CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said Friday that the latest proposal from Patriot Coal about health care for retired miners "appears to be a step forward by the company."But, Roberts added, "There are still considerable problems with the company's intentions to change the existing contract for active workers under the [bankruptcy] process. We are nowhere near a fair and just agreement regarding that part of this equation."Patriot's proposal was made in a filing in proceedings before the federal bankruptcy court in St. Louis. The company offered to give the UMW a 35 percent stake in the company's new voluntary employee beneficiary association.Roberts and the UMW have been challenging Patriot's proposals to cut health-care benefits for retirees, their dependents and widows -- including many miners who retired from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal before Patriot acquired union mines run by those companies.
Patriot filed for bankruptcy last year to reorganize, and company officials have said that if miners and retirees don't accept cuts to their benefits, the company could go belly-up for good."We continue to believe that an agreement can be reached that provides Patriot with the short-term relief it needs to emerge from bankruptcy, keep people working and become a profitable company again without putting retirees' lives at risk or demanding the deep sacrifices the company says it needs from hourly workers," Roberts said Friday. "We will continue our discussions with the company on these issues."Patriot Coal was created on Oct. 31, 2007, when Peabody Energy sold all its union operations east of the Mississippi to the newly created company.In 2008, Patriot bought Magnum Coal, which had taken over union mines once operated by Arch Coal. Under those deals, Patriot assumed responsibility for tens of millions of dollars in benefits promised to union members already retired from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.UMW officials have said that Patriot was designed to fail and that other coal companies wanted to get out of their union-negotiated benefit obligations by shoving them onto a new company that would soon go bankrupt. Patriot officials have denied that.Thousands of UMW members and supporters rallied against Patriot in Charleston on April 1. Several other protests have been held, and the UMW plans another a rally in St. Louis on Tuesday at Kiener Plaza, across from Peabody Energy's corporate headquarters.Tuesday's protesters plan to place 1,000 white crosses in Kiener Plaza "in memory of the 666 fatalities that have occurred at mines operated by Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal or their subsidiaries since 1903," Roberts said.The crosses will also "symbolize the more than 22,000 active and retired miners, dependents and surviving spouses who will be at risk if Patriot Coal, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal succeed in their efforts to effectively eliminate contractually guaranteed health-care benefits," Roberts said.Reach Paul J. Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.