By Jessica Borders
For The Register-Herald
Ten leaders and members of the United Mine Workers of America were arrested Tuesday during a protest in front of the headquarters of Peabody Energy in St. Louis, Mo.
The UMW organized a huge rally in front of the U.S. Courthouse with people who had worked for Peabody their whole lives, and more than 750 supporters marched to Peabody’s headquarters to fight for the health care and other benefits of active and retired coal miners and their families. People came from West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.
Ten individuals sat down on the road to bring attention to their cause, and they were arrested. The group consisted of UMW International President Cecil Roberts; several international district vice presidents, including Mike Caputo from District 31, Steve Earle from District 12 and Joe Carter from District 17; and rank-and-file miners or retired miners. They were bailed out by the UMW.
“The real crime here is not what my union brothers and I did by sitting down in the road to draw attention to this issue,” Caputo, a Rivesville resident, said via phone from St. Louis. “The real crime is what Peabody Coal is doing to the people who gave their whole lives to the company.”
Patriot Coal Corp. went public through a spinoff from Peabody in October 2007. Then in July 2008, the corporation acquired Magnum Coal Co., which formerly gained assets and liabilities from Arch Coal.
With the spinoff from Peabody and purchase of Magnum, Patriot took on the responsibility of providing benefits to some of Peabody and Arch’s former employees and retirees. In order for Patriot to create revenue and be successful in the long run, it needs to save money related to those liabilities, according to the declaration that Mark Schroeder, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Patriot Coal, filed with the Bankruptcy Court.
Under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, Patriot and its subsidiaries submitted a voluntary petition for relief on July 9, 2012, in New York, where the company had formed a subsidiary in June. In a press release, the company reported that bankruptcy filing was a way to move toward a comprehensive financial restructuring.
On Nov. 27, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Shelley Chapman in New York made the decision to move the case from New York to St. Louis, Mo., where Patriot Coal is headquartered. The initial hearing of the bankruptcy reorganization case took place in St. Louis on Tuesday, along with the UMW’s protest.
Caputo, who has been a member of the UMW for 36 years, explained that these miners have worked hard and have made millions of dollars for Peabody. Peabody created what he believes is a dummy company through fraudulent schemes and put the liabilities on Patriot’s shoulders. Peabody reneged on its promise for lifetime health care for workers, he said.
“We didn’t go looking for this fight — Peabody started it,” Caputo said. “We have never backed away from a fight, and we are never going to back away from a fight.”
He said the UMW members were eager to climb aboard buses or drive many hours to the rally because these issues are so important to them. They’re fired up, and they’re not going to just sit back and let their health care and pensions be taken away.
“They know if we lose this battle, some of our members literally will die because they won’t be able to get the health care and the medication they need to survive,” Caputo said. “It is an absolute shame what Peabody Coal and Arch Coal is doing to the people who gave their lives.”
This is just the beginning, he said, as there will be many protests and other arrests before this situation is resolved.
“I have fought hard for causes that I believed in my entire career,” Caputo said. “I will never ever be ashamed to stand up for what I believe is right and fight against an injustice, and this is a huge injustice.”
John Palmer, president of UMW Local 1570, and Larry Knisell, a retired miner, were among the individuals arrested Tuesday during the protest.
Palmer, who lives in Monongah, just started his 38th year working at Patriot’s Federal No. 2 mine near Fairview. He said many of his fellow union members have been at the mine since it opened in 1968.
Palmer commented that the miners work hard and were promised their benefits. The UMW has gone through struggles to achieve rights for its workers, and has earned everything it has gotten, he said.
“We are tired of what’s going on with Patriot and Peabody reneging what they promised us, and we are united with lots of strength,” she said. “We’ve got to keep doing what’s right for all workers.”
Knisell, from Morgantown, worked at Federal No. 2 mine for 27 years before retiring in 1999. He also served as president of UMW Local 1570 from 1984 to 1997.
Knisell, 63, is a disabled Vietnam veteran, and he and his wife have numerous health conditions and are on many medications. Now that he’s older, he needs his health care coverage the most, and Patriot is threatening to take that away, he said.
He’s fearful for those who are older than him and what will happen if they totally lose their health coverage.
“They just want to turn their back on our sick and unhealthy people,” Knisell said of Patriot. “That’s just not acceptable. I might have bad days and good days, but even on my bad days I’m not going to go down without a fight.
“This is not over by a long shot.”
Kim Link, spokeswoman for Arch Coal Inc., provided the following statement on behalf of the company:
“On Dec. 31, 2005, Arch Coal completed the sale of three of its Central Appalachian subsidiaries, along with the associated mining operations and reserves, to Magnum Coal Co. This sale included two mines with UMWA-representation and two that were not affiliated with a union. At the time of the transaction, Magnum was owned by ArcLight Capital Partners LLC and was already a sizable Central Appalachian producer with annualized production of more than 10 million tons.
“Under ArcLight Capital’s ownership, Magnum operated as an independent producer until July 23, 2008, when Patriot Coal Corp. purchased Magnum for a reported $695 million. Arch Coal had no involvement whatsoever in either ArcLight Capital’s decision to sell Magnum to Patriot or in Patriot’s decision to purchase Magnum. The transaction with Magnum was executed in good faith, at a time when coal market conditions were very different than they are today.”
Peabody Energy and Patriot Coal did not return phone calls in time for this report.
— Jessica Borders is a writer for The Times West Virginian