By TIM ROWDEN
Senior Staff Reporter
“We cannot be divided in this fight,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Rafanan, told roughly 1,000 United Mine Workers of America and hundreds of supporting union members who braved the cold and wet Feb. 26 to rally outside the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in downtown St. Louis and march to Peabody Energy’s nearby headquarters to protest the threatened loss of health care and other earned benefits in the bankruptcy proceedings of Peabody spinoff Patriot Coal.
“It’s not just about the United Mine Workers,” Rafanan, the former senior pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church in St. Louis and current co-chair of the Workers Rights Board of St. Louis Jobs with Justice, told the protesters. “It’s about all of us. Because if they can run this shell game and take away your pension and health care, they can take it away from any of us. It’s that simple.”
Active and retired coal miners, their families and supporters from Alabama, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and union supporters from throughout the St. Louis area, rallied, marched and offered themselves up for arrest Feb. 26 to protest what they say was a scheme by Peabody to spin off Patriot in 2007 with insufficient assets to meet the company’s pension and health care obligations to retired mine workers. Arch Coal did much the same thing when it took part in the creation of Magnum Coal in 2005. Patriot bought Magnum in 2008.
Patriot filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last July. The case is being heard in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in St. Louis because this is where Peabody, Arch and Patriot are headquartered.
Rafanan and nine others, including two UMWA international vice presidents (Mike Dalpiaz, international vice president of District 22, which covers the western United States and is based in Price, UT, and Donnie Samms, international at-large vice president and Region 1 director, based in Grindstone, PA), were arrested for civil disobedience for sitting in the street, blocking traffic in front of Peabody’s headquarters, marking the third time that protesters have been arrested for peaceful civil disobedience since the protests began in January.
The mine workers were joined last week by members and representatives of the service employees, communications workers, steelworkers, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Jobs with Justice and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
BATTLING ON ALL FRONTS
The Feb. 26 rally, and the two that preceded it on Jan. 29 and Feb. 13, are part of an all-fronts campaign by the UMWA, which includes legal action; federal legislation to be introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA); broadcast, print, outdoor and online advertising; and continued protests in St. Louis and other cities.
“We are here to remind Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal that we are never going to quit in our fight for justice,” UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Dan Kane said. “We are going to hold them accountable for their scheme to rid themselves of obligations to retirees and widows, and we’ll be here for as long as it takes.”
‘YOU’RE NOTHING TO THEM’
In January, Patriot filed documents with the bankruptcy court seeking to set up an outside trust to fund future benefits in order to limit its obligation to provide $2.1 billion in retiree health benefits to 22,000 active miners, retirees and their spouses.
The trust, known as a voluntary employees’ beneficiary association, would provide a maximum of $40 million annually up to a limit of $200 million. The annual cost of providing retiree health benefits in 2012 was $71 million and is expected to rise to $73.8 million, nearly twice as much as Patriot has proposed to spend.
In a separate, but equally telling move, Patriot sent a letter to salaried retirees in December saying it intended to terminate all health and life-insurance benefits for salaried retirees. The bankruptcy court is scheduled to decide April 23 whether Patriot has the right to terminate the non-union retirees’ benefits.
“These are people that they supposedly picked a while ago to run their company and they’re going to cheat them,” Kane said. “Because once you fall below the very top few, you’re nothing to them.”
GAINING NATIONAL ATTENTION
The campaign to expose the financial maneuvers by Peabody and Arch to attempt to cheat retired miners out of health care they worked years to earn has gained increasing national attention in recent weeks.
• Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA) announced late last month that he would propose legislation to aid retired miners and their survivors. The proposed bill, The Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act, would aid miners retired from Peabody, Arch and other coal companies by transferring unclaimed funds from the Abandoned Mine Land fund to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan.
• A forthcoming study by Temple University Professor of Finance Bruce Rader, called “Designed to Fail: The Case of Patriot Coal” concludes that Patriot Coal was “created to fail in the long run” because Peabody transferred 40 percent of its health care and pension liabilities to Patriot but gave the new company only about 10 percent of its revenue-producing assets. Arch Coal made a similar assignment of assets and liabilities.
“Even without the [recent] drop in natural gas prices and the development of fracking, it would have been nearly impossible for Patriot to remain solvent,” Rader said. “The company’s business model could only make money if coal was priced at or above record highs.”
• A recent story in The New Republic “The Incredible Disappearing Health Benefits: Can a Coal Company Get Away with Breaking Promises to Workers?” details efforts by Peabody and Arch to escape from their health care obligations. The article quoted West Virginia physician Michael Schroering, who treats many active and retired mine workers.
“Just from an ethical standpoint, I find it disgusting that a corporation would be trying to do what Peabody is trying to do by separating out the older miners and putting [them] in a company they knew would fail, just so they could get out from paying,” Schroering said.
ADDITIONAL RALLIES PLANNED
The Mine Workers have pledged to keep coming back, for as long as it takes, to get Peabody and Arch to do the right the thing. The next rally here is scheduled for March 19.