Times West Virginian
Last year, the United Mine Workers of America stressed that it is focused on winning in a “real confrontation.”
The issue is Patriot Coal Corp.’s bankruptcy, and the battle is ongoing.
“We, the UMWA, are in the midst of a real confrontation here,” UMW President Cecil Roberts said at last year’s Labor Day Picnic at Mannington’s Hough Park.
“Peabody Coal is the largest coal company in the world. Peabody Coal is around the world. Peabody Coal has more money than most nations have. But in 2007, five years ago, they said, ‘Hmmm, don’t like being in West Virginia. Don’t like being in Kentucky, because the unions try to challenge us there. Let’s just form a new company.’”
Patriot Coal was formed in St. Louis, in 2007, and on July 9 of last year, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. Patriot was a spinoff company created by Peabody and also joined with Magnum Coal Co., which Arch Coal had formed. While Patriot created a larger company, it also assumed a much larger obligation to live up to the previous contracts and health-care benefits of those other companies, said Phil Smith, director of communications for the UMW.
UMW officials have expressed concern for the benefits of 10,000 retirees that affect a total of 22,000 former workers and their dependents. More than 2,000 active UMW members are employed at Patriot’s West Virginia and Kentucky locations. Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 mine is located close to Fairview.
From 2007 through most of 2010 and part of 2011, the price of coal was high, and the company was able to make enough money to meet its retiree health-care obligations, Smith said. But he believes Patriot was set up to fail and get rid of those Peabody and Arch benefits.
Last week, 10 leaders and members of the UMW were arrested for failure to disperse during a protest in front of the headquarters of Peabody Energy in St. Louis, Mo.
Ten individuals sat down on the road to bring attention to their cause, and they were arrested. The group consisted of Roberts; several international district vice presidents, including Mike Caputo from District 31, Steve Earle from District 12 and Joe Carter from District 17; and rank-and-file miners or retired miners. They were bailed out by the UMW.
“The real crime here is not what my union brothers and I did by sitting down in the road to draw attention to this issue,” Caputo, a Rivesville resident, told the Times West Virginian. “The real crime is what Peabody Coal is doing to the people who gave their whole lives to the company.”
With the spinoff from Peabody and purchase of Magnum, Patriot took on the responsibility of providing benefits to some of Peabody and Arch’s former employees and retirees. In order for Patriot to create revenue and be successful in the long run, it needs to save money related to those liabilities, according to the declaration that Mark Schroeder, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Patriot Coal, filed with the Bankruptcy Court.
Last Nov. 27, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Shelley Chapman in New York made the decision to move the case from New York to St. Louis, where Patriot Coal is headquartered. The initial hearing of the bankruptcy reorganization case took place in St. Louis on Jan. 29, along with the UMW’s protest.
Caputo, who has been a member of the UMW for 36 years, explained that these miners have worked hard and have made millions of dollars for Peabody. Peabody created what he believes is a dummy company through fraudulent schemes and put the liabilities on Patriot’s shoulders. Peabody reneged on its promise for lifetime health care for workers, he said.
“They know if we lose this battle, some of our members literally will die because they won’t be able to get the health care and the medication they need to survive,” Caputo said. “It is an absolute shame what Peabody Coal and Arch Coal are doing to the people who gave their lives.”
John Palmer, president of UMW Local 1570, and Larry Knisell, a retired miner, were also arrested at the St. Louis protest.
Palmer, who lives in Monongah, just started his 38th year working at Patriot’s Federal No. 2 mine near Fairview. He said many of his fellow union members have been at the mine since it opened in 1968.
“We are tired of what’s going on with Patriot and Peabody reneging what they promised us, and we are united with lots of strength,” he said. “We’ve got to keep doing what’s right for all workers.”
Knisell, from Morgantown, worked at Federal No. 2 mine for 27 years before retiring in 1999. He also served as president of UMW Local 1570 from 1984 to 1997.
Knisell, 63, is a disabled Vietnam veteran, and he and his wife have numerous health conditions and are on many medications.
“They just want to turn their back on our sick and unhealthy people,” Knisell said of Patriot. “That’s just not acceptable. I might have bad days and good days, but even on my bad days I’m not going to go down without a fight.”
As Smith said last year, “Our folks kept up their end of the bargain. They kept producing coal. They kept making it possible for us to have energy in our homes.”
These miners have certainly earned their benefits. This ongoing battle is one the UMW must win.