Big Ridge Inc. had asked the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a new election at the mine based on allegations that UMWA supporters resorted to “intimidation and threats, coercion and fraudulent conduct” in an effort to interfere with the rights of Willow Lake miners. The nation’s oldest industrial labor union prevailed 219 to 206 in the balloting to succeed the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers union which had represented the mine’s hourly workers for several years.
The UMWA, meanwhile, claimed the company threatened to close the mine and discharge individuals who supported the union.
In dismissing the company’s objections, Jeffrey Wedekind, an ALJ for the labor board, said Big Ridge’s claims were “without merit.” He ruled the UMWA should be certified as bargaining agent for the approximately 450 miners at Willow Lake.
Wedekind also determined that “by threatening employees with mine closure, job loss and other unspecified reprisals if or because the employees supported the UMWA…the employer has engaged in unfair labor practices.”
He added: “Contrary to the employer’s contention, there is no evidence that the union orchestrated a campaign to intimidate and mislead employees.” Wedekind’s decision followed a nine-day hearing in late summer.
Big Ridge, while noting the ALJ decision is not final, said Wedekind’s ruling included numerous conclusions that had no basis in fact.
The company said it believes that employees have the right to choose to be represented or union free, “which includes the right to a free and fair election that is not driven by intimidation, threats and misinformation.”
Big Ridge said its NLRB complaint “brought forth clear evidence that union advocates created an atmosphere of coercion that threatened employees and their families with bodily harm if they did not support union representation. False and fabricated UMWA documents were also distributed during the campaign.”
Conversely, UMWA International President Cecil Roberts hailed Wedekind’s decision, saying it affirmed the union’s victory “and brings a renewed sense of hope to the workers at that mine.” The ruling also shines a strong light of truth on the campaign of fear and intimidation the company terrorized these workers with for months—and has continued to engage in after the election.
Roberts urged Big Ridge to come to the bargaining table and begin negotiations for a UMWA contract. For now, Willow Lake miners continue to work under terms of their previous agreement with the Boilermakers.
The Willow Lake election represents the UMWA’s biggest victory in years in the high-sulfur Illinois Basin where it once was a dominant force. Currently, the union represents only one mine in Illinois—Springfield Coal’s Crown III underground mine near Farmersville in Montgomery County.