UMWA, Energy West talks stall, company sets 60-day deadline to reach negotiated settlement
Energy West Mining Company announced on Friday morning the possibility of putting the Deer Creek Coal Mine up for sale and gave notice their intention to terminate negotiations and their contract with the United Mine Workers of America unless an agreement could be reached within 60 days.
A letter obtained by the Sun Advocate last week showed that Energy West notified the UMWA of their intention to move forward with Article XXIX Section 8(d) at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13. This section provides for the 60-day time-line to begin.
"Since July the company has been considering all available options, including the sale of the Deer Creek mine or permanently contracting its operations to a third party. No decision has been made and the company continues to assess all options," said Energy West Spokesperson Maria O'Mara.
O'Mara also explained that negotiations could continue after the 60 day time period if both parties were interested and elected to continue.
During a meeting at the UMWA District 22 Offices in Price on Friday, Interwest Mining Company and Fuel Resources Vice President Cindy Crane hand delivered the letter detailing Energy West's intent to terminate negotiations if an outcome was not reached.
"Others might have seen this coming but it's a shock to me," said Gary Baker, a miner employed at Deer Creek.
According to retired administrator and current UMWA negotiator and consultant Marty Hudson, details about just how Energy West plans to deal with the property have yet to be answered.
"They haven't answered any questions about how the mine is going to be sold, (and) they haven't discussed who they might sell it to," said Hudson. "We can't even get information about the pensioners."
Hudson and Chief Negotiator Mike Dalpiaz flew to Washington D.C. Monday to discuss the company's ultimatum with UMWA President Cecil Roberts. According to the District 22 Office, no additional information concerning mine's possible sale was disclosed over the weekend.
Hudson reported Friday that matters in the strained 10 month negotiation became even more difficult in the last 30 days when the UMWA went to the National Labor Relations Board over Energy West's refusal to provide pensioner information germane to the ongoing negotiation.
"I do know that there is no way a company of PacifiCorp's size could do their due diligence on a deal of this magnitude in a month," said Hudson. "They would have to have been working on this for some time."
While company officials are direct about the fact that these negotiations are between Energy West and the UMWA. Energy West is a subsidiary of PacifiCorp, which causes many of those associated with the matter to bring up PacifiCorp's name.
After noting that a Sun Advocate reporter was present Friday morning, an attorney from Energy West questioned whether the meeting was private. When Hudson explained that the press had not been barred from talks at the onset of negotiations, Energy West asked for a recess and left the union office.
They later returned and discussed the possible sale and succession of the mine, leaving pensioner and miner benefits without foundation. Energy West is considering selling the mine without the pension and benefit obligations which come with it, said those attending Friday's second session.
Since Jan. 1, miners at Deer Creek have been working under an expired contract. Deer Creek miners have reported since the first of the year that they have been given neither sick nor vacation days, a situation which has continued into September.
Concern over the negotiation, along with injuries and other work opportunities, have caused the workforce at Deer Creek to dwindle from more than 340 union employees to less than 230.
For Hudson, the company's profit sheet makes their determination to eliminate pensioner and miner benefits hard to understand and impossible to agree with. He contends that Energy West will most likely attempt to maintain some type of control over Deer Creek's product regardless of a sale, due to the extremely competitive price at which the mine can produce coal.
"I could see if this company was pleading poverty, but they aren't," he said.
According to O'Mara's email, "the current 100 percent coverage plan provided at virtually no cost to employees, their spouses, eligible dependents and retirees is extraordinary. In order to manage costs, and keep prices for our customers reasonable, we need to transition to a more conventional health plan structure similar to what most Americans have."
For the miners, their agreement to work for lower wages in comparison to other miners and power plant employees for over 40 years demonstrates that they have indeed paid to keep their benefits.
"If they want to take our benefits and the benefits of those who have retired, let them give us back the wages on all those other contracts," said a miner present Friday. "We have earned those benefits and so have our pensioners."