Peabody Case to Test Navajo Preference

Jim Maniaci


WINDOW ROCK – In a case considered to be an important test of the Navajo preference act, the Navajo Labor Relations Commission may get to the main point of a complaint by the Office of Navajo Labor Relations against Peabody Western Coal Co. later this month.

The case began in April 1998 when, during a reorganization, the subsidiary of the St. Louis, Mo.-based coal corporation terminated workers, including Navajos, at the Kayenta and Black Mesa mines. The layoffs continued until October 1998.

From July to November 1998 individual complaints of violating the Navajo Preference in Employment Act were filed with the ONLR. Compliance officers conducted their investigations of the 34 complaints from July 1998 to May 1999.

Since then, eight of the individuals have either been rehired, retired or found other jobs.

When the case went to the commission on Nov. 6, the two sides asked for more time to try to come to a settlement. The commission gave them until Dec. 11 to settle on dollar amounts and reinstatements, allowing a full week to hear the 26 Navajos and 13 company officials as witnesses.

But the panel kept the gag order about identifying the 39 witnesses that the company was granted on Oct. 5, although lawyers for both sides have discussed them and exchanged information in negotiations.

On the first day the company introduced an 11th-hour surprise motion to dismiss the case because Peabody believed the ONLR could not file a class action complaint. ONLR Director Timothy Joe replied the next day the act allows the ONLR, on its own, to file this type of complaint with the commission.

On the third day the five-member commission allowed another 30 days. Commissioners also decided the ONLR should be represented by the Navajo Attorney General's Office and allowed several weeks for a formal written opposition to the company's motion, with Peabody being given time after that to reply to the tribal response.

In the initial complaint, the ONLR charged the company provided no notice before laying off the Navajo workers, violated the act by terminating Navajos who were equally qualified as the non-Navajos kept on the job and hired or transferred in non-Navajos without properly advertising the openings.

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