By Heather Richards
March 2, 2019 - The coal miners union that represents workers at the Kemmerer mine in western Wyoming is unlikely to replace the lifetime health benefits lost in the Westmoreland bankruptcy, but continues to negotiate with the company for a better deal.
The union is also negotiating its contract with the likely buyer of the Kemmerer mine, Virginia businessman Tom Clarke.
In a statement for miners and their families published Friday, the United Mine Workers of America noted that the $6 million a bankruptcy judge recently instructed Westmoreland to set aside for retiree health care wouldn’t last the year.
It’s about six months’ worth of coverage for the 1,500 Westmoreland retirees, said Phil Smith, director of communications for the union. Workers connected to the Kemmerer mine constitute about 500 of that group.
Westmoreland Coal Co. filed for bankruptcy in October, citing the troubled coal market. Judge David Jones of the bankruptcy court in Houston recently granted Westmoreland the right to dispense with retiree health care liabilities. The judge also ruled in Westmoreland’s favor in regard to breaking the union contract with the company.
Once the health care agreement is decided between the union and Westmoreland, the union plans to approach its members with the bargaining agreement it’s brokering with Clarke, the new owner. Miners will have to vote on that contract and the union expects that to happen within the next two weeks, according to the Friday announcement.
“Regardless of how much money we are able to secure for retiree health care going forward, it will not be enough to provide the lifetime benefits that retirees earned and were promised,” said international president of the UMWA Cecil Roberts in a statement Friday.
Roberts encouraged miners and their families to write to their congressmen in support of bills that would guarantee benefits to miners like those from Kemmerer, including Senate Bill 27, the American Miners Act.
“The promise must be kept to all retired UMWA miners, their dependents and widows,” Roberts said.
Sen. John Barrasso criticized Westmoreland’s actions, including the bonuses the company offered to executives prior to bankruptcy, in a Friday email to the Star-Tribune, but stopped short of supporting legislation proposed by the union.
“The men and women who worked in the Kemmerer mine have been put in a terrible position by the Westmoreland Mining Company,” he said. “It was Westmoreland’s responsibility to live up to the contract it had with workers and retirees.”
The senator does not support Senate Bill 27, he said.
“I am committed to finding a solution that will lessen the burden on the miners who have been denied the health benefits promise,” he wrote. “(Senate Bill 27), as written, would create an enormous liability for taxpayers that goes way beyond the Westmoreland case.”
Previous attempts by the United Mine Workers of America to guarantee pensions via Congress have not found support in Wyoming leaders. Sen. Mike Enzi was a vocal opponent of a UMWA bill two years ago that would have guaranteed coal miner pensions with federal funds.
Enzi noted at the time that most of Wyoming’s miners were not in a union. He also noted at the time that underfunded pension plans were a serious problem in the U.S. but that funding the coal miners’ plan alone did not address the broader risk to workers.
A spokesman for the senator said Friday that Enzi was still reviewing the Kemmerer situation.
“He is dedicated to working with those whose health care has been impacted by the mine’s bankruptcy, but remains concerned about any legislation that encourages or helps union and private companies to rely on taxpayers when the union and companies fail to deliver on their promises,” spokesman Max D’Onofrio said in an email.