Miners’ campaign wins health care funding for Patriot retirees

After more than a year of mobilizations that included non-violent direct action, the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) succeeded in making Peabody Energy take responsibility for providing health care to thousands of the company’s retired miners.

The UMWA and Peabody on October 10 reached an agreement that requires Peabody, the world’s largest private sector coal company, to pay more than $400 million to cover health care benefits for retired miners in danger of losing their benefits because of the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal, a Peabody spin off.

“I am very pleased that we have been able to reach this agreement with Peabody and Patriot,” said UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts. “This is a significant amount of money that will help maintain health care for thousands of retirees who earned those benefits though years of labor in America’s coal mines. This settlement will also help Patriot emerge from bankruptcy and continue to provide jobs for our members and thousands of others in West Virginia and Kentucky.”

Since Patriot filed for bankruptcy in 2012, the UMWA has contended that Patriot was set up to fail, so that Peabody could avoid its responsibility to its retired miners.

When Peabody spun off Patriot in 2007, it saddled the new company with 43 percent of Peabody’s pension and retiree health care liabilities but provided only 11 percent of its productive assets.

When Patriot filed for bankruptcy, it looked like the Peabody retirees would lose their health care and see their pensions cut. Working miners were also looking at a big pay cut and loss of benefits.

But UMWA fought back by organizing the Fairness at Patriot campaign.

The campaign mobilized thousands of retired and active union members to attend rallies, picket, write letters, testify, and engage in non-violent direct action that resulted in arrests.

The union also sought the support of civil rights groups, religious leaders, and other unions.

In April, thousands of UMWA members and their supporters massed in Charlestown, West Virginia to demand fairness at Patriot.

The union also organized constant demonstrations and rallies at Peabody’s headquarters in St. Louis.

Hundreds of UMWA members, civil rights activists, religious leaders, and leaders and activists of other unions were arrested at sit-ins at the headquarters.

At times, the UMWA efforts looked futile.

In June, a bankruptcy judge approved a Patriot reorganization plan that cut pay and benefits for miners and under funded the retirees’ Voluntary Employees Benefit Association, which provides health care to Peabody retired miners.

Despite the judge’s ruling, the UMWA continued its Fairness at Patriot campaign and eventually reached an agreement with Patriot that restored some of the pay and benefit cuts for those still working in the mines. It also required the company to continue to contribute to the miners’ pension fund.

But the VEBA was still under funded, leading UMWA to announce that the fight for fairness at Patriot was still on.

The union continued its mass rallies and demonstrations at Peabody and continued to receive support from its allies.

Finally on October 10, Peabody and the UMWA reached an agreement.

The union would call off its mobilizations and Peabody would pay $400 million over four years to the Patriot VEBA.

In a statement about the settlement, Roberts said that the agreement will sustain health care for retirees for the time being, but legislation in Congress is needed for a long-term solution.

“This settlement, as significant as it is, still does not provide the level of funding needed to maintain health care for these retirees forever,” Roberts said. “That is why we are continuing our efforts to pass bipartisan legislation in Congress that will put these retirees under the Coal Act, meaning their long-term health care benefits would be secured at no additional cost to taxpayers.”

HR 2918, introduced in the House by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), would accomplish this goal. Currently the bill has 24 co-sponsors from both parties. SB 468, a companion, was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and currently has six co-sponsors.

The union will also continue to pressure Arch Coal, which also jettisoned its retiree obligations onto Patriot, to follow suit with Peabody.

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