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Clara Caufield: Northern Cheyenne Tribe battled labor unions too

The following was written by Clara Caufield. All content © Native Sun News.

Clara Caufield

Northern Cheyenne coal: Fighting the unions
By Clara Caufield
A Cheyenne Voice

As explained earlier, in the 1980’s the Northern Cheyenne Tribe secured an innovative agreement with Montana Power (MPC) for employment, training, air quality protection and other benefits for the Tribe and its members.

When tribal members began working at MPC, another key Colstrip energy employer was not included: the Western Energy Company (WECo) wholly owned and independently managed subsidiary of MPC in charge of the Rosebud Mine developing local coal reserves to fire the four electrical generating units to be completed at Colstrip.

Mining operations were contracted to Long Construction, a union outfit with over 400 Operating Engineers employees. Local 400 was then a hard-bitten, hard-driving labor force, penetrated by only two tribal members, Tom Rockroads, Sr., and Austin Two Moons, Jr., both very traditional Northern Cheyenne. They set an excellent standard of work ethics. Rockroads (retired) and Two Moons then represented less than less of one-half percent of the mine workforce.

“Over the years, I think the Colstrip non-Indian workforce has realized that corporate agreements with the Tribe are necessary to continue mining and energy generation and to preserve local employment,” said John Williams, MPC manager, “but at first the employment preference for Cheyenne at Colstrip was resented by many.”

WECo then fell into the sights of the Tribal leaders, determined to crack that company and the Operating Engineers to gain additional employment opportunities for Northern Cheyenne. The Tribe filed suit: “Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Plaintiff, v. Lujan, et al, Defendants” in which the Tribe sought relief to address adjudicated law violations in the formation and holding of the 1982 Federal Powder River Regional Coal Sale, conducted under the watch of then Interior Secretary Lujan.

That directly got Western Energy’s attention, one of the successful bidders on three tracts in a 1982 Federal coal sale, gaining coal leases located within the Rosebud Mine, right next-door to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Once again, law suit helped the Tribe get industry to the negotiating table. The Tribe did not waiver in its determination to get jobs for Cheyennes in the booming Colstrip complex, not trying to stop development, but to ensure tribal members fair opportunity.

The Tribe, by then very savvy negotiators, approached top WECo management. Key tribal negotiators, Edwin Dahle, Tribal President Allen Rowland and other Council members dealt with Martin White, WECo President; Art Neill, Vice-President and Rick Dale, WECo manager. I later worked with those guys and characterize them this way: Martin White, feisty, direct and bold CEO, Art Neill the ultimate reasonable gentleman, truly committed to equality and Rick Dale, an “All-American kind of fellow” sympathetic to tribal goals and extremely supportive of tribal workers. Without them, the whole thing would not have gone as smoothly. Of course both sides were armed with legal counsel.

Dale recalls “Encouraged by the parent company (MPC) WECo wanted to move forward. Overall, the operating engineers were a good union to work with, but they resisted the extent of Cheyenne employment we wanted. As a union, it was critical to protect the existing members, the seniority list etc. We, the managers, wanted to quickly get something going on the ground with the Tribe, because we knew the legal reality and repercussions. The union did not particularly agree with that objective.”

When WECo took over actual mining operations in the early 1980’s, the company gained more flexibility. Working with the Tribe, they took several steps to increase the employment of tribal members: an on-the-job training program; proactive recruitment of tribal members; a scholarship program, community relations fund and hiring a tribal liaison, the position titled “Facilitator."

As the first one to hold that position, I joked “Can’t spell it, but now I are one.” Since, the position has been re-titled “Multi-cultural Specialist," more politically correct.

“In 1983, when WECo effort on behalf of Cheyenne started in earnest, the two hardy tribal coal miners were surrounded by a vast sea of hardcore union workers. The general workforce did not welcome the idea of a “preference” for Natives, believing Cheyenne should work themselves up in hard-scrabble union tradition, observing seniority lists, training, jumping the hoops of “call lists," completing apprenticeships, paying hard-to-come-by dues etc. In the process they, the union leaders, overlooked the long brotherhood tradition of bringing sons, relatives and other ‘good ole boys’ into the fold, a preference system in itself. Being Irish is good qualification for that. Hard for me to argue, being half Irish, but with primary allegiance to my fellow Cheyenne, I did,” Dale said.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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