CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thousands of current and retired mine workers and their families are expected to descend upon Charleston this morning for a rally and march to Patriot Coal's downtown headquarters in hopes of preserving healthcare and pension benefits for miners and retirees.
More than 50 buses, carrying supporters from several states, were expected to begin arriving at the Charleston Civic Center at 8:30 a.m. for the United Mine Workers of America rally, which is set to start at 10 a.m.
After the rally at the Civic Center supporters will march to Patriot Coal's Charleston headquarters at Laidley Tower, where another rally will be held.
Brent Webster, Charleston's police chief, said officers have met with the event's organizers multiple times over the last seven to 10 days to go over their plans. He said the city has hosted large-scale marches in the past and that cooperative planning is a big part of how the events are handled.
"We've met with all the organizers, and while it's true that you never truly know what to expect, we feel that we're sufficiently staffed and capable," Webster said. "We understand it's going to be peaceful and that they have some things they want to say.
"Our primary goal is to make sure there's no crimes committed and to ensure the safety of the public. We don't expect any foolishness or anything like that."
He said after meeting with the group's organizers he did not expect any problems with public safety or law enforcement.
The chief did expect inconveniences to the public and downtown businesses during the march. Officers will stop traffic as needed for the march.
The featured speakers at the Civic Center include Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, UMW President Cecil Roberts and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. After the rally, supporters will march from the Civic Center to Laidley Tower, on the corner of Lee and Court streets.
Speakers at that rally include UMW Secretary Treasurer Dan Kane, and AFL-CIO presidents from West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Trumka also will speak again, said UMW spokesman Phil Smith.
Smith expected more than 5,000 supporters for the event. He said a "non-violent action" would occur after the speakers have made their presentation.
Nearly two-dozen supporters, Kane and Roberts among them, were arrested at previous UMW rallies in St. Louis while performing non-violent protests during rallies. In both instances, groups of 10 union members sat down in the street in front of Peabody Energy's St. Louis headquarters.
When asked if he expects a similar outcome in Charleston, Smith replied, "There are people who will be risking arrest tomorrow."
Webster said he hoped it wouldn't come to that.
"We're hoping it won't turn out that way," he said. "We're hoping they can do whatever they have to do as far as their demonstration or march without any incident."
Union leaders contend Peabody Energy and Arch Coal spun off their assets in West Virginia and set Patriot up to fail in a scheme to shed benefit obligations to union retirees.
Peabody denied those claims, saying the company is the victim of "unforeseen events."
Patriot filed for bankruptcy last summer. The company said earlier this month in previous reports that it planned to modify its collective bargaining agreement and create a trust fund for retiree health care benefits, a move that's needed to save 4,000 existing jobs.
The union filed a lawsuit against the two companies in U.S. District Court in Charleston, arguing that Peabody and Arch still are responsible for the benefits under the federal Employee Retirement and Income Securities Act, according to the Associated Press.
The lawsuit claims 90 percent of the retirees Patriot is responsible for never worked for Patriot. They worked for Peabody and Arch.
Smith said it has been a while since the union has led a demonstration of this magnitude in West Virginia but that the union has been known to turn out in numbers when the situation called for it.
The rally at the Civic Center will begin at 10 a.m. The march is expected to begin at the Civic Center at 11:30 a.m. The rally at Laidley Tower is expected to begin at 12:15 p.m.
The event will be live streaming at www.fairnessatpatriot.org/media/video-feed beginning at 8:30 a.m. today.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.cr...@dailymail.com or 304-348-4850.