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HUNTINGTON, Utah (AP) -- A miner who claims he was fired for trying to organize a union is leading a charge against the polygamous Kingston family's Co-op Mining, which he says is mistreating immigrant workers.
Bill Estrada, who spent a year digging coal at the Co-op Mine for less than $6 an hour, now spends six hours a day on a picket line at a junction where the mine's access road branches off from state Road 31 in Huntington Canyon.
Estrada, who said Co-op fired him late last month for trying to organize a union, said he is supported by about 75 fellow miners.
The company maintains Estrada was insubordinate after being caught falsifying a safety inspection record.
Charles Reynolds, personnel manager for CW Mining Co., the company's formal name, denied Co-op was taking advantage of the miners, most of whom are from Sinaloa in west-central Mexico. "Our company does not discriminate in our hiring in any way. We employ both Hispanic-Americans and anyone else who applies for a job, when we have an available opening," he said.
The miners' case is being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board at the request of the United Mine Workers of America.
The UMWA filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board on Sept. 23, accusing Co-op of intimidation and coercion in firing an employee for promoting unionization and creating a sham union controlled by the company. The grievance seeks immediate reinstatement of the miners with back pay.
Denver-based NLRB investigator Daniel Robles spent three days in Carbon and Emery counties a week ago, interviewing miners and company officials about the dispute. His boss, assistant regional director Wayne Benson, said that "because a lot of people have lost their jobs and these are important issues, we're giving it our utmost attention." He expects a ruling by mid-November.
Reynolds said he was limited in how much he can say until the NLRB makes a decision.
But in comments to The Salt Lake Tribune and a letter to the Price Sun-Advocate, he said the International Association of United Workers union is legitimate and that the company offers health insurance through Ensign Company Group Health Plan to its employees although not all take advantage of it.
He also said that seemingly low hourly wages are boosted upward with supplementary pay for jobs well done and performance bonuses, that female employees have access to separate restrooms and bathing facilities and that the company abides by federal and state safety regulations.
Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration records support his last point, showing injury incidence levels at Co-op mines that are below the national average.
Longtime UMWA International board member Mike Dalpiaz, Helper's former mayor, said that because of suspicions about the family's operations, "we are going to open this up and see what the Kingstons are doing on different playing fields. Somebody has to put an end to this."
Estrada said the fight had nothing to do with the family's polygamy "but because of what they do at this mine. We want what's fair at that mine."
Estrada said he heard grumbling about the low wages (average pay for a Utah coal miner is $21 per hour), lack of benefits and potentially dangerous working conditions from the day he started as a miner's helper. He said the mine's union, the International Association of United Workers, was a company concoction designed to preclude employees from airing legitimate grievances.
Estrada joined a group that met in late August with UMWA labor organizer Jim Stevenson, who urged the group to keep a low profile while electing a "leadership committee" that could advise workers of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
"They learned very quickly," Stevenson said.
The miners claim that when they came to Estrada's defense, a foreman told them they were all fired. When some tried to return to work the next morning, only a handful of employees on a company checklist were allowed onto the property.
Reynolds said he knew nothing of any organizing activity, and that the employees "simply walked off the job and have not returned."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)