A federal appeals court has upheld the United Mine Workers’ role in the government’s investigation of the Sago Mine disaster.The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that ordered International Coal Group to allow UMW representatives onto mine property to take part in the probe.In January, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Maxwell in Elkins issued a preliminary injunction allowing the UMW to represent a group of Sago miners in the investigation.ICG had refused to allow the UMW representatives into the mine, and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration went to court in support of the UMW.“MSHA took the extraordinary step of getting a preliminary injunction to secure the right of the Sago miners to choose the UMWA to represent them in the underground investigation at the Sago Mine,” said acting assistant secretary of labor for MSHA David Dye. “We are pleased that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the right of miners to choose their own representatives must be protected.”Under federal mine safety law, individual miners or groups of miners can appoint their own representatives — lawyers, mine safety experts or family members — to represent them during investigations or inspections. This representation is different than the type of bargaining for better wages and working conditions that the UMW or other unions do for employees, and is governed by different laws.
International Coal Group operates the Sago Mine as a non-union mine, and company officials have complained the UMW is using the Sago investigation to try to lure miners into joining the union.“It appears that, while an organization may exist to represent miners for collective bargaining, nothing on the face of the Mine Act or its regulations bars such an organization from being designated as a miners’ representative for mine inspections and investigations when at least two miners make that designation,” Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote for a three-judge panel that also included Judges Allyson K. Duncan and Dennis W. Shadd.The court noted that it was upholding only Maxwell’s preliminary injunction. The case is still pending, and the district court has to rule on the merits of various issues about the process the UMW used to become designated as miners’ representative at Sago.The 4th Circuit ruling, issued Wednesday is available online at http://pacer.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinion.pdf/061129.P.pdf.To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.