I wrote about this case back in July when this first broke. The story concerns two Marion County miners who returned bonus checks to Murray Energy and what they wrote on the backs of their checks. The International Business Times explains what happened:
Richard Harrison and Jesse Stolzenfels used to work at the West Virginia mine. In late 2013, Murray Energy Corp., one of the nation’s largest coal companies, took the mine over from a previous owner. Shortly thereafter, the company tried to implement a controversial production-based bonus program.
Workers at the mine, who are represented by the United Mine Workers of America union, voted it down. But the company went ahead and adopted the plan anyway — in violation of its labor contract, according to the union. Murray Energy disagrees and maintains it followed the agreement.
Under the program, workers received bonuses based on the amount of coal they extracted. Many opposed it on safety grounds, including Stolzenfels and Harrison, according to court filings. The latter, in particular, had a history of a speaking out over safety. Meanwhile, the company told miners who disagreed with the plan that they could opt out of it by writing “void” on their checks and returning them.
In February 2015, Harrison and Stolzenfels took this route — but not before adding some profanity-laced flair. Harrison’s check, for $11.58, read, “Void Void Kiss My Ass Bob.” Stolzenfels’ check, for $3.22, read “Void Eat S--- Bob.” The company responded by suspending both of them with “intent to discharge,” citing the employee handbook’s policy against profanity.
An arbitrator later agreed with Murray Energy. The miners then took their case to the courts where according to the Times article, they've done much better. As the Times explains (Cornell heads the labor law clinic at the Cornell University Law School):
The National Labor Relations Act, the federal bedrock of American labor law, gives workers the right to engage in “protected concerted activity” — to join together with one or more co-workers and speak out over pay and working conditions without facing retaliation. “In this context, workers have more rights than they would otherwise,” Cornell said.
For example, an angry worker who comes into the office and fires off an expletive at his or her boss is unlikely to be protected by the National Labor Relations Act. But if that worker drops an f-bomb or two while she’s complaining with co-workers about say, long hours or unsafe working conditions, her speech is more likely to be protected.
The language issue is an important part of the case -- the miners' attorney noted that
(t)hese are the first two guys at the mine who have been fired for swearing. How can you say when people swear they should be discharged and nobody else has been fired?
His comments are supported by testimony at the NLRB hearing held in November where
witnesses testified about the prevalence of coarse language in the mines, according to a court transcript. Expletives fly regularly in every direction, they said, from managers to the rank-and-file and vice versa.
“It’s not like we work in a day care center or we work at a preschool,” one of the workers, Jason Todd said, according to the transcript. “We’re coal miners and we talk like trash . . . I mean, I go home with my family, and it’s all I can do not to cuss there in front of my kids.”
And what about the company's CEO?
After Murray Energy took over the mine in late 2014, Bob Murray laid out his company’s rules in a meeting with workers. “These are my f------ rules, and if you don’t like it, there’s the f------ door,” he said, according to workers who testified before the NLRB.
(Note -- CEO Murray has denied that he made that statement.)
So what has happened to Harrison and Stolzenfels? According to the International Business Times, it would appear that the case has not been settled:
In the meantime, Harrison and Stolzenfels await a more permanent solution. Although the mining safety court has already reinstated them, they have not yet returned to work. Murray Energy has complied with the judge’s order by offering what’s known as economic reinstatement — giving the miners full pay to stay home. Attorney Tony Oppegard said that’s become an increasingly common practice in coal mines.
“Most companies do not want miners back on the job after they’ve been discharged,” Oppegard said. “They don’t want other miners to know you have rights and when you have rights, you can be vindicated.”
The company disagrees. "This is nonsense and a total concoction," spokesman Gary Broadbent said. "Murray American Energy Inc. deeply values the rights and opinions of its employees."
In response to IBT reaching out to Murray Energy for comment, citing Oppegard's criticism, the company asked the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to allow Harrison and Stolzenfels to be physically reinstated on the job.
Oppegard said his clients oppose the request because it does not give the miners sufficient guarantee that they won’t be laid off again in the future.
I'll try to keep up with what happens in the case.