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UMW marches on Patriot Coal in Charleston

Mine families ask 'who will be next?'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An estimated 6,000 to 10,000 union members and supporters rallied at the Charleston Civic Center on Monday, then marched a few blocks to Patriot Coal's state headquarters, to protest a proposal from the company to cut employee and retiree health benefits.

Sixteen people were arrested at the end of the peaceful demonstration, including United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts.

The mass of people, many clad in the unofficial union camouflage uniform and chanting slogans, left the Civic Center just after 11:30 a.m., following a morning rally.

"Patriot promised! Patriot lied!" was one of the recurring slogans chanted by the protesters as they snaked their way from the Civic Center to Virginia Street, up Virginia Street to Court Street and down Court Street to Laidley Tower, where Patriot has local offices.

The chant alternated with cries of "We are union!" and "UMWA!" Although several labor unions were represented at the rally and march, with participants coming in from several states, many were West Virginia coal miners.

Many also carried signs and placards. "Are you next?" some asked. "Patriot's greed kills," read one sign, while at least one placard read, "Patriot got the cash, miners got the shaft."

Last month, Patriot Coal asked a federal bankruptcy judge to throw out the terms of the company's contract with the UMW. The company filed for bankruptcy, and company officials have said reducing health-care benefits for employees is a key part of reorganizing the company's finances.

On Monday, as the head of the column of protesters arrived at their destination, the tail was still at the Civic Center. Their chants drowned out the noontime bells of a nearby church as the crowd stretched for blocks through the heart of downtown Charleston.

Once in front of Laidley Tower, where Patriot Coal's state headquarters are located, Roberts urged the crowd several times to be peaceful, and to direct their anger at Patriot and the company's lawyers.

"The police are not our enemy, the people of Charleston are not our enemy," he said. "The mayor is not our enemy. The folks [at Patriot] who did this are our enemy.

"If you can't get justice in the courthouse, if you can't get justice in the statehouse, if you can't get justice in the Capitol, then you have to get justice in the streets of this country," Roberts said. "It's time for the working class of this country to stand up."

Eventually, he said, business owners and politicians will be forced to pay attention to workers' complaints.

After again reminding protesters to act peacefully, Roberts and 15 other protesters, including the Rev. Jim Lewis of Charleston, sat down on the steps in front of Laidley Tower.

"You can't block the sidewalk; you're going to have to get up and move," police calmly told the group. After repeating the order several times and telling protesters they would be arrested, several officers moved in to make arrests.

Roberts and the others quietly allowed themselves to be handcuffed. They were arrested without incident and led to a waiting police van. The crowd then dispersed peacefully. Several miners shook hands with police officers or patted them on the back.

As the arrests were made, Charleston paramedics were treating a protester sitting on the steps nearby who had become weak and short of breath. After hooking him up to an oxygen machine and sitting with him for several minutes, they helped the man to his feet and helped him walk down the street.

Union members have held similar demonstrations in other cities in recent weeks.

Arrested along with Roberts and Lewis were Anita Wade, 30, of Lake; John Palmer, 58, of Monongah; Ricky Lowe, 58, of Yolyn; Richard Ryan, 55, of Sod; Shirley Inman, 69, of Madison; Doris Crouse-Mays, 54, of Vinton, Va.; Deanna Hogge, 69, of Taylorsville, Ill.; William Londrigan, 57, of Waddy, Ky.; Clifton Tennant, 39, of Fairview; Don Prange, 80, of Winchester, Va.; John Cox, 54, of Duggar, Ind.; the Rev. John Rausch, 68, of Staunton, Ky.; Denneth Perdue, 50, of Fairmont and Daniel Kane, 63, of Ebensburg, Pa.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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