The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 68/No. 38           October 19, 2004  
Coal bosses close W. Virginia mine
after Horizon bankruptcy
CANNELTON, West Virginia—Union miners here at the Cannelton mine, owned by Horizon Natural Resources, found out as they turned up for afternoon shift on September 24, that the mine was being idled and they were being laid off. “Last night we were working underground and the foreman came down and told us to seal the face,” said Alvin, a miner at Cannelton. “We had been wondering day by day what would happen, when this would come and we knew after that. Today we came back to work and they told us we were laid off.”

This scene was repeated at five other union operations owned by Horizon in preparation for their sale to new owners approved by the federal bankruptcy court.

At the Starfire surface mine in eastern Kentucky, miners reported there that the company told them at 3:00 p.m. to call in the dayshift workers from the mine and that the afternoon shift was not working.

The Kindill no. 2 and no. 3 mines in Indiana also closed September 24 with little or no official notice from the company. “We’ve known something was up,” said Elden Seifert of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) local there. “We’ve been expecting a shutdown, but nobody from the company has told us a thing.”

These were the last two UMWA mines in Indiana; Starfire was the only union mine in eastern Kentucky; and with the closing of Horizon-owned Zeigler mine, there is one remaining UMWA-organized mine in southern Illinois.

These layoffs are the latest step in the assault against the UMWA that Horizon began with bankruptcy proceedings in November 2002. At the end of 2003, the company demanded massive cuts in the union contracts affecting 800 miners and 2,300 retirees.

This assault was ratcheted up when Horizon sought and got approval from the federal bankruptcy court to sever union contracts—an assault on the conditions for the working miners, and cutting the lifetime health benefits guaranteed to them and retired miners. The federal court then approved the sale on August 31 of Horizon’s mines for $786 million to Massey Energy, the fourth-largest U.S. coal company and a long-standing opponent of the UMWA; two companies launched by Wall Street financier Wilbur Ross; and a group of bondholders.

Ross has made a specialty of buying companies through bankruptcy proceedings in both the steel and textile industries. As part of these buyouts, benefits owed to retired workers and their dependents were ended, affecting tens of thousands. His International Steel Group in a few years has become the largest steel producer in the United States and his newly-formed International Coal Group (ICG) is the fifth largest coal company in the United States. The other Ross-owned coal company, Old Ben Coal, will be comprised largely of worked-out coal properties. Ross is planning further acquisitions of coal mines in Appalachia and the Illinois Basin. “The coal mining industry is very highly fragmented and this will be a vehicle for consolidating the industry,” Ross told the Bloomberg News. He thanked the federal and state governments for their help in creating ICG as “an enterprise free of contingent liabilities”—referring to the voiding of the union contracts and health benefits for retired and retiring miners.

The closings and the tearing up of the contract obligations are a harsh blow to miners, many of them nearing retirement age. Jim Craze, a miner at Cannelton, said that what happened “is not fair, it’s not right. At my age, no one is going to hire me. I’ve got health problems; I am not going to be able to pass a physical.” Retiree Andy Payne echoed these comments explaining that “200 men were cut off at Cannelton, two-thirds of them can’t get health care, and they’ve got young families. What kind of judge would do that?”

“If you don’t put a stop to it now,” explained Craze, “everyone is going to get it.” Another miner, Tony, agreed. “It is time to get in behind the unions. Peabody, Consol, [two of the biggest U.S. coal companies] they’re next, if something isn’t stopped.”

A retired miner passing by remarked “It’s the same thing as always, Democrats and Republicans.”

Jack Mygatt, a southern Illinois miner told The Southern Illinoisan, “If you trace this all the way back it goes back to the federal government. It’s their laws, their rules and their regulations that are allowing this to happen. So, essentially what the system has done is saying that you can replace these people, regardless of how much time they have, with anybody you want.”

Many workers wanted to discuss what will happen next. Anti-union Massey Energy is slated to take over the Cannelton and Starfire mines. One miner told Militant reporters at the portal, “Well if they think of opening up nonunion, we’ll have a picket line up here next week.” Another Cannelton miner, Elmer Keffer, stated, “We have got a fight brewing. It (the attacks) has got to stop. There’s a meeting on Monday, we’ll figure something out, but there’s going to be a fight.”

The Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, Brian Taylor, visited West Virginia after the layoffs and spoke with miners. Taylor noted the sense of outrage against the company and the solidarity with the affected miners.

“My campaign stands with thousands of people who find it unacceptable that as hundreds of millions of dollars change hands from one superrich outfit to another that the immediate and long-term futures of our class are simply balled up and thrown away,” he said. Taylor called on those who defend workers’ right to organize unions “to stand together against this attack.”

Tony Lane is a member of UMWA Local 1248 in southwestern Pennsylvania. Ron Short contributed to this article.  
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