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Clergy, miners protest Patriot benefits plan

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly 150 miners, clergy and other supporters gathered around the West Virginia Coal Miner statue near the state Capitol Thursday afternoon, asking that Patriot Coal provide pension and health-care benefits promised to its working and retired miners.

Bishop Ralph Dunkin, a Lutheran minister who chairs the West Virginia Council of Churches Board of Directors, said, "This service prays for the retention of health benefits for active and retired miners and their dependents, and for a revision of the [federal] bankruptcy code to promote a greater justice for workers."

The Rev. John Rausch, executive director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, offered a prayer supporting miners who "sacrificed their health for the profits of their companies . . . using bankruptcy laws to rescind their contracts."

Rausch said he hopes to "melt the frozen hearts of people indifferent to the rights of these workers."

The United Mine Workers of America has argued that Patriot Coal was created in October 2007 to hire all the union workers who previously worked for Peabody Energy and Arch Coal east of the Mississippi River. The new company also assumed responsibility for the health insurance of union miners who had retired from Peabody and Arch.

In July 2012, however, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

UMWA officials have said Patriot was designed to fail. Patriot officials, as well as officials at Peabody and Arch, have denied that claim. Company officials have said Patriot cannot emerge from bankruptcy unless miners and retirees accept cuts to their health benefits.

Last month, the groups Interfaith Worker Justice and Religious Leaders for Coalfield Justice released a report about the controversy called "Schemes from the Boardroom: The War by Arch and Peabody On the Aging, Ill and Disabled."

Today, more than 23,000 working miners, retired miners and their spouses, could lose health-care benefits, the report warned, especially in the wake of Patriot's bankruptcy. A federal bankruptcy judge in St. Louis has until May 29 to rule in the bankruptcy case.

"We have a tragedy brewing that will take out a lot of people unless we come together," the Rev. Jim Lewis, former pastor at St. John's Episcopal Church in Charleston, said at Thursday's rally.

About 8,000 miners, retirees and supporters rallied in Charleston on April 1, and the UMW has held several similar rallies in other cities.

The Rev. Bob Wilkins, executive coordinator of the United Methodist Appalachian Ministry network, said to the miners Thursday, "When you worked in dangerous conditions, these companies made money. They promised you benefits.

"Religious leaders see injustice that cannot be tolerated," Wilkins said. "We challenge big business to act with integrity . . .  . Just because [something] can be done doesn't mean it should be done."

Several retired miners talked about the problems they and their colleagues face. Shirley Inman, a retired miner herself, said, "We remember miners who suffer back pain. Some miners endure pain with every step they take because a disc has ruptured or has degenerated. These miners cannot share the joy of lifting high a grandchild. We must remember these miners with back pain."

R.C. Chambers, another retired miner, said, "We remember miners who suffer from addiction or depression. Some miners become hooked on drugs to relieve their pain, or get addicted to alcohol to escape their problems. Addictions and depression act like a prison, keeping some miners locked up."

Daniel Kane, the national UMW sSecretary-treasurer, and Skeeter Lowe, a miner from UMW Local 5958 in Logan, laid a ceremonial dinner bucket and miner's helmet at the base of the West Virginia Coal Miner statue.

"The faith community has been so good in supporting us," Kane said. "Many of us left our health buried in the coal mines.  . . .  We will not stop this fight until we have won. And we need to stand up for all workers across this country and across the world."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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