By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian
The United Mine Workers of America is taking its fight to Fairmont and encouraging everyone to show their support.
The UMWA welcomes citizens near and far to join its “Fairness at Patriot” rally July 9 at 10 a.m. at the Fairmont State University football field.
Phil Smith, UMWA director of communications, said the rally is in support of active and retired miners and their families who are losing their health care and pension benefits in Patriot Coal Corp.’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which was filed July 9, 2012.
The Fairmont event will feature UMWA International President Cecil Roberts and International Secretary-Treasurer Daniel Kane as speakers. Political leaders, officials from other unions and various dignitaries are also being invited, Smith said.
He said those who attend the rally will be moved by the very serious, real threats that families are facing, because this is a life and death matter for many people.
“They can expect to hear some tremendous words from President Roberts, as they always can,” Smith said. “They can expect to be uplifted by the motivation of the people who are engaging in the struggle.”
Patriot Coal went public through a spinoff from Peabody Energy in October 2007. Then in July 2008, the corporation acquired Magnum Coal Co., which formerly gained assets and liabilities from Arch Coal.
With the spinoff from Peabody and purchase of Magnum, Patriot took on the responsibility of providing benefits to some of Peabody and Arch’s former employees and retirees.
According to The Associated Press, Patriot said the cost of covering its health care liabilities would add up to $1.6 billion and would place the company in jeopardy of having to close its doors. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States ruled on May 29 that Patriot’s bankruptcy actions were legal and possibly unavoidable.
This decision will let Patriot disregard its collective bargaining agreements and cut wages and benefits. Patriot has suggested ending contributions to pensions, developing a $300 million trust from future profit-sharing to cover health benefits and providing the UMWA with a 35 percent equity stake in the reorganized company.
Since then, the UMWA and Patriot have been trying to negotiate to prevent the union from striking against the company.
“Here we have a company (Peabody) that created a fraudulent scheme, in my opinion, to find a way to dump the retirees by creating this spinoff company, which is known as Patriot, and not fulfill their obligations,” said Mike Caputo, District 31 international vice president of the UMWA, majority whip for the West Virginia House of Delegates and Rivesville resident.
“The one thing that everyone knows, when you begin your career in the coal mines, your health will suffer for that. So in return for that, we’ve always had the promise of being taken care of in regard to great health care, and here you have a company that doesn’t care about the folks that created its wealth and wants to kick them to the curb and break the promises made to them.”
Smith said the UMWA may reach an agreement with Patriot to move forward by the time the Fairmont rally arrives, but “this fight is by no means over.” The situation won’t be settled until the responsible companies live up to their obligations, and the UMWA will continue holding events until it achieves that goal, he commented.
Caputo said the union is taking the campaign that it has been mounting in St. Louis, Mo., where Patriot and Peabody are headquartered, to the backyards of some of the Patriot operations. The UMWA has also held rallies in Charleston, which drew 10,000 to 11,000 people, and Henderson, Ky.
Patriot’s Federal No. 2 mine is located in Monongalia County. In the area, so many people who are currently working for Patriot or Peabody or have retired from those entities have been affected by the bankruptcy actions, Caputo said. A total of more than 22,000 people across the country will be impacted, and many of those folks are in North Central West Virginia.
Union members from across the country — including Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia — are planning to attend the Fairmont rally. Caputo anticipates seeing at least 40 buses from across the nation come for the event.
“We expect a very, very large crowd,” he said. “We expect a very peaceful, nondisruptive rally, but we certainly want our voices to be heard.”
If Patriot gets away with breaking its health care promises, then other coal companies or workplaces could do the same to their employees. People must stand together, Caputo said.
“We just encourage everyone to attend to show their support for the union, to show their support for their friends and neighbors who spent a lifetime working in the mines,” he said. “This fight needs to be everybody’s fight.”
Smith said the UMWA has gotten so much support from individuals who aren’t even associated with the coal industry. Many people from the community come to the rallies to join the fight.
“They recognize the threat here and they’re turning out to support us,” he said. “This is an important issue that’s not just about coal miners — it’s about all working families.”
Caputo asked people who plan to attend the Fairmont rally to try carpooling in order to save space in the parking lots. From the parking areas within the grounds of Fairmont State, the UMWA will be providing shuttle buses to the football field at the top of the hill.