Uncertainty Blankets Union Workers as the Clock Ticks on Negotiations

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As the clock ticks on the 60-day notice Energy West gave to terminate its contract with the union if talks failed to produce an agreement, uncertainty blankets the miners and rumors abound.

Last Friday Sept. 20, Energy West, owner of Deer Creek Mine in Huntington, announced the possibility of selling the coal facility if an agreement cannot be reached with UMWA within 60 days. It also stated it would terminate negotiations and its contract with the union within the deadline as well.

Negotiations between the union and the mining company have centered around benefits, primarily pension and healthcare plans as well as safety provisions. With neither party budging, it appears that the fate of Deer Creek Mine is up in the air.

Brian Lee, Deer Creek miner and union spokesperson, stated that during talks last week, someone called in the media. He said that as soon as they appeared talks shut down. After the media left, the company came back and handed the union representatives a paper stating their intention of selling the mine. Lee said they also expressed that they do not want the union contract included in the sale.

This is not sitting well with the rank and file and they are claiming successorship in the sale. Successorship means that any buyer would also take the contract and the workers as part of the sale. In an article written by Jay D. Pirnentel in the Brigham Young University Law Review from 1979 he explained the significance of successorship to the union in the bargaining process:

“A union will push for a successorship clause to give its members a greater sense of job security, especially when the collective bargaining agreement is considered to be favorable to employees.  While it is theoretically possible for a successorship clause to enhance the sale value of a business covered by a pro-employer labor contract, most cases indicate that the existence of a successorship clause will discourage buyers.”

“Since the NLRB has held that it constitutes a mandatory subject of bargaining, an employer must seriously consider a union’s demand for a successorship clause. If the employer does not contemplate selling the business during the term of the labor agreement or recognizes the clause’s dubious enforceability, there may be little incentive to actively oppose inclusion of a successorship clause.”

The workforce has dropped significantly during the past several months. Estimates show that nearly 100 miners have left Deer Creek since contract disputes began. Approximately 230 workers are currently employed at the Huntington mine. Lee went on to say that many are retiring or looking for other jobs. He says there are a lot of rumors and educated guesses circling about what might happen.

“I don’t really have anything I can tell you at this time. We do not know what their (Energy West) plans are right now,” Lee said. “But we are mining coal and doing our job. Nothing has changed; still we are not getting answers on anything right now.”

Energy West Mining spokesperson Maria O’Mara made clear that last Friday’s announcement is not uncommon during a lengthy negotiation process.

“Friday the company issued a 60-day notice of termination of its contract with the union. Such a notice is not uncommon for either party to file during the collective bargaining process,” she said. “It establishes a concrete time frame within which to resolve issues.”

O’Mara went on to explain that even if a resolve is not reached by the 60-day time frame, the mine will not just simply shut down.

“There are a lot of potential outcomes that may be reached,” she assured. “Bargaining may continue after the 60-day period. The mine will not simply be sold at the end of this period, nor will negotiations end.”

According to O’Mara, Energy West has been in negotiations with the United Mine Workers of America since November 5, 2012.

“The company has had a strong history of successfully bargaining with the union in the past, but the last ten months of discussion have produced limited progress,” she continued.

“Since July, Energy West has been considering all available options, including the sale of Deer Creek mine or permanently contracting its operations to a third party,” O’Mara stated. “No decision has been made and the company continues to assess all options.”

She ensures that contract termination will not impact power plant operations in Huntington.

“Energy West Mining Company is a separate entity from PacifiCorp and Rocky Mountain Power,” O’Mara explained. “These are companies that are fully prepared to ensure safe, continued and reliable service to their customers.”

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