TRIANGLE, Va. • The United Mine Workers union is threatening civil disobedience in St. Louis and elsewhere to protest the potential loss of pension and health-care benefits from Patriot Coal Corp.'s decision to seek bankruptcy protection.
In an interview, Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts likened his union's resolve to the Pittston Coal Strike in 1989, when some 4,000 miners were arrested in Virginia during a 14-month strike to protest termination of health-care benefits for retirees, widows and disabled miners.
Roberts, who directed the Pittston campaign before heading the union, said he views the Chapter 11 filing of Creve Coeur-based Patriot and events leading to it as a "moral issue" requiring the Mine Workers to make a stand.
Roberts gave no timeframe for the threatened protests.
The Mine Workers call their campaign "Fairness at Patriot," but a primary target is Peabody Energy Corp., of St. Louis, which spun off Patriot and some of its liabilities in 2007.
In an interview in his office, Roberts quoted Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. on protest tactics and said that his union is preparing actions in the streets of St. Louis.
"What we have here is a company reneging on its promises," Roberts said, referring to Peabody. "We're not going to take it and we're going to do whatever we have to do to see that promises made by these corporations are kept. We know the way to St. Louis, and we have the money to get people there."
In a statement, Peabody disputed Roberts' contentions about the company's responsibilities. The statement said that Peabody had assumed obligations "for significant liabilities related to Patriot" and that a subsidiary continues paying for nearly 10,000 retirees and family members.
Patriot, as of now, has responsibility for about 10,000 retirees and another 10,000 dependents, most of them in Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. Patriot also some 2,000 union members at its mines in West Virginia and Kentucky.
Patriot filed for bankruptcy protection in July citing "a major transformation" in the coal industry. Since Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the coal industry has suffered from the recession, new government regulations and competition due to lower natural gas prices.
Patriot said it planned comprehensive financial restructuring through reorganization and that mining and shipments of coal would continue.
The company filed its case in the Southern District of New York after setting up two shell corporations in New York in June, exploiting a loophole that enables companies to seek Chapter 11 proceedings in venues they regard as convenient or less unfavorable to them.
The United Mine Workers is pushing to move the proceedings from the Southern District of New York closer to Charleston, W.Va., nearer to where where some 2,000 Patriot miners are employed. Judge Shelley Chapman raised the possibility of St. Louis; a decision could come soon.
Patriot's Chapter 11 filing has inflamed passions in Appalachian coal fields. Beyond protecting current members, assuring long-term health-care benefits is an important organizing tool for the Mine Workers union given the injuries and illnesses that often result from mining.
When a Sept. 11 bankruptcy court session was simulcast in St. Louis and West Virginia, hundreds of miners and retirees, some clad in camouflage, showed up for a rally and march in Charleston. The union says it is dispatching van loads of retired coal miners to New York next week for a meeting related to Patriot's filing, and dozens of retirees and dependents have written letters to Chapman describing the potential effects on their lives from losing benefits.
The Mine Workers union argues that Peabody created Patriot for the purpose of evading liabilities, an assertion Peabody strongly denies. When Peabody spun off Patriot five years ago, company officials said it would enable Peabody to focus on markets that are growing more quickly in Wyoming as well as in Australia and in China.
As one of the largest mining companies east of the Mississippi, Patriot initially did well. In hindsight, a key decision was Patriot's purchase of Magnum Coal, which had been spun off by St. Louis-based Arch Coal and also carried heavy long-term obligations.
The Mine Workers argue that Patriot was set up to fail, a contention that could be tested in court. "I think Peabody knew full well what they were doing," Roberts said in the interview.
Peabody said in its statement that Patriot was a viable company after being spun off and that "substantial events inside and outside Patriot's control significantly altered its future." The statement went on to say that the union was aware of the plan for retiree healthcare benefits when Patriot was created "and assented to the payment arrangement."
In the interview, Roberts implied that his union is considering more than legalities as the Patriot bankruptcy case unfolds.
"Somebody might say that what they did is legally correct, but it's not morally correct. Somebody might say that moral agreements don't carry weight in this country any more. Well, we're going to find out," he said.