A federal judge issued an April 30 order that enjoins the Big Ridge Inc. unit of coal miner Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU) from continuing an anti-union campaign at the Willow Lake coal mine in Illinois.
The order is related to a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) review of what might be a rare United Mine Workers of America union organizing win at the Willow Lake mine. The UMWA represents a shrinking number of coal mines nationwide that in many cases it organized decades ago and it is rare for it to win a new mine to represent.
The NLRB had petitioned the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois for an injunction against Big Ridge, the operator of the Willow Lake coal mine in Equality, Ill., prohibiting unfair labor practices by Big Ridge at the mine pending a final decision by NLRB on a complaint by the UMWA for unfair labor practices at the mine. In particular, NLRB sought reinstatement of Wade Waller, a former employee of the Willow Lake mine who allegedly was terminated by Big Ridge in retaliation for his organizing activities at the mine on behalf of UMWA.
In March 2011, UMWA began an organizing campaign to represent the approximately 440 production and maintenance workers at Willow Lake. The workers already were represented at that time by the Boilermakers Union, but negotiations for a new contract to replace the existing agreement between Big Ridge and the Boilermakers Union that was due to expire April 15, 2011, were going badly, noted Judge G. Patrick Murphy in his April 30 decision. The UMWA’s organizing campaign among the workers at the Willow Lake mine was very successful, garnering authorization cards from 93% of the unit employees, and the Boilermakers Union later disclaimed interest in further representation of the Willow Lake production and maintenance workers when the Boilermakers Union’s contract with Big Ridge expired.
However, Big Ridge denied UMWA’s request on April 7, 2011, for voluntary recognition of UMWA as the Willow Lake employees’ collective bargaining representative. Furthermore, Big Ridge proceeded to conduct a vigorous anti-union campaign in response to the petition made by UMWA in April 2011 to the NLRB for a secret-ballot election.
Big Ridge held a series of group meetings with employees, which included slide shows, films and presentations by officials from Peabody Energy, Big Ridge’s parent company. Big Ridge also distributed flyers with employee paychecks, mailed letters and videotapes to employees’ homes, and made anti-union stickers available for employees to wear on their hardhats, the judge noted. Also, Big Ridge polled its supervisors about how employees were likely to vote on representation by UMWA, and directed the supervisors to make one-on-one contact with employees to encourage them to vote against UMWA representation.
“Despite Big Ridge’s aggressive anti-union campaign, UMWA narrowly won the elections conducted on May 19-20, 2011, by a vote of 219-206; of the 425 employees who voted (ninety-seven percent of those eligible), approximately fifty-two percent voted in favor of UMWA representation,” the judge wrote. “However, on May 26, 2011, Big Ridge filed timely objections seeking a rerun election based on allegedly improper conduct by UMWA in the run-up to the May 19-20 elections. UMWA responded by filing charges of unfair labor practices against Big Ridge, in particular alleging that Big Ridge had terminated Wade Waller, an employee at the Willow Lake mine and a strong supporter of UMWA, in order to chill union support at the mine.”
Firing of pro-union employee becomes big issue at Big Ridge
Waller has about 28 years of mining experience and worked as a ram car driver at Willow Lake for over seven years before his discharge by Big Ridge on May 27, 2011. By all accounts Waller was a good employee, hard-working, experienced, dependable, well-liked, and willing to fill in on his days off. Although he had a reputation for being loud (as Waller himself admits), he did not have a reputation for being violent, the judge noted. Further, until his discharge, he had never been called into the office or disciplined for even the slightest infraction, safety-related or otherwise, over the entire seven years of his employment at the Willow Lake mine.
The judge added: “There is no dispute that Waller actively and openly supported UMWA during and after the union’s campaign to represent Willow Lake employees. Waller frequently wore a camouflage UMWA shirt back and forth to work. He put eight to ten UMWA stickers on his hardhat. He even put one of Big Ridge’s ‘VOTE NO’ stickers on his hardhat, covering up half of the sticker so that it read ‘VOTE UMWA.’ Waller also distributed at least 100 UMWA stickers to other Willow Lake employees, and wrote and sang a derogatory song at the mine about ‘scabs’ who did not support UMWA. In short, although many other Willow Lake employees also openly supported UMWA, the record reflects that, in fact, Waller was one of the strongest and most outspoken UMWA supporters at the Willow Lake mine.”
The public interest would be served by interim injunctive relief in this case due to the serious nature of the alleged unfair labor practices and the strong evidence that supports NLRB’s allegations, the judge wrote. Such relief will help to preserve the NLRB’s remedial authority and in that way serve the collective bargaining process. Furthermore, there is no evidence that injunctive relief would lead to any public harm, the judge added.
The judge Big Ridge supervisors are enjoined from: threatening employees with mine closure, job loss, or other unspecified reprisals because they support the UMWA; promising employees benefits if they oppose UMWA; discharging or otherwise discriminating against employees because they support UMWA or discouraging employees from supporting UMWA; and in any like or related manner interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed them under federal labor law.
Big Ridge was also ordered to: within five days of issuance of this order, offer immediate and full interim reinstatement in writing to Waller, to his former position, at his previous wage and all other former terms or conditions of employment; within fourteen days of issuance of this order, post copies of this order at Willow Lake and associated facilities; and within fourteen days of issuance of this order, submit to the Regional Director of Region 14 of NLRB a sworn affidavit from a responsible official describing the manner in which Big Ridge has complied and will continue to comply with the terms of this order.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data shows that Willow Lake, a deep mine, produced 594,587 tons in the first quarter of this year and 2.2 million tons in all of 2011.