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Six thousand rally and march in St. Louis as bankruptcy court begins hearing on retiree benefits and union contract

date: 
April 29, 2013
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[ST. LOUIS] More than six thousand active and retired coal miners, their families, neighbors, and supporters from around the United States and the world rallied and marched in St. Louis today as the bankruptcy trial of Patriot Coal entered a critical phase. Sixteen were arrested in front of the federal building in downtown St. Louis in a nonviolent action as part of the fight to preserve promised health care benefits for thousands of retired miners and their dependents.

“We are here to save lives,” United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “People are coming from around the nation and around the world to be with us in this fight. They recognize that our fight is their fight. If Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Patriot can get away with their scheme to get out of their obligations to their retirees, then any company anywhere can do the same thing.”

Speakers at the rally included Communications Workers of America International President Larry Cohen, UNITE-HERE Vice President Bob Proto, former White House aide and President of Rebuild the Dream Van Jones, National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg, and President of the Queensland, Australia branch of the Construction, Forestry and Mining Employees Union (CFMEU) Steve Smyth. Smyth represents more than 5,000 miners at nine Peabody mines in the Australian state.

“We won't stand for a multinational company that rips you off to do business like this,” Smyth said.  “Peabody has simply turned its back on the mine workers.  They didn't do this by mistake.  They knew what they were doing. They planned this.”

“Our union will absolutely take this fight on as our fight," Cohen said. "We will find ways to be out here by the tens of thousands.  We absolutely understand that if the courts of this country can do this, they can do anything.”

“We are proud to be here today, standing with 22,500 workers who need our help” Greenberg said. “We want this egregious and outrageous example of corporate greed to be exposed to the entire world. We are going to make this a national and international cause.”

Van Jones brought the overflow crowd to its feet when he said, "I’m here to defend my brother and sister human beings who are being beaten down by a low-down dirty scheme. Any corporation, any boss, who looks a man in the eye and tells him to go down into that hole and risk your life to keep the lights on ... there’s a name for that man who's sent down that hole: he’s a hero.

"The promise of lifelong health care for miners and their widows is a sacred moral promise and you can’t get out of it,” Jones said.  "Congress needs to investigate these people."

After an hour-long rally in front of Peabody’s downtown headquarters, the crowd marched six blocks to the federal courthouse where the Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy case is being heard. Sixteen protesters blocked the street in front of the courthouse and were arrested. The arrestees included Roberts, Cohen, Greenberg, Jones, Rev. David Gerth of St. Louis and eleven active and retired UMWA members.

UMWA members and supporters object to actions taken by both Arch Coal and Peabody Energy to offload their obligations to retired miners and surviving spouses to a new company, Patriot Coal, formed in 2007. With 43 percent of Peabody's retiree obligations, but just 11 percent of its assets - as well as additional Arch Coal obligations acquired from Magnum Coal - Patriot has been described by Temple University professor of finance Bruce Rader as a company "designed to fail."

Patriot filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and has asked the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in St. Louis for drastic reductions in health care for retired miners and surviving spouses, as well as severe cuts in pay, benefits and working conditions for active miners.

In a recent interview with the West Virginia State Journal, Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield essentially admitted what UMWA members have been saying for months: His company was established in 2007 with not enough assets to meet its liabilities.

Two dozen UMWA members have been in Wyoming for the past several days, attending the shareholder meetings of Arch and Peabody, which were moved from their traditional St. Louis locations in the wake of the UMWA’s growing protests here.

Further information about the UMWA campaign to stand up for retired miners and family members from Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, and active workers at Patriot Coal is at www.FairnessAtPatriot.org.

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