Old suspicions go by the boards to save Pa. coal mine Management, labor unite to raise output and morale

January 02, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

MOUNT MORRIS, Pa. -- The conversation in the conference room at the New Warwick Mine Co. turns to rock. Veteran coal miner Dave Sweeder is perturbed. The men, their hands as calloused and coal-smeared as his own, are cutting too much slate with the coal, he says.

"Until management takes a step in this and takes a little harder line [on the amount of rock cut] . . .," Mr. Sweeder says to two dozen men at a rectangle of conference tables.

The mine's superintendent, Jon E. Pavlovich, flicks the ash from his cigar. The miners know where the coal is, he says. But in the dark corridors, with the coal dust swirling and the water spray misting, distinguishing a layer of slate from a layer of coal is difficult.

He suggests outfitting the coal-cutting machines with an antenna to gauge how high to cut. "Do we have a consensus?" asks Mr. Pavlovich, one of the company officials in the room.

A chorus of gravel-voiced yeahs rises up -- Dave Sweeder's among them. At 49, Mr. Sweeder has worked in the mine in the tawny hills of southwestern Pennsylvania for nearly half his life. Like his brothers before him, he followed his father into the coal fields.

But this meeting of miners and managers is unlike any Mr. Sweeder's father or his brothers attended. In an industry known for labor strife, the men at New Warwick, whether they carry a union card or a manager's clipboard, are making decisions together. Union workers are helping to transform a culture of mistrust that runs as deep as the coal seams they mine and spans the 104-year history of the United Mine Workers of America. Their bosses are giving up the paternalistic "we know best" attitude and sharing power once exclusively theirs.

The two sides are in an industrywide experiment, promoted by the UMWA as the best way to secure America's coal-producing future -- and the jobs of its members. At New Warwick, site of an acrimonious two-year strike just a few years ago, the improved relations have strengthened hopes that the best times may still be ahead.

"Our members have a tremendous amount to contribute," said Richard L. Trumka, the 46-year-old president of the UMWA, who grew up near the New Warwick mine. "We can resolve problems in a way that increases job security, increases the efficiency of a mine, makes the place more pleasant to work because you are not being dictated to; you're part of a solution."

Since the summer of 1993, union workers at the New Warwick Mine Company have been part of the solution. They and company officials have been working in a program called Relationship by Objective. A panel of company officials, miners and foremen meets monthly to discuss critical issues: equipment purchases, health benefits, a new air shaft, death benefits for miners' families, the Christmas party.

It's changed the way New Warwick does business so it can stay in business. With help from its mechanics, the mine revamped its system of repairing and maintaining equipment. Less down time means more coal produced. Employees helped designed a new ramp at the mine's coal preparation plant and saved the company more than $30,000 in its construction.

"I'm a staunch supporter of the RBO, and everybody knows it," says Mr. Sweeder, the barrel-chested chairman of the union's mine safety committee. "For us to survive as a union and a coal company, we have to have it. The object of the game is to keep working and have a paycheck. And harmony."

The concept, developed nearly 20 years ago for use in a union workplace, has been implemented in the auto and steel industries, by school systems and corporate giants like IBM and Johnson & Johnson, with similar success. John J. Popular II, the former federal mediator who designed the program, believes the UMWA embraced the concept "to show that a union mine can be as competitive as a nonunion mine."

At New Warwick, where the 182 employees spent two years on a picket line before returning to work in 1990, the program has yielded tangible results. Production has doubled. Morale is up. Grievances, which two years ago exceeded those at any other union local in the UMWA district, are resolved more quickly. Safety violations are down.

"It's no longer management in this corner, the union in that corner," said William "Bud" Vanata, a mine mechanic and a member of the RBO panel. "Now, everybody has some input."

The New Warwick mine hasn't always operated that way.

Bitter legacy

In the spring of 1990, members of UMWA Local 6310 returned to the mine after a bitter two-year strike. For many of the men, the mine, nestled in a farming valley within an easy drive of the West Virginia border, had been their only employer. Opened in 1965, it provided coal for the Pennsylvania utility that owned it. At its busiest, the mine employed about 400 workers who routinely worked six days a week. When the mine reopened, Duquesne Light Co. told the workers that it had leased the mine operations to a company near Pittsburgh.

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