Updated: Local union members protest at Westmoreland headquarters

COURTESY PHOTO

Company says potential Kemmerer mine buyers don’t want to keep union contract

UMWA Local 1307 members Larry Hinton, Ken Lloyd, Martin Argyle and Scott Service protest outside Westmoreland headquarters in Englewood, Colo. The miners are angry that Westmoreland has proposed reducing miner benefits as a financial restructuring strategy. (COURTESY PHOTO)

Updated at 8:45 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. 

A group of local coal miners are seeking to make their voices heard through a peaceful protest at Westmoreland Coal Company’s corporate headquarters in Englewood, Colo.

Their signs read “Fighting for Fairness” and “Westmoreland Promised. Westmoreland Lied.”

United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local 1307 chapter president and current Westmoreland Kemmerer employee Martin Argyle spoke to the Gazette in a phone interview on Dec. 13. Argyle is part of the group protesting at Westmoreland headquarters.

“We’re here to protest (Westmoreland) trying to take away pensioner healthcare,” Argyle said. “This would be devastating for those miners who have retired.”

In an October letter to the UMWA, Westmoreland said they hoped to reach an “amicable agreement” with the union regarding retiree benefits, but any potential buyers of the Kemmerer mine did not wish to leave the current collective bargaining agreement in place. The letter was sent to the Gazette by a union member.

Westmoreland is in the midst of proceedings in a Houston, Texas, bankruptcy court, seeking relief under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy code.The company has proposed reducing working and retired miners’ healthcare and pensions as a financial restructuring strategy — a move that has angered Westmoreland miners across the nation.

A large group of retired miners, including several from the Kemmerer mine, have written letters to bankruptcy judge David R. Jones pleading with the court to ensure the benefits are not taken away.

Argyle said the amount of money that Westmoreland would save by reducing miner wages, benefits and retiree pensions and healthcare is relatively small compared to the money Westmoreland earns from the Kemmerer mine.

“It’s just not right. They couldn’t do it at the bargaining table, so now they want the bankruptcy judge to get rid of those contracts,” Argyle said.

According to Westmoreland’s latest disclosure statement filed in bankruptcy court, there are currently 242 active union employees and 68 retirees under the collective bargaining agreement between Westmoreland and the local union.

Concerning the Kemmerer mine, the October letter to the UMWA said that “if the buyer does not elect to assume the Kemmerer CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) ... such CBA shall terminate on the date the Section 363 sale of Kemmerer closes.”

This would mean that the new owner of the Kemmerer mine would not be responsible for paying retiree benefits that Westmoreland owes unless a new bargaining agreement is reached. More information about sales of individual mines will be available if the bankruptcy judge approves Westmoreland’s latest disclosure statement.

Argyle said an attorney for the union told a Westmoreland attorney that if benefits for working and retired miners are slashed, the miners will likely strike.

Argyle said the current group of peaceful protestors will be joined by miners — both working and retired — from other states, some of whom will be joining the protest on their days off from working at Westmoreland mines.

Some of the miners who are protesting at Westmoreland headquarters have worked in mining for decades, according to Argyle. Many of the retired miners from Wyoming and other states that wrote letters to the bankruptcy court had worked at mines when they were managed under several other companies.

The proposal to stop paying for retiree benefits has  met with anger from the UMWA because Westmoreland has simultaneously petitioned the bankruptcy court to implement a “valued employee retention program” that would give bonuses to motivate 243 executives to stay with the company during this financial uncertainty.

Westmoreland’s Chief Financial Officer Gary Kohn announced his resignation from the company last week. Kohn had received $1.2 million in bonuses in the year leading up to Westmoreland’s declaration of bankruptcy, according to the company’s financial records.

“We’ve been on strike before,” Argyle said. “It took us a long time to get what we have. We took lower wages in order to secure the healthcare and benefits we have, and now they want to take that away, too.”

Argyle said Westmoreland’s current contract with the UMWA is not set to expire until August of 2019.

“They know we’re here, and they have every right to talk to us,” Argyle said. “Westmoreland took these matters out of our hands when they declared bankruptcy, so we know it’s up to the attorneys at the top to decide. But we’re still here.”

The Gazette will continue to update this story as more information about Westmoreland’s bankruptcy court proceedings and the potential sale of the Kemmerer mine becomes available.