Liberty Mine workers see bright future

Liberty Mine workers see bright future

Miners from the now-closed Liberty Mine heard an optimistic report Friday morning by United Mine Workers officials about the future of coal mining in Southern Illinois.

But for many of the 141 miners, the future is not soon enough.

The union miners were handed pink slips on July 13 when Liberty officials idled the mine that is located just off of Harco Road, near Galatia.

Approximately 75 of the miners gathered in Harrisburg Friday morning for a workshop that detailed a variety of services available concerning job opportunities, education, health insurance, prescription drugs and unemployment benefits.

Evan Sink, who serves a coal liaison with UMW District 12, said that the future is much brighter for miners being laid off now than those who lost their jobs a decade ago.

“I really believe in the future we’ll see the coal industry explode,” said Sink. “There are a lot of mines in the future but the problem is that those mines are not close enough yet to help these miners. There will be good jobs around here again in the coal industry.”

Sink pointed to permits that have been issued for a mine near Johnston City and another mine in Washington County near Marissa. He said there are also plans for a mine near Akin and also near Royalton in Franklin County.

The workshop was hosted by Mid-5 Employment and Training Inc. and also included representatives from Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Southern 14 Workforce Board, UMWA and AFL-CIO.

Tom Ellis, of Marion, president of Local Union 3404, addressed the miners and gave a gloomy outlook about the future of the mine. Ellis said coal company officials had been tight-lipped about the closure until Thursday when they gave what he described as “vague answers” to local union officials.

Ellis said one concern of the employees is that Liberty did not give a 60-day notice and instead laid miners off without any warning. The union signed a contract with Nu-Bay Coal Company which later changed its name to Liberty Coal. Ellis said company officials say that change in name erases any rights that union miners have to benefits.

“They (Liberty) claim that we don’t have any rights to the work out there because they say that there is no longer a Nu-Bay Coal Company, which is who we had the contract with,” said Ellis. “They say that they have gotten rid of everybody associated with Nu-Bay and there isn’t a Nu-Bay Coal Company.”

Adding another concern for miners is the threat issued on Thursday by Liberty officials that if the mine didn’t sell in the near future bankruptcy was imminent, which would have an impact on healthcare benefits and 401K plans.

With that backdrop Ty Becker, a spokesperson with the AFL-CIO, cautioned miners about the loss of healthcare benefits.

“I wouldn’t bet on a single day of healthcare coverage,” said Becker. “So, be very careful how you use your healthcare because you might be paying those bills yourself.”

Liberty officials have steadfastly declined comment on the mine closing or the future of the mine. A press release was issued with the instruction that it would be the only public comments made by Liberty Coal.

The press release reads:

“The Liberty Coal Company Board of Governors has determined to place the Liberty Mine on idle status. The mine is being idled and not permanently shut down. A reduced staff of eight personnel will remain at Liberty to maintain the mine. The decision to idle the mine was a result of continuing serious financial difficulties. Liberty is evaluating a number of options that will determine the future of the mine, including the potential sale. Although the future is uncertain, Liberty’s options could result in future resumption of coal mining operations.”

Danny Tango, 31, of West Frankfort, has four in the coal industry and said at his age he is optimistic of resurgence in the coal industry.

“Despite this layoff I feel pretty good about the future of the coal industry in Southern Illinois,” said Tango. “Right now I’m just going to wait and see what happens with this mine and if not I plan on going somewhere else.”

Ellis is a 36-year veteran of the coal industry and has been laid off nine times. He said he understands the optimism of the younger miners but with his 60th birthday quickly approaching he doesn’t share that optimism about his future in the coal industry.

“I’ve got panel rights for other mines but it would involve a long drive and I dread to have to do that,” said Ellis. “Right now I’m just going to wait and see what is going to happen out there at the mine. I’ve been around long enough to know that there is absolutely nothing guaranteed so I’m just going to try and hang on as long as I can and see what happens.”

Sink workshops like the one in Harrisburg are far too frequent, difficult to attend but desperately needed.

“I hate these meetings but if you can about people at all you come here to give these people every single option you can, something to help them make a difficult transition,” said Sink. “Hopefully, it will be a positive transition.”

Copyright © 2006 The Southern Illinoisan, a Lee Enterprises subsidiary

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