The Times West Virginian

Opinion

July 7, 2013

UMW is working on multiple fronts to make voice heard in Patriot bankruptcy

The United Mine Workers of America is making its voice heard on multiple fronts.

The issues are extremely important — retired miners and their families who are losing their health care and active miners who are seeing cuts in wages and benefits with Patriot Coal Corp.’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which was filed July 9, 2012.

Patriot was created through a spin-off from Peabody Energy in October 2007. In July 2008, the corporation acquired Magnum Coal Co., which formerly gained assets and liabilities from Arch Coal.

The UMW contends Patriot was set up to fail. With the spinoff from Peabody and purchase of Magnum, Patriot took on the responsibility of providing benefits to some of Peabody and Arch’s former employees and retirees.

A “Fairness at Patriot” rally, scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at Fairmont State University’s football practice field, is expected to draw thousands of people,  according to Phil Smith, director of communications for the UMW,

“I think it’s going to be possibly the biggest rally we’ve had yet,” said Mike Caputo, District 31 international vice president of the UMW, majority whip for the West Virginia House of Delegates and Rivesville resident. “It’s going to be exciting.”

Patriot’s Federal No. 2 mine is located in Monongalia County.

The keynote speaker will be UMW International President Cecil Roberts.

The union is taking the campaign that it has been mounting in St. Louis, Mo., where Patriot and Peabody are headquartered, to the backyards of some of the Patriot operations. The UMW has held rallies in Charleston, which drew 10,000 to 11,000 people, and Henderson, Ky.

“Peabody and Arch say they have no responsibility for this, even though they were the ones who promised these retirees health care,” Roberts said in a press release. “We can see right through that kind of corporate doublespeak. Our members labored for decades to make these companies rich. We’re not going to let a bunch of rich CEOs get away with this.”

At the same time, the UMW is also working behind the scenes.

Negotiations continue between Patriot and UMW representatives.

Just over a month ago, on May 29, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States gave Patriot permission to implement important changes to its collective bargaining agreements with the UMW and the benefits for retirees represented by the union.

“This ruling represents a major step forward for Patriot, allowing our company to achieve savings that are critical to our reorganization and the preservation of more than 4,000 jobs,” Patriot President and Chief Executive Officer Bennett K. Hatfield said. “The savings contemplated by this ruling, together with other cost reductions implemented across our company, will put Patriot on course to becoming a viable business.”

Recently, Patriot released a statement saying it “chose to implement terms that are significantly improved from those approved by the court.”

“Our role has been to represent our members, and part of that is doing all we can to make sure that the promises that were made to them are kept, and to deal with Patriot in such a way that we can try to keep our members working in a job that is safe, that pays them the wage that they deserve, and allows them to continue providing for their families,” Smith said.

He added that the UMW also wants to make sure that its retirees get quality health care.

It is no secret that the coal industry faces significant challenges, including  alternative energy sources such as natural gas along with environmental and other governmental regulations.

At the same time, workers must not be forgotten. Roughly 23,000 retirees, dependents and surviving spouses across the country are being affected by the retiree health care part of the bankruptcy filing. Most — more than 90 percent — were never employed with Patriot Coal, but spent their entire time in the mines with Peabody or Arch. An additional 3,400 active workers and their dependents are also being impacted. Smith reported that in West Virginia, there are about 1,330 active Patriot workers, including some that are currently laid off, and another 4,200 retirees.

The UMW’s campaign has always focused on the actions that Peabody and Arch can take to live up to their promises, Smith said.

If Arch and Peabody can get away with spinning off operations to make a company like Patriot and get rid of long-term obligations to miners who have worked for 30 or 40 years, other companies could do the same thing, he said.

“This isn’t just about our members,” Smith said. “What this bankruptcy process has done is create a roadmap for other employers to do the same to people. This is about corporations doing the right thing for the people who give them years of their lives.”

We appreciate the continuing efforts made by the UMW in taking its case to the public and doing all it can at the bargaining table to help those it represents.

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