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January 27, 2006

The Battle Of Sago: Mine Company Tries To Run Off The Union

By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

The Alma mine in Logan Country, where two miners were killed last week, lies in the shadow of Blair Mountain, site of the famous battle between miners and company guards over unionization of West Virginia's coal mines.

This week another battle is brewing between the miner's union and the company that owns the Sago mine where 12 workers died -- International Coal Group -- over the union's participation in the investigation of the Sago mine disaster. So far, the union seems to be winning -- with the help of the federal government.

Yesterday, ICG guards blocked UMW representatives from accompanying investigators from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) from entering the Sago mine to begin the investigation. Although Sago miners are not represented by the UMW, several families of the dead miners designated the UMW as their representatives. MSHA agreed with the union and sought a court order to force ICG to allow union representatives onto company property to participate in the Sago Mine disaster investigation.

Today, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Maxwell ordered ICG to allow the union representatives to enter the mine.


The battle over the Sago investigation had been brewing for weeks, ever since the company objected to the union sitting in on MSHA's interviews with surviving miners and then claimed that most of the miners had signed a petition requesting that three Sago miners -- and not the union -- be designated as their representatives.

MSHA, however, citing Section 103(f) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which provides that miners' representatives can accompany MSHA investigators "during the physical inspection of any coal or other mine," recognized the UMW as the workers' representative, along with the company's preferred representatives. MSHA noted Section 103 also recognizes situations where there the agency may permit "more than one representative from each party [that] would further aid the inspection."

According to an MSHA press release,

"MSHA is doing everything it legally can to enforce the rights of the miners' representatives to participate in MSHA's underground investigation into the Sago Mine accident," said Ed Clair, a top MSHA lawyer. "Together, the state and MSHA made a commitment to the families that we could conduct a fair, open investigation, and we decided we needed to take this extraordinary step to keep that commitment," Clair said in a prepared statement.
ICG claimed that it was "disappointed" that MSHA was being "guided by political pressures."
Unfortunately, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) is trying to insert itself into the investigation in a self-serving attempt to boost their organizing efforts. Yielding to UMWA political influence, the Mine Health & Safety Administration (MSHA) and the West Virginia Office of Miner Health, Safety, & Training (WVOMHST) are trying to force our company to allow the union's participation in the investigation without satisfying the associated regulatory requirements.
UMW reps were incredulous at the company's actions, saying that the investigation was "dissolving into a travesty."
"This is absolutely ridiculous," said Tim Baker, a UMW safety official taking part in the Sago probe.

"This company is spending more time and money and energy trying to keep us out than they have trying to figure out what happened," Baker said. "We all have the same goal in mind, so let's get on with it."

Judge Maxwell agreed, stating that
the UMW has decades of expertise in mine disasters to offer.

"There's no question that the public interest is best served by a complete and thorough investigation into the occurrence of the problems at the Sago Mine," Maxwell said. "There is a strong public interest in allowing miners to play a role in this investigation, as it is their health and safety that is at issue."

MSHA attorney Tim Williams said the teams of investigators would probably need seven to 10 days underground to gather evidence. The company had asked the judge to impose a 10-day limit on the union's involvement, but he refused to do so.

ICG claimed that it was particularly disappointed because 90 Sago miners had signed a petition designating three miners to be their representatives and not the union, an effort undertaken by Sago miners "without the initiation, direction or involvement of company management." But certainly not without interest and approval of company management:
On January 20, MSHA officials were presented with a petition from Sago hourly employees that rejected UMWA representation in favor of having three of their coworkers serve as miner representatives. That petition has now been signed by 90 Sago hourly employees – which represents 93% of the active hourly workforce. Those true Sago miner representatives have been participating in the mine reentry process since it began.
OK, without "initiation, direction or involvement" of the company. Now, how do we imagine this went? You've got 150 miners suddenly out of work, with no good prospects for the forseeable future -- unless the nice benevolent company offers them jobs in other area mines. And look over there, out-of-state union thugs causing trouble. Will no one rid me of this meddlesom union? Nod, nod, wink, wink.

Meanwhile, back in Washington DC, the battle over Sago was joined a different level when AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka accused the International Coal Group of misleading potential investors by hiding the deteriorating safety conditions at the Sago Mine.

In a letter, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka urged the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate and take action against ICG and its founder, New York billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr.

Trumka alleged ICG wrongly claimed in its initial public offering for stock purchasers that its operations had a good safety record.

At the same time, Trumka said, federal inspectors were citing the company for hundreds of safety violations, including many that "would cause serious or deadly injury if not corrected.

"These serious risks existed and were known to ICG while they were preparing for and conducting the IPO, yet the company did not disclose them to potential investors," wrote Trumka, a former United Mine Workers president.

"We believe this failure was in violation of the fundamental requirements of the nation's securities laws to provide investors with all material information necessary to make a reasonable investment decision," Trumka wrote in his Monday letter to SEC enforcement director Linda C. Thomsen.

All of this death, destruction and conflict has apparently been too much for Ross and his wife who have been spotted in Palm Beach at various charity affairs, antique shows and parties, and the cute couple was "photographed wearing color-coordinated outfits at a lunch for Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie, the countess of Wessex, at Wall Streeter Tom Quick's lush estate."
"It's a tricky business, but they're not going to stop their lives because of it," said Quest [Magazine] editor David Patrick Columbia. "I think it's a very rough time for them.
Yeah, I guess it's rough all over.

Posted by Jordan Barab at January 27, 2006 07:04 AM