Back in early December, when Massey CEO Don Blankenship announced his, er, retirement, from the company, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts offered this hope for what the change in Massey’s leadership might mean for the company, its workers, and the communities where it operates:
This also represents an opportunity for the coal industry in West Virginia and across the country to take a step away from the negative image that has cast a pall over our industry, created in large part because of the actions of Don Blankenship and Massey Energy while he has been at the company’s helm. Let us take this opportunity to move forward in a reasonable, rational way as we work to overcome the many difficult issues that confront our industry.
So, what now, given the other shoe that dropped with Saturday’s announcement that Massey — free from Blankenship’s control and reported opposition to such a deal — has agreed to a buyout by Alpha Natural Resources?
Well, Cecil Roberts and the mine workers have so far declined to comment on the news. And we’ll have to wait until early tomorrow morning to hear much more than the press release quotes from Alpha and Massey executives. A conference call with industry stock analysts is scheduled for 8 a.m. and will be broadcast to the rest of us via the Web.
But who is Alpha Natural Resources, and what exactly will this huge transaction mean for the companies involved, their workers, their communities and the crucial issues facing the coal industry and coalfield families who work for, live near, or care about the future of the region?
It’s far too soon to offer a clear answer, but let’s talk about a few things that we do know.
First, how about the UMWA? Well, union spokesman Phil Smith did note last night that the mine workers represent hourly employees at two Alpha operations in southwestern Virginia and at two very large underground mining complexes in western Pennsylvania. Those two western Pa. operations — Cumberland and Emerald — are both longwall mines that together produced nearly 11 million tons of coal with 1,300 employees in 2010. And those two mines were both added to Alpha fairly recently, in its 2009 purchase of Foundation Coal.
But like Richmond, Va.-based Massey, Alpha Natural Resources is mostly a non-union company. Company executives brag in their most recent report to shareholders that 87 percent of its production comes from “union free” operations. As of Dec. 31, 2009, 79 percent of Alpha employees were “union free,” the company said. They warned in that SEC filing:
Any further unionization of our subsidiaries employees, or the employees of 3rd party contractors who mine coal for us, could adversely affect the stability of our production and reduce our profitability.