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.