Mine Workers to Vote on Settlement with Patriot Coal; Campaign Vs. Peabody Continues

ST. LOUIS —Some 1,800 active Mine Workers who toil in Kentucky and West Virginia for Patriot Coal – the financially creaky coal company that two bigger firms established six years ago to take retirees’ pensions and health care off their hands – will vote August 16 on a proposed settlement of their dispute with Patriot.

Details of the settlement with Patriot, which still must be approved by a U.S. bankruptcy court judge in St. Louis, were not disclosed, pending notification of the UMW members.  But Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts called it a large improvement over Patriot’s bankruptcy reorganization plan, which the judge OKd earlier this year.

That plan would have tossed out health care on July 1 for approximately 23,000 retirees and their dependents, whom Patriot inherited from Peabody Coal – the nation’s second-largest coal firm – and Arch Coal.  The bankruptcy plan also would have cut the active workers’ wages and benefits, including their own future health care.

“After several weeks of nearly around-the-clock negotiations, I believe we reached something that can be taken to the membership for ratification,” Roberts said in a statement.  “We have been able to restore, or at least improve upon, many of the most drastic changes the judge ordered, including in the area of wages, health care benefits, paid time off, pensions and more.  In addition, we negotiated a mechanism that will allow retiree health care benefits to continue.”

But while the union has apparently settled with Patriot – it said Peabody had left Patriot with not enough assets to pay for retirees’ health care – the union’s campaign against the two other coal companies, who really caused the problem, continues.

The campaign has featured frequent mass rallies in West Virginia, Ohio and outside the federal court in St. Louis during the bankruptcy judge’s hearings.  The latest rally was scheduled for St. Louis just before the vote.  Patriot operates mines in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and southern Illinois.

“We’re back at Peabody because that’s where this problem started,” Roberts told reporters.  “When executives at Peabody Energy created Patriot, they failed to give it enough assets to meet its obligations, and we’re not going to sit idly by and let miners and their families pay the price.”

The Peabody-Patriot protests highlight how federal bankruptcy law tilts for banks and bondholders and against workers, the last in line when a firm reorganizes.  Bank-ruptcy law also lets the judge tear up union contracts, and firms kill pensions and health care and cut wages.  Those impacts led other union presidents, led by the CWA’s Larry Cohen, to say the Patriot-Peabody bankruptcy mess is important to all workers.