Coal Tattoo

Still searching for Cecil Roberts

cecilsenatehearing2010

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.

So I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the op-ed commentary that President Roberts had in the Gazette a few weeks ago, in which he opined, among other things:

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.

The op-ed prompted a quick — and not especially thoughtful — response from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Organizer Dan Taylor wrote to ask why the UMWA isn’t focusing on improving worker safety (as if that isn’t something the union does) or taking on “bad actors” like Patriot Coal (as if the UMWA hadn’t just fought a major battle with Patriot and come out with a pretty good deal).

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What next for Murray Energy?

Robert Murray

The first report I saw about the latest news regarding Murray Energy came from the Observer-Reporter in southwestern Pennsylvania:

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 will not 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?

Patriot Coal set to emerge from bankruptcy

Patriot Bankruptcy Protest

The Associated Press had the story yesterday out of St. Louis:

A federal bankruptcy court has approved Patriot Coal’s reorganization plan, clearing the way for it to emerge from 17 months of bankruptcy, the St. Louis-based company said Tuesday as it finished wrapping up its exit financing.

The story continued:

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.

In a press release, Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield said:

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.

 

Alpha close to $265 million deal in safety suit

ALPHASIGN2

Early this morning, Alpha Natural Resources issued its latest quarterly financial statement, and it certainly has some interesting news:

Alpha has made significant progress toward reaching a tentative understanding to settle for $265 million the securities class action brought by Massey stockholders in early 2010 alleging deficiencies in Massey’s disclosures of safety information.

The statement continues:

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.

And:

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.

Murray confirms purchase of CONSOL mines

murrayhorizont2We wrote about two weeks ago regarding the widespread speculation that Murray Energy was going to buy CONSOL Energy’s major coal operations in Northern West Virginia, and this morning that deal was made official.

The first thing I saw was Pittsburgh-based CONSOL’s statement saying:

CONSOL Energy Inc. (NYSE: CNX) has taken a transformative step to advance its E&P growth strategy. The company has entered into an agreement to sell its Consolidation Coal Company (CCC) subsidiary, which contains all five of its longwall coal mines in West Virginia, to a subsidiary of Murray Energy Corporation (Murray Energy) for $3.5 billion in value.

“While this transaction furthers CONSOL’s E&P growth strategy,” commented J. Brett Harvey, CONSOL’s chairman and CEO, “the sale of these five mines – assets that have long contributed to America’s economic strength and our company’s legacy – was a very difficult decision for our team. The employees at these mines are among the safest and most productive miners anywhere in the world.  In the end, we concluded that the time had come to sell these mature assets to ownership whose strategic direction is more aligned with those mines.”

The CONSOL statement explained:

The CCC mines being sold are McElroy Mine, Shoemaker Mine, Robinson Run Mine, Loveridge Mine, and Blacksville No. 2 Mine. Collectively, these mines produced 28.5 million tons of thermal coal in 2012. Murray Energy is acquiring approximately 1.1 billion tons of Pittsburgh No. 8 seam reserves.

CONSOL’s River and Dock Operations are included in the transaction.  In 2012, the fleet of 21 towboats and 600 barges transported 19.3 million tons of coal and other commodities along the upper Ohio River system.

Murray Energy issued its own statement, quoting company president Bob Murray saying:

No Company has developed a better legacy with its employees, with its customers, with the financial markets, with the regulatory agencies, or with the public in general, over many decades, than has CONSOL and Consolidation Coal. Murray Energy intends to preserve this well-earned legacy.

The Murray statement has some figures that explain the size of this deal:

Murray Energy direct employees:  3,300 before the transaction, and 7,100 after the transaction; annual coal production, 30.1 million tons before, and 58.6 million tons after; coal reserves of 859 million tons before the transaction, and 2,396 million tons after the transaction.

Murray  said:

This is truly a momentous time for the combined employees of Murray Energy Corporation and for our company.

The United Mine Workers of America, which represents 2,800 miners at the operations Murray is buying from CONSOL, issued its own statement:

This changes nothing for our members with respect to the terms and conditions of their employment. Our collective bargaining agreement does not go away with this transaction, and our members remain covered by its provisions. There will be no changes in pay, benefits, insurance, schedules, working conditions, safety provisions, grievance procedures or any other language in the contract.

 

 

Big news: UMWA reaches deal with Patriot, Peabody

Patriot Bankruptcy Protest

The press releases came very late last night — just before midnight — and best I can tell Taylor Kuykendall was the first out with a story early this morning:

Patriot Coal Corp. announced it has secured a financial sponsor and reached key settlements to pave the way for its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization by the end of the year.

In a news release issued just before midnight on Oct. 9, Patriot said it had reached an agreement with Knighthead Management LLC to financially sponsor its exit from bankruptcy. Patriot also settled with both Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Coal Inc. in exchange for an infusion of $250 million in new capital.

But what many folks in the coalfields will want to know is this, from the press release also issued late last night by the United Mine Workers of America:

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has reached a global settlement with Peabody Energy and Patriot Coal that will provide funding of more than $400 million to cover future health care benefits for retirees affected by the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal. Those benefits will be paid by the Patriot Retirees Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA).

As described by the UMWA, here some brief details:

Peabody will make payments totalling $310 million over the next four years, the proceeds of which will be applied to future retiree health care benefits. Payments of $90 million will be made in 2014, followed by payments of $75 million each year at the beginning of 2015 and 2016, with a final payment of $70 million at the beginning of 2017.

Patriot has agreed to contribute $15 million to the VEBA in 2014, with up to an additional $60 million to be paid into the fund over the following three years. This is in addition to the production-based royalty payments Patriot will make to the VEBA in upcoming years that could provide more than $15 million.

For its part, the UMWA has agreed to relinquish the value of virtually all of its 35 percent stake in Patriot, which the union received as a result of a May 29 ruling by federal Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States. The union has also agreed to halt its months-long public relations and direct action effort related to Peabody in St. Louis and elsewhere regarding the effects of the Patriot Coal bankruptcy.

The settlement will be submitted to Judge Surratt-States for her approval. She is expected to rule shortly after a Nov. 6 hearing on this matter.

Miners Public Employees RallyUMWA President Cecil Roberts said:

I am very pleased that we have been able to reach this agreement with Peabody and Patriot. This is a significant amount of money that will help maintain health care for thousands of retirees who earned those benefits though years of labor in America’s coal mines. This settlement will also help Patriot emerge from bankruptcy and continue to provide jobs for our members and thousands of others in West Virginia and Kentucky.

From Patriot’s perspective, here’s how they explained these developments in their press release:

The Company reached an agreement with Knighthead Capital Management, LLC (Knighthead) to financially sponsor Patriot’s emergence from bankruptcy.  In addition, after months of litigation and negotiation with Peabody Energy Corporation (Peabody) and Arch Coal, Inc. (Arch), Patriot has entered into settlements with both companies.  These agreements will provide the Company with a significant liquidity infusion and position it to obtain the exit financing necessary to emerge from Chapter 11 as a strong, well-capitalized business.  Additionally, the agreements will result in funding for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)-sponsored Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) trust of more than $400 million to provide healthcare coverage for UMWA retirees.

bhatfield12Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield said:

Reaching these agreements represents a pivotal juncture in Patriot’s restructuring.  With Knighthead’s financial backing and the funding provided by Peabody and Arch, Patriot is now well-positioned to secure exit financing.  This sets a clear path forward for Patriot to emerge from Chapter 11 by year-end as a strong competitor in the coal industry.

In a separate press release, Peabody Energy chief legal officer Alexander C. Schoch said:

Peabody has continued to fund healthcare benefits for retirees during Patriot’s bankruptcy proceedings.  We are pleased to resolve the uncertainty among Patriot retirees by providing substantial funding for the newly established Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA).  Future healthcare benefits for Patriot retirees will now be determined by managers of the new VEBA.

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Remembering the Jim Walter Mine Disaster

RickyRoseTruck

UMWA miner Ricky Rose, who survived the 2001 disaster, showed me his truck — decorated to honor his fellow miners who were killed — during a visit to Brookwood, Ala., a few years ago.

Twelve years ago today, a series of explosions rocked the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine near Brookwood, Ala., killing 13 coal miners.  At the time, it was the worst coal-mining disaster in the U.S. in 17 years.

Unfortunately, since then we’ve had Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch.  During a visit to Brookwood in 2006, I attended a memorial service for those who died at No. 5, and I certainly recall what Darryl Dewberry, vice president of Alabama’s UMWA District 20, told the crowd:

The legacy of Brookwood remains unfinished.  It can happen again without constant vigilance.

Patriot to close Logan operations

Patriot Bankruptcy Protest

Here’s the announcement made yesterday by Patriot Coal:

Patriot Coal Corporation today announced plans to idle its Logan County complex located near Man, West Virginia, reducing thermal coal production by approximately two million annual tons.  Pursuant to the WARN Act, the Company gave 60-day notice today to affected employees.  The operations expected to be idled include the Guyan surface mine and the Fanco preparation plant and rail loadout – with a total of approximately 250 employees being impacted.  Efforts are being made to place employees into open positions at other Patriot subsidiary operations, and the Company currently anticipates that about 50 employees will be offered jobs at those locations. 

This is an unfortunate but necessary step to align Patriot’s production with expected sales,” said Patriot President and Chief Executive Officer Bennett K. Hatfield.  “Despite the substantial progress being made in the Patriot reorganization, we still have to contend with the industry-wide challenge of coal prices that have fallen well below production costs at many Central Appalachian mines.  Thermal coal markets are extremely weak due to low natural gas prices and costly regulatory changes that have reduced coal-fueled electricity generation capacity.”  

And here’s a statement issued by UMWA President Cecil Roberts:

Today’s announcement by Patriot is very disappointing, though not unexpected. The company had already announced its intention to close this complex in the near term, however the continued depression in the coal market led to this action being taken sooner.

There will be jobs available for some of our members at the Hobet mine in Boone County, others are eligible for retirement and will choose that route.

This makes it even more important that we continue our fight to secure the long-term retirement health care benefits our members have earned. This is a former Arch Coal mine, and Arch made the promise of retiree health care to these miners and their spouses. We will continue to work in Congress, argue in court, and march in the streets until our struggle for fairness and justice is won, and we have a long-term funding solution for their benefits.

Appeals court overturns Peabody benefit ruling

Patroit Bankruptcy Protests

Here’s the news in today from the United Mine Workers of America:

The United States Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Eighth Circuit today reversed a decision by federal Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States that would have allowed Peabody Energy to stop paying health care benefits for some 3,100 retirees that it had assumed in the spinoff of Patriot Coal.

 The strongly-worded decision by the three-Judge panel means that Peabody continues to hold responsibility for paying the health care benefits for this group of retirees, who are mostly in the Midwest.

 “This is a bright ray of good news in what has been a long, dreary period for the retirees, their dependents and widows who have been desperately worried about what’s going to happen to their health care,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said.

 “Peabody has spent years trying to get rid of its obligations to the thousands of retirees who made it the richest coal company in the world,” Roberts said. “This decision foils part of that plan. And it makes us even more determined to keep fighting to make sure the company lives up to its entire obligation to these miners.”

 In preparation for the spinoff of Patriot, Peabody signed a 2007 agreement with Heritage Coal Co., which was at the time a Peabody subsidiary that Peabody included in the Patriot spinoff. That agreement allowed Peabody to reduce its contribution levels for retiree health care benefits to the same level as Heritage (Patriot) would pay if such levels were modified in the future. 

 Peabody argued that since Heritage (Patriot) was relieved of all its obligation to pay for retiree health care by Judge Surratt-States, that Peabody  should be relieved of its obligation as well. Judge Surratt-States agreed, and issued a ruling in Peabody’s favor on May 29. Patriot and Heritage appealed, and their appeal was supported by the UMWA.

The ruling is posted here.

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UMWA members approve Patriot Coal deal

Patriot Bankruptcy Protest

Here’s the news just in tonight:

Members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) who work at Patriot Coal operations in West Virginia and Kentucky today ratified a settlement the union reached with the company late last week that makes significant improvements in terms and conditions of employment over a federal Bankruptcy Judge’s order from last May.

The final tally was 85% in favor to 15% opposed. Members from 13 local unions participated in the vote, which was overseen by UMWA local union tellers and conducted at worksites. The UMWA International Auditor/Tellers have certified the vote.

“The membership has made it clear that they are willing to do their part to keep Patriot operating, keep their jobs and ensure that thousands of retirees continue getting the health care they depend on and deserve,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “This has been a difficult and uncertain year for our members. But I believe that in the end, they understood that we had done a lot to improve what the judge had ordered. They also understood all that was at stake and resolved to move forward in a positive way.

“But as we work to keep Patriot a viable company into the future, we have not forgotten how we got here and who is responsible,” Roberts said. “With this agreement, we have foiled the schemes of Peabody Energy and Arch Coal by continuing to both provide health care for retirees and maintain union jobs at these mines.”

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Patriot Coal May 2013 Rally

It’s a bit day today for miners at Patriot Coal, and for the bankrupt coal company. As Jessica Lilly reports over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting:

The United Mine Workers of America is expected to vote today on an agreement between Patriot Coal and the union.  The nation’s largest miners’ union says a proposed settlement with Patriot Coal would restore most wage cuts the company had sought as part of its bankruptcy reorganization.The nation’s largest miners’ union says a proposed settlement with Patriot Coal would restore most wage cuts the company had sought as part of its bankruptcy reorganization.

The ratification vote is expected to happen at the various Patriot subsidiary workplaces in West Virginia and Kentucky where the UMWA represents the workers.

Some 1,800 current or laid-off Patriot workers in the two states are eligible to cast a ballot.

If you missed it before, here’s the video of UMWA President Cecil Roberts explaining the deal to union members (though you have to sit through a fairly long history of Patriot’s creation to get to the actual contract details):

There are several key documents you can read to understand this more fully: A proposed new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the UMWA and Patriot Coal operations, a Memorandum of Understanding between the company and the union, and a list of existing Collective Bargaining Agreements between various parties to the bankruptcy proceeding.

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Details are out on proposed Patriot Coal-UMWA deal

Patroit Bankruptcy Protests

Last evening, Patriot Coal lawyer made this filing to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court out in St. Louis, asking for court approval of the company’s proposed deal with the United Mine Workers of America.

Michael Niven over at SNL Financial is reporting on some of the details of the proposed deal:

The proposed equity arrangement is in line with what Patriot originally proposed in April when it offered the union a 35% stake in the reorganized company. The UMWA later submitted a counter proposal calling for a 57% stake in a reorganized Patriot.

The trust would also be funded by other income sources, including additional payments from Patriot, the amounts of which would be determined by the company’s financial performance. Patriot would also fund the retirement trust through royalty payments on coal production. The agreed upon royalty rates are 20 cents/ton on targeted production levels established in Patriot’s five-year business plan and $1/ton on any production that exceeds targeted levels.

The complex settlement deal also includes a wide range of other terms including wage concessions from the union and obligations that Patriot facilitate union representation at some non-union mines.

Additional documents that are available about this today include three exhibits to that court filing: A proposed new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the UMWA and Patriot Coal operations, a Memorandum of Understanding between the company and the union, and a list of existing Collective Bargaining Agreements between various parties to the bankruptcy proceeding.

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Patroit Bankruptcy Protests

The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden had more in today’s paper about yesterday’s big announcement of a tentative deal between Patriot Coal and the United Mine Workers:

United Mine Workers of America and Patriot Coal announced a settlement Monday on retirees’ health-care benefits, after a federal bankruptcy judge earlier this year allowed the company to throw out union-negotiated contracts and significantly reduce those benefits.

In a news release, the UMW said the settlement includes significant improvements in the terms and conditions of employment from those approved by federal U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States in Missouri on May 29 and implemented by Patriot on July 1.

UMW President Cecil E. Roberts said in the statement, “After several weeks of nearly around-the-clock negotiations, I believe we have reached something that can be taken to the membership for ratification.”

A new bankruptcy court filing made last evening provides no real details of the deal, but it does reveal that it was reached on Friday, and that more information was being withheld from public court records until the UMWA had time to provide those details to its members directly. Patriot’s lawyers asked for an expedited hearing for the court to consider the settlement, saying the deal would allow the company to “secure the outside investment necessary to reorganize as a going concern” and that delaying the hearing beyond Aug. 20 “would seriously threaten the Debtors’ reorganization efforts at this very important juncture.”

Interestingly, the Patriot settlement comes just as the UMWA has another protest planned today against Peabody Energy, as part of its campaign over Peabody’s role in creating Patriot and saddling Patriot with so much liability for health-care benefits for retired miners and their families. UMWA President Cecil Roberts said this morning:

We have reached a tentative settlement with Patriot Coal which will lessen the impact of severe cutbacks on active and retired miners, but as we’ve said all along, Patriot really is bankrupt and just does not have sufficient resources to pay for the contractual promises made to retired miners and their families by Peabody and Arch.  We’re back at Peabody because that’s where this problem started. Executives at Peabody Energy created Patriot, they failed to give it enough assets to meet its obligations, and we’re not going to sit idly by and let miners and their families pay the price.

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Patriot Coal May 2013 Rally

Well, the latest police response to the continuing United Mine Workers of America “Fairness at Patriot” campaign event certainly seemed like a bit of overkill, as this letter to the editor of the St. Louis paper suggests (see the photos as well).  But it appears that some progress on the Patriot issue is being made in Congress.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts issued this statement yesterday, announcing the union’s support for new bipartisan legislation to help retired Patriot miners whose pensions and health-care benefits are threatened by the company’s bankruptcy:

The legislation introduced today by Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) will provide significant help to retired miners and widows whose health care is threatened. The Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act of 2013 will also provide security for the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan, which serves nearly 100,000 pensioners.

“I want to thank Reps. McKinley and Capito for introducing this bill, and for their support of the retired miners, their spouses or widows, who through no fault of their own, currently face a loss of the health care they were promised and earned through lifetimes of service in America’s mines.

Reps. McKinley and Capito issued a joint statement with Rep. Nick J. Rahall. Rep. McKinley said:

Over the past two and a half years, my staff and I have been working with United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) officials, miners, and retirees in an effort to protect healthcare and pension benefits for our miners. After hearing the stories of what these men and their families face if they lose their benefits, it was clear that we had to find a solution.

And Rep. Capito said:

I am proud to join my West Virginia colleagues in introducing this legislation. We have worked diligently together to craft legislation that addresses the most pressing issues retirees are facing as a result of Patriot Coal Company’s bankruptcy. These hardworking coal miners have dedicated their lives to providing electricity to the Mountain State and building its economy, and we cannot let them down. I will continue to fight for our coal miners and the retirees whose benefits are at risk.

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UMWA continues Patriot Coal campaign

Supporter of the UMWA campaign for fair pay and benefits for active and retired miners at Patriot Coal hold a sigh asking the question “Are you next?”  Twenty nine Buses brought the more than 5000 supports from Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Virginia for the rally that was held on the campus of Fairmont State University, in Fairmont, W.Va. on Tuesday,  July 9, 2013.  At the end of the rally 31 people, including Roberts were arrested for non-violent civil disobedience. (AP Photo/Times West Virginian, Tammy Shriver)

Here’s the latest on the Fairness at Patriot campaign being waged by the United Mine Workers of America, via the AP’s Vicki Smith:

Thirty people were arrested Tuesday as some 5,000 coal miners and their families protested bankrupt Patriot Coal Corp.’s plans to cut benefits, a plan the United Mine Workers of America says amounts to a broken promise to tens of thousands of workers who made Patriot’s predecessor companies profitable for decades.

The rally on a football practice field at Fairmont State University in north-central West Virginia was the 14th protest so far, but UMWA President Cecil Roberts promised there will be many more. The next will be back in St. Louis, where Patriot and several other coal operators are headquartered.

“This is kind of like the struggle of the civil rights movement. It didn’t end in a week or a month or a year or two. It was a long process,” he said. “This is about justice and fairness, and anytime you’re fighting for justice and fairness, that fight might take a while. But we’re never going to stop.”

We’ve got the whole story online here.

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.

This just in from the United Mine Workers of America:

Negotiators from Patriot Coal walked out of talks with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) yesterday, threatening health care for thousands of retirees. The company also cancelled negotiations that were scheduled for the remainder of this week and into next week.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts said:

We are very disappointed by this action. We had made significant progress toward reaching an agreement that provided a workable alternative to the severe terms Patriot asked for last spring and that were approved by the bankruptcy court in St. Louis. The union had agreed to more than $400 million in savings for the company over the life of the current contract, which gives them the money they say they need to survive. But that still wasn’t enough for them.

When the company walked out, we were only about $30 to 35 million apart, which given the scope of this problem really isn’t all that much. A big chunk of that money is in bonuses the company wants to pay management personnel into the future.

I can only conclude at this point that there is no end to the depths of sacrifices our members and retirees are expected to make, even while hundreds of managers and executives are thinking about how they will spend the bonus money they’ll be getting in their bank accounts.

The company now says it will implement the terms and conditions approved by the judge, effective July 1. I have consistently made it clear to management that I could not recommend to our membership that they work under those terms, because the sacrifices they require from our active and retired members are too great.

Roberts went on to say:

We are going to explain all this, including the terms and conditions the judge approved and Patriot plans to implement, directly to our members. This is a democratic union, and our members will have their say about whether they want to work under it or not.

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UMWA continues Patriot Coal campaign

Hundreds of union coal miners, retirees, spouses and widows gather around the Henderson County Courthouse, Tuesday, June 4, 2013 in Henderson, Ky. Hundreds of coal miners are rallying in western Kentucky over planned cuts to wages and benefits by Patriot Coal Corp. for union members. (AP Photo/The Gleaner, Mike Lawrence)

 Here’s the latest from The Associated Press:

Hundreds of coal miners rallied in western Kentucky Tuesday to protest planned cuts to union wages and benefits by Patriot Coal Corp. as it goes through bankruptcy.

The rally organized by the United Mine Workers of America outside the Henderson County Courthouse ended with the arrests of about a dozen union members who briefly demonstrated in the street.

Patriot, a spinoff of St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, is seeking to cut worker and retiree benefits as part of a bankruptcy filing. Last week a federal judge in that city ruled in favor of Patriot, giving the go-ahead to significantly cut health care and pension benefits to thousands of workers and retirees.

Patriot has said it would have to spend $1.6 billion to cover the health care costs.

The miners, many of them retirees, carried signs and gathered near the courthouse steps Tuesday to hear from state lawmakers and union leaders.

“If there is no justice, Peabody, you will have no rest, you will have no peace,” said Dan Kane, the United Mine Workers’ secretary-treasurer. “You may depend on the poisonous words of a judge to let you out of a debt, but let me tell you, we’ll decide when it’s over, and it ain’t over yet.”

The rally was streamed live Tuesday on a website sponsored by the United Mine Workers.

Several union members in the crowd wore white T-shirts that read “Peabody Promised … Peabody Lied.”

Union leaders have argued that Patriot was intentionally saddled with unsustainable pension and long-term health care obligations when Peabody formed it as a separate company in 2007.

Kentucky Sen. Jerry Rhoads, a Democrat from Madisonville, said the proposed benefit cuts for union workers were “a matter of life and death.”

Rep. Brent Yonts, a Democrat from Greenville, said the May 29 federal court ruling in St. Louis was “the day big business struck down the little guy.”

“The outcome will be less health care for the retirees, a poorer future for those retirees, who will likely die earlier than they would have otherwise died due to poor health care,” Yonts said.

A representative from Congressman Ed Whitfield’s office said Whitfield is planning to propose legislation that would make the union retirees eligible for benefits under a 1993 federal law that guaranteed benefits to a group of retirees.

“It is critical that we protect the health care benefits of the thousands of Kentucky miners who have worked hard their entire careers to earn those benefits,” Whitfield said in a statement. Whitfield has received a total of $23,840 in campaign donations from Peabody and Patriot Coal political action committees since December 2007, according to federal records.

After the demonstration, about a dozen union members including United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts walked out into the street, sat down and formed a prayer circle, expecting to be arrested. Police asked them leave and then quickly cuffed the members with zip ties and escorted them into a waiting van.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States ruled last week that Patriot’s cost-cutting proposals were legal. The company sought bankruptcy protection last summer to address labor obligations it said had become unsustainable. The union said that negotiations would continue and that it would appeal the ruling.

Bennett Hatfield, Patriot’s president and CEO, said last week that bargaining with the union would continue, saying “a consensual resolution is the best possible outcome for all parties.”

Photo by David Kameras, UMWA

When the word came down from St. Louis earlier this week that a federal bankruptcy judge had approved Patriot Coal’s plan to dump its union contract and its retiree health-care plan, the reaction from the United Mine Workers was about what you would expect.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said in a prepared statement that the ruling  was “wrong, unfair and fails to fully recognize the coming wave of human suffering that will be experienced by thousands of people throughout the coalfields.” Roberts continued:

As often happens under American bankruptcy law, the short-term interests of the company are valued more than the dedication and sacrifice of the workers, who actually produce the profits that make a company successful.

The comments from Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield were equally predictable:

This ruling represents a major step forward for Patriot, allowing our company to achieve savings that are critical to our reorganization and the preservation of more than 4,000 jobs.  The savings contemplated by this ruling, together with other cost reductions implemented across our company, will put Patriot on course to becoming a viable business.

And while we’ve still heard next to nothing from most state political leaders — and certainly not from the Friends of Coal crowd —  about this issue, there were strong reactions from some elected officials. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said, for example:

Miners who have given their lives to this industry are now facing terrifying uncertainties over their health care, pensions, and pocketbooks. I am deeply disappointed by this outcome and what it means for our miners directly impacted by this decision and all workers who have experienced the unfairness of our bankruptcy system.

If you take the time to read closely the 102-page decision by Judge Kathy Surratt-States, it’s not too hard to see what the UMWA and its supporters — and anybody who thinks working people should be treated fairly — are upset. Start with just the fact that it takes a dozen pages in the ruling just to try to run through the long and complicated history of the UMWA’s effort to secure, through a maze of various plans, contracts and legislation, the “cradle-to-grave” benefits mine workers so rightly prize.

Or look near the beginning the decision, where the judge describes the letters the court has received by retirees and widows who are scared to death about what this case might mean for their lives:

Many discuss the horrendous conditions of the coal mines when those individuals first began to work, and how hard it was to achieve the promises made pursuant to both the previous and the current CBAs. Some discuss how physically, mentally and emotionally grueling being a coal miner was, many of whom worked as coal miners for over 30 years – a sacrifice made with due consideration of the promised health care from cradle to grave. The Court has received numerous medication lists, lists of various coal mining-related diagnoses and personal accounts of the years of hard work, and, all the reasons why these sacrifices were worth it for the promise of health care for life and an earned pension.

Some letters discuss various injuries sustained while working in coal mines, limbs of self and relatives lost, and the lives lost of relatives and friends. None of these letters, or their comments have been lost on this Court.

It’s true that the UMWA has great health-care benefits, both for workers and retirees. And it’s popular, even among many folk who consider themselves progressive, to say things like, “I don’t have benefits that good, why can’t they suck it up and accept less.” But isn’t the real question why the rest of us don’t have health-care as good as the UMWA’s? Or, why most of us are stuck without decent pensions, instead forced to rely on a 401-K system that, as Frontline recently explained, really isn’t working?

It’s great that some political leaders like Rep. Nick J. Rahall are pushing the CARE Act, legislation aimed at preserving benefits for retired coal miners. But the Patriot ruling should make it clear again that — in the words of a leading case on the matter — “bankruptcy law is draconian to labor unions”  and changes are needed to make the system more fair to workers.  In effect, as the judge explains, all of the decades of fighting by the UMWA to improve the working conditions and living conditions of its members — to rise above the day of the company store, really — became irrelevant the day Patriot filed for bankruptcy:

The argument here is therefore that the gravity of the concessions sought by the unionized miners is in effect just a ‘catch-up’ to the cutbacks that the remainder of Debtors’ employees have endured for the past few years. But of course, the unionized workforce escaped those pay freezes, vacation limitations, unrestricted work-hours and the like in exchange for lower pay, promised pensions, health care coverage and retiree benefits. The question is not is this fair to the unionized miners; is this equitable to the unionized miners. Rather, the question presented is whether these overall changes are fair and equitable to all interested parties which necessarily includes an evaluation of the treatment of the unionized Under federal law, employees have the choice of whether or not to be unionized. Bankruptcy law is also federal law and Section 1113 takes no prisoners. So it was written by Congress.

Years of toil, perseverance and determination of miners past yielded the employment terms and conditions of miners today, but this does not matter where, as here, savings everywhere else have already been explored within reason and exhausted.

In effect, the bankruptcy law and the judge are endorsing a race to the bottom for workers in the coalfields:

This is not a union versus non-union evaluation; it is an evaluation of what is necessary for Debtors to emerge from bankruptcy as a viable company and whether or not the path chosen to implement what is necessary is fair and equitable. Given the grave disparity between union and non-union pay and benefits prebankruptcy, the limitations placed on non-union labor that have been in place for years, and acceptance of the reality of the savings needed, the Court concludes that the UMWA represented employees are not tasked to disproportionately shoulder the burden of Debtors’ bankruptcy.

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UMWA keeps pressure on in Patriot bankruptcy

Photo from Fairness at Patriot campaign Facebook page.

Here’s the latest from St. Louis, via The Associated Press:

Another round of protests involving United Mine Workers of America and their supporters results in about a dozen arrests in downtown St. Louis.

Several hundred protesters gathered again Tuesday near the federal courthouse, the site of a recent bankruptcy case involving St. Louis-based Patriot Coal. The protesters were peacefully arrested for sitting in the street.

Patriot filed for bankruptcy in July. Protesters are angry about Patriot’s plan to cut health-care and retirement benefits. Patriot says the moves are necessary to keep the company afloat.

Similar arrests have occurred at other protests in St. Louis in recent months.

As the UMWA noted in a press release, a key ruling in the case is due next week:

Patriot Coal, created by Peabody Energy 2007 with 43 percent of Peabody’s liabilities but just 11 percent of its assets, filed for bankruptcy in July, 2012. Patriot has filed motions demanding the effective elimination of the current system of health care for retired miners and drastic pay and benefit cuts for active workers. U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Kathy Surratt-States is scheduled to rule on the company’s motions on or before May 29.

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