The Associated Press May 1, 2012, 4:26PM ET

Judge sides with union in Peabody mine dispute

A federal judge has rejected a coal company's objections over a union election at a southern Illinois mine, ordering Peabody Energy Corp. to halt what he called unfair labor practices at the site and to rehire a worker fired over the dispute.

U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy's injunction Monday at the United Mine Workers of America's request came four months after a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge similarly ruled against St. Louis-based Peabody in the dispute over the union's 2011 organizing at the Willow Lake mine. The Saline County site is operated by Peabody subsidiary Big Ridge Inc.

Murphy ruled that he was compelled to act, writing that failing to impose the injunction would "send a clear message to Willow Lake employees that Big Ridge ... is too big for the law and not even the NLRB can do anything to help Willow Lake employees."

Echoing the NLRB judge's decision late last year, Murphy ordered Peabody to halt threatening employees with mine closure, job loss or other unspecified reprisals over their backing of the UMWA, and to stop promising employee benefits if they oppose the union.

"Big Ridge's actions have dramatically shifted the status quo between itself and its employees by refusing to bargain with the employees' representative and retaliating against vocal UMWA supporters," Murphy wrote in his 20-page ruling. "Moreover, as time passes, Big Ridge's actions diminish UMWA's ability to organize and effectively represent Big Ridge's employees after NLRB issues its final decision."

Murphy added that, without the injunctive relief, Big Ridge's employees would continue "suffering significant harm due to the employer's refusal to bargain collectively with their chosen representative."

Murphy also ordered the immediate reinstatement of Wade Waller, a 28-year miner fired after the UMWA's successful May 2011 organizing campaign. The union had claimed that Waller strongly supported the UMWA and was jettisoned "in order to chill union support at the mine," according to Murphy's ruling.

A spokesman for Peabody, the world's biggest private-sector coal producer, said the company may have a public response later Tuesday to Murphy's decision.

Union president Cecil Roberts called Murphy's intervention "yet another decision that completely repudiates the company's actions during and after this election, and strongly supports the workers' decision to elect the UMWA to be their collective bargaining representative."

"It's long past time for these workers to have the fair contract they deserve," Roberts said in a statement, urging the company to put aside what he called "its campaign of threats and intimidation" and negotiate a contract.

The UMWA filed early last year for an election, after the company's negotiations to replace a soon-to-expire contract with the mine's workers -- represented then by the Boilermakers Union -- went badly.

Some 93 percent of the mine's 440 production and maintenance workers later signed authorization cards requesting the UMWA's representation. The union, in a secret-ballot election, won by just 13 votes.


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