More than 50 active, retired and widowed members of the United Mine Workers of America took to the road Wednesday morning, headed for Berkshire Hathaway's annual stockholders meeting and the corporate offices of MidAmerican Energy in Iowa.
On Friday and Saturday, union representatives plan to picket and pass informational handbills addressing their issues with current contract negotiations between the Energy West's Deer Creek Coal Mine and UMWA officials.
According to UMWA Region 4 Deputy Director Bob Guilfoyle, the collective bargaining agreement between MidAmerican, the parent company of Energy West, and the miners who work at the Deer Creek mine near Huntington, expired in early January.
"Since that time, management has refused to permit use of sick or vacation leave. Management has also demanded a 75 percent reduction in safety representation, proposed substandard health care coverage and used threats and intimidation to get its way," said UMWA Director of Communications Phil Smith.
While officials representing MidAmerican would not address specific questions concerning the negotiations, they did provide the following statement:
"Energy West Mining Company is bargaining in good faith with union leadership and has been for several months," said Maria O'Mara, spokesperson for Energy West Mining Company. "Both have made many proposals that have been discussed. Energy West Mining is committed to a resolution that is fair to both employees and customers, protects our commitment to safety and keeps costs competitive."
For union officials, the profit margin reported by MidAmerican in 2012 demonstrates that costs are more than competitive.
"They are bragging about MidAmerican's massive profits in 2012, and they still want cuts," said UMWA Region 4 Deputy Director Bob Guilfoyle from one of the buses headed for Iowa. "They are demanding cuts in health care but they aren't willing to give back the money these men traded for those benefits during past negotiations. They want to take promised health care benefits from retired coal miners and their widows."
In addition to the UMWA/Deer Creek contract, one of Castle Country's biggest employers, PacifiCorp, is also negotiating their labor agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. While negotiations between these groups address separate companies and different labor pools, they are also intertwined. CEO Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway owns both PacifiCorp and Mid-American and the coal which is produced at Deer Creek is blended by union employees at Hunter and burned to produce power at both the Huntington and Hunter Power Plant.
For the second time this year, IBEW members voted down a PacifiCorp proposed contract in March, citing their own health concerns.
"Working in a coal mine is difficult, dangerous work," said UMWA International District 22 Vice President Mike Dalpiaz, who will be leading the delegation in Iowa. "The last thing any miner needs is for safety and health protections to be weakened, yet that's the proposal on the table from MidAmerican. We're coming to Des Moines to raise our voices for safety at work, and ask the good people there to join us in calling for MidAmerican to come to the bargaining table and reach a fair and reasonable agreement."