The UMWA said that more than 90 percent of the retirees whose health care is now at risk never worked a single day for Patriot. Rather, they spent their careers with Peabody or Arch Coal.
Union leaders say Peabody Energy and Arch Coal spun off assets and set up Patriot to fail in a deliberate plan to end benefit obligations to union retirees.
Patriot denies that, saying its bankruptcy results from the global financial crisis, tighter environmental regulations and a reduction in metallurgical coal prices.
Peabody said Tuesday in a statement that Patriot was spun off as a viable company. Peabody cited a recent report by Todd Milbourn, a finance professor at Washington University in St. Louis, which said the likelihood of the claim is remote.
Milbourn's report said that Patriot's stock performance since the spin-off in 2007 was "wholly inconsistent with an entity that was expected to fail. In fact, its first year of performance was spectacular."
But the union isn't buying it. The protesters wore "Peabody Promised, Peabody Lied" T-shirts or camouflage shirts bearing their union logo, and many carried signs with messages warning what the Patriot situation portends. "Are you next?" one read.
"The big picture is all the other companies could join in and basically do the same thing they're doing now," said Alpha Natural Resources miner Dave Thearle of Bellesville, Pa. "They're just trying to get rid of all the retirees because, you know, they think we're not assets anymore. That's what they think: We're liabilities."
Supporters, including several West Virginia politicians and labor leaders, said it's time for people to focus on electing new officials and changing the federal bankruptcy laws so they protect people rather than corporations.
"Businesses don't build themselves. It's the workers," said West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. "There are business leaders who know that what's happening at Patriot is not right. So we have this judge who says she has to do this because of the laws. Well, we need to change those laws."
Fred Moorehead, a retired miner from Carolina in Marion County, joined the protest to support those hurt by Patriot, even though he worked for Pennsylvania-based CONSOL Energy.
"If it goes through with them, it's going to trickle down to us," he said. "If they get away with it, I'm pretty sure the rest are gonna try it."