CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After approving a new contract, union coal miners are happy that they'll be keeping their jobs and most of their benefits, but they're not going to stop pushing for all the benefits that they were once promised.
Members of the United Mine Workers of America voted with an 85 percent majority to accept new five-year contracts with bankrupt Patriot Coal on Friday.
Kevin Luthy lives in Chapmanville and works at Guyan Surface Mine near Yolyn in Logan County, a mine owned by Apogee Coal, a Patriot subsidiary.
Approving the new contract "was a must," Luthy said. "Nobody wants to lose anything. We ended up losing holidays, vacation time and sick days. But I am glad the contract passed. It buys us time to find another day. I hope we see things turn around to get our benefits back.
"We were left with very little choice. Patriot was facing liquidation. That would leave our retirees without health care. We are still concerned about our retirees. This is not a 'happily ever after' agreement.
"Hopefully, things will turn around in the coal market, so we can bargain and increase our benefits," Luthy said.
The agreement with Patriot does not mean that Luthy and other miners were ready to give up the fight over benefits.
"Hopefully, we will also get to the source of the real problem -- Peabody Energy and Arch Coal," Luthy said.
Luthy, a miner for 31 years, started working for Arch Coal in 1984.
Patriot Coal was founded in 2007 when Peabody Energy sold its union operations east of the Mississippi to the newly created company. In 2008, Patriot bought Magnum Coal, a company that in 2005 took over union mines previously operated by Arch Coal.
Rick Ryan, a retired miner from Sod in Lincoln County, said the fight was not over.
"This will let the men keep working with pay, but it is not going to take our sights off of Peabody or Arch. We feel they were the ones who orchestrated this," Ryan said. "It boils down to corporate greed. Peabody and Arch were willing to dump all their retirees and throw them in a ditch."
In July 2012, Patriot declared bankruptcy, citing financial problems, especially the costs of health insurance and pensions paid for miners who had worked for Peabody and Arch.
"I spent 35 years working for Arch," said Ryan, who worked at Hobet Mining on the border of Boone and Lincoln counties. "Then we switched to Magnum. I retired from Patriot. But 80 percent of our retired miners never worked one day for Patriot."
On May 29, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States in St. Louis ruled Patriot could throw out its current contracts with the UMWA, reduce wages and cut health-care benefits.
Patriot implemented those changes July 1, changes the union immediately challenged.
The agreed upon contract reinstates many, but not all of the cuts to pay and benefits that Surratt-States had allowed.
James Jarrell, who retired a year ago, lives in Camp Creek in Boone County. He worked for Eastern Associated Coal at its Wharton No. 4 underground mine, which was later sold to Peabody. Jarrell ended his 34-year mining career at the Rock Lick Preparation Plant.
Jarrell said the new agreement shows the miners' good faith.
"We have been willing to work with them to get through this. We have worked for these companies for years and years and years. We are loyal to them," Jarrell said.
"This goes a long way to preserve not only jobs for working employees, but also to retain health care for those who are retired. We put in all those years, all that time, all the dangerous things we did. We felt they were trying to walk away from us. We found out we can still work with them.
"Everyone would have lost with the liquidation of Patriot," Jarrell said. "There would have been hardships on both sides. Both working and retired employees would be hurt really bad. And the economy around here would have suffered."
Jarrell was not the first member of his family to work for Eastern.
"The promise for lifetime health care was made to my grandfather when he was a miner. It has been there all along. I am glad to see it is going to be continued," Jarrell said.
Now that Patriot is no longer in immediate danger, UMWA President Cecil Roberts said the union would focus its efforts on Peabody and Arch.
"We are now able to turn our full attention to securing the lifetime health-care benefits Peabody and Arch promised these retirees," Roberts said in a statement Friday. "If those companies thought our public effort to highlight their poor corporate citizenship was over, they will quickly find out otherwise."
West Virginia's political leaders were quick to praise the agreement.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller praised Roberts for negotiating the settlement approved in Friday's vote.
Rockefeller called the new labor contract "a ray of hope for Patriot miners and retirees after their hard-earned pensions and health-care benefits were jeopardized by May's court decision.
"Cecil waged a hard fought battle on behalf of his members who have suffered heartbreak in return for their loyalty and service to the industry for far too long."
Rockefeller is co-sponsoring the new Coal Accountability and Retired Employee Act to hold employers accountable for commitments made to their workers.
"I will never stop pushing for a legal system that considers workers and employers on a level playing field," Rockefeller said.
Bennett K. Hatfield, Patriot Coal's president and CEO, said that the agreement should help the company emerge from bankruptcy by the end of the year.
"Ratification of these agreements provides labor stability and ensures cost savings essential to Patriot's plan of reorganization," Hatfield said.
Sen. Joe Manchin said that Patriot and the union should both be commended for the compromise.
"In today's toxic environment, it is easy to be against compromise and walk away from negotiations," Manchin said in a statement. "It is encouraging to see our labor and corporate leaders stand up, come together and find a solution."
Rep. David McKinley, who recently introduced the Coal Health care and Pensions Protection Act in the House, had similar thoughts.
"I would like to thank the leadership of Patriot Coal and the UMWA for staying at the negotiating table," McKinley said in a statement. "This agreement will protect thousands of jobs for miners, protect the benefits workers have earned, and act as a strong economic incentive for communities around the Mountain State."
Additional information can be found on websites of the UMWA (http://www.fairnessatpatriot.org
) and Patriot Coal (http://www.patriotcoal.com
Reach Paul J. Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.