Conference on Women Miners

Charleston Gazette-Mail
June 24, 1984

Maternity/paternity leave to be key issue in talks

Debbie Sontag

In 1890, a woman working in the textile industry wrote in her diary: "The boss was very good to me today. He let me off early, so I could have a baby."

We've come a long way since the days of that poor woman, United Mine Workers Vice President Cecil Roberts told women miners Saturday. But we still have a long way to go.

"If reproduction is a necessary and crucial activity for maintaining the human race, than [sic] employers should be forced to recognize this and address the needs of pregnant miners, and of parents," Roberts said.

In contract negotiations with the Bituminous Coal Association, the UMW will demand a maternity/paternity leave for miners. As worded now, the demand is for miners to be given the right to an unpaid six-month leave of absence to attend to newborn, newly adopted, or seriously ill children.

The maternity/paternity clause was considered to be the hot topic at the Sixth Annual Conference on Women Miners this weekend. Not only because it is a crucial issue for women, but because it was the first major input from women miners to the international union. Women researched and drafted the resolution, and watched with surprise as it passed without a battle at the UMWA convention in December.

Women miners first officially entered the mines in 1973. By 1979, the Coal Employment Project began receiving phone calls from pregnant miners who wondered if they should quit working, or switch to lighter jobs. Is there anything in the mining environment that could hurt my baby? the women would ask. And what are my rights?

The last question was the easiest to answer. On April 29, 1979, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act went into effect. An amendment to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the act protects a woman against being fired or refused a job or a promotion because she is pregnant or has had an abortion.

Legally, then, at unionized mines, companies must treat pregnancy like a disability. When women bring notes from their doctors saying they can no longer work, they are entitled to leave and to receive a flat rate of $165 a week (provided they have been employed at least six months).

Some women continue to work underground through the end of their pregnancy. Carol Davis, a general laborer in a Pennsylvania mine, has been pregnant twice in the last few years. The first time, she worked into her ninth month, with her superintendent's blessing. She was given a couple of months off and returned to her same job without difficulty.

But the second time Davis became pregnant, she worked under a different superintendent. She again continued to work late into her pregnancy, doing things like unloading 85-pound blocks of mortar. When she called her boss to ask for time off to have the baby, he asked, "What is the nature of your illness?"

"I'm pregnant," Davis answered. "That's not an illness," the superintendent said. "Well, if you want me to go back to work, you can take responsibility for me and my unborn baby. And for my buddies underground. Because when I go into labor, my buddies'll go nuts, and accidents will happen," Davis retorted. (Under pressure from Davis's local, the company finally granted her sick leave.)

Many women fear working late into their pregnancies. Cynthia Ray, a miner from Fairmont, left her job during the early months of her pregnancy because of back problems. But pregnancy- related issues are very much on her mind, and she worries about the environmental impact of underground work. "There's only 16 percent oxygen underground, that's less than the atmospheric level, and it possibly causes damage to the fetus," she said.

The Coal Employment Project has received a grant to study the relationship between mining and pregnancy. The CEP had done a preliminary study in 1981, interviewing 26 miners. The study found the women were exposed to many work conditions "which may be especially stressful during pregnancy" - such as loud or continuous noise, machinery that vibrated the body, or extreme cold.

While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination against pregnant women, there sis no legal protection for new mothers and fathers. That's where the maternity/paternity clause enters into play.

"Parenting is a crucial need and people should be allowed to stay home to nurse their babies and care for them during their first years," said Judy Scott, a UMW lawyer. But it is all too possible that the coal company men will sit back on their corporate attitudes and say parenting is not an issue for the bargaining table, she predicted.

And that is why the parent clause does not request paid leave for workers, organizers told women who questioned the "unpaid" prefix to the six-month leave. "We're just trying to get our feet in the door with this one. If we can get this, we can ask for more later," said Bonnie Cogley, a miner from Shelocta, Pa.

"But it doesn't make any sense," Ray grumbled. "Practically it won't do anybody any good. People can't afford leave without pay. They have to feed their children and put gas in their cars."