By TIM ROWDEN
Senior Staff Reporter
St. Louis – Cecil E. Roberts Jr., international president of the United Mine Workers of America, and nine other union mine workers were arrested while protesting outside the St. Louis headquarters of Peabody Energy here at Market and Seventh streets. They held hands and smiled as they and fellow protesters sang “Amazing Grace” before police moved in.
The Jan. 29 protest, a bid to protect retirees’ health benefits, started four blocks away in front of the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse on 10th Street, where Patriot Coal’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy case is being heard.
Patriot was spun off from Peabody in 2007 in what the union says was “a long-term scheme” by Peabody and Arch Coal to strip thousands of active and retired coal miners, their dependents and widows – some 10,800 retirees covering 22,000 beneficiaries – of critically-needed health care and other earned benefits.
The union says Patriot, which has already identified the retiree health care obligations as “unsustainable” in its future plans, was “designed to fail” because it was saddled with too much debt when it was spun off from Peabody.
More than 750 members and supporters of the UMWA rallied outside the courthouse before marching to Peabody’s headquarters.
The miners, many of them retirees and their families, several carrying oxygen tanks, came to St. Louis on buses from Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Once here, they were joined by supporters from the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, communications workers, steelworkers, painters, laborers, sheet metal workers, machinists, auto workers, pipefitters and other unions.
“Our brothers and sisters have come here today in solidarity and in unity with us,” Roberts said, leading the crowd in a chant of “Unions! Unions! Unions!” while police, lined up in front of the courthouse, looked on.
Roberts, a sixth-generation coal miner, was just getting warmed up. Pacing and shouting, he denounced Peabody in a fiery speech that touched on religious themes and morality.
“I am not going to stand idly by while somebody takes away what my daddy built,” Roberts said “Peabody’s got $1,000-an-hour attorneys and they’ve got $1-an-hour morals.
“Millionaires and billionaires, when they die, they die with great dignity because they’ve got health care,” Roberts shouted. “Our pensioners and our widowers are just as good, if not a whole hell of a lot better than these millionaires and billionaires.”
After marching to Peabody headquarters on Market, Roberts and the other miners sat shoulder-to-shoulder across Seventh Street, blocking potential traffic. They were arrested, without incident, for refusing an order to disperse. Police said they were released later in the day.
DESIGNED TO FAIL
Patriot was a company that was created to fail, the union says.
According to the UMWA website Fairness at Patriot (http://www.fairnessatpatriot.org), Patriot was formed in October October 2007, when Peabody Energy spun off all of its union operations east of the Mississippi River, along with a few other operations, as well as many of Peabody’s long-term health care obligations to its retirees.
A year and a half before Patriot was created, according to the union, Arch Coal spun off its union operations in West Virginia –along with the long-term obligations that went with them – into a company called Magnum Coal.
“Less than a week after Patriot was founded,” according to background information provided by the union on the website, “former Peabody Chairman and Patriot Board Member Irl Engelhardt and then-CEO Richard Whiting, another Peabody alum, sat down with Magnum President Paul Vining, another veteran of Peabody and Arch, to discuss a possible merger.”
Patriot acquired Magnum in July 2008, and with it, health care obligations towards another 1,294 retirees.
Patriot wound up with almost three times as many retirees as active employees. More than 90 percent of them never worked for Patriot at all.
Overburdened with debt, Patriot declared bankruptcy last July.
The case is being heard in St. Louis because this is where Patriot, Peabody and Arch are headquartered.
THE SCHEME CONTINUES
Last week’s march and rally coincided with the first hearing here in the bankruptcy case.
It also followed the union’s filing, the day before, of an amended complaint in a West Virginia lawsuit which references a proposal by Patriot to limit payment of health care benefits for retired miners and their dependents.
According to court documents, the company has proposed creating a trust, known as a voluntary employees' beneficiary association, to 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, according to the court documents.
The union’s suit seeks class-action status for more than 10,000 workers whose benefits were transferred from Peabody and Arch to Patriot in the 2007 spinoff. The lawsuit claims Peabody and Arch, rather than Patriot, should be responsible for paying the retiree health benefits for the workers.
“Peabody is sitting up here and getting by very well because they found a way to get rid of the liabilities,” Roberts told the Labor Tribune. “This can’t be right.
MORE TO COME
Roberts promised there will be more rallies and marches in the future. “We are here to let the bankruptcy court know that we care about what happens. And we’re letting Patriot, Peabody and Arch know that we are not going to rest until our active and retired members don’t have to lay sleepless at night wondering if they can survive the next week, the next month, the next year. We will be back, again and again, to make sure that message gets heard.”