A coal company’s bankruptcy filing will set the stage for “a harsh future” for thousands of retired coal miners, predicts United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts.

Walter Energy, Inc. filed court papers this week indicating that its post-bankruptcy plan to sell its assets is dependent upon nullifying collective bargaining agreements that cover more than 800 unionized workers as well as benefit plans for more than 3,000 union and non-union retirees.

Life or death decisions

“If successful, Walter Energy will force many retirees into making life or death decisions about getting needed health care or buying food; about getting the prescription drugs they need to stay alive or pay the mortgage,” said Roberts. “These are people with cancer, black lung, kidney disease, heart disease, severe injuries and more. They worked in Alabama’s mines for decades, producing the coal that powered our nation. Nobody gave them their health care and pension benefits – they earned them.”

Birmingham-based Walter Energy calls the union contracts that specify those benefits “onerous.” In its court papers, the company said; “The debtors suffer from crippling legacy labor obligations, principally in the form of medical benefits and pension obligations, as well as insupportable hourly labor cost.”

According to news sources, the company wants a bankruptcy court’s approval to end employment agreements with its unions and stop funding retiree benefits so it can move ahead with the sale of its Alabama coal operations.

"A lifetime of hard, dangerous work"

Union head Roberts said that to  the “Wall Street raiders” who control Walter Energy, the people covered under the union contracts are “just numbers.”

“Apparently, a lifetime of hard, dangerous work providing the raw materials that made America the greatest nation on Earth means nothing to hedge fund managers who are only interested in taking more cash out of Alabama and putting it in their New York bank accounts.

“We will fight this. We will fight it in court, we will fight it in the streets and we will fight it on the picket lines if we have to. Our members and retirees did nothing wrong. They are not responsible for Walter Energy’s bankruptcy. If Walter thinks it is going to solve its self-inflicted corporate woes solely on the backs of our members, it needs to think again.”