Following a settlement with Patriot and a court victory against Peabody,
miners focus their attention on making retirees whole
By TIM ROWDEN
St. Louis – Noting that their fight to make retired coal miners whole isn’t finished, 3,000 working and retired miners and representatives of supporting unions rallied in Kiener Plaza Aug. 27 across from the headquarters of Peabody Energy, demanding the coal giant do the right thing by its former miners by ensuring they have the lifetime healthcare they were promised.
The rally, which included speeches from United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts and U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart (D-Ill.), followed a collective bargaining settlement with bankrupt Patriot Coal and a court victory establishing Peabody Energy’s continued obligations to 3,100 of the more than 20,000 retired miners and dependents who earned lifetime health care during their years of service in coal mines operated by Peabody and Arch Coal.
THEY NEED TO FULFILL THEIR OBLIGATIONS
“We reached the best possible deal we could with Patriot, making tremendous and unprecedented improvements over what the bankruptcy Judge ordered,” Roberts said. “But Patriot is still bankrupt, while Peabody and Arch are two of the largest and most successful coal companies in the world. They need to step up to the plate and fulfill the obligations they made to these retirees.”
Peabody spun off part of its operations into Patriot Coal in 2007, but did not give the new company sufficient assets to cover its obligations. In 2008, Patriot acquired Magnum Coal, a spinoff of Arch Coal, winding up with $1.4 billion in health care obligations to retired miners.
Patriot Coal declared bankruptcy in 2012 and demanded severe cutbacks in wages, health care and pensions for active miners and the effective elimination of health care coverage for retirees. The company’s demands were approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but the UMWA was able to negotiate substantial improvements, including improved terms and conditions for active miners. The union also won establishment of a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA), funded by a 35 to 38 percent stake in the company, a 20-cent per ton royalty on future Patriot coal production, and other assets allowing for a partial payment of health care benefits to more than retired miners and dependents.
More than 90 percent of those affected worked their entire careers for Peabody Energy or Arch Coal, not Patriot. On August 16, A U.S. Appeals Court overturned a bankruptcy court ruling that would have allowed Peabody Energy to escape its obligation to 3,100 retired miners whose benefits remained with Peabody when the company spun off Patriot Coal in 2007. An additional 17,000 miners – including Peabody and Arch retirees – and their dependents are not covered by this decision.
The union’s ongoing effort to win full benefits for all affected retired miners includes a lawsuit against Peabody and Arch, filed in West Virginia; legislation in Congress to aid retired miners and their dependents, sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats; and an ongoing public education, advertising and community action campaign.
‘STAND UP NOW!’
“Taking away hard earned health care benefits and taking away pension benefits is not the way to recovery,” Enyart said.
“Every worker in American, every union member in America and every family in America who relies on that paycheck of a working person must stand up now!”
Other prominent speakers at the rally included U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) and American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) President J. David Cox.