A hearing to determine whether Westmoreland will have the authority to end the collective bargaining agreement with the Kemmerer miners started yesterday in Houston, Texas. The hearing will continue today. The UMWA make a last-minute effort last week to persuade the bankruptcy court to keep the agreements.
The United Mine Workers of America filed an emergency motion on Feb. 8 in a Houston bankruptcy court arguing that Westmoreland Coal Co. has violated its obligations and bankruptcy court procedure.
In the motion, UMWA lawyers state that Westmoreland prematurely announced on Jan. 23 that employee pension plan benefits would be frozen in March. Those benefits are part of the collective bargaining agreement between UMWA miners at the Kemmerer mine and Westmoreland Coal.
On Jan. 16, Westmoreland officially asked permission of the bankruptcy court to give them authority to reject the collective bargaining agreements and modify retiree benefits for Kemmerer miners, but a hearing on that motion has not yet taken place.
The UMWA argues that Westmoreland “circulated notices announcing that employee pension plan benefits for UMWA employees at the Kemmerer and Beulah mines will be frozen, effective March 10, 2019.”
The union lawyers called the announcement an “anticipatory breach” that was done without court approval and a violation of proper procedure.
“These notices caused a surge of panic in UMWA-represented employees at both the Kemmerer and Beulah mines, and the UMWA has been inundated with letters from angry and panicked union workers,” UMWA lawyers state in the motion.
On Tuesday, Feb. 12, Westmoreland filed an objection to the union’s emergency motion. The coal company’s lawyers say it has not breached any collective bargaining agreements, and that the UMWA has not negotiated in good faith or made a counterproposal.
“Let there be no confusion: the Debtors have no intention of modifying any provision of the applicable collective bargaining agreements until and unless they have Court permission to do so,” Westmoreland lawyers argued in their objection.
The coal company said the notices in question were required under federal law. Westmoreland lawyers said the notices were a legally-required action notifying employees and retirees that the plans might change.
Westmoreland has announced plans to close the sale of the Kemmerer mine by the end of this month. The coal company said that no potential buyer wanted to purchase the mine if it was attached to the union contracts.
But Westmoreland Coal said in their objection that if the company is granted relief, “the purchaser of the WLB Debtors’ assets is willing to assume each of the Pension Plans if they are frozen.”
Westmoreland lawyers also argued in their objection that the only document that could freeze the accrual benefits is called a Plan Amendment. Such a document would only become effective either when the union and Westmoreland reach an agreement or if the court grants Westmoreland authority to end the collective bargaining agreement.
In the union motion, UMWA says that the union employees are entitled to enforcement of the CBAs. The union says that because Westmoreland prematurely published the notices saying the pensions would be modified without obtaining court approval, that is cause for the bankruptcy court to reject their motion that the CBAs should be denied. UMWA states that the debtors are still obligated to provide the defined benefit pension plans, and that Westmoreland knows they still have this obligation.
“The unilateral termination of benefits and resulting labor unrest make a potential labor strike even more likely,” the UMWA lawyers state in the motion.
The union attached several letters from working and retired Kemmerer and Beulah miners as part of the emergency motion.
“How can this company send me a letter stating that my benefits would be ended in March without a court hearing or even a decision after a hearing on the matter?” said a letter to the bankruptcy court from Kemmerer miner Robert Clarke.
Other letters pleaded with Judge David R. Jones to uphold justice and ethical business practices. In the emergency motion, the union lawyers point out that Westmoreland expressed “continued willingness to meet with the UMWA” even after filing the motion asking authority to reject the agreements.
“Despite these representations, and the disingenuous implication that the debtors seek only authority to reject the CBAs, the Debtors unilaterally modified their obligations to fund the defined benefit pension plans just one week after filing their 1113/1114 motion,” UMWA lawyers state in the Feb. 8 emergency motion.
Westmoreland’s objection states that “all compensation and benefits have been paid and provided,”
A hearing on the UMWA’s emergency motion and on Westmoreland’s motion to end the collective bargaining agreements will be held on Feb. 13, at 1:00 p.m., in Houston, Texas. Both Westmoreland and the UMWA will have the chance to present their case through exhibits and the testimony of witnesses.