The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Money

May 30, 2013

Judge sides with Patriot over benefit cuts

ST. LOUIS — A bankrupt coal producer got a judge’s go-ahead Wednesday to significantly cut health care and pension benefits to thousands of workers and retirees, claiming victory over a miners’ union that swiftly condemned the ruling it pledges to appeal.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States’ 102-page ruling favoring St. Louis-based Patriot Coal dashed the nation’s biggest coal miners’ union’s hopes of scuttling the company’s quest to impose wage and benefit cuts by walking away from its collective-bargaining agreements.

Surratt-States ultimately concluded the cost-cutting proposals were legal, perhaps unavoidable, for Patriot, which sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last summer to address labor obligations it insisted have grown unsustainable.

“Unions generally try to bargain for the best deal for their members,” the judge wrote. “However, there is likely some responsibility to be absorbed for demanding benefits that the employer cannot realistically fund in perpetuity, particularly given the availability of sophisticated actuarial analysts and cost trend experts.”

The union, through its attorney during a recent weeklong St. Louis hearing over Patriot’s cost-cutting, had threatened a strike if Surratt-States’ decision didn’t go organized labor’s way. The union steered clear Wednesday of walkout talk, saying it would continue arguing during protests that Patriot was set up to fail when spun off. The union said that negotiations would continue and that it would appeal Surratt-States’ ruling.

“We have long acknowledged that Patriot is in trouble,” Cecil Roberts, the union’s president, said in a statement. “We remain willing to take painful steps to help Patriot get through the rough period it faces over the next couple of years. But if we’re going to share in that pain, then we have every right to share in the company’s gain when it becomes profitable again.”

“As often happens under American bankruptcy law,” Roberts added, “the short-term interests of the company are valued more than the dedication and sacrifice of the workers, who actually produce the profits that make a company successful.”

“I join the thousands of miners in our state who are deeply disappointed with (Thursday’s) ruling,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). “Once again we are seeing how the bankruptcy system is stacked against the American worker. I will continue fighting to put workers and employers on a level playing field by closing the legal loopholes that allow companies to pad their profits while abusing the legal system to escape from the promises they made. It’s tragic to watch how some industries treat their workers after they’ve given much of their lives to these companies.”

Patriot’s proposed cuts have been the most contentious aspect since the Peabody Energy Corp. spinoff filed for bankruptcy. The company said it would have to spend $1.6 billion to cover the health care costs, putting it at risk of liquidation.

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