Musician Makes Stand for Coal

WHEELING – Tom Breiding would not describe himself as an activist.

However, upon attending a rally against Patriot Coal Corporation in Charleston last September, Breiding felt inspired.

“When you stand there and listen to these miners tell their stories, you can’t help but feel moved,” the Wheeling native said.

The rally, and ones like it across the country since then, are put on by the United Mine Workers of America in protest of St. Louis-based Patriot, which was created from another coal company, Peabody Energy Corporation, in 2007.

Initially profitable, Patriot hit hard times in recent years, the company citing exceptionally soft coal markets, rising costs and “unsustainable legacy liabilities” tied to the spinoff.

As part of its reorganization plan, Patriot seeks drastic cuts in health care benefits to retirees.

However, UMWA officials said Patriot was set up to fail in a deliberate plan to end benefit obligations to retirees.

Though officials with both companies deny that claim, the UMWA has been holding rallies to ensure their workers are not forgotten.

At the Charleston rally, which Breiding attended through his day job at Wheeling Jesuit University’s Appalachian Institute, close to 10,000 workers and supporters were on hand to share their stories and fight for their benefits and pensions.

Breiding left feeling inspired, penning a song called “River, Rails or Road.”

“I sent that song to the UMWA, and they adopted it as sort of a fight song,” Breiding said, adding the song was used in promotional videos by the organization.

Still, Breiding wanted to do more, so he set off for St. Louis in March to play at one of the rallies, held in the shadow of the Peabody Energy building.

Breiding said the response to his song, as well as other songs from his album, “Unbroken Circle: Songs of the West Virginia Coalfields,” was overwhelming.

“These people are passionate about the cause,” he said. “It is so great to be a direct part of these rallies and have people be receptive.”

Last week, Breiding was again in St. Louis, where more than 3,000 people gathered the day before the beginning of Peabody’s bankruptcy case.

He said he will continue to try to make it to as many rallies as he can to show his support for the organization and workers, and said he also hopes to take students from WJU and the Appalachian Institute with him in the future to see firsthand what is happening to workers in the region.