CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Patriot Coal officials are saying statements by the United Mine Workers are "inaccurate and distorted" and that the company never "walked out" on negotiations with the union.
In a statement issued Wednesday night, Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield said company negotiators have "been working diligently" to address UMW concerns about contractual changes approved by a federal bankruptcy judge.
"Patriot continues to respect the need for confidentiality in the negotiations if the parties are to make progress," Hatfield said in a press release.
"Unlike the UMWA, we will not grandstand in the media or issue press releases filled with distortions about the parties' discussions," Hatfield said. "Rather than spending time on such theatrics, we are hopeful that the UMWA will return to the negotiating table and work toward a solution that allows Patriot to survive and continue to provide 4,000 jobs and meaningful healthcare benefits for thousands of retirees and their families."
On Wednesday afternoon, the UMW had said that Patriot had broken off negotiations with the union, "walked out" of those talks and cancelled negotiations that were scheduled for the remainder of this week and into next week.
Last month, a federal bankruptcy judge said Patriot could ignore its contracts with union workers and cut wages and benefits for workers and retirees. Union leaders had said the cuts are too deep, and the company and the union had been meeting in hopes of reaching a new deal,
"We had made significant progress toward reaching an agreement that provided a workable alternative to the severe terms Patriot asked for last spring and that were approved by the bankruptcy court in St. Louis," UMW President Cecil Roberts said in a statement Wednesday. "The union had agreed to more than $400 million in savings for the company over the life of the current contract, which gives them the money they say they need to survive. But that still wasn't enough for them."
Roberts said the union and the company were about $30 million to $35 million apart in negotiations when Patriot "walked out," and a "big chunk" of that money was for future bonuses for Patriot management.
Hatfield responded, "If our goal was to force acceptance of the court-approved contract as is, no further discussions would have been necessary, as that option has been available to us since May 29," when the bankruptcy judge ruled.
"Instead, we have offered up millions of dollars in additional contract enhancements, including wage increases, healthcare improvements, life insurance, and paid personal time off," Hatfield said. "The two-day recess in negotiations that the Company requested for the current week was needed for financial analysis of UMWA demands that Patriot roll back the majority of cost relief approved by the Bankruptcy Court. It remains the assessment of Patriot management that agreeing to the UMWA's demands would sacrifice any chance of making the Company viable."
The UMW is scheduling meetings with local unions representing Patriot workers in preparation for a vote on a possible strike. Local unions are likely to vote during the last week of June.
Under the UMW constitution, all active members working for Patriot, including miners who are laid off or who are on sick or disability leave, can vote on their proposed terms and conditions of employment.