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With thousands chanting "we are union," United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts and 15 others were arrested Monday afternoon after refusing police orders to leave the steps in front of Patriot Coal Corp. offices at Laidley Tower.
Roberts and the others - who included state AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue and the Rev. Jim Lewis, a retired Episcopal pastor - had counted on being arrested Monday as part of a demonstration against bankrupt Patriot's plans to end health care coverage for nearly 23,000 retired miners and dependents.
"We want to go to jail because this is a statement," Roberts told a standing-room-only crowd at the Charleston Civic Center prior to the march to Laidley Tower a short distance away in downtown Charleston.
Prior to Monday, 42 union representatives had been arrested during separate demonstrations at company offices in St. Louis. Roberts was arrested twice during the St. Louis demonstrations.
"I'm going to get arrested today and make it three times," Roberts said. "I'll get arrested four times, five times, or six times until we make it right."
Charleston police charged Roberts and the 15 others with unlawful assembly. Those arrested pleaded guilty and paid court costs and fines totaling $5,000 for the group.
Earlier Monday, a crowd estimated at 7,000 to 12,000 gathered at the Civic Center to protest the ramifications of the Patriot bankruptcy case.
Retired coal miner Steve Justice, 58, of Gordon in Boone County, was there in his wheelchair to support the effort. Justice is a diabetic who lost the bottom half of his right leg, suffers from black lung and has had quintuple heart bypass surgery and stands to lose his health benefits under the Patriot plan.
"I worked 23 years in the coal industry and now those companies are wanting to strip everything I worked for," he said. "I've eaten dust for them and they don't care one bit about me and my family."
Ashford resident Evelyn Morgan's husband Larry was a welder for Peabody for 27 years before he died of leukemia in 2006. She held a sign Monday that read, "Larry kept his promise to Peabody, now Peabody should keep their promise to Larry."
"They need to own up to what they're doing wrong to us and make things right," said Morgan, 71. "My husband and other men worked hard for this, and he died thinking I was going to be taken care of, but they're trying to take it away from us."
Union leaders, along with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., addressed the Civic Center crowd before the march to Laidley Tower.
Patriot was formed in 2007 as a spin-off from Peabody Energy. In 2008, Patriot acquired Magnum Coal Co., which had acquired three units from Arch Coal in 2005.
As part of the spin-off and acquisition, Patriot became responsible for the health and retirement benefits of 10,000 retirees and their nearly 13,000 widows and dependents. Nearly 90 percent of the company's retirees never worked for Patriot, but rather were inherited from Peabody or Arch.
On June 9, 2012, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to allow the company to reorganize. Last month, the company asked the bankruptcy court in St. Louis for permission to change its collective bargaining agreements covering UMW-represented retirees.
Patriot said its retiree healthcare liabilities now top $1.6 billion.
The company wants to move retirees from their current plan to a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association trust, which would pay far less than the current level of benefits.
"The actions we have taken ... are necessary for the survival of Patriot and the preservation of more than 4,000 jobs," Patriot president and chief executive Bennett Hatfield said last month.
"Our labor and retiree benefit costs have risen to levels that simply cannot be sustained given the challenges facing the company and our industry."
Union leaders say Patriot was "designed to fail" by Peabody and Arch. They say the companies spun off their hefty legacy costs to an undercapitalized company knowing it would never be able to sustain itself.
"They designed it to fail so that they could get rid of those liabilities," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told the Civic Center crowd.
In a statement, Peabody denied that claim.
"The UMWA's claim that Patriot Coal was 'designed to fail' is a desperate attempt to rewrite history," the company said.
The company said Patriot began as a successful company but suffered following its acquisition of Magnum and unforeseen events such as the global financial crisis and the national shift to low-cost natural gas for power generation.
Peabody officials say the company has fulfilled its requirements and should not be involved in the Patriot campaign.
"The UMWA is fully aware that this is a matter solely between the union and Patriot Coal, and the proper process for deciding such issues is through the bankruptcy court - not the court of public opinion," the company stated.
Trumka said the eyes of America were watching the crowd in Charleston. He said Patriot, Arch and Peabody's actions represented all that was wrong in corporate America.
"This is a story that America has heard too many times and we're sick of it and we're tired of it," he said.
"You can't be a 'Friend of Coal' unless you're a friend of coal miners," he said. "You want to call yourself a friend of coal, then get off your damn butt and stand with us."
Tomblin, Rahall, Manchin and Tennant all decried the decision to eliminate the promised benefits to retirees.
"Where I come from we have a saying: You can't shine crap - and this is crap," Manchin said. "You can't make it look good, you can't make it smell good, and you sure as hell can't make it taste good."
He and Rahall touted the proposed Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee or CARE Act, a proposal they worked with Sen. Jay Rockefeller on that would require companies to maintain and fund retiree benefit plans.
"Those who are responsible will be held responsible under our legislation," Rahall said.
TOM HINDMAN/DAILY MAIL
A crowd of at least 7,000 union members and supporters filled the streets of downtown Charleston Monday to protest Patriot Coal’s decision to reduce health coverage to 23,000 retirees, active employees and their dependents.
TOM HINDMAN/DAILY MAIL
Several thousand people filled the street between Laidley Tower and Embassy Suites Monday afternoon to rally against Patriot Coal plans to reduce health care coverage.
Evelyn Morgan, 71, of Ashford said her husband Larry worked for Peabody for 27 years and died of leukemia in 2007 thinking his wife would be covered by his retiree benefits. She said she would be devastated if Patriot eliminates those benefits today.
Cecil Roberts and 15 others were arrested in front of Patriot Coal offices in Laidley Tower after failing to obey police officers’ requests they leave the premises.
Roberts said he and the others were making a peaceful statement against Patriot’s actions.
In a show of solidarity, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., joins hands with some of the 16 people who planned on getting arrested during the protest.
At left, UMW member Chuck Burgess, 39, took a charter bus from his hometown of Uniontown, Pa., to participate in the rally. UMW members passed out signs and materials to the thousands of union members, retirees and supporters who attended.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-4836. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/JaredWV.
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