Union rallies outside Patriot Coal headquarters in West Virginia over pension, health benefits

Energy Associated Press

Busloads of United Mine Workers of America miners and retirees roared in protest outside Patriot Coal headquarters Monday, as the bankrupt company looks to nix a union contract that includes pension contributions and health benefits.

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From a makeshift stage on the bed of a tow truck, UMWA President Cecil Roberts bellowed out to a camouflage-clad crowd of 1,500 to 1,800 miners and led them in a march to nearby Patriot headquarters. UMWA packed twenty-two buses of miners from Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, according to union spokesman Phil Smith.

"If you think that this crowd is big, you try to mine one lump of coal without us," Roberts shouted to union miners. "We won't just stand in front of your offices. We'll stand in front of your coal mines. We'll stand in front of your cleaning plants. We'll block the roads and nobody will have a job."

Roberts told the crowd he would go to jail for trespassing on Patriot property, like he and 15 others did at Patriot's Charleston office in a 2013 rally over similar benefits issues during the company's previous bankruptcy.

This time, however, Patriot's headquarters in Scott Depot were empty.

"I reject to inform you that nobody's home," Roberts told the crowd before sending them back to the nearby parking lot.

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Patriot filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 12, its second bankruptcy filing in three years. The company wants permission from a federal bankruptcy judge in Virginia to reject the company's collective bargaining agreement with union miners and change retirees' health care benefits. Patriot wrote that it would otherwise run out of cash and have to liquidate.

The company says the move is necessary in order to close on a proposed partial sale to Lexington, Kentucky-based Blackhawk Mining LLC.

Otherwise, the company would need to consider "the tragic alternative: liquidation, the loss of all jobs, and the Debtors' inability to provide any benefits to their employees or retirees," Patriot has written in legal filings.

For union mine retirees, a cut to their pensions and health benefits would snap an essential pact that they rely on for their livelihood. This is the second time in two years those benefits have been threatened for Patriot union miners and retirees.

"You've got to remember that we took a lot less on the hour than we could have taken," said Rick Glover, a retired miner from Cabin Creek. "But there was a promise given to us about our health care, from cradle to grave."

Patriot is hardly the only coal producer flailing in central Appalachia. Companies in the struggling region have waned in recent years, shedding jobs amid low natural gas prices, dwindling coal seams, competition from other states, weaker market conditions and federal regulations.

Alpha Natural Resources, Walter Energy Inc. and James River Coal Co. have also sought bankruptcy protection.

Before the rally Monday, Patriot announced plans to sell some of its assets to an affiliate of the nonprofit Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund. Patriot says the Fund would assume $400 million in Patriot's workers' compensation, state black lung and environmental obligations.

Patriot employs about 2,760 people, with about a third represented by the union, according to bankruptcy filings.

The company did not comment on why its headquarters were empty on Monday afternoon.

"We continue to expect that most Patriot employees at our mining operations will have job opportunities with Blackhawk or VCLF when the transactions are completed," the company said in a statement. "In particular, the VCLF transaction just announced today is expected to provide future job opportunities for UMWA-affiliated employees at our Federal and Hobet mines (in West Virginia)."