FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) -- Coal miners and their families from several states gathered in the rain in West Virginia on Tuesday to protest bankrupt Patriot Coal's plan to cut benefits.
United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard told the crowd that every union is threatened if Patriot gets away with shedding legacy costs and breaking promises. The son of a coal miner said that his union would not exist without the UMWA, and the two will stand together.
Another speaker, AFL-CIO President Ken Perdue, said that the discussion needs to change, to electing new government officials and changing bankruptcy laws to protect people, not corporations.
Patriot said last week it's imposing less severe wage and benefit cuts on its miners than it could have under a court ruling. The company also said it will keep retired workers' health plans unchanged for the next two months while it continues negotiating with the union.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States ruled May 29 that Patriot could abandon its collective-bargaining agreements with the miners' union, saying its actions were legal and perhaps even unavoidable.
The cuts have been the most contentious aspect since the Peabody Energy spinoff filed for Chapter 11 protection a year ago, saying its $1.6 billion legacy obligation was unsustainable.
The UMWA said that more than 90 percent of the retirees whose health care is now at risk never worked a single day for Patriot. Rather, they spent their careers with Peabody or Arch Coal.
Union leaders say Peabody Energy and Arch Coal spun off assets and set up Patriot to fail in a deliberate plan to end benefit obligations to union retirees.
Patriot denies that, saying its bankruptcy results from the global financial crisis, tighter environmental regulations and a reduction in metallurgical coal prices.
Phil Smith, a UMWA spokesman, said 5,000 people attended Tuesday's rally, which was held at a football practice field in Fairmont. It was the union's 14th protest against Patriot's plan.
They came from Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Most of the crowd sat in lawn chairs. They wore T-shirts containing messages such as "Peabody promised, Peabody lied," and "You're next".