Firing of Miners for Wrongful Protest Upheld

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an arbitrator’s ruling that Island Creek Coal Co. was within its rights to fire two United Mine Workers from Local 7555 for picketing. The ruling was based on the collective bargaining agreement and was not based on the arbitrator’s own sense of justice. In Mar. 1997, a group of miners gathered near company property to protest. Some of the protesters told supervisors that they were going to stop work at the plant if they did not get answers about disputed pay issues. The five-day protest caused Island Creek employees and other contract employees to stop working resulting in the plant losing two full days and three partial days of production. The company identified protesting miners and discharged them.

The UMW filed grievances protesting the discharge, which were referred to arbitration. Arbitrator Jerome H. Ross found that a significant portion of the dispute involved grievable matters such as wages, vacation, holiday, and sick leave pay, Christmas bonuses, and clothing allowances. Ross denied the grievances and sustained the company’s discharge of two workers, finding that the protesters impermissibly picketed over matters that were subject to arbitration under the collective bargaining agreement.

UMW argued that Ross erred by ignoring the plain language of the Nat. Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement. But, the court said, the crux of UMW’s complaint was not with Ross’ interpretation of the Agreement, but with his findings of fact. The court held that UMW had to accept the factual findings of the arbitrator. The arbitrator concluded that a significant portion of the protesters’ complaints were over grievable matters, and held that by resorting to picketing instead of arbitration to solve their grievable disputes, the two miners violated the NBCWA and were subject to discharge. Further, in response to UMW’s public policy arguments, the court held that Section 7 of the Nat. Labor Relations Act protects informal picketing, but not strikes and picketing aimed at causing a work stoppage over matters that the collective bargaining agreement explicitly provides will be subject to arbitration. [BNA 6/8/99]