MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The president of the United Mine Workers of America and nine other union members were arrested Tuesday while protesting outside the St. Louis headquarters of Peabody Energy, one of the companies the union accuses of orchestrating business deals that bankrupted Patriot Coal.
That Chapter 11 bankruptcy has jeopardized pension and health care benefits for some 10,000 retirees and another 10,000 dependents, mostly in West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.
More than 750 current and former miners from those states and their families rallied outside the federal building in St. Louis, where a bankruptcy hearing was being held, before marching through the city streets to Peabody's building.
Peabody issued a statement saying it has "lived up to its obligations and continues to do so."
The dispute is "solely between the union and Patriot Coal," said senior vice president Vic Svec, "and the proper process for deciding such issues is through the bankruptcy court, not the court of public opinion."
Patriot didn't immediately comment, but the union posted an hour-long video of the event online, with union president Cecil Roberts leading the crowd in repeatedly chanting "Unions!" as police lined the federal courthouse steps behind them.
The battle to save families' benefits may not mean much to Wall Street, the UMWA says, but to active and retired miners, it may mean the difference between life and death.
"Millionaires and billionaires, when they die, they die with great dignity because they've got health care," Roberts shouted. "Our pensioners and our widowers are just as good, if not a whole hell of a lot better than these millionaires and billionaires."
The union is suing Peabody and Arch Coal in southern West Virginia, claiming they set Patriot up to fail so it would have to shed the pension and health-care benefits. Peabody spun off Patriot in November 2007, and Patriot later acquired mines that Arch spun off into Magnum Coal.
Patriot now argues the legacy costs it inherited are "unsustainable."
The lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Charleston 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.