(BLOOMFIELD) - More than 50 miners from the Wabash Valley boarded a chartered bus Tuesday morning and headed to St. Louis to join in a large scale protest in front of Peabody Energy headquarters at Keiner Plaza.
Greene County Daily World Assistant Editor Nick Schneider will be covering a group of local miners in St. Louis as they protest some recent changes that could hurt the coal industry and also miners' retirement benefits.
The miners are mostly retired and represent at least three local unions, according to Curt Todd, of Linton, who is coordinating the trip.
Todd, who retired from the now-closed Hawthorne Mine in Greene County after more than 37 years says 3,000 to 5,000 UMWA members are expected to attend the rally and march.
Todd says there will be between 25 and 30 bus loads of miners, who are upset with the way Peabody Coal, Patriot Coal Corp. and Arch Coal Company have handled a merger and bankruptcy proceedings.
At stake is the retirement/pension funds for the miners.
Todd says the companies are trying to take all of the miners benefits away.
The local miners also allege that 8th District U.S. Congressman Larry Buschon had 'one and about face' and now supports more stringent regulations governing the coal industry that will hurt Indiana coal mines and their employees, Todd said. He added that Peabody got to him and he changed his mind on House Resolution 2918 - The Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act of 2013.
There have been about a dozen similar protests staged since January in St. Louis. Most of the rallies have been peaceful, but several participants have been arrested for civil disobedience when they staged a sit-down in a nearby street.
Patriot Coal Corp. got a bankruptcy judge's go-ahead Tuesday to enter into a new labor agreement with the nation's biggest miners' union, ending a long, acrimonious dispute the company had worried would push into liquidation.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States granted St. Louis-based Patriot's request to put in place the collective bargaining deal ratified by some 85 percent of United Mine Workers of America members who cast ballots on the proposal last Friday.
Some 1,800 current or laid-off Patriot workers in West Virginia and Kentucky were eligible to vote.
The settlement restores most wage cuts Patriot had sought as part of its efforts to emerge from bankruptcy protection. Pension benefits for thousands of retirees also will be maintained, and active employees will continue earning pension credit as part of the deal Patriot said will save $130 million a year over the next several years.
Cecil Roberts, the union's national president says, There is still a long way to go, however, before retired mine workers receive all of the health care benefits they earned during their years in the mines.
Patriot's proposed cuts have been the most contentious aspect since the Peabody Energy Corp. spin-off filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July of last year, saying it would have to spend an unsustainable $1.6 billion to cover the health care costs, putting it at risk of folding.
The bulk of those liabilities -- some $1.6 billion -- were health benefits for thousands of retired miners who worked for predecessor companies, including Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Coal Inc.
Patriot insisted that it needed $150 million a year in concessions from the union or it would run out of cash and be forced to liquidate. And after a heated trial in St. Louis federal bankruptcy court this spring over the necessity of proposed cuts, Judge Kathy Surratt-States sided with the company by giving it the power to impose requested wage and benefit cuts.
While the proposal could affect health benefits for some 15,000 retirees and dependents, Price and the others won't get a vote. Just 1,800 active union employees will get to cast a ballot.
The Patriot proposal approved by the court in May would create a health care trust known as a voluntary employee beneficiary association, or VEBA, to fund retiree health benefits. The trust would be partially funded by providing the UMWA with a 35 percent equity interest in the reorganized company that could be sold.
Union officials vow to keep the pressure on Peabody, Patriot's former parent.
In late August, a federal appeals court ruled that Peabody remains on the hook for health care benefits for some 3,100 retirees of one of its former holdings, Patriot Coal Corp.
The Greene County World and the Associated Press contributed to this story.
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