Workers of bankrupt Westmoreland Coal take fight to protect retirees to company’s Englewood doorstep

Source: The Denver Post

As Westmoreland Coal Co. tries to emerge from bankruptcy, union members from one of its mines are picketing at the company’s headquarters in Englewood to protest efforts to cut retirees’ health insurance and pensions.

Sarah Myers, an employee at Westmoreland’s mine in Kemmerer in southwest Wyoming, said Thursday the union wants to keep workers’ concerns front and center as the bankruptcy case proceeds.

“We’re just trying to get our voice out there. We’re just trying to represent ourselves,” Myers said.

Myers wasn’t in Englewood on Thursday, but she said miners from Kemmerer are taking turns picketing Westmoreland’s headquarters each week, Monday through Friday.

The company didn’t return a request for a comment Thursday afternoon. No one answered the general phone number at the company’s headquarters.

Colorado-based Westmoreland, the country’s sixth-largest coal-mining business with 19 mines in six states and Canada, announced in October that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It entered into a restructuring agreement with lenders in the face of $1.4 billion in debt.

Westmoreland employs nearly 3,000 people across its operations, which include mines in Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and North Dakota, and several subsidiaries. It has no mines in Colorado.

An Oct. 23 letter obtained by The Denver Post details Westmoreland’s proposed changes to the company’s agreements with the United Mine Workers of America. The proposals include freezing retirees’ pensions and eliminating their medical benefits.

The company has also proposed abolishing union contracts if the mines are sold. Westmoreland has said in court filings that potential buyers of its operations won’t make offers if it means taking on the pension and medical costs.

Richard Morgan, the UMWA’s district representative, said about 2,500 retirees, including union members in Trinidad, Raton, N.M., and Beulah, N.D., would be affected by the company’s proposals. As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, Westmoreland and the union are supposed to renegotiate the contracts, with talks scheduled to wrap up Feb. 13.

“The retirees’ medical benefits are the main sticking point,” Morgan said.

In 2017, Morgan said Congress passed a bill to protect the medical benefits of about 22,600 coal miners and their families who faced losing health care coverage after Patriot Coal, a spin-off of Peabody Energy, filed for bankruptcy.

Morgan said layoffs at the Kemmerer mine, which employs nearly 300 people, are anticipated sometime in the next three or four months because of losses of contracts.

Westmoreland is among several coal companies that have filed for bankruptcy protection or continue to struggle as concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fueled power plants have grown. Natural gas and renewable energy sources have become increasingly more economical than coal.

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