Mine families at rally ask 'who will be next?'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Linda Robinette doesn't rely on Patriot Coal for her health benefits. But she's worried what might happen if the company is allowed to cut union-negotiated benefits for retirees.
"We are here for a good cause. If Patriot and Peabody get by with this, who will be next?" asked Robinette, whose husband Clarence retired after working at U.S. Steel's No. 50 Mine in Wyoming County for 36 years. Their health benefits were negotiated under the United Mine Workers of America's contract with the company.
On Monday, thousands of miners, retirees and supporters arrived at the Charleston Civic Center to protest Patriot Coal's efforts to use bankruptcy filings to strip miners and retirees of health and pension benefits guaranteed under union contracts.
The miners traveled from coalfields in West Virginia, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Indiana and Kentucky. After the rally, the crowd marched to nearby Laidley Tower, where Patriot maintains its West Virginia headquarters. Sixteen marchers, including UMW President Cecil Roberts, were arrested after they sat down on the building's front steps.
Patriot Coal was founded Oct. 31, 2007, when Peabody Coal sold all its union operations east of the Mississippi to the newly created company. In 2008, Patriot bought Magnum Coal, a company that took over union mines once operated by Arch Coal.
Union leaders have said that Patriot was a "company created to fail," a way to let Peabody and Arch shed their obligations to union employees and retirees, while reaping the benefits of their largely non-union mines in the western United States.
"I worked 36 years as a miner with Arch. I have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and breathing problems," said Charles Huth of Ava, Ill. "I think Arch should honor their commitment and give us our health care.
"The coal companies are only paying 20 percent of our health care because Medicare is paying the rest of it," Huth said. "I get $1,300 a month in my pension. I still have that. I am afraid that if we lose our benefits, everyone else down the road will also lose them."
Huth said he boarded a bus in Illinois at 10 p.m. Sunday to come to Charleston, and would get back on the bus to go home Monday evening.
"Health insurance was part of our salaries. We put insurance on the negotiating table in exchange for lower salaries," said Gene Saunders, a longtime UMW organizer and president of a UMW local in Cabin Creek.
Today, Saunders said, he and his wife need their benefits to pay for medicine.
Speakers at the Civic Center rally included Roberts; national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka; Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin; and Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va.
Trumka mentioned "Friends of Coal" -- a slogan and sticker distributed by the West Virginia Coal Association. "Where are they today? You can't be a 'Friend of Coal' if you are not a 'Friend of the Coal Miner.'"
Tomblin told a packed auditorium he was "honored to stand shoulder to shoulder with you today for the benefits of our retired miners ....
"Spouses and kids should also have benefits if they [retired miners] pass on. Those are the benefits we are talking about losing today," the governor said.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., sent a video message to the rally promising to fight for new legislation to protect the rights of 110,000 active and retired miners, including 35,000 in West Virginia.
"We must hold Peabody, Arch and Patriot to the promises they have made," Rockefeller said.
Janine Orf, Patriot's vice president for investor relations based in St. Louis, stated Monday: "Patriot is not proposing to eliminate health care for UMWA retirees. Rather, our proposal allows for meaningful health-care coverage for union retirees at a level that Patriot can afford."
Patriot is proposing the creation of a "voluntary employees' beneficiary association trust that would be administered by the UMWA or the UMWA Health and Retirement Funds."
The trust would receive funds from Patriot through "a significant ownership stake in the reorganized company," profit-sharing of up to $300 million and an initial cash donation of $15 million, according to Orf.
Voc Svec, Peabody Coal's senior vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, released a statement Monday denying any financial complicity with Patriot Coal.
Manchin said, "I have been to many rallies in the Civic Center, but I have never seen an overflow crowd like this."
Manchin criticized Patriot and Peabody. "I have told them, 'You can't make wrong right.' We are not going to let this happen .... We have sacrificed too much."
The state Senate and House of Delegates have passed resolutions calling Patriot Coal to meet its legal commitment to provide pension and health benefits to miners.
"This is an attack on all American workers who have retired," Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said at Monday's rally. "We can't allow these fraudulent transactions to take place."
Rahall said promises made in UMWA contracts "must be kept. Those who are responsible will be held responsible under our legislation. ... It will be an uphill battle, especially in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives."
During his speech, Trumka said, "The eyes of America are on us when we stand up against Wall Street cheats for the dignity of our workers."
Patriot, Trumka said, "stands for everything that is wrong in America today. It is against every American value .... You can't game the American system anymore. We won't let you do it anymore."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.