POLITICS
07/09/2015 07:33 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2015

'Kiss My Ass, Bob': A Miner Challenged Coal Magnate Bob Murray. Now He's Fighting For His Job.

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Robert "Bob" Murray is the owner of Murray Energy Corp., the third-largest U.S. coal producer. He is one of the most powerful men in Appalachia and a major player in U.S. politics. In short, he's not the sort of guy you tell to kiss your ass, especially if he signs your paychecks.

But that's exactly what one of Murray's own miners did earlier this year -- in all-caps, no less, and on the back of a bonus check he voided on principle. After being fired, the miner, Richard Harrison, appealed to federal regulators to win back his job. Last week, Harrison cleared his first legal hurdle, winning temporary reinstatement.

At the center of the case is a bonus program implemented by management at Harrison's mine, known as Loveridge #22, owned by Murray Energy. The program gives miners extra pay if they avoid safety citations and accidents, and hit certain production marks. Such programs are common in the coal industry, even though safety hawks say they discourage miners from reporting hazards and ultimately put production before health -- claims that Murray Energy denies.

Workers at the Loveridge mine, in Fairview, West Virginia, are represented by the United Mine Workers of America union. According to filings with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which adjudicates mine safety cases, union members were concerned that the bonus program at Loveridge would undermine safety. The membership voted against having the program, but mine management went forward with it anyway, according to the filings.

The bonus checks went out in January, signed by Bob Murray.

That's where the salty protest comes into play. If miners objected to the program, they were told they were free to void their bonus checks and return them to management. An unspecified number of Loveridge miners chose to do so, and at least two went a step further.

According to the ruling, one miner wrote, "Eat Shit, Bob" on the back of his voided check.

Harrison, on the back of his check -- for $11.58 -- wrote, "KISS MY ASS BOB."

Harrison and the other miner were suspended with "intent to discharge." The basis of their dismissal was the company's employee rulebook. The conduct code forbids "insubordination … or use of profane, obscene, abusive, or threatening language or conduct toward subordinates, fellow employees, or officials of the company," according to the ruling.

Through his union, Harrison requested an arbitration hearing. The arbitrator sided with the company, upholding his firing. So Harrison filed a discrimination complaint with the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Federal law protects miners from being disciplined or fired for flagging dangers or refusing to perform work they believe to be dangerous. Harrison argues that the missive on his check amounted to a protest over safety, and that he didn't need to be polite when he lodged it.

According to the ruling, Harrison has a history of safety activism at the mine. He had spent nine years as a "walk-around," joining federal inspectors as they did their rounds in the mine, which put him in a position to point out hazards. He also testified in court as a witness for regulators in two separate cases. (Before his employment at Loveridge, Harrison apparently worked for a spell at West Virginia's Sago Mine, site of a 2006 explosion that trapped 13 miners and killed 12 of them.)

Murray Energy purchased a group of mines that included Loveridge in 2013. The judge's ruling states that after the purchase, "CEO Bob Murray had an initial meeting for every shift where he informed the miners that he reviewed previous violations that ended up in court, and knew how much those violations cost the company and who served as witnesses." Harrison, the ruling goes on, "understood these statements to mean that Murray and other mine management were aware of his court appearances on behalf of MSHA, and that he had cost the company money."

In his testimony, Harrison said he objected to the bonus program because he considered it "safety for sale." He said it would encourage shortcuts and prize production: "The more coal you got, the bigger the bonus." Harrison said he voiced his concerns to a superintendent, who responded, "Why would you complain about free money? Take the money and run." He said he was upset that "Mr. Murray felt it was okay to go ahead and override our vote" against the program, and that he was under stress due to health and family issues when he wrote on the check.

After the note was discovered, Harrison initially denied writing it. Later, he owned up to it and apologized for lying about it, according to the ruling. Shortly thereafter, he was dismissed.

Last Thursday, Janet Harner, an administrative law judge at the FMSHRC, ordered that Harrison be temporarily reinstated at the mine.

Discrimination cases like Harrison's go through two stages. The first is merely to make sure that the miner's claim of discrimination is not "frivolous." If it's not, the miner is immediately reinstated for the time being, since the system is designed to protect whistleblowers. Whether Murray Energy in fact discriminated against Harrison -- and whether he deserves permanent reinstatement -- would be determined in the second stage, where the bar is much higher.

In her ruling, Harner found that there was "reasonable cause to believe" that Harrison was canned because he protested the bonus plan and previously filed a discrimination complaint. As for telling the company president to kiss his ass, Harrison's protest does not lose its legitimacy "because of the use of a swear word," she wrote. "Indeed, his statement on the check appears to emphasize his frustration with the bonus program."

"This is a mine, not a nursery," the ruling notes.

According to Murray Energy, Harrison is not back working at the mine. The company could not elaborate on the situation, except to say that it is not violating the reinstatement order. It's possible that Harrison and the company have negotiated what's known as temporary economic reinstatement, a situation in which the worker collects a paycheck but agrees not to work at the mine, or a separate deal altogether.

Noting the relatively low bar for temporary reinstatement, Gary Broadbent, a spokesman for Murray Energy, said the company is confident it will prevail in the larger case. He asserted that Harrison "has clearly demonstrated that he does not deserve the honor of working with our Company or leader, Mr. Robert E. Murray," and that Harrison's note sprang from personal issues rather than safety concerns.

"His insubordination had absolutely nothing to do with the health or safety of our coal miners and, as such, his complaint is meritless and our termination was completely justified," Broadbent said in an email.

Harrison could not be reached for comment.

As for whether the bonus program could undercut safety, Broadbent said that safety is "highly incentivized in this bonus program," since miners must avoid serious citations as a condition of earning the bonuses. (Again, one can argue the program thereby discourages the reporting of hazards to regulators.) Broadbent said Murray himself spent all day Tuesday at Harrison's mine, recently renamed the Marion County Mine, talking to workers about safety.

"[M]embers of the UMWA have been complying with [the program], and their families have been financially rewarded for their safety and productivity efforts," Broadbent said.

A spokesman for the union declined to comment on Harrison's case, saying the bonus program itself is now the subject of arbitration.

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