Coal Tattoo

Trying to follow the back-and-forth between the United Mine Workers of America and Patriot Coal this week has been a bit like watching a tennis match.

First, we had the UMWA declaring on Wednesday that Patriot officials had “walked out” on negotiations aimed at working out some sort of a deal prior to Patriot implementing its own proposal that was approved by a federal bankruptcy judge. Then that evening, Patriot officials issued their own statement, calling the union’s version of events inaccurate.

It turns out that at least two days of negotiations were called off. Patriot Coal insists the company “requested” what it called a recess so Patriot officials could more fully study the union’s latest proposals. But the union says Patriot didn’t request anything, and that company negotiators walked out of a meeting, saying that they figured they would just go ahead and implement its court-approved plan.

Then just a few minutes ago, there was some good news: UMWA spokesman Phil Smith confirms that negotiations are now scheduled to resume again on Tuesday. Talks will take place just a day after the union’s latest protest, planned for Monday and aimed at Peabody Energy. As the union said earlier:

Miners and supporters will rally following a decision by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to allow Patriot Coal to impose its contract demands on active and retired mine workers. Patriot is the company created by Peabody Energy in 2007 to evade its obligations to retirees, and which later was saddled with similar obligations by Arch Coal.

“The bankruptcy judge may have made her decision about Patriot, but the jury is still out on Peabody and Arch, and that’s why we’ll be in St. Louis again next Monday,” said UMWA President Cecil Roberts. “The leaders of these two companies have schemed to take away health care that was promised to retired miners, and we’re not going to let them get away with it.”

Given what’s at stake here –pay, working conditions and benefits for active miners, retirement and health-care services for retirees, and the viability of a major employer — it certainly seems better to have the two sides talking to each other. But as the UMWA’s Roberts said the other day:

No matter what the events of the next few weeks may bring, this struggle is a long, long way from being over.