When Armstrong Coal fired and sued ACLC client Reuben Shemwell for raising mine safety complaints, mine safety attorney Tony Oppegard remarked that he’d never seen such a case in his 30 years of representing miners. “We think the reason they filed [the suit] was to intimidate him and to intimidate other miners.”
Although the lawsuits were settled and Shemwell’s job was reinstated, the intimidation did not stop there. As reported by Dave Jamieson, labor reporter for The Huffington Post, Shemwell now claims that, following the lawsuit, fellow welders for Armstrong Coal Co. were instructed by management to “keep notes on what Shemwell did and said” after his reinstatement. This included writing down if he was “one minute late for work.”
Oppegard and ACLC attorney Wes Addington are once again representing Shemwell, after lawyers for the Mine Safety and Health Administration declined to pursue the case.
Shemwell’s story is unfortunately all too familiar in the coalfields, as companies go to great lengths to intimidate whistleblowers. Sometimes this results in tragedy. As Jamieson explains, “It isn’t uncommon for a miner to feel pressured to keep quiet about dangers on the job. Time spent fixing health or safety problems is time that the company isn’t running coal. All the investigations into the 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at Upper Big Branch, for instance, found that miners were threatened with their jobs if they slowed production over safety.”