CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With thousands chanting "we are union," United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts and 15 others were arrested Monday afternoon after refusing police orders to leave the steps in front of Patriot Coal Corp. offices at Laidley Tower.
Roberts and the others - who included state AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue and the Rev. Jim Lewis, a retired Episcopal pastor - had counted on being arrested Monday as part of a demonstration against bankrupt Patriot's plans to end health care coverage for nearly 23,000 retired miners and dependents.
"We want to go to jail because this is a statement," Roberts told a standing-room-only crowd at the Charleston Civic Center prior to the march to Laidley Tower a short distance away in downtown Charleston.
Prior to Monday, 42 union representatives had been arrested during separate demonstrations at company offices in St. Louis. Roberts was arrested twice during the St. Louis demonstrations.
"I'm going to get arrested today and make it three times," Roberts said. "I'll get arrested four times, five times, or six times until we make it right."
Charleston police charged Roberts and the 15 others with unlawful assembly. Those arrested pleaded guilty and paid court costs and fines totaling $5,000 for the group.
Earlier Monday, a crowd estimated at 7,000 to 12,000 gathered at the Civic Center to protest the ramifications of the Patriot bankruptcy case.
Retired coal miner Steve Justice, 58, of Gordon in Boone County, was there in his wheelchair to support the effort. Justice is a diabetic who lost the bottom half of his right leg, suffers from black lung and has had quintuple heart bypass surgery and stands to lose his health benefits under the Patriot plan.
"I worked 23 years in the coal industry and now those companies are wanting to strip everything I worked for," he said. "I've eaten dust for them and they don't care one bit about me and my family."
Ashford resident Evelyn Morgan's husband Larry was a welder for Peabody for 27 years before he died of leukemia in 2006. She held a sign Monday that read, "Larry kept his promise to Peabody, now Peabody should keep their promise to Larry."
"They need to own up to what they're doing wrong to us and make things right," said Morgan, 71. "My husband and other men worked hard for this, and he died thinking I was going to be taken care of, but they're trying to take it away from us."
Union leaders, along with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., addressed the Civic Center crowd before the march to Laidley Tower.
Patriot was formed in 2007 as a spin-off from Peabody Energy. In 2008, Patriot acquired Magnum Coal Co., which had acquired three units from Arch Coal in 2005.
As part of the spin-off and acquisition, Patriot became responsible for the health and retirement benefits of 10,000 retirees and their nearly 13,000 widows and dependents. Nearly 90 percent of the company's retirees never worked for Patriot, but rather were inherited from Peabody or Arch.
On June 9, 2012, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to allow the company to reorganize. Last month, the company asked the bankruptcy court in St. Louis for permission to change its collective bargaining agreements covering UMW-represented retirees.
Patriot said its retiree healthcare liabilities now top $1.6 billion.
The company wants to move retirees from their current plan to a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association trust, which would pay far less than the current level of benefits.