The dream of telling your boss off and getting away with it is alive and well in West Virginia. A pair of miners who were fired for telling off Murray Energy Corp. CEO Bob Murray with written profanities had a legal right to say what they did "because they have a right under the law to band together to improve their working conditions," said a federal judge who reinstated the miners Tuesday, Dave Jamieson reports for The Huffington Post.
Under a program at Murray Energy’s Lovejoy #22 mine, in Fairview, W.Va., miners were told they "would earn extra pay if they avoided safety citations and accidents and hit certain production marks," Jamieson writes. The United Mine Workers of America, which represents employees at the mine, "opposed the bonus program on the grounds that it posed an inherent conflict with safety," saying that it financially rewarded employees for not reporting safety citations and accidents.
"Murray Energy launched the program anyway," Jamieson writes. "Bonus checks went out in early 2015. Workers who didn’t want to participate in the plan were encouraged to void their checks and return them. At least two miners went a step further. On his voided check for $11.58, Richard Harrison, a 10-year-veteran of the mine, wrote, 'Kiss My Ass Bob,' and underlined 'Bob' twice. On his voided check for $3.22, Jesse Stolzenfels, a seven-year veteran, wrote, 'Eat Shit Bob.'"
"Both miners had voted against the bonus plan, believing it ran counter to safe mining practices," Jamieson writes. "They also felt it was an insult for the company to implement what the union had democratically rejected. The company asserted that Harrison and Stolzenfels violated a company policy against insubordination and profanity in the workplace. "
"The two miners appealed the punishment, but an arbitrator upheld it. (There was no evidence that Murray himself had seen the checks or been aware of what was written on them, according to testimony. The suspensions were carried out by mine management.)," Jamieson writes. "Harrison and Stolzenfels took their case to the federal government. They argued that they had a right to protest an unsafe work program, and that they didn’t need to be polite when they did it. They claimed that their suspensions violated mine-safety law and labor law. . . . Last year, a judge ruled that under mining law, they should be temporarily reinstated on the job; they later settled their cases, getting back pay for the time they missed and the right to return to their jobs."
"The miners’ favorable ruling Tuesday resolves the case before the National Labor Relations Board. They prevailed by proving two points," Jamieson writes. "The first was that they were treated differently from other miners for the profanity they used—i.e., that miners and managers routinely cussed in the mine, and so it wasn’t fair to discipline Harrison and Stolzenfels for what was typically ignored. The second was that their act of protest, however foul-mouthed it may have been, was 'protected concerted activity'—i.e., that it was illegal to discipline them for it, since they were working in concert to improve their working conditions."