Patriot marches in Fairmont, attracts Washington attention - WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Patriot marches in Fairmont, attracts Washington attention

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As the United Mine Workers of America protested in Fairmont, West Virginia's representatives in Washington wanted to let them know they were standing behind them.

The rally brought in more than 25 buses filled with UMWA miners protesting the cuts to benefits and pay as a result of Patriot Coal's bankruptcy. Negotiation attempts between the UMWA and Patriot have not yet been completed to the satisfaction of both parties, though a bankruptcy judge recently ruled Patriot Coal could proceed with its plan to escape bankruptcy.

"We're going to stand up for the health benefits that were promised to these retirees," said L.U. 9909 President Mike Payton in a news release sent the day before the rally.  "Sometimes people forget we had to fight every step of the way to win decent conditions and good pay for miners. In case there are any mine operators out there who think we're not willing to keep fighting, here's a suggestion: Think again."

The UMWA asserts that Patriot Coal was spun-off from its progenitor company Peabody Energy with the intention to fail. The union also levies some responsibility on Arch Coal, which sold a number of its assets that were later purchased by Patriot Coal.

"Peabody and Arch say they have no responsibility for this, even though they were the ones who promised these retirees health care," said UMWA President Cecil Roberts.  "We can see right through that kind of corporate doublespeak.  Our members labored for decades to make these companies rich. We're not going to let a bunch of rich CEOs get away this."

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., announced she was co-sponsoring the Caring for Coal Miners Act, legislation introduced by a fellow Republican, Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield. Capito said the bill would ensure those who worked for Patriot Coal could continue to receive their benefits that are at risk as a result of the bankruptcy.

"I have met with retirees from West Virginia, and I hear their concerns," Capito said. "It is important that as we continue to address the complicated issues that resulted from the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal Company that we find the best solutions moving forward.   The Caring for Coal Miners Act ensures continued health care coverage for the retirees who are in danger of losing their benefits."

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., also stood behind the UMWA, stating that he was working on several solutions to the crisis "after hearing the stories of what these men and their families face if they lose their benefits." 

"We are currently working on several solutions that will address the concerns over health care and pensions and will not be challenged in court," said McKinley. "Coal miners risk their lives every day so we can have affordable electricity, and we must do everything we can do protect their livelihood and the benefits they have earned through years of hard work."

McKinley also co-sponsored Whitfield's bill and said he was looking at introducing other legislation in the coming days.

"As Patriot and the UMWA continue negotiations, it is my hope they can come to an acceptable agreement," said McKinley. "However, we need to be ready with legislative solutions should it become necessary."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act that would seek to address the loss in benefits. His act would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to transfer funds, in excess of the amounts needed to meet existing obligations under the Abandoned Mine Land fund, to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan to prevent its insolvency.

The bill also makes a number of other changes to cover healthcare and retirement for coal miners.

"Today's rally should remind us all of people like Shirley Inman, who left a good-paying job in Chicago for a mining job at home in West Virginia, with the promise of a lifetime pension and health-care benefits," Rockefeller said. "Now, after years of on-the-job injuries and a courageous fight with cancer, that promise is gone. This is an unconscionable outcome for Shirley and the thousands of miners and their families who gave of themselves to the mining industry for decades on end. It's heartbreaking and shameful, and I won't stand for it."