CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Hundreds of United Mine Workers members rallied in downtown Charleston Tuesday in the latest move in their campaign to preserve a contract, pensions and retiree health-care benefits at bankrupt Patriot Coal.
Camouflage-clad miners packed the amphitheater at Haddad Riverfront Park and then marched to the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in an effort to convince a federal judge in New York City to move Patriot's bankruptcy case to Southern West Virginia.
"We want this heard here in the coalfields -- not in New York, but here in the coalfields where we work and live," Joe Carter, an international vice president from Charleston-based UMW District 17, said to a standing ovation.
Inside the federal courthouse, though, UMW lawyers were getting a pretty cool reception as they presented legal arguments for moving the case.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Shelley C. Chapman held a hearing on the matter in her courtroom in Manhattan. In an unusual move, the court provided video feeds to West Virginia, where Patriot has most of its operations, and to St. Louis, where the company is based.
Dozens of UMW members filled two courtrooms in Charleston to watch on large-screen televisions. They were joined by a healthy contingent of local lawyers whose roles in the case could grow if it's moved here.
But Chapman wasn't receptive to the union's arguments from the start. She interrupted when UMW lawyer Susan Jennik tried to explain how many miners and union pensioners were watching the hearing from Charleston or gathered outside the courthouse for the rally.
The judge said she didn't want to hear crowd estimates unless all sides in the case had agreed on some scientific method for calculating those estimates. She said she didn't want such unconfirmed information creeping into the case record disguised as facts.
"It may sound like I'm being nitpicky, but as a trial lawyer I'm sure you can understand where I'm coming from," Chapman told Jennik.
Seeking to move the case to Charleston is part of the UMW's campaign to avoid having Patriot shed liabilities for retiree pensions and health-care benefits -- not to mention its union contract at several large active mines -- as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Patriot filed the case in July in New York, citing the location there of two subsidiaries that were formed only weeks before the filing.
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.
Patriot employs about 2,000 active union members in West Virginia and Kentucky, and the company is currently responsible for more than 10,000 retirees and another 10,000 dependents, most of them in West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio.