United Mine Workers ratified a new collective bargaining agreement Thursday with Contura Energy, the company formed to purchase the core assets of bankrupt Alpha Natural Resources, including its Cumberland and Emerald mines in Greene County.
The new 4 ½-year agreement with Contura was approved by 89 percent of those voting at Cumberland and Emerald, the Power Mountain preparation plant and McClure preparation plant, both in West Virginia, the union said in a release.
An agreement also was ratified with Alpha, which will retain a number of mines following bankruptcy. It covers workers at five preparation plants in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, only two of which are now operating.
“It keeps us alive,” said Chuck Kinsell, president of Cumberland Local 2300, which represents the bulk of the union employees under the Contura agreement.
“We really didn’t lose anything,” Kinsell said, noting the agreement will maintain the workers’ existing wages, benefits and contract days.
Kinsell spoke of the uncertainty union members faced during the past year with Alpha in bankruptcy and the coal industry in decline.
“It’s been a very stressful time for our members,” he said.
The bankruptcy court gave Alpha permission to void the union contract and sell the mine “free and clear” of any obligation to rehire current workers, he said. Union members also saw labor agreements that resulted from other coal companies going through bankruptcy, Kinsell said.
“Normally, it doesn’t turn out the way it did for us,” he said. “For us, it turned out very well.”
The agreement includes a wage freeze for the next two years but a wage reopener in August 2018, he said.
It also gives union employees at Cumberland the rights to jobs at the proposed Foundation Mine near Holbrook. If Contura continues with Alpha’s plans to open the new mine, it could add 53 more years of life to Cumberland, the union said.
The companies had received bankruptcy court approval not only to terminate the union’s previous contract but also any obligations to pay for pensions and retiree health care, UMW International President Cecil E. Roberts said in the release.
“We were essentially starting from zero in negotiating these agreements,” Roberts said. “Because of the solidarity of our members at these operations, we were able to preserve virtually every article of the previous agreement other than defined benefit pensions and retiree health care.”
Neither Contura nor Alpha will pay into the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan.
Current retirees will not see any changes in their pensions, UMW spokesman Phil Smith said. Those working will receive a pension when they retire for the years of service in which contributions were made provided the pension plan remains solvent, Smith said.
The 1974 pension plan is on the verge of collapse. The union has been pushing for federal legislation that would sure up the plan as well as pay for health care benefits of retired miners of companies like Alpha forced into bankruptcy as a result of the coal industry downturn.
In lieu of Contura and Alpha paying for retiree health care, the agreement calls for the companies to make a lump-sum payment of $28.5 million to a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association the UMW will manage until that funding runs out, the union said.
“Anytime you are able to keep people working and maintain good paying jobs and high quality benefits, it’s a good thing,” Smith said. On the down side, the union would have liked to have seen the companies continue to make pension and retiree health care contributions.
The companies have about 1,000 employees covered by the UMW contract, according to bankruptcy documents. The majority of those employees work at the Cumberland Mine. The Emerald Mine, which closed in November, now employs only about 20 workers.