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By a wide margin, Mine Workers employed at Patriot Coal facilities in West Virginia and Kentucky ratified a settlement negotiated between the union and the company. While this marks a welcome development, the effort to secure justice for the union members and retirees is not over.

With 85 percent of the members from 13 locals voting in favor, the agreement means that the union will continue to take constructive steps to ensure that the company remains competitive. The settlement was negotiated in the wake of a U.S. Bankruptcy Court ruling in May which gave Patriot permission to reject its collective bargaining agreement and modify its covenant regarding retiree health care.

“The membership has made it clear that they are willing to do their part to keep Patriot operating, keep their jobs and ensure that thousands of retirees continue getting the health care they depend on and deserve,” stated UMWA President Cecil Roberts. “This has been a difficult and uncertain year for our members. But I believe that in the end, they understood that we had done a lot to improve what the judge had ordered. They also understood all that was at stake and resolved to move forward in a positive way.

“But as we work to keep Patriot a viable company into the future, we have not forgotten how we got here and who is responsible. With this agreement, we have foiled the schemes of Peabody Energy and Arch Coal by continuing to both provide health care for retirees and maintain union jobs at these mines.”

Patriot was spun off from Peabody in 2007. The new company was saddled with nearly $600 million in obligations for retiree health care owed to its employees, retirees and their families. In 2008, Patriot absorbed Magnum Coal, which had been created from Arch Coal three years earlier, and its $400 million obligation for retiree health care. Last year, Patriot declared bankruptcy.

With the backing of a united labor movement, the union has waged an all-out fight to secure justice for its members, retirees and their families. Many MTD affiliates have come to the aid of the UMWA. The MTD Executive Board approved a statement of support during its February meeting.

While the workers have obtained the best settlement possible, Roberts noted that it does not provide enough resources to fulfill the promise of lifetime health care benefits that were promised to thousands of retirees through contracts with the two original companies.

“We are now able to turn our full attention to securing the lifetime health care benefits Peabody and Arch promised these retirees,” added Roberts. “If those companies thought our public effort to highlight their poor corporate citizenship was over, they will quickly find out otherwise. We’re moving into a new phase of that effort, and soon. We fully intend to hold Peabody and Arch accountable.

“It is also more critical than ever that the bipartisan legislative efforts in Congress to provide help to these retirees move forward. This settlement has not solved that problem, it has only bought us time to seek a more permanent solution.”

Alluding to labor-backed legislation introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) to deal with the problem of retiree benefits, Roberts declared, “The clock is now ticking towards a day when the funding we have been able to secure for retiree health care benefits will run out. It would be unconscionable to leave these senior citizens hanging, wondering if they will be again thrust into the uncertainty they have endured the last 13 months. I urge our friends in Congress on both sides of the aisle to move as fast as they can to renew the government’s promise to these retirees, their dependents and widows.”