UMWA Local 1307 member Larry Hinton speaks about what's at stake for retired Kemmerer coal miners.
The bankrupt Westmoreland Coal Company may soon be free of all obligations to retired miners at the Kemmerer mine. But the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has shifted gears in order to protect the pensions and health care benefits that Westmoreland retirees were promised.
In a March 1 statement, UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts announced the union had reached a tentative collective bargaining agreement with the buyer of the Kemmerer mine, Western Coal Acquisition Partners, but funding for future retiree health care is still at stake.
“Judge David Jones did order Westmoreland to set aside $6 million for retiree health care, meaning retirees do not have to worry about their immediate health care needs. But that is not enough to make it through the year, so negotiations are ongoing,” Roberts said.
Roberts mentioned the union had worked with “allies in Congress” to propose national legislation that would place the Westmoreland retirees under the umbrella of current union health and retirement funds.
“The promise must be kept to all retired UMWA miners, their dependents and widows,” Roberts said.
The UMWA published a video titled “A Matter of Life or Death – Westmoreland Bankruptcy” in order to encourage union members to learn about the proposed legislation.
“As we get older, that’s when major health concerns hit you, and so now is a hell of a time to take away our benefits,” says UMWA Local 1307 member Larry Hinton in the video.
“Coal miners did everything right,” Roberts says in the video. “They had a tough life while they were working … you assume you’ve earned a pension and that it’s gonna be fine and you’ve earned healthcare and that’s gonna be fine, but then you start reading and you think, ‘well, maybe not.’”
There are currently three bills in the U.S. Congress that address the healthcare and pensions of retired miners from Westmoreland and other coal companies in similar financial situations.
House Resolution 934 is titled the Health Benefits for Miners Act of 2019. It was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in late January and was referred to the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources (a division of the House Committee on Natural Resources) on Feb. 19.
HR 934 amends the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, adding protection for miners whose health benefits would be denied or reduced as a result of a bankruptcy proceeding commenced in 2018. The Westmoreland bankruptcy proceedings began in October 2018. The bill was introduced by Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), and is cosponsored by representatives from West Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
House Resolution 935, the Miners Pension Protection Act is a bill that transfers certain funds to the 1974 United Mine Workers of America Pension Plan. HR 935 was introduced by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.).
Senate Bill 27, the American Miners Act of 2019, was introduced in the U.S. Senate in January. SB 27 was introduced by Sen. Joe Machin III (D-W.Va.), and also transfers funds to the 1974 UMWA Pension Plan.
In the union statement, Roberts urged union members to contact their legislators in support of the bills.
None of Wyoming’s congressional delegation have come out in support of the legislation.
Roberts said that when the UMWA reached an agreement with new Kemmerer mine owner Western Coal Acquisition Partners about retiree health care, the new plan would be brought before union membership for a vote.
The UMWA has fought Westmoreland’s plans in bankruptcy court ever since October 2018, when Westmoreland announced their plans to modify retiree benefits.
UMWA Local 1307 members even protested outside Westmoreland headquarters in Englewood, Colo., with signs that read “Westmoreland promised. Westmoreland lied.”
Dozens of working and retired Kemmerer miners wrote to bankruptcy judge Jones, arguing that Westmoreland’s financial troubles did not justify taking away the benefits they had earned through decades of mining.
The decision terminated the collective bargaining agreements between the Kemmerer mine and the UMWA.
The court decision echoed dozens of previous cases in which bankrupt coal companies were granted permission to terminate benefits in order to avoid liquidation and emerge from bankruptcy.
On March 2, the bankruptcy court in Texas approved Westmoreland’s sale of the Kemmerer mine to Western Coal Acquisition Partners, as well as the sale of other assets to Westmoreland creditors. The coal company’s creditors now take ownership of mines in Montana, New Mexico and Canada.
“Westmoreland’s mine assets will remain in operation under new leadership and the Company will continue operating in the normal course, emerging with a strengthened balance sheet and better positioned to succeed,” Westmoreland announced in a release on Monday, March 4.
The union has turned its attention to the new owner of the Kemmerer coal mine in order to secure health care and pensions.
Western Coal Acquisition Partners is headed by Virginia billionaire Tom Clarke and is a division of Merida Natural Resources. The company was the sole bidder for the Kemmerer mine, which was bought from Chevron by Westmoreland Coal Company in January 2012. Clarke’s $215 million bid for the mine included $7.5 million in cash and $207.5 million in secured promissory notes.
Westmoreland, which has more than $1.4 billion in debt, made their case in bankruptcy court by arguing that no buyer wanted to purchase the Kemmerer mine if it was attached to the collective bargaining agreements with the union.
The coal company announced that they hope to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection by the end of the first quarter of 2019. Westmoreland bought the mine in 2012 for $179 million, plus $14 million in capital.
Clarke has echoed Westmoreland’s statement that paying the Kemmerer retiree health care and benefits as they stand is not financially feasible for his company.
But Clarke has said he wants to work with the union and the miners to build a “strong, stable future for Kemmerer.”