— FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) — The United Mine Workers of America says it is bringing thousands of coal miners and their dependents to West Virginia next week in its continuing fight with Patriot Coal Corp. over worker and retiree benefits.
UMWA President Cecil Roberts, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard and AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt are scheduled to speak Tuesday in Fairmont, along with several state political leaders.
The UMWA is planning to fill 25 buses for the event, while other protesters will be driving in.
People are coming from Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia to protest St. Louis-based Patriot's planned cutoff of retiree health benefits, and wage and benefit reductions for active miners, UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said.
The event gets under way at 10 a.m. Tuesday on the football practice field at Fairmont State University.
"Sometimes people forget we had to fight every step of the way to win decent conditions and good pay for miners," said UMWA Local 9909 President Mike Payton, who works at CONSOL Energy's Loveridge mine near Fairmont. "In case there are any mine operators out there who think we're not willing to keep fighting, here's a suggestion: Think again."
Earlier this week, Patriot said it imposed less severe wage and benefit cuts on its miners than it could have under a 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.
The cuts can begin as soon as Monday under U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States' May 29 ruling that let Patriot abandon its collective-bargaining agreements with the miners' union.
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.
In her 102-page ruling, Surratt-States concluded that Patriot's actions were legal and perhaps even unavoidable.
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.