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Co-op, UMWA Strike Deal in Labor Dispute

Sun Advocate reporter

The end of a 32-month battle between workers and owners at the Co-op Mine near Huntington may be at its end.

Last week, both sides of the table reached a settlement which, if approved by the courts and the National Labor Relations Board, will end the dispute between the polygamous Kingston Family's C.W. Mining Company and the United Mine Workers of America.

The results of the settlement will fail to fully satisfy either side. Still, both parties said the two sides are amenable to the proposed outcome.

"You don't always do as well as you hope," said Carl Kingston, one of the attorneys representing the mine company. "Both parties have to give a little."

Under the terms of the settlement, the mining union will halt its efforts to establish a local union at the mine.

The mining company must give back pay to a handful of workers whose U.S. citizenship or labor permits have been clearly established. The company will also drop a defamation lawsuit filed against the UMWA and organizations who supported the establishment of a local union.

In December 2004, the mine terminated the employment of 27 miners whose labor status had been questioned.

The decision came just days before a vote by mine workers that would have determined whether a local union would be backed by the UMWA or be controlled by mine owners.

Those firings had been deemed to be inappropriate by the regional director of the NLRB in Denver, Colo., a matter that was scheduled for hearing on Tuesday.

But because of the settlement, the case will not be heard, leaving the question of whether the firings were legal.

"I don't think there are any winners," pointed out Phil Smith, communications director for UMWA. "It's unfortunate that we had to go to these lengths to get a settlement."

But despite the fact that the settlement fails to resolve all of the claims coming from the two sides, Smith said the fight made a statement regarding working conditions for miners across the country.

"It was a battle worth fighting," said Smith.

The UMWA representative explained that workers across the country know about the Co-op Mine.

Leading up to the vote, the NLRB had determined that 108 of the workers at the mine in December 2004 were ineligible because they were either members of the Kingston family or Davis County Cooperative Society Inc., or were management.

The 27 firings have been viewed as the response by C.W. Mining, though the officially stated reason for the firings was that the workers hadn't provided proof that they were legally permitted to be employed in the United States.

The result is that seven of the 142 votes cast were counted. Two were for the UMWA union, while five went to the union controlled by mine owners.

As for the 27 workers who were fired, those without work permits are left without any settlement.

Firing employees for attempting to unionize the workplace is illegal.

However, terminating employment because an employee doesn't have legal working status is not.

Had litigation continued, a legal ruling could have determined whether the firings were legal, according to the company and UMWA representatives.

Had the 27 votes been counted, UMWA stood to gain, as the results could have turned the vote in their favor.

However, getting the Co-op miners' jobs back would have been near to impossible in spite of any ruling.

"It all resolves back to their legal status," pointed out Smith.

Given the current political climate regarding undocumented workers, no agencies are willing to go to bat for the miners' jobs, according to the officials.

In the time since the union vote, C.W Mining has rebuilt its labor force, though the mine production has dropped from 713,000 tons in 2003 to 339,000 tons in 2004 and 416,000 tons last year.

"Our production levels have, for the most part, recovered," said Charles Reynolds, a manager at the mine.

He said the company was meeting the production levels required by its contracts.

While the proposed settlement agreement will not affect the ability of the mine to produce coal, it does close the matter and allow Co-op to move forward with its business, added Reynolds.

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