Here’s the latest from the office of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.:
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) today released the following statement on his conversation with President-Elect Donald Trump on securing healthcare for retired miners.
“Today, I spoke with President-Elect Donald Trump and he assured me that he will help fight to secure a permanent health care solution for our retired miners, as guaranteed in the Miners Protection Act. I look forward to working with him, his administration and my colleagues in order to keep America’s promise to our miners and make sure they receive the healthcare they have earned and deserve.”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Late last week, a group of Senate Democrats — led by West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin — took things down to the wire to try to squeeze a long-term fix for the troubled United Mine Workers of American’s health care and pension programs into an emergency government funding bill. They weren’t successful.
But as we reported on Friday night, Manchin is turning his attention on this matter to the future, saying he will push for President -elect Donald Trump to step in and make the UMW retirees a priority once the Republican takes office on Jan. 20.
Other West Virginia leaders are also making it clear they believe this issue needs a long-term solution. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said on Friday:
While it’s disappointing to see only a short term extension of benefits at this time, this issue was way too important to offer false hope and risk our miners walking away with nothing. This CR has now given us a chance to fight another day. I have already spoken to members of House Leadership, incoming Chairman Frelinghuysen and incoming Chairwoman Virginia Foxx and received a commitment to work toward a long-term solution for healthcare and pensions early in the next Congress. It’s time to work together and give our miners peace of mind so they know their benefits won’t be jeopardized by politics.
And Sen. Manchin isn’t the West Virginia political leaders turning to President-elect Trump for help on this. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said late Friday night:
Preserving retirement benefits for our nation’s coal miners is among the most important and pressing items on the congressional agenda
Your recent election has provided hope in West Virginia communities. I look forward to working with you on policies that will help put our miners back to work and rebuild local economies that rely on energy production. It is just as important that we act to preserve health care and pension benefits for retirees who have suffered from the down turn in the coal industry. I ask that you work with me and a bipartisan group of my congressional colleagues to enact the Miners Protection Act early in the 115th Congress.”
I’m not aware of any comments that the President-elect made about this issue during the presidential campaign. My request to the transition team for a comment on the matter hasn’t received a response.
That’s the video of last evening’s press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, where Sen. Joe Manchin and other Democrats joined with United Mine Workers of America retirees to continue their push for a longer term legislative fix for the crisis facing tens of thousands of UMWA pensioners.
As we reported online yesterday (and in today’s print edition), the White House weighed in to point out the obvious irony in Republicans who control the congressional agenda not making this issue a bigger priority, while basking in electoral victories that they claim are largely the result of Democrats not caring about this nation’s working class.
Where things stand now is that the four-month extension of health-care benefits is in the “continuing resolution” that is meant to keep the federal government from shutting down late tonight. But that bill has nothing in it about the UMWA pension crisis, and union leaders say the four-month, $45 million in funding for health care benefits for more than 16,000 retirees just isn’t enough.
Now, Manchin and others are pushing for a one-year extension of health benefits, instead of the four-month extension, to be included in the spending bill. Stay tuned …
The news Friday evening was certainly welcome for both the United Mine Workers of America union and Murray Energy:
Rank-and-file members of the United Mine Workers of America voted Friday to approve a proposal for a new contract with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, whose major member company is Murray Energy.
According a statement issued by the UMW, 60.3 percent voted in favor of the new collective bargaining agreement at six Murray Energy mines in West Virginia and Ohio.
As our story noted:
Murray has previously warned that finalizing a new contract with the UMW is a crucial part of his company’s plan to avoid financial default, and has hinted that without a deal he might consider bankruptcy court protection.
While the UMWA membership earlier this summer voted down an earlier contract proposal, the last thing union leaders want is to face a Murray Energy bankruptcy that would certainly not help their current battle to preserve union pensions and health-care benefits.
This was a tough vote for our members to take. The coal industry is in a depression and more than 50 companies have filed for bankruptcy in the last few years. Thousands have been laid off. The pressures on those who are still working are tremendous and growing.
But despite all that, our members took a courageous stand by voting to try to keep their company operating while maintaining the best wages, benefits and working conditions in the American coal industry.
This is a good day for Murray American’s UMWA-represented employees, as this agreement will go a long way toward ensuring that our coal mines can keep operating, and our employees working, even in the current depressed coal marketplace.
Word out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is that the Interior Department has dropped its challenge of a recent lower court ruling in favor of citizens and organizations trying to keep Blair Mountain listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Department of Justice lawyers for Interior’s National Park Service and the Keeper of the National Register filed this motion to voluntarily dismiss their appeal.
UPDATED: Here’s a statement from the National Park Service:
The National Park Service decided to accept the district court’s April 11, 2016, ruling and to implement the court’s remand order by revisiting its December 2009 decision to de-list the Blair Mountain Battlefield site from the National Register of Historic Places.
Here’s the news announced this morning by the United Mine Workers of America:
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) announced today that it has reached a new tentative collective bargaining agreement with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) that will be submitted to its membership next week for ratification.
UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said, “This tentative agreement comes six months before the expiration of the current agreement, however the rapidly deteriorating status of the American coal industry means that it is important to lock in the best terms and conditions we can before things get any worse. We believe this proposal does that, but it is up to the UMWA members who will vote on this agreement to make the final determination.”
UMWA Local Unions will explain the proposal to members over the weekend and the ratification vote will take place next Tuesday, June 28. Details of the proposed agreement will not be released until after the ratification vote is tallied.
The BCOA, once the major negotiating group for the coal industry, now is made up mostly of Murray Energy operations. Here’s a statement issued this morning by Murray:
Murray American Energy, Inc. (“Murray American”) announced today that the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, Inc. (“BCOA”) and the United Mine Workers of America (“UMWA”) have reached a tentative labor agreement which, if ratified, will run from June 30, 2016 to December 31, 2021.
Mr. Robert E. Murray, the Chief Executive Officer of Murray American and Chairman of BCOA, said “We are pleased that the BCOA and UMWA have reached this very important tentative agreement, which will go a long way in ensuring that Murray American’s UMWA-represented employees are able to continue working, even in this very depressed coal marketplace. Indeed, over the past several years, the United States coal industry has been absolutely destroyed by policies of the Obama Administration and by the increased use of natural gas to generate electricity. Coal markets and prices have generally been cut in half. This tentative agreement provides the BCOA and UMWA with a path forward, even in these extremely difficult times.” The tentative agreement is subject to ratification by the members of the UMWA.
Murray American subsidiary companies which are members of the BCOA, include: The Ohio County Coal Company, which operates the Ohio County Mine; The Marshall County Coal Company, which operates the Marshall County Mine; The Marion County Coal Company, which operates the Marion County Mine; The Harrison County Coal Company, which operates the Harrison County Mine; and The Monongalia County Coal Company, which operates the Monongalia County Mine. Murray American currently has over 1,500 UMWA-represented active employees. The Ohio Valley Coal Company and The Ohio Valley Transloading Company, which together have over 200 UMWArepresented active employees, will also be voting on the tentative agreement with the UMWA.
Photo by DYLAN LOVAN / AP — United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts speaks to about 4,000 retired members at the Lexington Center in Lexington, Ky., last Tuesday. Roberts urged members to push for legislation that would protect pensions and health care benefits for retirees that have been put in jeopardy due to a downturn in the coal industry.
There’s been a growing public push for Congress to take action on legislation to rescue the troubled health-care and pension funds that provide for tens of thousands of retired United Mine Workers and their families across our nation’s coalfields.
United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts told the gathering in Lexington of about 4,000 members from seven states that miners spent their lives working in dangerous places to provide the nation’s electricity and steel. The miners, some of whom arrived in wheelchairs, don’t deserve having their benefits put in jeopardy, Roberts said.
“What do they want these people to do, get out of their wheelchairs and go back to the mines?” Roberts remarked after the rally.
(The AP, for reasons passing understanding, felt compelled to comment in its report that, Cecil Roberts “is popular among the union membership for his fiery oratorical style.”)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Last evening at the Charleston Civic Center, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump certainly had a lot to say about coal miners. As the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman reported:
The backdrop behind Trump was filled with men in miner’s stripes and hard hats waving “Trump digs coal” signs, and Trump peppered his remarks with his admiration for coal miners.
“I’ll tell you what folks, you’re amazing people,” Trump said. “The courage of the miners and the way the miners love what they do, they love what they do.”
“If I win we’re going to bring those miners back,” he said.
Then there was this:
Trump said he has “always been fascinated” by mining, “the engineering that’s involved and the safety and all that’s taken place over the last number of years.”
“All of it’s getting safe and as it gets safe they’re taking it away from you in a different way,” Trump said. “These ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete, so we’re going to take that all off the table folks.”
As Gutman also reported, Trump is offering no real plan for how he’s going to reverse the downward spiral of the Southern West Virginia coal industry, though he (like West Virginia Democratic front-runner Jim Justice) is making bold promises — promises — in the face of just about every credible projection or analysis of where coal is actually headed (see here, here and here).
Just as important, though, is another issue that Trump didn’t talk about at all: The growing crisis facing the pension and health-care funds that cover thousands upon thousands of United Mine Workers of America retirees and their families.
In the most recent UMWA Journal, union Secretary Treasurer Daniel Kane called this “the most important political issue facing the union right now. UMWA President Cecil Roberts told a U.S. Senate Committee in March:
… Today, there is a looming health care tragedy unfolding in the coalfields, with potentially devastating human effects. In many cases, the loss of health care benefits will be a matter of life or death. In all cases, it will be a financial disaster that the retired miners, who live on very meager pensions, will not be able to bear.
These are real people we are talking about. They live on small pensions, averaging $530 per month, plus Social Security. They rely very heavily on the health-care benefits they earned through decades of hard work in the nation’s coal mines … They spent decades putting their lives and health on the line every single day, going into coal mines across this nation to provide the energy and raw materials needed to make America the most powerful nation on earth. And they did that even though they knew they would pay a physical price for it.
A bankruptcy judge on Tuesday “strongly” recommended that Patriot Coal Corp.’s would-be buyer and the union representing its miners head back to the bargaining table one last time to try to reach a deal on the miners’ future employment.
After presiding over a four-hour trial, Judge Keith Phillips of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond, Va., declined to rule on Patriot’s request to reject the collective bargaining agreements with the United Mine Workers of America union.
Patriot has warned that its pending sale to Blackhawk Mining LLC—and the ultimate survival of its business—depends on its ability to shed the agreements, though the union says Patriot hasn’t made a good-faith effort to negotiate new deals.
“Based on what I’ve heard today, I think there [are] arguments to be made from both sides,” the judge said.
Judge Keith Phillips of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond, Va., on Monday said he would sign off on the Sept. 9 auction. An affiliate of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund will lead off the bidding with its offer to take responsibility for $400 million in liabilities—workers’ compensation, black lung and environmental—tied to the assets.
The auction proposal had received objections from Patriot’s unsecured creditors’ committee and lender agent Barclays Bank PLC regarding the $5 million breakup fee Patriot sought to offer VCLF should it lose the bidding. However, those were resolved during the hearing with an agreement to require any winning bidder’s offer to provide enough cash to cover the fee.
The VCLF bid, which doesn’t include cash, does feature a pledge to issue new equity to Patriot’s creditors.
This month, VCLF attorney Andrew Troop told the bankruptcy court that through the deal, the nonprofit hopes to balance its quest to reclaim land through reforestation efforts while honoring the region’s tradition of coal production.
“Its desire here is to…reclaim land, operate responsibly, provide some return to creditors who otherwise it looks like would receive nothing or very little in connection with this plan, preserve jobs and enter into a new workable resolution with the United Mine Workers” of America union, he said at an Aug. 18 hearing.
The language of the court documents filed by Patriot Coal asking for the elimination of the company’s collective bargaining agreement and its pension obligations would seem to indicate that the UMWA and its members are responsible for the company’s present predicament and that we are holding up a resolution to this bankruptcy.
Nothing could be further from the truth. No group of people have made more sacrifices to get Patriot Coal through the last couple of years than active and retired UMWA members. They have given up millions in wages and benefits, including retiree health care benefits that are a matter of life and death for thousands of them.
It is outrageous for Patriot and Blackhawk to hold up these miners and retirees as the reason this company will or won’t fail. What we are seeing here is an attempt to hand over yet more millions to a handful of Wall Street financiers at the expense of working and retired coal miners in Marion, Boone and Logan counties in West Virginia.
We have never said this process is at an end or that we have reached some sort of impasse. We have remained ready up to now to meet Patriot and their masters at Blackhawk halfway. But if that’s not possible, we are prepared to meet them head-on.
Patriot Coal wants a bankruptcy judge’s permission to reject the company’s collective bargaining agreement with union miners and change retirees’ health care benefits … Patriot wrote that it would otherwise run out of cash and have to liquidate in a matter of weeks.
Patriot said the move would be necessary to close on a proposed partial sale to Lexington, Kentucky-based Blackhawk Mining LLC.
Otherwise, the United Mine Workers of America would need to reach collective bargaining terms with Blackhawk, which doesn’t want to contribute to the pension plan. Patriot wrote that discussions with the UMWA and Blackhawk are at an impasse.
You can read the court filing for yourself here or here.
Last Friday, the United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to Patriot Coal’s proposed bankruptcy plan, which includes $6.4 million in bonuses paid to management employees.
The UMWA says Patriot’s proposed “key employee” bonus plan would benefit only the top executives. The union is concerned that the plan will ultimately lead to union miners having to take pay cuts, reduce their benefits, or even losing their jobs.
“At a time when Patriot is attempting to rid itself of obligations to workers, retirees, widows and families, it is simply outrageous that the five people who already make the most money in the company are getting hundreds of thousands more,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “For what? On what planet does it make sense to reward people who preside over bankrupt companies?”
U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) today introduced the Miners Protection Act. This legislation would ensure that the federal government and coal operators honor their obligation of lifetime pensions and health benefits to retired miners and their families who are facing uncertainty as a result of the financial crisis and corporate bankruptcies
According to the press release:
Retired miners are facing uncertainty because the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) 1974 Pension Plan is severely underfunded. Unlike other public and private pension plans, the 1974 Pension Plan was well-managed and funded prior to the 2008 financial crisis, which hit at a time when this Plan had its highest payment obligations. This – coupled with the fact that 60% of the beneficiaries are “orphan” retirees whose employers are no longer in the coal business, and the fact that there are only 10,000 active workers for 120,000 retirees – has placed the Plan on the road to insolvency. If the Plan becomes insolvent, these beneficiaries face benefit cuts and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will assume billions of dollars in liabilities.
Amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to transfer funds in excess of the amounts needed to meet existing obligations under the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan to prevent its insolvency.
Make certain retirees who lose health care benefits following the bankruptcy or insolvency of his or her employer eligible for the 1993 Benefit Plan. The assets of Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA) created following the Patriot Coal bankruptcy would be transferred to the 1993 Benefit Plan to reduce transfers from the AML fund.
Coal miner Murray Energy Corp. is set to announce layoffs of around 1,800 workers at nine locations on Friday, according to a person familiar with the matter, dealing another blow to the coal-mining industry in Appalachia.
The planned layoffs, which represent about 21% of Murray’s workforce, will come largely at mines in West Virginia and Ohio, a region already reeling from the impact of abundant natural gas and a global coal glut.
The story continues:
Robert Murray, the 75-year-old founder and chief executive of the company, made the decision Wednesday after a 12-hour meeting with operations managers, according to the person familiar with the matter.
The company decided to make much bigger cuts than it had previously been considering because of growing concerns about the slumping market for thermal coal, the person said.
The company plans to send formal notice on Friday to workers at the Monongalia County Coal Co. in West Virginia, the mine that will see the largest layoffs. The mine had been idled earlier this spring, putting several hundred miners out of work.
Asked to confirm the Journal’s report, a Murray Energy spokesman said the company would have a statement this afternoon …
UPDATED: Word of these layoffs came first in reports from the Pittsburgh Business Times and the Tribune-Review, both of which had stories yesterday, based on comments Bob Murray made at an industry conference.
We’ve written many times in this space about the huge problems, tricky politics, and uncertain future that challenge United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts. See here, here, here and here.
Downturns are common in the coal industry. But this one may never end because of a host of regulations coming from the Environmental Protection Agency that are slowly but surely putting a stranglehold on the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of coal miners, utility workers, electrical workers, boilermakers, railroad workers and their families.
Power plants that have already spent millions coming into compliance with current emissions standards are closing prematurely. Their owners cannot economically justify spending the millions more it will cost to comply with this new onslaught of regulations. That means jobs are lost, tax revenues are squeezed, public services are threatened, school budgets are slashed.
Some see this as a cause for celebration. I do not. I see the faces of those who will suffer the indignities of unemployment. I hear the voices of those who have provided a good life for their families yet now wonder how long they can hold on to their house. I see the fear in the eyes of retirees who are suddenly threatened with the loss of hard-earned pensions and health care.
The piece went on to conclude:
We must recognize that other nations are not going to stop burning coal to build their economies just because we wag our finger at them and say they should, and that includes a growing list of developed nations like Germany and Poland. The answer to building a future our electronically wired descendants can live happily in is to develop and implement technology that allows the world to continue to use coal to generate electricity in a more environmentally friendly way.
We are on that path to doing that through carbon capture and storage technology, but significant hurdles remain that will require significant government resources to be invested. It’s going to require the kind of technological and engineering innovations – and corresponding resources – it took to put a man on the moon. As important as that effort was, in this challenge, the stakes are much higher.
Murray Energy Corp. confirmed Wednesday it will terminate medical coverage of nearly 1,200 Consol Energy retirees who worked in coal mines that Murray purchased 16 months ago.
It said benefits for those salaried retirees – medical, prescription drug and life insurance – will be halted Dec. 31. The cutoff will not apply to union members, and will affect 161 households in Pennsylvania.
Murray Energy confirmed the move in this prepared statement:
Murray Energy Corporation (“Murray Energy”) has confirmed that, as of December 31, 2014, and in keeping with Murray Energy’s historic practice, it willnot be able to provide retiree medical coverage to salaried retirees of Murray American Energy, Inc., formerly Consolidation Coal Company (“Consolidation Coal”).
Murray Energy’s inability to provide these benefits is, in part, due to the destruction of the coal industry, including our markets, by the Obama Administration and its appointees and supporters, who have eliminated the livelihoods of thousands of coal miners, and their families, by the forced closing of 392 coal-fired electric power plants in America, now and in the immediate future. Due to these actions and devastated coal markets, Murray Energy is unable to support these benefits.
Murray Energy is making this announcement at this time to allow affected salaried retirees of Consolidation Coal the opportunity to make other arrangements. Over eighty percent (80%) of the lost benefits can be made up with Medicare. Also, these former Consolidation Coal retirees have good pension benefits. The Company has provided these salaried retirees with information on and access to alternate coverage.
What’s interesting about the release is that, while Murray blames its action on President Obama’s policies, the statement notes that dropping these retiree health-care benefits is “in keeping with Murray Energy’s historic practice.” I asked Murray Energy media director Gary Broadbent about this, but he declined to comment about this internal contradiction, saying in an e-mail message:
You have our statement. That is all we have to say.
Another very interesting development was this statement issued by CONSOL Energy:
As part of the transaction, which closed in the fourth quarter of 2013 where Murray Energy acquired CONSOL Energy’s five West Virginia coal mines, we insisted that Murray Energy continue to provide retiree health insurance to our former salaried employees for at least one year. CONSOL Energy’s hope and expectation was that Murray Energy would honor these obligations beyond the one year period that was negotiated as part of our agreement. While we respect the fact that Murray Energy is a different company with different priorities, this is an unfortunate and disappointing decision.
Have I missed all of the commentary from West Virginia political leaders about this particular turn of events impacting coal industry retirees?
As part of its push to regain its financial footing since filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July of last year, Patriot Coal Corp. lined up $586 million in financing from Barclays and Deutsche Bank, having already obtained a $250 million infusion through a rights offering backstopped by Knighthead Capital Management LLC.
Key to Patriot’s strive to exit bankruptcy was its October settlement with former corporate parent Peabody Energy Corp. of months of legal tangling over retiree health benefits. Under that deal, Peabody, which spun off Patriot in 2007, will spend $310 million over four years to fund the benefits and provide about $140 million in letters of credit to Patriot.
This marks the final step in Patriot’s financial restructuring. We look forward to a new beginning as a well-capitalized company providing a competitive product to the electric utility and steel industries.
Additional material terms must still be negotiated. If a definitive settlement agreement is achieved and approved by the court, the settlement would result in the dismissal of the action. Alpha expects insurance recoveries of approximately $70 million to help cover the cost of the settlement.
In connection with these developments, Alpha recorded an increase in its loss contingency accruals of approximately $115 million in the third quarter. Alpha plans to continue settlement discussions in an effort to resolve all outstanding issues, including the form of consideration. Whether Alpha can resolve those issues, and when, remains uncertain, but if the case can be resolved, it would staunch the uncertainty, distraction, risks and potential costs that pursuing this litigation would involve, and would close the book on the most significant Massey-related litigation issues passed to Alpha in the acquisition.