COAL MINERS UMWA seeking help for retirees



The judge ruled that the company doesn't have to honor its union contracts.
PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- The United Mine Workers of America is looking for ways to provide health benefits for retired coal miners in case the union loses its appeal of what it sees as an unfavorable federal bankruptcy court ruling.
More than 3,000 active and retired coal miners, some sick from black lung disease, would lose their medical coverage under an order filed Monday by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge William Howard.
The judge ruled that Horizon Natural Resources, the nation's fourth-largest coal company, does not have to honor union contracts that guarantee medical benefits for retirees and their dependents.
The UMWA plans to appeal Howard's decision to U.S. District Court in Lexington.
UMWA spokesman Doug Gibson said the union will try to get affected retirees into an alternate benefit plan. However, Gibson said the UMWA will have to persuade Congress to help with the cost of that plan because it "already is stretched very thin financially."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., criticized the bankruptcy court's decision and promised to fight for reforms.
"It's been said that a company that sold a bag of rock dust to a mine last month has a higher claim in bankruptcy court than a retired miner who put in 40 years underground," Rockefeller said. "That's completely unfair."
Rockefeller isn't the only elected official from Appalachia to express support for the coal miners.
What Strickland said
Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, said he would be sympathetic to any proposal from the United Mine Workers, whether for federal funding to help pay for health coverage for retirees or for modifying federal bankruptcy laws to protect those benefits.
Strickland, whose constituents include coal miners in southeast Ohio, said they shouldn't have to worry about losing their benefits.
"It's a continuing serious problem that deserves the attention of the Congress," Strickland said. "It's quite sad that workers can put their lives into a company and then bankruptcy occurs and the CEOs bail out with golden parachutes and the workers get the shaft."
Miners who held two protests in downtown Lexington over the past month and a half were asking for bankruptcy law reform. They said it was unfair that a bankruptcy judge had the authority to allow companies to shed medical costs and retiree benefits to make them more attractive to potential buyers.
Offers
The judge said in his ruling that several companies have expressed interest in buying Horizon's nonunion properties. However, no one has made an offer on any of Horizon's six union operations in Illinois, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Jim Morris, Horizon's vice president for business development, said financial obligations related to union contracts and the union's retirement plan made them unattractive to potential buyers. The company's assets are scheduled to be auctioned Tuesday in Cincinnati.
Horizon, posting huge financial losses and unable to pay its creditors, filed for bankruptcy in November 2002. The company's assets, valued at just less than $1 billion, are being sold in an attempt to satisfy about $1 billion in debts and other obligations.
Rockefeller said he hopes to have bankruptcy-reform legislation ready by September.
"Congress needs to deal with this serious issue that is having such a detrimental impact on working families," he said.

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