The Times West Virginian

Opinion

April 3, 2013

‘It will not stand’ critical message being delivered to Patriot Coal

Do you think Patriot Coal Corp. is getting the message?

More than 10,000 people were in Charleston earlier this week to make sure of it.

On Monday, men, women and children gathered at the Charleston Civic Center for a rally organized by the United Mine Workers of America as part of its “Fairness at Patriot” campaign, which focuses on the health care, wages and working conditions of coal miners.

It was a chance for union members and their supporters as well as labor leaders and elected officials to once again show their support of the UMW in its fight against Patriot Coal, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal as the union tries to force Patriot to keep the promise it made to active and retired miners and their families.

A line of people marched 11 blocks from the Civic Center, where the rally began, to Patriot’s state offices at Laidley Tower in downtown Charleston, and the line was so long that by the time the front of the line made it to Patriot’s offices, the last marchers hadn’t even left the Civic Center.

Mike Caputo, District 31 international vice president of the UMW, described Monday’s rally as one of the biggest he’s been to in years.

“It was very emotional,” Caputo added. “I’ve never seen our union more solidified than they are now in this fight.”

That united effort will be crucial as union members fight to retain their benefits, and that sentiment wasn’t lost on Caputo and other union leaders.

“We just hope that we can show the world how Peabody and Arch and Patriot are treating the folks that created (the company’s) tremendous wealth,” Caputo said after the rally. “They do have to realize that we’re not going to stand idly by and let them take from us what we earned with broken backs and what we bled for and sometimes even died for.”

The issue stems from Patriot Coal Corp.’s decision to go public through a spinoff from Peabody in October 2007. The following July, 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. In order for Patriot to create revenue and be successful in the long run, it needs to save money related to those liabilities, according to the declaration that Mark Schroeder of Patriot Coal filed with the Bankruptcy Court.

Under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, Patriot and its subsidiaries submitted a voluntary petition for relief on July 9, 2012, in New York, where the company had formed a subsidiary in June. In a press release, the company reported that bankruptcy filing was a way to move toward a comprehensive financial restructuring.

On Nov. 27, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Shelley Chapman in New York made the decision to move the case from New York to St. Louis, Mo., where Patriot Coal is headquartered.

Previous UMW protests have been held in St. Louis, but officials said the union decided to rally the troops in Patriot’s backyard in West Virginia this time. That makes sense, especially since more than 2,000 active UMW members are employed at Patriot’s West Virginia and Kentucky locations. Here in Marion County, Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 mine is located close to Fairview.

So to say Patriot’s actions will have a significant impact on local miners would be an understatement.

After all, the possibility that the benefits of 10,000 retirees — affecting a total of 22,000 former workers and their dependents — are in limbo isn’t a game for the retired miners and their families. This is real life, with real-life consequences.

Monday’s rally wasn’t the first. It won’t be the last. UMW members and their supporters will keep organizing these protests until something is done.

As UMW International President Cecil Roberts said at the event, “This is a crime. We’ve been robbed, tricked and lied to. This cannot stand — and with thousands of us from all over the country marching today and keeping up this fight tomorrow, it will not stand.”

It’s time for Patriot to get that message.

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