CHARLESTON, W.Va. — United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts predicts union members will approve a tentative settlement agreement on health care coverage and benefits with bankrupt Patriot Coal later this week.
Cecil Roberts said on Tuesday’s MetroNews “Talkline” the goal throughout tough negotiations has always been to keep promised benefits intact for workers and retirees even as Patriot Coal reorganizes under Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
“Since July 1, I’ve had the ability to put this company out of business by calling a strike and I chose not to do that because I thought it was a bad idea because that would have eliminated their jobs and any hopes of having health care for retirees,” Roberts said.
Instead, he said negotiators with both the UMWA and Patriot worked hard on a compromise agreement that could override a reworked benefit structure that took effect last month. Those changes were part of a May 29 order from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States who is overseeing Patriot’s bankruptcy case.
“This represents the successful conclusion of a difficult negotiation in which both the UMWA leadership and Patriot management have invested many long days,” said Patriot President and CEO Ben Hatfield of the settlement in a statement.
“Both parties want to preserve jobs and protect healthcare benefits for retirees by keeping Patriot on track for reorganization and not liquidation.” Hatfield said, if the deal is approved, it will let Patriot secure the outside investments it needs to reorganize.
Patriot’s lawyers have asked U.S. Bankruptcy Court to expedite a hearing on the settlement.
Roberts said the details of that tentative settlement will not be released publicly until after about 1,800 UMWA members in Kentucky and West Virginia hear the terms and vote on it. That vote is scheduled for Friday.
However, Roberts said, no matter the outcome, the settlement vote will not end the UMWA’s protests against Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. He said those companies dumped too many liabilities into Patriot Coal when it was created.
“That fight will continue because they’re the ones that created this problem and there’s just simply not enough money at Patriot to provide lifetime health care here,” said Roberts. “In many ways, this is probably not what Peabody wanted.”
Union members were back outside of Peabody Energy’s headquarters in St. Louis on Tuesday.
Officials with Peabody Energy responded in a statement on Tuesday. “The UMWA is fully aware that Patriot was highly successful following its launch more than five years ago with significant assets, low debt levels and a market value that more than quadrupled in less than a year,” the statement read.
“This is a matter solely between the union and Patriot Coal, and the proper process for deciding such issues is through bankruptcy courts.”