By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Wednesday, December 30, former Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton released a statement attacking Walter Energy’s plan to emerge from bankruptcy by renouncing collective bargaining agreements with unions to honor commitments to coal miners and retirees.
Secretary Clinton said, “Walter Energy is attempting to shirk its healthcare and pension obligations to hardworking Alabama active miners, retirees, widows, and dependents, in order to appease Apollo Global Management and other investors. I am disappointed that the bankruptcy court in Birmingham has granted their request. These men and woman have put their own health and safety at risk to help power American economic success. They are entitled to the benefits they have earned and deserve. Ensuring healthcare and retirement security should be the first priority in a bankruptcy proceeding, not the last, and should certainly come before the $2 million in bonuses for Walter Energy executives the court approved yesterday.”
On Monday, December 28 US Bankruptcy Judge for the Northern District of Alabama Tamara Mitchell released a 57-page opinion saying that Walter’s situation would go from bad to worse if it had to maintain its collective bargaining agreements and retiree benefits.
Judge Mitchell wrote, “The court finds credible that no potential buyers have an interest in assuming such obligations, let alone assuming such obligations and investing such new capital.”
According to original reporting by Reuters Jim Christie, Walter Energy has negotiated a deal with Coal Acquisition LLC, which is made up of Walter’s lenders. An auction is scheduled for Jan. 5, and Mitchell will be asked to approve the auction results at a sale hearing on Jan. 6.
If the sale goes through, Coal Acquisition would assume $115 million to $122 million in liabilities and would pay up to $5.4 million for Walter’s assets and forgive $1.25 billion they are owed by Walter.
On December 28, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts issued a statement in response to the ruling: “The decision announced today by Judge Tamara O. Mitchell of the US Bankruptcy Court in Birmingham rejecting our collective bargaining agreement with Walter Energy and wiping out Walter’s obligation to pay retiree health care and pension benefits is extremely disappointing but not surprising.”
Union President Roberts said, “The law is stacked against workers in American bankruptcy courts. A lifetime of hard work and dedication means nothing to the courts. The life or death decisions vulnerable senior citizens will now be forced to make mean nothing to the courts. Apparently all that matters is that executives get bonuses and Wall Street raiders get paid. The fact that while she was stripping our members of everything, Judge Mitchell granted $2 million in bonuses to Walter management is especially galling. If this is justice in America, then something is very, very wrong.”
President Barack H. Obama’s (D) war on coal has resulted in loss of demand as the federal government has forced coal powered energy plants to close. Tighter government regulations have also increased the cost of mining coal. Lowered demand, a slow economy, and more competition from the booming natural gas sector and foreign coal has led to weak commodity prices. This year, Walter along with three other debt-laden US coal producers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The move by Walter would affect over 700 active coal miners, hundreds of laid off miners, and over 3,000 retirees, widows and other dependents. Hillary Clinton challenged a similar attempt by Patriot Coal – a move the company later abandoned. Clinton called on Peabody Energy and Alpha Natural Resources to do the right thing in honoring their commitments to retired miners. Clinton said, “I hope Walter Energy reverses course and does right by Alabama miners and their families. We must honor our commitments to the coal miners, transportation and power plant workers, their families and communities, who have given so much to our country. As President, I will do exactly that.”
The UMWA is continuing to negotiate with Walter and with the group that is likely to purchase Walter’s mines. Roberts said, “I want to be very clear: This decision does nothing to slow our effort to maintain a union contract at Walter Energy operations nor does it end our fight to maintain retiree health care benefits. If anything, it strengthens our resolve in this battle. We will not be turned around. We will prevail, because UMWA members are now and always have been prepared to do whatever it takes to win.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faces former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in her bid to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President of the United States.
The Alabama Presidential Primary for both major parties is on March 1. Clinton has visited both Montgomery and Hoover recently.