Some 2,000 active and retired coal miners gathered in the parking lot of the movie theater in Scott Depot Monday afternoon, looking up at their leader United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts.
"If you think this crowd is big, you try to mine one lump of coal without us," Roberts shouted. “We won't just stand in front of your offices. We'll stand in front of your coal mines. We'll stand in front of your cleaning plants. We'll block the roads and nobody will have a job."
Roberts looked down on the crowd from the bed of a tow truck set up as a stage. After his rallying speech, he along with several UMWA led the miners down the road to the front door of Patriot Coal's West Virginia headquarters.
The miners had gathered to protest a request by Patriot of a Virginia bankruptcy judge.
The company is seeking to end a competitive bargaining agreement with the union that requires pension payments and retiree healthcare benefits. Since the company's second bankruptcy filing in May, it says it can no longer afford the benefits and a continuation will lead to liquidation.
“We were promised health care from cradle to grave,” John Alderson, who has worked in the mines for 40 years, said, “and it’s a shame that one person, a bankruptcy judge, can make the decision to take everybody’s pension and health care away from them.”
Alderson marched alongside his fellow miners, who arrived at an empty Patriot building just minutes after the short pilgrimage began.
“It’s really going to affect the retirees who are 70, 75 years old who depend on this health care and pension to make it through life,” Alderson added. “I really feel sad for them.”
Patriot also announced Monday it plans to sell a portion of its assets and liabilities to an affiliate of the Virginia Land Conservation Fund. The company would acquire the federal Mining Complex in northern West Virginia, the Corridor G Mining Complex in southern West Virginia and a number of land reclamation and water quality improvement permits.
In June, Lexington, Kentucky-based Blackhawk Mining announced it had entered an agreement with Patriot to purchase the bankrupt company’s Panther, Rocklick Wells, Kanwha Eagle, Paint Creek and Midland Trail complexes in southern West Virginia.
Miners that those locations have received WARN notices, informing them they’ll soon be out of work. Blackhawk has said some miners will return to work for the new company, but is reportedly working to get rid of the mines’ current union status.