CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kelly Elswick mined coal for more than 30 years, finishing his career running a grader at the Hobet 21 mountaintop removal complex along the Boone-Lincoln county line.
After fighting cancer -- going through chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant -- the 56-year-old Madison resident has been looking forward to his retirement.
But now Elswick is worried he'll lose his pension and his health-care benefits if Patriot Coal manages to use a bankruptcy reorganization to rewrite its contract with the United Mine Workers union and discard such liabilities.
"I gave them 30 years of my sweat and tears," says Elswick. "Had I not had the best health care in the world, I don't know what would have happened."
On Thursday, Elswick was among more than 3,000 miners, retirees and family members who turned out for a UMW briefing that kicked off the union's "Fighting for Fairness at Patriot" campaign. A similar meeting on Tuesday in Evansville, Ind., drew a similar crowd, and union leaders say their campaign is just getting started.
"We are prepared to go to the mat over this," UMW President Cecil Roberts told reporters after the closed-door meeting with union members. "This is an enormous challenge for the union."
In July, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, seeking to reorganize. Court filings said that what the company calls "unsustainable labor-related legacy liabilities" related to UMW pension and health-care programs are among Patriot's biggest financial problems.
Patriot employs about 2,000 active union members in West Virginia and Kentucky, and the company is currently responsible for more than 10,000 retirees and another 10,000 dependents, most of them in West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio.
Patriot has yet to submit its proposed reorganization plan. But UMW officials fear the company will seek a judge's approval to weaken the union's contract for active miners and stop paying into pension and health-care plans for retirees.