CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After approving a new contract, union coal miners are happy that they'll be keeping their jobs and most of their benefits, but they're not going to stop pushing for all the benefits that they were once promised.
Members of the United Mine Workers of America voted with an 85 percent majority to accept new five-year contracts with bankrupt Patriot Coal on Friday.
Kevin Luthy lives in Chapmanville and works at Guyan Surface Mine near Yolyn in Logan County, a mine owned by Apogee Coal, a Patriot subsidiary.
Approving the new contract "was a must," Luthy said. "Nobody wants to lose anything. We ended up losing holidays, vacation time and sick days. But I am glad the contract passed. It buys us time to find another day. I hope we see things turn around to get our benefits back.
"We were left with very little choice. Patriot was facing liquidation. That would leave our retirees without health care. We are still concerned about our retirees. This is not a 'happily ever after' agreement.
"Hopefully, things will turn around in the coal market, so we can bargain and increase our benefits," Luthy said.
The agreement with Patriot does not mean that Luthy and other miners were ready to give up the fight over benefits.
"Hopefully, we will also get to the source of the real problem -- Peabody Energy and Arch Coal," Luthy said.
Luthy, a miner for 31 years, started working for Arch Coal in 1984.
Patriot Coal was founded in 2007 when Peabody Energy sold its union operations east of the Mississippi to the newly created company. In 2008, Patriot bought Magnum Coal, a company that in 2005 took over union mines previously operated by Arch Coal.
Rick Ryan, a retired miner from Sod in Lincoln County, said the fight was not over.
"This will let the men keep working with pay, but it is not going to take our sights off of Peabody or Arch. We feel they were the ones who orchestrated this," Ryan said. "It boils down to corporate greed. Peabody and Arch were willing to dump all their retirees and throw them in a ditch."
In July 2012, Patriot declared bankruptcy, citing financial problems, especially the costs of health insurance and pensions paid for miners who had worked for Peabody and Arch.
"I spent 35 years working for Arch," said Ryan, who worked at Hobet Mining on the border of Boone and Lincoln counties. "Then we switched to Magnum. I retired from Patriot. But 80 percent of our retired miners never worked one day for Patriot."
On May 29, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States in St. Louis ruled Patriot could throw out its current contracts with the UMWA, reduce wages and cut health-care benefits.
Patriot implemented those changes July 1, changes the union immediately challenged.
The agreed upon contract reinstates many, but not all of the cuts to pay and benefits that Surratt-States had allowed.
James Jarrell, who retired a year ago, lives in Camp Creek in Boone County. He worked for Eastern Associated Coal at its Wharton No. 4 underground mine, which was later sold to Peabody. Jarrell ended his 34-year mining career at the Rock Lick Preparation Plant.
Jarrell said the new agreement shows the miners' good faith.
"We have been willing to work with them to get through this. We have worked for these companies for years and years and years. We are loyal to them," Jarrell said.