Contract negotiations for coal miners at Willow Lake Mine in Saline County were progressing smoothly until last week when about 400 workers were notified the mine was permanently closing, a union representative said.
“Negotiations were going very well,” said Phil Smith, director of communications for United Mine Workers. “We were close to reaching a fair agreement. That’s why we were surprised,” he said from his international office in Triangle, Va.
The union became the employees’ bargaining agent after a contentious period of allegations of illegal activity thrown at the union and mine operator Big Ridge Inc., a subsidiary of Peabody Energy.
A National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge in December last year found the union should be certified and ordered the coal company to cease and desist from illegal anti-union campaigning.
But Smith said those issues were behind the two sides.
“There was no relation between the mine’s closing and negotiations,” Smith said. “We began to develop good relations, and we were looking forward to moving on.”
Can jobs be saved?
Meanwhile, state and federal legislators continue to look for ways to save those jobs.
“I’ve got a group calling every coal company we know,” State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, said. “I’ve got to think there are other coal companies that want those (coal) reserves.”
Phelps said he has had talks with Peabody and was told the decision to close was strictly due to performance.
“They were losing money. Yes, there are a lot of coal reserves, but they didn’t want to keep losing money,” Phelps said, adding he was also told by Peabody that the company anticipated calls on its mineral rights. As of late last week, it had not received any.
According to a Peabody press release, the mine has 25 million tons of recoverable coal reserves.
Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, said while coal production is down about 6 percent across the country, in Illinois production is up about 13 percent this year. Much of that demand for Illinois coal is coming from Europe.
Illinois production was up to 37 million tons last year from 33 million the year before, the first sizeable increase since 1989, and 2012 is shaping up for another increase, he said.
“It is safe to say we will have an increase in coal production in 2012 similar to 2011,” Gonet said.
Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity along with the Southern 14 Workforce Board, will be holding rapid response workshops for Willow Lake workers. Workshops will be held Dec. 12 and 13 at Southeastern Illinois College from 9 a.m. for those whose last names begin with A through K and at 1 p.m. for those whose last name initials are L through Z.