The Times West Virginian

June 7, 2013

Judge’s ruling about Patriot Coal is ‘tragic’ and a ‘travesty’

Times West Virginian

— We wonder how many readers were angered when they read the top story in the Times West Virginian on May 30.

We know the story didn’t apply to that many of our readers, but that is not the issue here. It applied to some of them, and that is who we’re writing about today.

We’re writing about the miners working for Patriot Coal, who in good faith accepted a contract that promised health care and pension benefits to them upon retirement.

But now Patriot Coal, saying it is on the verge of bankruptcy, has received a judge’s go-ahead to significantly cut the health care and personal benefits to thousands of workers and retirees. And it claimed victory over a miner’s union that swiftly condemned the ruling it pledged to appeal.

What did U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States’ ruling do? The 102-page document dashed the nation’s biggest coal miners’ union’s hopes of scuttling the company’s quest to impose wage and benefit cuts by walking away from its collective-bargaining agreements. The judge said Patriot Coal’s concessions are necessary. And why should they worry about what happened to Patriot Coal? They work for Peabody.

The union had threatened a strike if the judge’s decision didn’t go organized labor’s way. But it had remained clear of talking of a walkout, saying it would continue arguing during protests that Patriot was set up to fail. The union said negotiations would continue while it is appealing the judge’s ruling.

We liked what United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts said about the situation, noting that “we have long acknowledged that Patriot Coal is in trouble.”

“We remain willing to take painful steps to help Patriot get through the tough period it faces over the next couple of years,” Roberts said. “But if we’re going to share in that pain, then we have every right to share that company’s gain when it becomes profitable again.”

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller have shown their disgust for the judge’s ruling.

“This ruling is a travesty,” Manchin said. “It is wrong that Peabody can set up a company such as Patriot, fill that company with its liabilities and then spin that company off for the sole purpose of avoiding its contractual and moral obligation to its workers.”

Rockefeller said that “once again we are seeing how the bankruptcy system is stacked against the American worker. It’s tragic to watch how some industries treat their workers after they’ve given much of their lives to these companies.”

The Times West Virginian runs an online poll each week about stories of interest. In regard to the future of the Patriot Coal situation, one of our suggested answers is “I think the union and company can sit down and hammer out a deal that will have the least impact on retirees and current employees.”

Based on everything that has happened, this would certainly seem to be the best solution to a very bad situation. We can’t take our minds off the aged miners who will lose their pensions and those still working who may not receive theirs.