In its bankruptcy filing, Patriot complains the company is responsible for benefits to more than three times the number of retirees as its coal operations currently employ as active miners.
"Especially in an era of declining demand and price for coal, there is a mismatch between the cost of [Patriot's] legacy obligations and [its] ongoing ability to generate revenue," the company said. "[Patriot's] return to long-term viability depends on [its] ability to achieve savings with respect to these liabilities."
But UMW officials say Patriot was essentially a "company created to fail," to give Peabody Energy and Arch Coal a way to shed obligations to fund union pensions and health-care benefits in the nation's eastern coalfields, while profiting from their giant, non-union surface mines out west.
Five years ago, Peabody formed Patriot as a spin-off company where Peabody tucked union mines in West Virginia and the Midwest, along with pension and health-care obligations for union retirees. Patriot later bought another company, Magnum Coal, which had been similarly spin-off by Arch Coal when it got rid of most of its Appalachian operations and their related pension and health-care liabilities.
"When Peabody Energy and Arch Coal spun off their union operations into companies that eventually became Patriot Coal Company, they also spun off more than $1.3 billion in promised health care obligations to coal miners who put their lives and health at risk every single day working for Peabody and Arch," the union said in a petition circulated at this week's meetings.
UMW lawyers have gotten involved in Patriot's bankruptcy and are trying to have the case moved from New York City, where the company filed it, to Southern West Virginia. The Obama administration's Justice Department and West Virginia Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw have joined in seeking to have the case moved. McGraw attended Thursday's meeting, and received a standing ovation from miners after giving a short speech.
Roberts said that as the campaign moves forward, the union is going to be expecting other elected officials and political leaders to publicly state whether they believe Patriot should be allowed to use bankruptcy reorganization to jettison its obligations to workers and retirees. Roberts said corporate bankruptcy court rules are not friendly to workers, something labor organizations have been trying to get Congress to change.
"We don't know how strong our legal position is in this, but our moral position is very strong," Roberts said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.