In St. Louis on Tuesday, Mine Workers and their supporters will plant 1,000 white crosses to commemorate miners who have died in Peabody, Arch and Patriot mines, or who stand to lose their lives if Patriot is successful in using bankruptcy court to dump its retiree health care obligations.
The event, across from Peabody’s headquarters, comes as the bankruptcy court prepares for an April 29 hearing on Patriot’s revised proposal to alter existing labor contracts – and drastically reduce retiree health benefits. It also comes just two weeks after more than 10,000 miners and their supporters rallied in Charleston outside Patriot’s headquarters in West Virginia, where mining families and communities stand to lose the most.
The rally by the United Mine Workers of America drew strong statements of support from both of the state’s U.S. senators, several U.S. congressmen, the governor, secretary of state, and other state and local officials. Teachers showed up on their spring break, part of a solid union showing that even included the Police, who politely handcuffed and hauled off 16 demonstrators who chose to be arrested.
There’s no question public sentiment in West Virginia is running strongly in favor of the union fighting for retired and active miners and against coal operators and corporate kingpins who are using the power of the purse to punish workers.
At the heart of this dispute is the willful and possibly illegal abandonment of contract obligations to retirees by Peabody Energy. Most of the miners who stand to lose their health care never worked for Patriot, which the union says was “created to fail,” strapped with obligations that would inevitably force it out of business.
The UMWA is suing Peabody in a separate federal suit, being heard in Charleston, charging that the company violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by creating a shell company, Patriot, to offload its health care obligations to retirees. And Patriot agrees, and could take its own legal action to force Peabody to the table, according to Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield during a series of public relations forays over the past week.
Hatfield’s public relations efforts included a newspaper editorial and several interviews, including with the influential “Decision Makers” host Bray Cary. Hatfield said he agrees with Roberts that Peabody appears to have created Patriot to fail, and that Peabody bears responsibility as the “manufacturer of this outcome.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Roberts and Hatfield may both be thinking about now, but the road is long and difficult. They’re a long way from agreement on a fair deal for Patriot retirees, but there is movement – a proposal by Patriot last week to give the UMWA a 35 percent stake in the restructured company after bankruptcy, which the union could leverage to help maintain a level of retiree health care above the $15 million the company offers to finance a health care trust fund (VEBA), not nearly enough.
In a statement last week, Roberts characterized the proposal as “a step forward.” But the liability for the retiree health care is estimated at $1.7 billion, and a 35 percent stake in a company worth, say, $1 billion, would only amount to $350 million, a fraction of what is needed.
Meanwhile, the Mine Workers are not sitting back and waiting for the next step. They’re massing in St. Louis on April 16 to make a point: miners have died for the success of Peabody Energy, and Peabody owes them what they promised.
Stay tuned. You can check out live blogging of the event at http://fairnessatpatriotnow.blogspot.com/. It will also be livestreamed, beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 16. Check it out here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/mineworkers,