FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) — Thirty people were arrested Tuesday as some 5,000 coal miners and their families protested bankrupt Patriot Coal Corp.’s plans to cut benefits, a plan the United Mine Workers of America says amounts to a broken promise to tens of thousands of workers who made Patriot’s predecessor companies profitable for decades.
The rally on a football practice field at Fairmont State University in north-central West Virginia was the 14th protest so far, but UMWA President Cecil Roberts promised there will be many more. The next will be back in St. Louis, where Patriot and several other coal operators are headquartered.
“This is kind of like the struggle of the civil rights movement. It didn’t end in a week or a month or a year or two. It was a long process,” he said. “This is about justice and fairness, and anytime you’re fighting for justice and fairness, that fight might take a while. But we’re never going to stop.”
Roberts was arrested and shepherded onto a waiting bus, along with 29 supporters who had volunteered to be charged with illegal assembly. They included AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, union leader and West Virginia Delegate Mike Caputo, and an older woman who walked with a cane as a police officer carried her wheelchair.
All had stood in the rain or sat on lawn chairs for several hours after traveling from Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
“I’m not discouraged by the rain,” Holt Baker declared, “because that’s just the tears of the righteous trying to wash away the injustice of Patriot Coal.”
United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard told the crowd that every union is threatened if Patriot gets away with shedding legacy costs and breaking promises. The son of a coal miner, Gerard said his union would not exist without the UMWA, and the two will stand together.
“It’s hard to believe, brothers and sisters,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that these Lexus-driving, latte-drinking, pocket-picking, health care-robbing, Wall Street coupon clippers, tax avoiders, pension-stealing, health care-robbing SOBs aren’t in jail.”
Patriot said last week that it’s imposing less-severe wage and benefit cuts on its miners than it could have under a federal bankruptcy court ruling. The company also said it will keep retired workers’ health plans unchanged for the next two months while it continues negotiating with the union.
Judge Kathy Surratt-States ruled May 29 that Patriot could abandon its collective-bargaining agreements with the miners’ union, saying its actions were legal and perhaps even unavoidable.
The cuts have been the most contentious aspect since the Peabody Energy spinoff filed for Chapter 11 protection a year ago, saying its $1.6 billion legacy obligation was unsustainable.
The UMWA said that more than 90 percent of the retirees whose health care is now at risk never worked a single day for Patriot. Rather, they spent their careers with Peabody or Arch Coal.
Union leaders say Peabody Energy and Arch Coal spun off assets and set up Patriot to fail in a deliberate plan to end benefit obligations to union retirees.
Patriot denies that, saying its bankruptcy results from the global financial crisis, tighter environmental regulations and a reduction in metallurgical coal prices.
Peabody said Tuesday in a statement that Patriot was spun off as a viable company. Peabody cited a recent report by Todd Milbourn, a professor of finance at Washington University in St. Louis, which said the likelihood of the claim is remote.
Milbourn’s report said that Patriot’s stock performance since the spin-off in 2007 was “wholly inconsistent with an entity that was expected to fail. In fact, its first year of performance was spectacular.”
But the union isn’t buying it. The protesters wore “Peabody Promised, Peabody Lied” T-shirts or camouflage shirts bearing their union logo, and many carried signs with messages warning what the Patriot situation portends. “Are you next?” one read.
“The big picture is all the other companies could join in and basically do the same thing they’re doing now,” said Alpha Natural Resources miner Dave Thearle of Bellesville, Pa. “They’re just trying to get rid of all the retirees because, you know, they think we’re not assets anymore. That’s what they think: We’re liabilities.”
Supporters, including several West Virginia politicians and labor leaders, said it’s time for people to focus on electing new officials and changing the federal bankruptcy laws so they protect people rather than corporations.
“Businesses don’t build themselves. It’s the workers,” said West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. “There are business leaders who know that what’s happening at Patriot is not right. So we have this judge who says she has to do this because of the laws. Well, we need to change those laws.”
Fred Moorehead, a retired miner from Carolina, W.Va., joined the protest to support those hurt by Patriot, even though he worked for Pennsylvania-based CONSOL Energy.
“If it goes through with them, it’s going to trickle down to us,” he said. “If they get away with it, I’m pretty sure the rest are gonna try it.”
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