"UMWA was fully aware of the spinoff," Svec said. "They agreed to elements of the benefit structure. Then they came back in 2011 and signed a bargaining agreement with Patriot Coal. Where were they at any of that time voicing a concern about the viability of Patriot?"
The union said that about 10,000 retirees and an equal number of dependents, predominantly from West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, could lose pensions and health care benefits through Patriot Coal's bankruptcy.
Among them is Larry Knisell, 63, of Morgantown, W.Va., who worked in the mines for 28 years. Today, he has diabetes and a heart condition that required quadruple bypass in 2005. His wife has heart and nerve problems.
"They broke our bodies," he said of his years in the mines. "I feel like they used us up, so now take care of our health. Why throw us away like an old wrench? We're not asking for anything we didn't earn."
Kane was critical that Patriot asked the bankruptcy court Tuesday for permission to give bonuses to some executives, managers and office workers. Patriot's top six executives are not among about 120 people would receive the bonuses.
Orf said the incentives are typical in bankruptcy cases. She said the goal "is to motivate key employees to remain with Patriot and achieve financial and operating performance goals that are essential to the company becoming viable through reorganization."
The union is suing Peabody and Arch Coal in West Virginia, claiming they set Patriot up to fail so it would have to shed the pension and health care benefits. After the spinoff, Patriot acquired mines that Arch Coal spun off into Magnum Coal. Arch Coal is also based in St. Louis.
Patriot now argues the legacy costs it inherited are "unsustainable."
The lawsuit argues Arch and Peabody are still responsible for those benefits under the federal Employee Retirement and Income Securities Act. The UMWA contends the companies knew that the cyclical nature of the industry would inevitably lead to Patriot's inability to pay for those liabilities.