Oregon and the Tennessee Valley Authority, unionized employers that are buying coal produced at the struck mine.
In Salt Lake City, Utah Jobs With Justice helped organize picketing at other businesses owned by the Kingston family.
In May, the UMWA, taking advantage of a window of time before the current “contract” expires, filed for an election to replace the company union.
Local and national Catholic organizations have given material support, as have three locals of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE). And the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has stepped forward to help in a big way. Estrada and Kennedy were in Portland at the ILWU’s invitation.
They left with about $6,000 in contributions from three Portland-area ILWU locals and the Portland Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They then headed to Seattle, where more meetings were scheduled with Seattle and Tacoma area locals of the ILWU.
“We are going to win this struggle,” Salazar said. “We know that all the workers, together, can overcome the employer.”
For more information or to contribute to the strikers relief fund, call 435-637-2037, or make out a check to “Co-op Miners Relief Fund” and send it to: United Mine Workers of America District 22, 525 East 100 South, Price, Utah 84501.
© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.