Federal bankruptcy judge: Walter Energy can reject union deals, move to sell

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A federal bankruptcy judge ruled against a motion to block $2 million in retention bonuses for Walter Energy executives Monday, and is also allowing the company to terminate the collective bargaining agreements it held with two unions — United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and United Steelworkers (USW) — as well as retiree benefits.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Tamara O. Mitchell in Birmingham found Walter Energy’s assets are eligible to be sold without the liabilities associated with union benefits.

“This court finds that maintaining the coal operations as a going concern, keeping the mines open, offering future job opportunities and continuing to be a productive member of the business community all require this Court to overrule” the objections,” Mitchell wrote in an opinion filed Monday after two days of hearings.

After her order, UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts responded in a statement Tuesday, “The decision announced today by Judge Tamara O. Mitchell of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Birmingham rejecting our collective bargaining agreement with Walter Energy and wiping out Walter’s obligation to pay retiree health care and pension benefits is extremely disappointing but not surprising.”

Roberts continued, “The law is stacked against workers in American bankruptcy courts. A lifetime of hard work and dedication means nothing to the courts. The life or death decisions vulnerable senior citizens will now be forced to make mean nothing to the courts. Apparently all that matters is that executives get bonuses and Wall Street raiders get paid.

“The fact that while she was stripping our members of everything, Judge Mitchell granted $2 million in bonuses to Walter management is especially galling. If this is justice in America, then something is very, very wrong.”

Walter Energy filed for bankruptcy in July and laid off nearly 200 people at a mine in Tuscaloosa County. The company set to put its assets up for auction Jan. 5. As an opening bid, lenders who banded together as Coal Acquisition have offered to exchange $1.25 billion of debt and pay $5.4 million in cash.

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