The Times West Virginian

Headline News

February 14, 2013

10 arrested at protest of Patriot bankruptcy case

ST. LOUIS — Ten people were arrested Wednesday at a protest outside of Peabody Energy headquarters in St. Louis, the second time in two weeks that the United Mine Workers of America organized a huge protest to draw attention to the possible loss of pension and health care benefits for about 20,000 retired miners and dependents.

About 1,000 people from several states participated in the latest protest over bankrupt Patriot Coal, the company Peabody spun off in November 2007. Many at the protest believe Patriot was set up to fail so that benefits of workers could be stripped away.

“We will not be silent,” UMWA Secretary Treasurer Dan Kane said. “We are going to tell the public exactly what they’re doing. We want the entire country to know.”

After an hourlong rally, Kane and nine other protesters sat in the street in front of Peabody as about 100 police officers stood by. The protest was peaceful, and so were the arrests. Officers placed nylon restraints on the wrists of those in the street, who were led to a van while the other protesters watched, at times singing and chanting.

On Jan. 29, UMWA president Cecil Roberts and nine others were arrested at the same location. Organizers pledged to keep coming back if that’s what it takes to maintain the workers’ benefits.

Patriot spokeswoman Janine Orf said the cuts are part of the effort to save the St. Louis-based company.

“It’s really about our survival, trying to keep Patriot as a viable employer of 4,000 people,” Orf said. “We are sacrificing across all employees and retirees. This is just where we are, and it’s working its way through the court.”

Peabody spokesman Vic Svec called it “ludicrous” to believe Peabody could have foreseen the combination of events that led to Patriot’s financial troubles.

“UMWA was fully aware of the spinoff,” Svec said. “They agreed to elements of the benefit structure. Then they came back in 2011 and signed a bargaining agreement with Patriot Coal. Where were they at any of that time voicing a concern about the viability of Patriot?”

The union said that about 10,000 retirees and an equal number of dependents, predominantly from West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, could lose pensions and health care benefits through Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy.

Among them is Larry Knisell, 63, of Morgantown, who worked in the mines for 28 years. Today, he has diabetes and a heart condition that required quadruple bypass in 2005. His wife has heart and nerve problems.

“They broke our bodies,” he said of his years in the mines. “I feel like they used us up, so now take care of our health. Why throw us away like an old wrench? We’re not asking for anything we didn’t earn.”

Kane was critical that Patriot asked the bankruptcy court Tuesday for permission to give bonuses to some executives, managers and office workers. Patriot’s top six executives are not among about 120 people would receive the bonuses.

Orf said the incentives are typical in bankruptcy cases. She said the goal “is to motivate key employees to remain with Patriot and achieve financial and operating performance goals that are essential to the company becoming viable through reorganization.”

The union is suing Peabody and Arch Coal in West Virginia, claiming they set Patriot up to fail so it would have to shed the pension and health care benefits. After the spinoff, Patriot acquired mines that Arch Coal spun off into Magnum Coal. Arch Coal is also based in St. Louis.  

Patriot now argues the legacy costs it inherited are “unsustainable.”

The lawsuit argues Arch and Peabody are still responsible for those benefits under the federal Employee Retirement and Income Securities Act. The UMWA contends the companies knew that the cyclical nature of the industry would inevitably lead to Patriot’s inability to pay for those liabilities.

The lawsuit claims that 90 percent of the retirees for whom Patriot is responsible worked for Peabody and Arch, not Patriot.

Svec said Patriot was highly successful when it launched but was hurt by the global financial crisis, drops in prices for metallurgical coal, competition from cheap natural gas and federal environmental regulations.

———

AP reporter Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed to this report.

 

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