Fighting for a fair contract

A chorus of honks and cheers rang out along Westvaco Road, even while 40 mile per hour wind gusts blew off people's hats and lightning flashed in the background. 

"What do we want?" Marshal Cummings yelled through a megaphone.

"Fair contract!" hundreds of voices answered. 

"When do we want it?" 


A severe thunderstorm watch wasn't enough to stop members of the United Steelworkers Local 13214 union, along with supportive family members and friends, from taking part in a rally outside Genesis Alkali last Friday afternoon. The union is calling for changes to be made to their contract with the trona mining company, with a focus on increasing workplace safety. 

"In the labor movement, we empower each other," Marshal Cummings, the union president, explained. "If they give us the power at the table, we'll give it back to them when we get back to the plant." 

Rallying to show solidarity

Close to 300 people total turned up to the rally on Friday, by Cummings' estimate, with over a hundred stopping by in the morning and even more in the afternoon. Rally-goers parked their cars and lined up along Westvaco Road, which leads out to Genesis Alkali. They honked their horns and waved signs with slogans like "Fair contract now" as vehicles and buses full of company employees drove by during the shift change. Some vehicles honked back and drivers waved in support. Others simply drove by, but the crowds kept cheering and holding their signs up. 

Once the majority of vehicles had passed, the people stayed. Over the sounds of the wind and rain, the union members kept talking, laughing, and sharing grilled hotdogs and hamburgers. 

"They were committed," Cummings said. "They stuck through the monsoon." 

The purpose of the rally, according to Cummings, was for union members to stand together in solidarity and to show the company "it's time to work with us." 

The union's contract with the company expires at the end of the month. Before beginning a new contract on July 1, the union hopes to renegotiate and make changes. 

While concerns in the contract are still being discussed, Cummings was optimistic about being able to come to an agreement. When asked about the possibility of a strike, he said he hadn't thought about it much because he believes they are far away from it happening. 

"We're in it for what's best for both parties," Cummings said.

Some of the changes the union hopes to make to the contract include adding extra emphasis on workplace safety and trying to create a better work-life balance and mental health support for employees.

Addressing safety concerns

Currently, employees don't have enough input when it comes to safety, Cummings said, even though they're the ones who do the work and put themselves at risk. 

"If we can be there to convey what's actually happening at the ground level, we believe that we can make it a safer place, a more reliable place, and a more efficient and productive place," he said. 

One of the major safety concerns that Cummings has already been working to address is the danger of over-exposure to coal dust and silica dust. He's gone so far in addressing it, in fact, that he testified about the issue at a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) hearing in Denver and before the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in Pennsylvania - a meeting that included UMWA International President Cecil Roberts, Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su and Assistant Secretary of Labor Chris Williamson. 

Cummings has worked with Genesis for 14 years, spending two years underground and 12 on the surface. He was first notified that he was exposed to high levels of silica back in 2011. 

Exposure to high levels of silica dust can cause silicosis, which Cummings describes as "a slow and silent killer."

The disease damages and scars the lungs over time and can be fatal. Exposure to coal dust can also cause long term health problems such as black lung, and is also a concern in areas like the coal-fired powerhouse at Genesis that supplies steam and electricity to other parts of the plant. 

When he became aware of the problems related to coal and silica dust that he and other workers were being exposed to, Cummings tried to address the situation in the proper manner, starting at the lowest level possible before working his way up the chain of authority. Eventually a test was conducted that revealed there was not only an overexposure to silica dust, but also a risk of explosion in the environment. 

Despite the evident risk, Cummings still felt that not enough was being done to address it in a timely manner.

The employees filed a grievance, and Cummings and the union worked on presentations and campaigns to inform both employees and the company of the dangers, but still didn't get much response. 

"We had to escalate it," Cummings said. "I'm not okay with watching my union brothers and sisters, or the company people, get sick and die."

Eventually, the conversation moved to a national level, and Cummings had the chance to testify during the discussions. In April, MSHA launched a new federal Silica Dust Exposure Rule, which lowers the permissible exposure limit of silica dust. Because the rule comes at the federal level, it will be implemented in mines across the nation, including Genesis. But Cummings still wishes the changes would have come sooner and easier. 

"I'm just trying to make sure that our miners are getting home safe, and it was a shame to me that it had to escalate to this level instead of it just being taken care of in-house," he said. 

The struggles while trying to address respiratory health at Genesis were part of what showed Cummings and the union that changes need to happen, and the employees need a seat at the table to be sure that their voices are heard when it comes to safety concerns. 

Supporting mental health

Making changes to include more robust safety language in the contract is something Cummings believes the company understands and will support. But another issue that is important to union members that they may have to push harder for is promoting a strong work-life balance and mental health support. 

"Where we work, there's no paid sick leave," Cummings explained. "What we're asking for is sick and personal days."

Cummings explained that employees who have to take time off to care for themselves or their families have to either request vacation time in advance or take an unpaid day off, which counts as an absence and a point against them, which could lead to them being reprimanded for missing work. 

"You should have that freedom, without the fear of being disciplined or any sort of consequence, to carry out your most important duties, which are at home," Cummings said.

He pointed out that most of the other mines in Southwest Wyoming give their employees sick days and personal days, so the union is working to give that to their members who work at Genesis as well. 

Having this work-life balance, and being able to take time off to support mental health, is also important to the union. Cummings pointed out that recent research has shown that "the number one danger to miners in southwest Wyoming is suicide." For miners struggling with mental health, being able to admit they're not ok and take even one day off to recuperate could make a difference. 

"I'm not saying that a day's enough, but it might be enough to keep our guys walking," Cummings said. 

Working together to create change

When it comes to the changes they hope to make, Cummings feels that the union's requests aren't unreasonable. 

"We're not asking for the world," he said. "We're just asking to be treated like humans." 

Cummings also pointed out that they want to see the company as a whole be able to succeed, not go under. But, with recent record years for Genesis production and earnings statements, he also feels the company has enough money to take care of their employees' health and safety. 

He also believes that the employees have earned the support of the company. 

"Coming off the heels of COVID and going through the layoff, going through all the hoops that the company placed on us to make sure that the business kept going, we came through for them. We're hoping they come through for us," Cummings said. 

Another factor to consider is the potential new trona mining and soda ash production facilities that are planning to come to the area, including Project West and Pacific Soda.

With new opportunities, Cummings pointed out that retaining the employees who have built the foundation at Genesis will be important. 

"We want to make sure that the company knows if you want to keep these guys here, then you need to make it enticing for them to do so," he said. 

The union is working to have readings of the contract this week and get copies out to the members, with the intention of voting on whether or not to approve the contract on Sunday.

"These negotiations are an opportunity for Genesis Alkali and the United Steelworkers to build a relationship that gets us to the safest, most efficient, highest producing mine in the world, but we can only do that if we work together and realize we are partners in this," Cummings said.


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