Protesters fearful of losing benefits, but buoyed by support they’ve received
07/10/2013 - The Exponent Telegram. By Erin Beck.
Coal miners, other union workers, friends, family and supporters from several states descended on the campus of Fairmont State University for a United Mine Workers rally Tuesday morning.
Approximately 5,000 supporters gathered in opposition to actions by dismantled coal companies Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.
“We’re out here to support the UMWA,” said John Mercer, a coal miner from Moundsville. “We’re all one and we’ll go down as one.”
The workers union has alleged that Patriot Coal, which filed for bankruptcy last year, was set up to inevitably fail as a way to shrink from owed benefits to retired miners of Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.
Patriot was spun off from Peabody in 2007 and later acquired Magnum Coal, a company created by Arch Coal and other investors.
Peabody said in a statement on Tuesday that Patriot was created as a viable company, while Patriot has said its bankruptcy stems from global financial crisis, environmental regulations and reduced metallurgical coal prices, the Associated Press reports.
At Tuesday’s rally, workers affected by Patriot’s bankruptcy, as well as those there to simply show solidarity, huddled under umbrellas and waved signs declaring Patriot and Peabody as “morally bankrupt.”
Jerry Franklin, of Marissa, Ill., a retired coal miner, worried about how Patriot’s bankruptcy would affect his wife’s access to health care.
She relies on several medications, and health insurance companies don’t want to take on new clients 60-some years of age, Franklin said. “I worked for 25 years for Peabody,” he said. “I never worked for Patriot.”
Franklin retired in 1999. “In 2007 they put me in Patriot,” he said. “That was the first time I heard of Patriot. I knew right then and there that couldn’t be good.”
Representatives from the ladies auxiliary of the United Mine Workers Local 1570 passed out water and offered their support.
Lill Freeman, of Worthington, said her husband is employed by Patriot Coal at the Federal No. 2 Mine in Monongalia County. He took a $2 pay cut and lost extra pay for midnight shift as of July 1, according to Freeman. Freeman agreed with the United Mine Workers’ claim that Patriot Coal was “designed to fail.”
Eastern Associated Coal sold to Peabody Energy, then Peabody Energy sold to Patriot Coal, Freeman said. “But my husband’s paychecks still say Eastern,” she said. “It’s terrible,” she said. “Our fathers and grandfathers fought to have these rights.”
Much of the crowd was made up of working and retired coal miners.
“Working in the mines, you have a common bond,” said David Bienkoski, a retired miner from Rivesville. This is a pathway for all these other companies to do the same thing and believe me, they will,” he said. “Losing this battle is not an option.”
John Watson, a retired mine worker, traveled around 500 miles from Sparta, Ill., to support fellow workers. “I went through the same thing in 2004,” he said. “Our company went through bankruptcy and we lost everything like Patriot is trying to do to these people.”
Watson, who serves as the president of United Mine Workers Local 2161, believes it’s important for mine workers to stick together in support of the UMWA. “The Mine Workers came through for us,” he said. “I believe in them 110 percent.”
Several protesters declared faith in the mine workers union.
Myron Cole, a retired miner from southern Illinois, had to retire after a mining injury required a back operation. He expressed appreciation for the union’s history of fighting for mine workers’ benefits. “The UMWA has been really good to me,” he said.
The protesters were pumped up as the rain cleared while they marched out of the rally. “I thought it was great,” said Jesse Williams, of Wharton in Boone County.
He worked for Eastern and Peabody Energy. “Look at all the leaders you got together and all the support we got,” he said.
As he walked out of the venue, John Gmutza, of California, Pa., said he attended because “I want what’s right for our fellow coal workers. I’m fed up and I’m fired up,” he said.