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 CNS Story:

COAL-PROTEST Apr-2-2013 (610 words) xxxn

Priest arrested protesting company's plan to limit retiree health care

By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A Catholic priest was one of 16 people arrested during a protest outside of the Charleston, W.Va., offices of Patriot Coal Corp.

Glenmary Father John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, was charged with unlawful assembly April 1 along with an Episcopal priest, a United Church of Christ minister and labor leaders, including Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, and Cecil Roberts, United Mine Workers of America president.

They were among more than 5,000 people protesting a plan by the coal company to restructure its health care benefits for UMW retirees. The coal company is seeking to restrict the amount of health care coverage it provides to about 10,000 retirees and 13,000 dependents in Kentucky and West Virginia as it seeks to emerge from bankruptcy.

Father Rausch told Catholic News Service the arrests were prearranged and largely symbolic. He spoke to CNS shortly after he was released from custody after pleading guilty to the charge and paying $315 in fines and court costs.

But he said his participation in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience on the steps of the Laidley Tower in downtown Charleston from which Patriot runs its unionized mines was a requirement of his faith.

"Unless we begin to start living out our convictions, then it's cheap grace (and) we're only Sunday Catholics. This is Monday. This ain't Sunday," Father Rausch said.

"Anybody who has a common bit of sense knows you can't take health benefits away from workers," the priest explained, saying he believed Patriot was created by two highly profitable coal companies to escape retiree health care liabilities.

Patriot's critics claim that the company was doomed to fail from the start.

Records show that Patriot was spun off in 2007 by Peabody Energy, the world's largest coal producer. Peabody placed all of its unionized mines in Kentucky and West Virginia into the new company. Another coal producer, Arch Coal, did much the same by creating Magnum Coal and placing its unionized mines in that company. Patriot later absorbed Magnum.

Patriot filed for bankruptcy July 9, saying it could not afford the $1.6 billion in pension and medical insurance called for under contracts with the UMW.

Patriot's move has gained numerous critics. Political leaders, including West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., spoke at a rally at the Charleston Convention Center before mineworker supporters marched to Patriot's offices. Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice and local media also have disapproved of Patriot's action.

Patriot responded to the rally in a prepared statement from company spokeswoman Janine Orf.

Orf said that Patriot is not proposing to eliminate health care for the unionized retirees, but that "our proposal allows for meaningful health care coverage for union retirees at a level that Patriot can afford."

She said the company has proposed creating a trust fund administered by the Mine Workers or the union's Health and Retirement Funds program. Patriot proposed funding the trust through a voluntary employee benefit association, which retirees would join, by providing the association with a "significant ownership stake in the reorganized company, which is expected to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars." She said the fund also would get up to an additional $300 million through profit-sharing contributions, an initial cash contribution of $15 million and "future recoveries from litigation."

Coal Act and black lung beneficiaries will continue to receive current benefits, Orf's statement said.

She also noted that Patriot has filed a lawsuit against Peabody Energy to prevent the company from "using our bankruptcy to reduce their own obligations to retires whose health care they agreed to pay" when Patriot was created.


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