Miners protest Patriot Coal’s efforts to cancel union contracts, benefits

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail photos
United Mine Workers members and supporters pause for a prayer after marching on Patriot Coal headquarters in Scott Depot, only to find an empty building and parking lot.
Hundreds of UMW members filed out of their buses onto the parking lot of Marquee Cinemas as they began a march on Patriot Coal headquarters in Scott Depot on Monday.
UMW President Cecil Roberts speaks to hundreds of union members and supporters at Patriot Coal headq

SCOTT DEPOT, W.Va. — More than 1,000 miners and supporters gathered in front of Patriot Coal’s headquarters in Putnam County on Monday afternoon to protest the company’s continuing efforts to cancel union contracts and avoid paying pensions and health benefits to retired miners.

“We are here for one reason — to make the company hear our voice,” said Joe Carter, vice president of United Mine Workers of America District 17, based in Charleston.

On Aug. 3, the UMW filed an objection in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond, Virginia, opposing Patriot’s efforts to cancel union contracts and to avoid paying benefits to retired coal miners.

Patriot has been working to sell some of its most valuable assets to Blackhawk Mining, based in Lexington, Kentucky. Patriot supports a deal with Blackhawk Mining that would allow union contacts and retiree benefits to be dismissed. Blackhawk could then rehire employees laid off by Patriot, according to its bankruptcy filing.

The UMW believes rejecting union contracts is not necessary for Blackhawk to restructure Patriot’s mining operations.

Dan Kane, secretary treasurer of UMW District 17, said current federal “bankruptcy laws need to get tossed out and rewritten. The CEOs, investors and lawyers all get paid. But the workers get sent away with cents on the dollar (owed to them) or nothing. We need legislation to change the bankruptcy laws so that working people are paid.”

In a statement Monday afternoon, Patriot Coal said that the company expected most employees at their mining operations would have “job opportunities” either with Blackhawk or the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, which proposed a deal Monday to buy and clean up some of the Patriot mine sites with the worst problems, including the Federal No. 2 Mine in north-central West Virginia and the Hobet mining complex on the Boone-Lincoln county lines.

“In particular, the VCLF transaction just announced today is expected to provide future job opportunities for UMWA-affiliated employees at our Federal and Hobet mines,” Patriot said in the statement. “We believe that our efforts in securing both the VCLF and Blackhawk transactions represent the best possible outcome for our employees and other stakeholders. Patriot expects to emerge from Chapter 11 as expeditiously as possible and, as always, we are committed to operating safely and serving our customers throughout the sale process.”

On Monday, Patriot revealed to the bankruptcy court that it has reached a sales agreement with ERP Compliant Fuels, a company affiliated with VCLF. That agreement would cover “substantially all of Patriot’s assets and liabilities not included in the previously announced sale agreement with Blackhawk.”

In a previous bankruptcy filing, Patriot stated that “Blackhawk has been clear from the beginning that under no circumstances would it agree to make contributions to the UMW 1974 Pension Plan, a multi-employer plan that provides defined benefits to a majority of the hourly coal production workers represented by the UMW.”

Patriot has been working to sell several companies it previously bought from other coal companies like Arch Coal and Peabody. Those companies include Heritage Coal, Eastern Associated Coal, Apogee Coal, Hobet Mining, Colony Bay Coal, Mountain View Coal, Rivers Edge Coal, Highland Mining, Pine Ridge Coal and Gateway Eagle Coal.

No cars were in the parking lot at Patriot’s headquarters, which borders Interstate 64, on Monday. A guard who came to the front door said he didn’t know of executives or managers at the headquarters Monday.

A security truck also blocked the entrance to Patriot’s parking lot, apparently to prevent anyone else from parking there.

UMW President Cecil Roberts told the crowd Monday, “Our message to you is that these are our jobs. This is our health care and our pensions. You think this crowd is big. Try to mine one lump of coal without us and we will stand in front of your mines.”

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.

More News