By Tammy Shriver and John Veasey Times West Virginian
FAIRMONT — Sue Kelley, who taught in the Fairmont State Language and Literature department, is a professor emeritus at FSU, and is a member of the American Federation of Teachers union and works with the AFL-CIO, said unions are more relevant now than in the recent past.
“So many workers’ rights are being chipped away. The worst thing? At-will employment gives you no due process. And ‘right to work’ is a misnomer,” she said. “It essentially will attack union memberships.”
Kelley said that “the thing that we lose track of — and I am absolutely passionate about this — the most democratic institution has always been union membership because union membership voices are heard before action is taken. Members vote. Members speak out. Members do what they can to keep a level playing field. In general … what has happened is that corporations and large businesses have acquired more power at the corporate level, the administrative level, with salaries going to the top. Thus workers have lost money, protection and a voice.”
Without a union, people at work are frightened in most working situations. They are afraid of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, Kelley said.
“When they have a union behind them, they have the power of solidarity and more than just themselves,” she said. “So they can be brave enough to stand up when something unjust occurs, when there are safety violations, when there are health violations, when there are violations of integrity. I’ve seen it happen in academics.”
Kelley considers unions to be more than viable.
“I consider them to be vital,” she said. “If you have a union and a corporation, you have some balance to the power.”
Mike Caputo, international vice president of the United Mine Workers of America and minority whip of the West Virginia Legislature, believes unions are every bit as relevant today as they always were, especially for the middle class.
“The miners have health care and benefits even after they retire. That’s all because the unions were able to negotiate health care plans for their members,” he said. “Even long after they retire, most union members still have health care benefits. I don’t know how many dollars in a community go to health care. But the people sometimes don’t see what unions do. Hospitals and health care facilities are able to exist in our area because people have health care benefits through union contracts.
“If you look at some of the situations we find ourselves in … let’s look at Patriot Coal. They went bankrupt not once, but twice. But they were able to negotiate a plan to keep the members working. Did we have to make adjustments to certain agreements, the old agreements? Yes, but the bottom line is that the unions were able to bind together to negotiate a new contract.
“I think unions are as relevant today as they always were. But we are the driving force that keeps the standard of living up so people can still try to live the American dream.”
Caputo believes that if unions did not exist, it would not be long before workers would be living in company houses and shopping at company stores.
“There will always be people in corporate America that will want to take advantage of their workers,” he said. “Unions are always there to provide safe working conditions. When organized labor lobbies for safe working conditions in factories and coal mines, that applies to all factories and coal mines. The safe workplaces are there because of the efforts of organized labor.
“They are very relevant today, and I dread the thought of what this country would go back to without unions,” Caputo said.
Jason Todd knows the union way. He is a proud union coal miner.
In fact, this self-described shy person has found his voice and is the president of Local 9909 at the Marion County Coal Co.
He and a friend ran for the position in a special election after the elected president moved into a position at United Mine Workers International. During the election process, there was no slander, no name-calling and no bad-mouthing.
“I won the election,” Todd said. “We shook hands, and he and I are still friends. That’s the union way.”
Before he was a miner, he worked on pipelines in the oil and gas field. There, too, he was in a union.
He knows the difference in the working conditions.
According to Phil Smith, communications director of United Mine Workers of America, there are two main differences in a union mine and nonunion mine.
“First, in a union mine, workers have a voice in their own safety practices,” Smith said. “We have written into our contracts the ability of the workers to say no if they deem an area to be unsafe and the ability to say, ‘No, we are not going to work there until it is made safe.’ They have the right to call for federal or state inspectors to come and inspect that area. Steps can be made to make it safe.
“In nonunion mines, miners, on paper, have that ability, but they cannot exercise that right without fear of losing their jobs.”
The second big difference between union and nonunion mines is collective bargaining and a binding legal agreement, the contract.
“Union workers also have a written, binding legal document called a collective bargaining agreement that sets their pay, sets the terms and conditions of work, sets what their pension is going to be, what their health benefits are going to be and all of those things the company cannot change whenever they feel like it,” Smith said. “If they want to make changes, they have to come back to the union and say, ‘Will you be willing to sit down and talk to us about this?’
“Nonunion workers, be it miners or someplace else, those things are subject to the whims of the employer. If they want to reduce wages without a union, they can do that. If they want to cut the benefits, they can do that. Or if they want to change the working conditions, they can do that.”
Smith said unions give workers a contract that cannot be broken just because someone feels like changing it.
Todd is a firm believer in that.
“I know union mines are safer,” Todd said. “I have worked in both. I know what goes on in a nonunion mine. In a nonunion mine, laws are broken (and) corners are cut, leaving safety compromised. There was a saying at the nonunion mines — there were only two can’ts there. ‘If you can’t get the job done, then you can’t work here.’ They didn’t care how that job got done.
“That was the mentality that they put into you. They would fire you if you didn’t get the job done, and they didn’t care how you got it done. They would give you a job and you better not have an excuse. You better just go do it.”
Marion County Coal mine is a union mine.
Todd knows how important that is because he was not always a union miner.
“I was working out of town, traveling all the time working for gas and oil pipelines,” Todd said. “I lived out of hotels Monday through Friday and came home every weekend.”
He was tired of traveling, and it was Todd’s future father-in-law who got him into mining.
“I was dating his daughter. I got tired of traveling, so I asked what he did for a living,” Todd said. “I asked what I had to do to get into the mines. He told me what I would have to do to get a red hat to even be hired into the mines.”
Todd knew he had a maintenance background. He knew he wanted to be a mechanic. His future father-in-law told him that would be a job-securing position because mechanics would be the last one they kept.
So Todd did what he needed to do to get his red hat. He took the 80-hour apprentice miners class and passed the 100-question test to get his red hat. Then he began sending out resumes.
But he didn’t get hired.
“It took me a few months to get hired. Working on pipelines was a union job, and no one wanted to hire union,” Todd said. “It was harder for me. I couldn’t prove that was why they wouldn’t hire me, but I knew why.”
After sending three resumes to Garrett Mine Supply (GMS), he decided to do something different. One day he drove to GMS with a resume and talked to the guy there.
“I was told that if I was willing to drive from Morgantown to Oakland, Maryland, for a job, I was willing to work, and he hired me,” Todd said. “Then he told me when and where to start.”
That “when and where” was the Whitetail mine in Fellowsville in November 2004. The Whitetail mine uses GMS for extra staff.
Todd started at Whitetail mine as a general laborer and worked as a laborer rock duster. Rock dust is a white powder used in mines to keep the floating dust down so if there were an ignition, there would not be a chain reaction of explosions. He also helped with ventilation, got supplies and helped the mechanic if something was broken.
After he earned his black hat, he became a scoop operator.
In order for Todd to earn his black hat and be considered an experienced miner, he had to work six months and have a set amount of shifts worked before he could go to the West Virginia Mine Health and Safety Training Center and pass another 20- to 25-question test.
“When you are a red hat miner, you have to wear a red hat,” Todd said. “When you pass the test to become a black hat, you either have to get rid of your red hat or paint it black.”
The color of a miner’s hat tells other miners his experience level. A red hat is an apprentice miner. A black hat is an experienced miner, and a white hat is someone who possesses mine foreman or assistant mine foreman papers or a fire boss.
While at Whitetail, Todd also earned his electrician’s card. For that, he had to take an eight-hour electrical hazard class to get his apprentice electrician’s card. Then he had to have a set number of hours in a year’s time to get his electrical card. After obtaining his electrical card, Todd had to take another 40-hour class and pass an electrical test through WVMHST to get his certified electrician’s card.
Todd left the Whitetail mine in February 2007.
“I worked out a month’s notice instead of two weeks,” Todd said. “When I interviewed with Consol, Whitetail was shorthanded a mechanic. I got my electric card through them. I told them I was going to work out a month’s notice so they would have time to replace me.”
Todd left Whitetail on a Friday and started at Consol’s Loveridge mine on Monday.
“I had to start at a nonunion mine because at that time, Consol would not hire you unless you were a black hat with one year’s experience,” Todd said.
In order for Todd to be hired into a union mine in a classified position, that job had to be posted on a bid sheet, and no one bid on it or no one was qualified for the job.
Working for a union mine and a nonunion mine was as different as night and day, Todd said. Instead of being intimidated and retaliated against, he suddenly had rights, a voice to speak up against unsafe practices, and people who would stand with him instead of against him.
“You had a voice,” he said. “If you didn’t think something was safe, all you had to do was raise a concern. If the foreman didn’t want to address the issue, being in the union we had a way of evoking individual safety rights. You could ask for a safety committeeman. You could ask to be taken out of the affected area. You could ask for alternate work until the issue was settled. If there was nothing in the federal or state law and it was not a safety issue, you went and did the job. If it was a safety issue, it was corrected before you went and did that job. If you had tried that at a nonunion mine, you would be fired on the spot.”
Todd knows his rights. He knows the contract, and he knows the laws. That is because he makes it a point to read the contract, state and federal law at least 15-30 minutes a day.
“When the guys on my section found out that I read the contract and laws, they started asking my opinion and advice on certain issues,” Todd said.
Another difference between union mines and nonunion mines is that at a union mine, if someone with experience sees a miner doing something wrong, that person will take the miner by the hand, show him the correct way to do it and explain why it is done that way.
“That goes a long way when you were doing it wrong for five years in a nonunion mine,” Todd said. “Somebody shows you the right way to do it. Then when they hire somebody else, you can now show that guy the right way to do it.
“In my experience the union coal miners are better at the jobs they do, and we are safer at the jobs that we do,” Todd said. “You are not intimidated. You’re not retaliated against. You can stand up for safety, and there is nothing that can be done to you.
“We preach safety at our mines,” Todd said. “The union fights for all the benefits that we have, where if you work nonunion, you don’t have that.”
Nonunion mines do not have the retirement benefits or health care benefits of a union mine, although Todd is concerned for the retirees’ benefits.
“I’m concerned for their health care,” Todd said. “We have been trying to get legislation passed to make sure that our retirees and pensioners still have health care. If we don’t get the backing of the government, they are giving these people who have devoted and sacrificed their whole life a death sentence.”
He said he will continue to read and study his contract and that he is confident the UMW will do its best to keep working conditions and benefits because that is “the union way.”