Struggling coal miners at the Kingston family-owned Co-Op Mine in Huntington now can vote to join the United Mine Workers of America union without fear their voices will be drowned out by co-workers related to the polygamous clan.
In a ruling handed down this week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Denver determined workers at the mine who are related by blood or marriage to the Kingston family won't be allowed to vote on UMWA representation.
"This [ruling] is a good win for the UMWA, but more importantly, for those miners who waged a long hard fight after standing up for their rights," said Doug Gibson, a spokesman for the mine workers' union in Washington, D.C. However, the battle may not be over.
"We feel the NLRB's ruling is discriminatory against a large portion of workers who deserve to participate," Co-Op Mine manager Charles Reynolds said. "We intend to appeal the NLRB's decision."
The company has maintained that the International Association of United Workers Union already represents the miners, but many of the workers describe that organization as a "yellow-dog" union with ties to the Kingstons.
In its ruling, though, the NLRB determined the International Association is a valid labor organization. In a future election, miners will be asked whether they want representation by the International Association, the UMWA or neither.
Late last year, several dozen coal miners, mostly Latinos, were fired and locked out of the polygamous clan-owned mine after they protested poor working conditions, low salaries and the lack of benefits. They're trying to organize under the UMWA.
Mine managers contended the miners refused to return to work after two miners were disciplined for job-related issues. "There was no lockout," Reynolds said then. "At any time, any of them could have returned." But the NLRB in July determined the miners were entitled to reinstatement to their jobs, a ruling that may open the way for the miners to collect back pay for the time they were out of work. The NLRB still is investigating that possibility.
Many of the protesting miners have returned to work, but now they are laboring with the hope the UMWA eventually may be certified as their union and help in future collective bargaining with the company.
"We haven't won yet," said Bill Estrada, the miner who rallied the others last year after he was fired for union-organizing activity. "The next big thing for us to look forward to will be when the NLRB sets the date for the election."
Prior to the NLRB's ruling earlier this week, the miners feared Kingston family allies in the work force would vote in favor of the status quo and thwart their efforts at UMWA representation. "These were people who never applied for employment," Estrada contended. "The family just brought them in."
Gibson at the UMWA said were it not for the NLRB decision, Kingston family members working at the mine could have swayed the vote.
In its decision, the NLRB noted that based on the company's records, there were approximately 220 full- and part-time employees at the mine and that 156, or 71 percent, had ties to the family.
The board found there were only 64 employees eligible to vote. Included among that number were many of those who were locked out of the mine in September 2003. Estrada said support is overwhelming for UMWA representation.
"Not all of the 64 [miners] remain at the mine. Some have moved on and are working at other mines. But of those remaining, support is strong for the UMWA," he said.
NLRB Assistant Regional Director Wayne Benson in Denver said if the company wishes to appeal, it must request a review by the NLRB in Washington. The order handed down this week indicates that request for review must be filed by Dec. 2.