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Burning issues

Job security, wages lock Maple Creek Mining and union in bitter battle

Sunday, September 23, 2001

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The letter called Washington County Commissioner J. Bracken Burns an "opportunistic political lackey" who's "totally ignorant" of events around him.

"I have to admit I don't get letters like that all the time," Burns said.

Commissioners Chairman John P. Bevec received a letter saying he is in need of a "wake-up call -- better yet a boot out of your office."

One of the county's largest employers, Maple Creek Mining Inc., and one of the county's most powerful labor groups, the United Mine Workers, are locked in a war of words over job security and other issues at coal mines in the Bentleyville area and southeastern Ohio.

Burns and Bevec got caught in the fray. Paul B. Piccolini, Maple Creek's manager of personnel and employee relations, wrote the letters after the commissioners spoke July 24 at a UMW rally in Powhatan Point, Ohio.

Neither Maple Creek Mining nor union representatives are mincing words in the months-old dispute, which began with an exchange of truculent press releases and has progressed to allegations of slander and charges of unfair labor practices.

In the battle for the public-relations high ground, the UMW has criticized Maple Creek owner Robert E. Murray on rented billboards along area highways. Each side has disparaged the other in full-page newspaper ads.

The UMW's ad showed the blackened, somber face of a miner, a union sticker on his hard hat. The ad read:

"Bob Murray is a churchgoing man who says he loves his employees. Well, here's a Bible verse for Bob: 'Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.' "

Maple Creek's ad said the union has "tried to bring Mr. Murray to his knees with inaccurate statements, concocted issues, intimidation, harassment and outright bullying."

It's the kind of dispute that's occurring less frequently these days in the mining industry and other sectors of the economy.

With fewer members -- resulting, in some cases, from technological advances in the workplace -- unions are engaging less often in hard-nosed, costly battles with employers, said Marick Masters, business professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Maple Creek officials said the UMW's dwindling membership is precisely what's fueling the difficulties with the union. But Edward D. Yankovich Jr., president of UMW District 2 that encompasses Pennsylvania, and parts of New York and Maryland, said the dispute at Maple Creek arose after the miners voted Dec. 7 to reject a contract extension the company wanted so it could finance a new mine.

Upset with the vote, company officials began hinting they would back out of a pledge to offer the union miners jobs at the High Quality Mine under development near Monongahela, Yankovich said. He said he believes efforts to intimidate the Maple Creek work force, represented by UMW Local 1248, occurred with Murray's approval.

"Mr. Murray has a very autocratic style of management ... that anybody would be acting without his approval or voicing an opinion he did not share is not believable to me or anybody else I know that knows the man," Yankovich said.

Maple Creek officials said relations with the UMW soured after the union demanded to represent workers at the recently opened Century Mine in Belmont and Monroe counties, Ohio. The mine is owned by American Energy Corp., another of Murray's companies.

D. Lynn Shanks, Maple Creek president and general manager, said he told UMW officials he had no authority to make decisions for the Ohio mine. The UMW then broke off the contract extension talks that had resumed after the vote in December, said Shanks and Steven E. Cohen, manager of public affairs and government relations for Murray's companies.

"The union is using the employees at Maple Creek as pawns in a broader organizing campaign," Cohen said.

The Washington County and Ohio mines are but two fronts in the battle between the UMW and Murray. In July, UMW International President Cecil Roberts was among those arrested at Murray's Galatia, Ill., mine during a rally to encourage miners there to join the union.

"If the Galatia miners want to know what might be in store for them, they need look no further than what is happening to Murray's miners at the Powhatan mine in Ohio and the Maple Creek mine in Pennsylvania," Roberts said at the time. Murray's record, Roberts said, is one of "empty promises and lip-service loyalty" to workers who helped him carve a niche in the coal market.

With about 500 employees, Maple Creek is one of the county's top 10 private-sector employers, according to county figures. Production in 1999 topped 2.7 million tons, ranking Maple Creek sixth among the state's coal mines that year, according to Pennsylvania Coal Association. More recent statistics were not available.

Because of the mine's importance to the county, company officials were angry when Burns and Bevec spoke at the UMW rally and made what Piccolini called unfair and inaccurate remarks about Murray. As a Democrat, Bevec said, it was natural for him to appear at the rally and ask that Murray honor his promises to workers.

As Shanks and Cohen tell it, Murray remained faithful to the miners whose jobs he saved even as the mine hemorrhaged money.

U.S. Steel Mining Co. closed Maple Creek in 1994, putting about 440 people out of work. Cohen and Shanks said Murray purchased the mine at the UMW's suggestion, hired 243 miners initially, then about 250 more.

Yankovich and Frank T. Wydo, Local 1248 president, said the miners helped put Murray in business by accepting lower wages than they otherwise would have received under the UMW's national compact with coal operators. Because the lower wage was frozen for a seven-year period that began in 1995, they said, Maple Creek miners now make about $3 an hour less than the national wage.

"My wages are 1989 wages," said Wydo, who estimated the miners' sacrifices exceeded $25 million. UMW officials said they fear the concessions are helping Murray open nonunion mines.

If not for Murray, company officials said, Maple Creek miners might have lower quality jobs in another field. They said the purchase of Maple Creek enabled about 140 laid-off miners to complete the 20 years of service necessary to be fully vested in retirement and health benefits valued at $300,000 per person. The company said the average Maple Creek miner makes about $52,000 a year.

But Wydo said the $52,000 includes about $10,000 in mandatory overtime -- more overtime than many miners care to have. He said the highest straight-time wage at the mine is $16.16 an hour.

When Murray purchased the mine, Cohen said, the company and union agreed that any profits that exceeded $2 a ton would be divided among Maple Creek workers. But company officials said Maple Creek produces fewer tons of coal per man-day than any other longwall mine in the nation and has lost about $65 million.

Yankovich said the company won't fulfill its obligation to turn over financial documents the union needs to verify the mine's financial situation. Cohen and Shanks said the union has been given the necessary paperwork.

The contract between Maple Creek and its miners expires Dec. 31, 2002 -- the time the mine's reserves are expected to be depleted.

Late last year, as the company prepared for development of the High Quality Mine, Maple Creek presented the proposed contract extension that Wydo said would have increased miners' pay by $1.20 an hour over four years. Cohen said the proposal would have increased the pay $1.50 an hour over five years.

Miners rejected the proposal 335 to 10; Wydo called the wage proposal "stinking" and a "slap in the face."

In a letter to employees the next day, Murray said the contract extension meant "the continuance of your job" beyond 2002. Without the extension, he said, the new mine "cannot be constructed, and the phasing out of Maple Creek must immediately begin."

Maple Creek officials nonetheless proceeded with development of High Quality Mine, set to begin production next summer. Citing Murray's letter and statements Murray's management employees are alleged to have made, UMW officials said they fear the company will back away from its pledge to offer members employment at the new mine.

They said their concern is fueled by the situation in Ohio, where the UMW has not been given jurisdiction at the Century Mine even though it represents workers at the nearby Powhatan No. 6 mine, owned by Murray's Ohio Valley Coal Co.

The UMW considers the Century Mine a new portal of the Powhatan mine. Shanks and Cohen said the Century Mine is a separate entity, owned by a different company and separated from Powhatan by long-sealed mine workings. Moreover, company officials said it isn't Murray's style to override Century Mine employees who have rebuffed the UMW's organizing overtures.

"It has been his firm belief in 46 years in the coal business that his employees can decide for themselves whether they want a union or not, and if so, which union," Cohen said.

In July, Maple Creek and the union began criticizing each other in press releases. Twice at Maple Creek and twice at Powhatan, the UMW pulled its members from the mines for "memorial days" marking their contributions to Murray's companies.

Murray's companies have filed four charges of unfair labor practices against the union, calling the memorial days illegal work stoppages. The UMW said the charges have been dismissed by labor relations boards in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The companies also have filed four lawsuits against the UMW and its international secretary-treasurer, Carlo Tarley, claiming Murray's reputation was damaged in union press releases and speeches.

The UMW has filed an unfair labor practice charge against Maple Creek, claiming it has not released required financial information.

Shanks said the portal at the new mine may be named "Commitment" to reflect Murray's loyalty to Maple Creek employees. Rejection of the contract extension in December, Shanks and Cohen said, did not change the company's resolve to hire Local 1248 members for the new mine.

Murray has said his favorite measure of success is not a glowing financial statement but a parking lot full of shiny new pickup trucks driven by his employees.

But union officials said they do not understand his approach to labor-management relations. Wydo said Murray sharply criticizes the union at "awareness meetings" miners are required to attend. The union, Wydo said, calls the sessions "beware-ness" meetings.

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