- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2002

CASTLEWOOD, Va. (AP) Both the sky and the future were cloudy as United Mine Workers members gathered to commemorate the 13th anniversary of a strike against a company that announced last week it plans to lay off all of its workers in Virginia's coal fields.
The union held its annual fish fry Saturday, just days after the Richmond-based Pittston Co. filed a federally mandated notice that it intends to lay off all of its coal-mining subsidiary's 900 workers in preparation for the sale of all of its Virginia coal operations.
The event was held to observe the anniversary of a 1989 strike against Pittston Coal Co. that paved the way for major reforms in health care benefits for miners and retirees.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts reassured worried miners that those reforms ensure that their benefits will continue despite the layoffs and the sale of Pittston's coal assets.
"Your checks are going to come every month like they always do," he said. "No one's health care will be adversely affected, and our union is not going to go away because of the contract you fought so hard for 13 years ago."
Mr. Roberts said the contract that emerged after the 10-month strike protects the miners in the event of a Pittston sale because it gets conveyed to the new owner.
"You can be proud that the union looked down the road and saw this thing possibly happening," he said. "It's all going to be all right."
Workers were informed of their potential job losses Wednesday, two months in advance as required by federal labor laws. The terminations would occur over two weeks starting Nov. 17.
"This date may be extended to a later date, and we will notify you promptly of all extensions," Pittston Coal President Thomas Garges Jr. said in a letter to workers.
Burton Traub, director of investor relations, told the Associated Press that the workers could be retained if the sale does not go forward.
The $3.6 billion Pittston Co. announced three years ago that it was seeking to sell its coal interests to concentrate on its other holdings, such as Brinks Inc. and BAX Global, a transportation supply company.
Pittston already has completed the sale of most its coal reserves in Kentucky to Richmond-based Massey Energy Co. and announced plans this summer to sell about 300 million tons of coal reserves in West Virginia.
The 1989 strike was called when Pittston stopped health insurance for 1,600 pensioners and widows a lifetime benefit the nation's coal industry promised in 1947 after a nationwide strike.
The strikers adopted civil disobedience measures, and many were arrested for using their bodies to block coal-truck traffic. Others were arrested for taking over a Pittston coal preparation plant in Dickenson County.
Mr. Roberts, the union's vice president during the strike, said the labor action struck a chord across the nation.
"They are still talking about that strike," he said. "Four thousand of us went to jail. We struck for 10 months and we didn't back down. We knew that if they could take health care from 1,600 people, they could take it from everybody."
Mr. Roberts said passage of the 1992 Coal Act federal legislation that reinforced the lifetime health care promise was another important victory.
"We still have our health coverage, but don't make any mistake about it there have been 65 court challenges to that act," he said.
One of those challenges was a lawsuit filed by Pittston in 1997 seeking the refund of money it had paid in to a health-benefits fund established under the 1992 act. Pittston claimed that the required payments into the Combined Fund amounted to an illegal tax and asked for the refund of the $74 million the company had paid in since passage of the act.
In August, a federal judge in Richmond rejected Pittston's claim.
In ruling against the company, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer wrote that "Pittston's position that the trustees and the Combined Fund have some sort of unfettered power to assess taxes is disingenuous."

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