UMWA members arrested in fight for retiree benefits through Patr - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

UMWA members arrested in fight for retiree benefits through Patriot

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At a public protest to maintain benefits for employees and retirees of Patriot through its bankruptcy reorganization process, a national leader union has been arrested.

More than 750 members and supports of the United Mine Workers of America rallied in front of a U.S. courthouse in St. Louis before marching to Peabody Energy headquarters. The march occurred at the same time the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Eastern District of Missouri kicked off hearings.

"Thousands of retirees across the coalfields of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia are wondering this morning if they will soon have to choose between paying the mortgage or getting needed medications," UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts said. "Peabody dumped its health care obligations to these people without a second thought, and now they're crowing about it."

According to a live blog of the planned event maintained by the UMWA, Roberts and nine others were arrested.

"Once at the Peabody headquarters, Roberts and 9 of his brothers sat in the street beneath the company's towering high rise," the UMWA's blog described.  "Within a few minutes, as prayers were being read and honored peacefully by the protesters, the police, who had stood by throughout the march, descended upon the men seated in the street and demanded they remove themselves."

The UMWA has described its allegations in numerous meetings with the press since Patriot filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Basically, the UMWA asserts that Peabody, and to a lesser extent Arch Coal, spun off non-viable segments of their operations into Patriot Coal. By bundling retiree, health care and other benefits, the UMWA believed Peabody and Arch shunned their obligations on purpose.

Now, through bankruptcy, the UMWA says it believes Patriot could try to shake those obligations with the blessings of a bankruptcy judge. The case originated in New York, but the UMWA's demand for a change of venue was partially won – the UMWA fought for the case to be heard in Charleston.

Peabody had maintained that Patriot's spinoff was considered viable at the time. It blamed unexpected market conditions and other factors on the company's downfall and disputes that Patriot was "born to fail."'

Roberts said there will be more protests in the future.

"We are here to let the bankruptcy court know that we care about what happens," Roberts said. "And we're letting Patriot, Peabody and Arch know that we are not going to rest until our active and retired members don't have to lay sleepless at night wondering if they can survive the next week, the next month, the next year. We will be back, again and again, to make sure that message gets heard."

Peabody Energy has responded to the incident since the posting of this story. There response is below and included in a separate story:

Statement in Response to the UMWA's Claims: 

Patriot was highly successful following its launch more than five years ago with significant assets, low debt levels and a market value that more than quadrupled in less than a year.  At the time, trade publications cited the dream team of top management, and analysts touted a bright future based on solid prospects and a strong balance sheet. 

It's worth noting the major events that occurred after Patriot became independent and before its bankruptcy.  Patriot chose to make a major acquisition, went through the global financial crisis and effects of low-cost shale gas on coal demand, experienced EPA regulation that significantly raised environmental compliance costs, and saw metallurgical coal prices decline.

The UMWA retirees in question all worked for companies that are part of Patriot Coal, and Patriot's launch only occurred after the UMWA and its leadership specifically signed off on the retiree benefit payment structure with which Patriot started as an independent company.  In 2011, Patriot and the UMWA renegotiated a collective bargaining agreement and chose not to change this benefits structure.

Peabody has lived up to its obligations and continues to do so.  The UMWA is fully aware that this is a matter solely between the union and Patriot Coal, and the proper process for deciding such issues is through the bankruptcy court – not the court of public opinion.