By C.V. Moore
Early on a foggy Monday morning, a packed bus of retired United Mine Workers from Fayette County pulled out of Oak Hill on their way to deliver a message to Charleston.
Dressed as one in camouflage, they went to add their voices to the thousands who converged downtown in the capital to protest Patriot Coal’s desire to shed $1.6 billion in pension and health care benefits through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, leaving miners and their families without.
There, they were joined by big voices like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a fleet of West Virginia politicians, and UMWA president Cecil Roberts.
Along with 15 others, Roberts was arrested in front of Charleston’s Laidley Tower, the headquarters of Patriot Coal.
“When you can’t get justice in the courthouse, or the state house, or the capitol, there’s only one place to get justice in this country, and that’s in the streets,” said Roberts. “The message today is, don’t make us come back.”
The UMWA has staged several large protests in St. Louis, the headquarters of Peabody and Arch Coal, since they began ramping up their “Fairness at Patriot” campaign in January.
Jerry Massie of Fayetteville has been to every single one. He belongs to UMWA Local 6046 and is an international field representative for the union.
He coordinated the Oak Hill bus, which contained 15 retired miners who would be directly impacted by Patriot’s proposed terms.
“It’s life and death for some people,” he said as he marched down Quarrier Street. “And most of those people couldn’t travel here today.”
The bus, which held union members from 10 locals, ran out of seats in two days.
“That’s how excited people were over the necessity of this. A coal miner sees injustice and they will stand up, especially if they are union. I guess that goes with the pride of being a coal miner,” said Massie.
The UMWA says if Patriot is successful in shedding their benefits, it could affect 23,000 miners and their families.
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“If you didn’t bring your voices, what are you doing here today?” singer Elaine Purkey asked a sea of camouflage, urging a standing-room-only crowd at the Civic Center to sing along to “This Land is Your Land.”
Before the thousands set to marching, they rallied there, where they heard speeches from Sen. Joe Manchin, Congressman Nick Rahall, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, Trumka, and Roberts.
They called on Patriot, Peabody and Arch to honor their contracts with employees.
“It is unfair, but it’s true — we stand here in the legacy of Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, Matewan, and Blair Mountain, where coal miners have had to gather together to demand justice,” said Rahall.
“It’s nothing less than shameful, and you and I will not stand for it,” Rockefeller told the audience in a video message. “In West Virginia, a promise made is a promise kept ... and that’s what we expect from others.”
“You can’t shine crap and, by God, this is crap,” said Manchin, who vowed to “fight in the halls of Congress” to preserve the miners’ pensions.
Rockefeller and Manchin are co-sponsoring the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act (CARE), aimed at protecting miners’ benefits, in the Senate. Rahall has sponsored similar legislation in Congress.
The act would transfer funds from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan, which is itself heading for insolvency.
It also makes union retirees who lose health care benefits following company bankruptcy eligible for the 1992 Benefit Plan, established under the Coal Act in that year.
Tomblin urged the bankruptcy court to “do what’s fair for retired miners.”
And Tennant urged those outside the building to ask themselves a question.
“Are you next?” she said, echoing the hundreds of waving signs implying that miners at other companies could one day share Patriot miners’ fate.
“It’s immoral. It’s fraudulent,” said Trumka. “This company stands for everything that’s wrong in America today. ... They stand against every American value we stand for. Patriot Coal doesn’t know a thing about patriotism.”
Patriot Coal was formed in 2007 when Peabody Coal spun off its eastern mining operations, and the long-term obligations that went with them, into a new company. In 2005, Arch Coal sold two of its union subsidiaries to Magnum Coal, which was then acquired by Patriot in 2008.
In July 2012, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy, citing its “unsustainable labor-related legacy liabilities” as a major financial burden.
The union claims Patriot was a “company created to fail.” Both Peabody and Arch have denied the union’s allegations.
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From the Civic Center, the crowd headed to Laidley Tower, where they peered upward toward the offices of Patriot executives and shouted, “Shame on you,” among other phrases.
“We built it and we can shut it down,” “We only want what we worked for,” and “Patriot is a meanie,” read signs.
Christy Gill, president of the Fayette County Federation of Teachers, came to the rally with a group of other teachers from the area who gave up part of their spring break to be there.
Gill’s father-in-law was a miner and her mother-in-law now survives on his pension.
“I don’t know what our family would do without his pension and health care,” she said. “So I stand with these miners in hopes that ... their plea for their benefits will be heard.”
The rally at the corner of Lee and Court streets was over in about a half-hour, when Roberts and others sat down in front of the office building and were arrested.
Among those who boarded a bus back to Beckley after the rally was Gary Hairston, who worked underground for over 20 years before he got sick with black lung at 48.
He has since received federal black lung benefits, but relies for his hospitalization on the 1974 Pension Trust.
He says he could easily see how the Patriot miners’ fate could have befallen him, so he came to support his fellow workers.
“I’m hoping today will help people realize how many they are affecting on this and that the government will step in,” he said on his way home. “If they get away with it, others will do the same.”
“In a perfect world, Peabody would reassume their responsibility,” said Massie. “Will that happen? Time will tell. But we’re not going to just sit back and let this happen.”
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