Court affords miners first victory in ongoing employment dispute

In 1946, coal miners were guaranteed the right to have pension and health benefits for life. Throughout the intervening years, this right has been protected, though recent threats to that right have resulted in the union and miners being involved in a protracted employment dispute with the company that provides these benefits. While this particular battle does not primarily apply to California workers, the final decision could have an impact on future battles over benefits for other industries.

A judge in federal court recently ordered that an injunction be granted against CONSOL Energy in its attempts to end a health insurance benefit that would have an adverse affect on retired miners. Since 1950, the pension and health benefits for these workers has been provided under one blanket policy. Though the funding is often in a precarious position due to government budget problems, it is still projected to be provided for through the summer of this year. The company who provides the policy recently contacted the miners and the union to inform them that it was planning to drop the current coverage at the end of 2016.

The union responded to earlier communications from the company requesting arbitration that was included in a previous negotiation in 1978. Company officials did not respond to the request for arbitration and announced that the mining operations were shuttered and that the plan providing benefits would be terminated. In response to the injunction requested by the union, the company denied that it could be held to the earlier agreement as it was not a party to it when it was contracted.

The judge in the federal court granted the injunction on the basis that the company is liable for the agreement last filed in 2011 and that terminating the benefits could cause serious monetary harm for the miners involved. The injunction may only provide a temporary stay as it is unknown how the union and miners will fare in arbitration or whether the government will continue to provide funds for the benefits. California workers are also guaranteed the right to seek assistance from employment law professionals whenever they find themselves in an employment dispute regarding these or similar issues.

Source: bna.com, "Retired Miners Win Round in Benefits Dispute, Despite Closures in Coal Country", Jason Albright, May 20, 2017

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