Retired coal miners stand to lose their benefits following a company’s bankruptcy, leaving the future of union contracts at other mines across the country in doubt as the industry continues to falter.
One of the oldest coal mine operators in the United States, Westmoreland Coal Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last October, and in the process has sought to terminate medical benefits for retirees in addition to walking away from union contracts with United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). On Tuesday, a judge allowed Westmoreland to move forward with its plans.
Texas Judge David R. Jones granted the long-struggling coal company a victory last Friday, allowing it to end retiree benefits along with union contracts at two of its mines in Wyoming and North Dakota. Representatives of both Westmoreland and the UMWA were given until Feb. 19 before Jones’ ruling went into effect, in order to give both parties time to negotiate.
The blow to benefits and pensions comes amid a growing push to decarbonize the economy and shift away from fossil fuels, a goal espoused by backers of the Green New Deal — a plan to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. economy within 10 years. Environmental justice advocates have called for any final legislation on such a plan to include a “just transition” for communities like former and current coal miners.
And Westmoreland’s bankruptcy highlights why such conversations are likely to continue. More coal plants shut down during President Donald Trump’s first two years in office than in the entire first term of the Obama administration. As that trend continues, questions about the fate of workers are mounting.
The UMWA’s director of communications and governmental affairs, Phil Smith, told ThinkProgress that discussions are still ongoing between UMWA and Westmoreland until the end of the month as the union fights to protect members. But morale is running low and the union is worried for its members, many of whom are sick and unable to work, leaving them largely reliant on benefits.
“They’re scared [and] they can’t go back to work,” Smith said. “After you work in the coal industry for 30, 40 years, you’re pretty beat up.”
Prior to Jones’ ruling, Westmoreland was obligated under the union contract to pay several million dollars in post-retirement medical benefits, pension obligations, and payments relating to black lung, a disease caused by long-term exposure to coal dust.
According to the Sierra Club, more than 250 active Westmoreland employees will be impacted by the Feb. 15 bankruptcy ruling, along with more than a thousand retirees and the spouses of deceased miners. The total retiree benefits scrapped come to around $329 million.
“The decision itself is not hard for me. The impact of what my decision does is what’s hard for me,” Jones said of his ruling, which largely allowed bankruptcy law to trump labor law.
When the company filed for bankruptcy, Westmoreland notably asked that managerial and executive staff still be allowed bonuses totaling up to $1.5 million a quarter, a move UMWA slammed as “appalling” at the time.
Meanwhile, former miners with black lung in particular have expressed concern about the bankruptcy’s impacts. Westmoreland largely operates in Wyoming and North Dakota, but the company historically had a sizable presence in Appalachia and the South and many retirees still live in Virginia and the wider area.
Bethel Brock, a former Westmoreland employee and UMWA member who has black lung, wrote a letter to Jones expressing concern about the company’s ability to pay for his health needs. “It is a shame these corporate executives are still expecting large paychecks in this bankruptcy while miners with black lung will…potentially lose their benefits,” Brock said, according to Appalachian Voices. “This is how corporate greed works.”
Some politicians, however, are trying to find solutions and provide protections for coal miners.
Under the proposed American Miners Act of 2019, black lung benefits would be extended, and both pension funds and health care benefits would be expanded. That bill is backed by Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, along with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Doug Jones (D-AL), and Bob Casey (D-PA). But the act isn’t a reality yet and advocates are looking to longer-term solutions regardless.
Protections for coal miners as the world transitions away from fossil fuels also features in the Green New Deal, introduced two weeks ago by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).
“We must be as ambitious and innovative in our solution as possible,” said Ocasio-Cortez at the time, arguing that “frontline communities, coal communities” would be major players in any final pieces of legislation associated with the Green New Deal.
Still, it’s unclear what that prioritization actually means. Those who have worked closely on such issues for years say any effort will be incredibly complicated and will need input from impacted communities. And situations like Westmoreland’s clash with UMWA are only one small component of the larger issue.
“One thing that people don’t understand about Wyoming coal is that it’s largely non-union,” said Shannon Anderson, who works with the Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC), a Wyoming-based community-driven nonprofit promoting sustainable practices in the state.
Anderson told ThinkProgress that the union presence in Wyoming coal is only likely to shrink after Westmoreland’s bankruptcy. All the while, coal companies are continuing to shutter across the country as the industry declines.
The closure of coal companies ultimately means more positive things for efforts to fight climate change and protect the health of miners, but, Anderson emphasized, “those decisions… do impact workers.”
Organizations like the BlueGreen Alliance (BGA), a national partnership of labor unions and environmental organizations, have pushed for creating jobs through infrastructure projects, something the Green New Deal aims to do. But protecting retired coal miners and others is critical for many communities and their support for any final legislation likely hinges on that.
“This has been happening in the coal industry [for years],” said Smith of UMWA, referring to mass-closures of coal companies. Westmoreland, he says, marks the “continuation of a trend” that has seen many sick and elderly former miners left without support. Alpha Natural Resources, Peabody Energy, and Arch Coal are among other companies that have filed for bankruptcy over the past few years.
Anderson noted that solutions are available for those looking to both encourage a transition away from fossil fuels and protect workers at the same time. She referenced efforts by the Obama administration to convert money for cleaning up abandoned coal mines to promoting other business sectors and retraining current miners. Coupled with legislation like the proposed American Miners Act, such efforts could make the Green New Deal’s “just transition” a reality.
Ultimately, the question remains the same for communities at the mercy of the coal industry but interested in decarbonization, Anderson said: “How do you responsibly get coal mines reclaimed… but don’t leave communities high and dry?”