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BILLINGS - Striking coal miners at the Absaloka Mine east of Hardin accepted a three-year labor contract with management Monday.

The agreement with Westmoreland Resources Inc., based in Colorado Springs, Colo., ended a nine-day strike, the first in the mine's 34-year history.

"We got a substantial new benefit and wage package that was a tremendous improvement over the previous contract," said George Golie, negotiator for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 400. "It doesn't match up with our sister mine, Westmoreland Resources over the hill, but when you start from the level we did, you can't make it up at once."

Top-scale hourly wages for miners on the Absaloka's dragline crew were $22.25, compared with $25.52 at the neighboring mine, which relies on members from the same union. Absaloka miners also will receive a bonus equal to a retroactive bump in pay dating back to March, the last time the 125-member crew had a contract.

Westmoreland representatives declined to comment on the terms of the contract.

Miners began the strike June 7, saying they needed a shorter-term contract, reliable scheduling, and benefits comparable to those given to workers at other Westmoreland mines.

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The new contract calls for 12-hour shifts, which lengthens the work day but assures more predictable scheduling, Golie said.

With a payroll of about $13 million, the mine plays a large economic role in Big Horn County. The Absaloka isn't on the Crow Indian Reservation, but the coal it mines yielded $16.6 million in royalty and production tax payments to the tribe in 2006.

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