Miners, Facing Loss of Health Care to Patriot’s Bankruptcy Manipulation, Escalate Protests

CHARLESTON, W. VA. –Thousands of miners and their survivors, facing loss of health care coverage due to bankruptcy code manipulation by Patriot Coal, a set-up-to-fail spinoff from giant Peabody Coal, escalated their protests against the loss.
And their campaign is drawing notice – at least from lawmakers representing the areas where Peabody and Patriot operate.
The latest chapter in the saga occurred on April 1 when 6,000-10,000 miners and their allies, led by United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, marched from the Charleston, W. Va., civic center to Laidley Towers, site of Patriot’s regional offices.
They then staged a sit-in in the street and 16, led by Roberts, were arrested on misdemeanor charges and later released.  It was Roberts’ second arrest in an anti-Peabody/Patriot protest.  His first was several months earlier in front of the federal courthouse in St. Louis, where Patriot’s bankruptcy hearing drags on.
“Patriot promised, Patriot lied!” the peaceful crowd repeatedly chanted as they paraded through Charleston.  Roberts told the crowd to be angry at Patriot, Peabody and the bankruptcy lawyers.  The city’s mayor, police and people “are not our enemy.”
“The folks who did this are our enemy.  From this day forward, this is a movement!” Roberts said.  “This is a crime.  We’ve been robbed, tricked and lied to.”
The Charleston protest was the latest in a monthly series, spotlighting Peabody’s success at evading its health care obligations by spinning them off to underfunded Patriot in 2007.  Patriot filed for bankruptcy reorganization protection last July.
Corporate bankruptcy lets firms break union contracts, end pensions, trash health care and fire workers.  Other firms nationwide, including Hostess Brands and American Airlines, have used the same tactics against their union workers.
The difference in the Peabody-Patriot case is that the firm that really owes the miners their health care – Peabody – spun the responsibility off.
“It’s not just about the United Mine Workers,” Dr. Martin 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 1,000 protesters in front of Peabody’s headquarters on Feb. 26, according to the St. Louis Labor Tribune.
“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,” he said.
The protests are drawing notice, and political support.  The Labor Tribune reported Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is drafting legislation to curb such corporate abuses -– and to fund the pensions and health care of miners and survivors whom the firms hung out to dry.
The money would come from a surplus in the federal Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation fund.  As the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, and a West Virginian, the pro-worker Rockefeller is an influential voice on coal issues, since his state still leads the U.S. in coal production.
And the Mine Workers report that six days before the protests in Charleston, the West Virginia legislature passed a resolution denouncing Peabody’s and Patriot’s abandonment of the miners and their health care via bankruptcy.
“We cannot allow corporate greed to run roughshod over the people who have exchanged their working lives, and frequently their health, for a promise of a secure retirement,” said Mine Workers District 31 Vice President Mike Caputo.  Caputo is also the state House Majority Whip and a primary sponsor of the measure.
“This resolution tells these rogue coal companies that their flagrant abuse of the bankruptcy process to shed their contractual obligations to their workers is strongly opposed by the people of the Mountain State,” Caputo said.
“Support for our struggle for justice is growing and broadening, and shows that these coal companies’ concept of ‘business as usual’ will not be tolerated in West Virginia,” Roberts said after the legislature’s action.