ST. LOUIS • Police arrested 10 union mine workers who sat in Seventh Street today outside Peabody Energy headquarters downtown as hundreds of fellow protesters cheered.
The workers and retirees came to St. Louis to draw attention to what they see as poor treatment by Patriot Coal Corp., a company spun off from Peabody five years ago that now claims it can’t afford to pay its debts. A hearing on Patriot's bankruptcy is being held today in federal court here.
The mine workers say the protest is a bid to save health care and pension benefits at risk of being stripped away during the Chapter 11 proceeding. They are trying to put public pressure on Peabody Energy, but the St. Louis company said it has lived up to its obligations. Any dispute is between workers and Patriot Coal, according to Peabody Energy, and should be decided in bankruptcy court.
About 800 mine workers and supporters rallied outside the federal courthouse four blocks away from Peabody Energy headquarters, then marched to the coal company's offices at 701 Market Street.
United Mine Workers of America president Cecil E. Roberts and nine other union members took places sitting on the pavement on 7th Street. Police officers lined the street.
After prayers, and the singing of Amazing Grace by the protesters, a police lieutenant moved in and told Roberts and the others they had to disperse. When they didn't, they were handcuffed with plastic ties and moved to waiting police vans. They were held for failure to disperse, an ordinance violation.
Retired Peabody miner Steven Crooks, left, 63, of Winslow, Ind., was among hundreds of protestors with the United Mine Workers of America rallying in front of the federal courthouse before marching four blocks to Peabody Energy headquarters in St. Louis on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. Ten people were arrested. Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle, firstname.lastname@example.org
The miners, members of the United Mine Workers, say Patriot or its predecessors should be held accountable for promises made years ago to provide benefits needed by retirees struggling to get by.
As the crowd stood in Kiener Plaza, facing Peabody and chanting, a few faces were seen high above, peering from the mirrored glass windows.
At a rally outside the courthouse earlier, Roberts denounced Peabody in a fiery speech with many references to religious faith and God's judgment. “This is just a scam by Peabody,” Roberts said. “They are trying to bamboozle us. They have $1,000-an-hour lawyers and $1-an-hour morals.”
Joining mine workers from Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia and other states were St. Louis area members of the steelworkers, autoworkers, communication workers and other unions. Organizers said about 500 people came by bus from other states.
Retired Peabody miner Dale Walcher, 68, of Litchfield, right, was among hundreds of protestors with the United Mine Workers of America rallying in front of the federal courthouse before marching four blocks to Peabody Energy headquarters in St. Louis on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. Ten people were arrested. Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle, email@example.com
Roberts told the crowd that his father, Cecil Roberts Sr. of Cabin Creek, W.V., died with dignity in 2007 because of the health care he was promised during his working years for Peabody. “I am not going to sit idly by while they take away something that my daddy built,” he said.
David Jones, 62, of Centertown, Ky., worked in a Peabody strip mine not far from the old Paradise mine, made famous by the song by John Prine about Mr. Peabody's coal train. Jones said he and a delegation from Local 9800 in western Kentucky are here because they are afraid they will lose their health care in the bankruptcy. They said they believe the company executives planned this all along.
"They are trying to double-cross us," Jones said. "If we are not careful, they are going to take everything we have worked for. We gave them the best years of our live, and then they try to treat us like this."
Retired miner Eddie Bullock, 64, of western Kentucky, was one of 10 people arrested during a protest by the United Mine Workers of America in front of Peabody Energy headquarters in St. Louis on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ty Becker of Evansville, Ill., led a group from Local 2412 in Marissa. Becker, 64, said he and his wife, Sue, two years younger, rely upon the health care promised to retirees. Becker said it would be a great hardship to lose it.
"This is just greed on the part of the companies," Becker said.
Ironically, many of those who traveled to St. Louis never worked a day for Patriot, even though the company’s fate in bankruptcy court will shape theirs.
The responsibility to fund their retirement benefits was transferred from one company to another over the years as part of corporate mergers and acquisitions.
Now, Patriot says, those health care obligations it acquired are too big of a burden.
In its bankruptcy filing, the company cited “unsustainable labor-related legacy liabilities” among the reasons it sought Chapter 11 protection.
Patriot hasn’t formally asked the court for permission to shed its retiree health care obligations, but the union believes it’s only a matter of time.
The union is hoping the court will protect its members. But it is already looking to predecessor companies with deeper pockets — Peabody and Arch Coal Inc.
The union in October filed a lawsuit against both companies in U.S. District Court in West Virginia to force them to continue providing health care and pension benefits.
Playing on the “too big to fail” label applied to Wall Street banks that received billions of dollars in federal aid amid the financial crisis, the union argues that Patriot was “designed to fail” because it was so loaded down with billions of dollars of retiree benefit obligations and environmental liabilities that it couldn’t possibly survive cyclical downturns in the coal industry.
Peabody disagrees, and contends that Patriot was a successful standalone company after the spinoff, one whose market value quadrupled within a year.
Patriot’s bankruptcy, the company argues, was prompted by unrelated circumstances. Patriot bought a rival coal producer just before the financial crisis, tougher environmental regulations and a natural gas glut eroded coal demand and prices.
Meanwhile, Peabody said it has stood by its promise to assume more than $600 million in retiree health care obligations as part of the Patriot spinoff.
“Peabody has lived up to its obligations and continues to do so,” spokesman Vic Svec said in a statement. “The UMWA is fully aware that this is a matter solely between the union and Patriot Coal, and the proper place for deciding such issues is in bankruptcy court — not the court of public opinion.”
Arch Coal, too, has said in the past that it shouldn’t be responsible for Patriot’s obligations.