Roll Away the Stone

Over the past several months, Mine Workers have marched in the streets of St. Louis to protest Peabody Energy abandoning its former employees. On three occasions, miners have locked hands in the streets in a boisterous nonviolent protest, singing “Amazing Grace” as they waited to be arrested.


United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts greets the thousands of supporters rallying in St. Louis March 19. Expect a moving speech in Charleston April 1.

Invoking the words of Jesus and passages of scripture, they have asked why courts would allow workers to be persecuted, denying them the benefits they were promised. They are asking for fairness. They ask: If we allow corporations to use the bankruptcy courts to dump retiree pensions and health care, what kind of society are we?

The question will be raised again on Monday, April 1 in the streets of Charleston, W.Va., with more than 5,000 miners and their supporters rallying outside the downtown headquarters of Patriot Coal, the shell company that was created by Peabody and Arch Coal to take over their obligations to employees, and then fail.

I’ll be there and blogging live via, and posting here about the rally later in the week. You can get more details at, and at Fairness at Patriot on Facebook.

So much is at stake, not only for retirees and their families, and for active miners and their communities, but also for every retiree depending on company-provided health care and pensions. Too often in recent years, companies have sought to dump these obligations through the bankruptcy courts. It’s in everyone’s interest that we stop it here.

The Mine Workers are taking a valiant stand, invoking not only history but also a Christian spirit that they argue should infuse the court’s deliberations. This is about fairness, about human dignity, about respect for family and hard work. This is about faith, perhaps even resurrection for struggling mining families.

The Mine Workers have come home to Charleston, seat of the bustling coal mining industry for nearly a hundred years, to state this case clearly. West Virginians understand the sacrifices that coalmine families have made to support mining in Appalachia, to build prosperous and promising lives.

Listen to these stories, sung so well by Tom Breiding of Pittsburgh, about the fight for fairness against Peabody and its agents:


The Alligator Shoe Drops

As bankruptcy court hearings begin today in St. Louis on Patriot Coal’s petition to eliminate retiree health care and to make steep cuts in compensation for active miners, the United Mine Workers released documents showing that Patriot has paid more than $14 million in legal fees and expenses to the well-heeled New York law firm, Davis Polk and Wardwell.


While coal miners, retirees and their widows may be threatened with loss of their livelihoods – even their lives when it comes to their critical health care – the lawyers in Gucci Gulch are living high off the hog telling Patriot how it can shed human liabilities, reward executives and hoard cash.

Senior attorneys at the law firm are billing Patriot $985 an hour, junior attorneys bill $795 an hour and paralegals bill $400 an hour for such tasks as “coordinate duplication,” “assemble and revise hearing binder,” and “prepare FedEx labels for shipment.” The firm charged $21,951.78 in meal expenses from July 2012 to January 2013.

“This is a terrible irony that attorneys making $1,000 an hour and paid more than $14 million at this point, they’re billing $22,000 for take-out food when they work late,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts told a press briefing on Monday. “And yet they want to take away health care from 97,000 people, who pay for their own food, buy their own lunches.” See more details of the filing here.

“We have people who can’t afford their medicine,” Roberts said, “people who have literally broken their backs, who have been severely injured working for Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, the companies that then dumped their obligations into a company they created to fail, Patriot Coal.”

Roberts talked about getting a call from a 93-year-old widow who’s afraid she’ll lose everything if the company is able to walk away from its retirees. “She had lost her husband, and all of her friends had passed. She said, ‘I’ve got one friend left and that’s Cecil Roberts, because you’re trying to save my health care.’ Well, I’ll never give up trying. I’ll never sign an agreement with these coal companies that takes away health care from these retirees.”

Patriot has asked the court to replace its retiree health plan with “Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association” (VEBA), with a cash contribution of $15 million, about the same amount it has paid the lawyers thus far to shake down the former employees, and far short of what is needed. And the company also has asked the court to approve $7 million in bonuses for the genius executives that led them into bankruptcy court.

Mine Workers, retirees and their widows will be among the hundreds that gather on the streets of St. Louis today, demanding that the courts do their duty and provide justice for the miners and their families. Some will be arrested.

“We will not stop until we see that justice in our nation is for all the people, and not just the rich folks,” Roberts said. Meet one of the families whose lives are at stake here.


If you’ve watched the NCAA basketball tournament matchups over the past several decades, you will have noticed that the committee has a good sense of geography and history as it makes selections that end up serving as our March bracketological puzzle. And maybe the committee has a good sense of humor, too.


Consider Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed. Presumably the Cardinals are on solid geographical turf, as the No. 1 seed, opening in Lexington, 60 miles to the south, and then perhaps a second round in Indianapolis, 100 miles to the north. But those are perhaps the most inhospitable regional cities around, where fans of Kentucky and Indiana come to vilify Louisville, the outlier city.

And what of the mighty University of Kentucky Wildcats, the defending national champs? Disenfranchised. No bid to defend the title, given a paltry 21-11 record and disastrous losses, including losing their best player, Nerlins Noel, out for the season with a severe knee injury. In retrospect, it’s easy to second-guess Coach Calipari for playing the soft non-conference schedule.

Roy Williams, coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels could end up facing Kansas, the team he coached to many NCAA appearances, or perhaps UCLA, where three unhappy former Tar Heels migrated a few years ago. So many story lines, so little time!

Meanwhile, if the Cardinals get to Indianapolis, chances are they will face Duke, their future rival in the ACC, an improbable alignment beginning next year that combines Midwest teams Louisville, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame and upstate New York’s Syracuse into the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Anything can happen on the road to the Final Four, of course. Don’t count out Michigan State in the Midwest. The Spartans are defensive demons, strong inside and sometimes clutch. Some notable dark horses: Virginia Commonwealth, Florida Gulf Coast, Creighton, Montana.

The South is the strongest region, in my opinion, with Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan, Georgetown, Florida, UCLA, VCU and Minnesota. Any one of those teams could get to the Final Four, as they have in the past.

Big 10 teams are strong contenders for the Final Four. Indiana is a No. 1 seed, sitting pretty heading to Verizon Center in D.C. for the regional finals, maybe in a rematch with Butler or Illinois, but most likely a nail-biter against Jim Larranaga and the Miami Hurricanes.

It wouldn’t surprise me if either Ohio State or Wisconsin wins the West, although Gonzaga and New Mexico are worthy. Michigan could surprise Kansas or North Carolina, emerging from the South. Louisville, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan.

Those would be my initial bets for a Final Four, sure to change tomorrow, once I’ve studied the teams a bit more. I’ve seen most of the contenders but confess I have no clue who will win between N.C. State and Temple, or Colorado State and Missouri. So many choices! “The Big Guessing Game,” my wife says. But she always picks the alma mater, Michigan State. And why not? The Spartans were the last Big 10 team to win the national championship, and that wasn’t the first time. A guy named Magic ruled the court when she went to school.

I myself am bound to Indiana by geography, history and emotion – the three seeds of human bias – so you will take my arguments with a grain of salt. But we all are bound to emotional attachments of one sort or another, so we share the best we can. Hoosiers do it better! I’ve seen it in the movies!

Let the games begin! Tell us what you think! How is this game going to go? Join the conversation on Facebook at Byrne’s Virtual Office Pool. If you’re coherent, you are invited to join other crack bracketologists at Byrne’s String Music, for the fine competition.

It’s a Fine Madness, March.

Patriot Drops the Bomb

Patriot Coal has asked bankruptcy court to terminate all retiree health care obligations and radically restructure its collective bargaining agreement with the United Mine Workers of America, essentially a nuclear option that promises to intensify the heat in the streets of St. Louis, where coal miners have come to demonstrate and go to jail if necessary to make their public case.


The bankruptcy court motions are “totally unacceptable, unnecessary and put thousands of retired coal miners, their dependents or their widows on the path to financial ruin, worsening health conditions or even death,” UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts declared.

The union stepped up its criticism of Peabody Energy and Arch Coal for using the Patriot shell company to dump their pension and health care obligations. Most of the miners affected are former employees of Peabody or Arch and never worked a day for Patriot Coal.

“Patriot is now the vehicle through which Peabody’s and Arch’s scheme to rid themselves of their long-term obligations to these retirees is playing out,” Roberts said. “But that does not absolve Patriot.”

The union has been negotiating with Patriot to reach a fair agreement and Roberts vowed that those talks would continue. “We remain on two paths in our fight for fairness and justice,” he said. “We will continue to meet with Patriot in the hopes that something fair for both sides can be worked out.

“But at the same time we will continue to make our case in the streets of St. Louis, in Charleston, W.Va., and anywhere else we need to be,” Roberts said. “Lawyers will do what lawyers do, courts will do what courts do. What working families do when they fight for justice is get out, get loud and demand to be heard. We will continue to do that.”

Expect the volume to rise in the streets of St. Louis next week. Here’s how the Mine Workers are making their case to the people of St. Louis in a new TV spot:

The Catholic 7, More Hoopla

Here’s a postscript to the previous blog, since the Catholic schools continue to make news on the basketball court. Amazingly, the No. 1 team in America now is the Gonzaga Bulldogs, a little Jesuit school from Spokane, Wash. Of course, the Zags play in the anemic West Coast Conference, so don’t expect them to drive toward the championship.

The more compelling news is the announcement that the “Catholic 7” – Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and DePaul – will create a basketball-only conference next year, assuming the name of the Big East. They will likely add Catholic schools Xavier and Creighton, and look for a 10th school to round out the conference in future years.

The other big Catholic school, Notre Dame, also now a member of the Big East, will be joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with Louisville, Syracuse and Pittsburgh – at least for basketball. And thus does the bouncing ball tend to follow the millions of TV money available for the elite football schools.

More about that some other time, but I want to revisit last night’s action and yet another Notre Dame miracle, this time for the Lady Irish who went three overtimes to knock off Connecticut. Anyone who watched that game would have to acknowledge that chick hoops rocks.


Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw has some instructions for her star, Skylar Diggins.

How can you not like a team that is coached by the brilliant and poised Muffet McGraw and stars the resourceful and indefatigable Skylar Diggins? McGraw spent half the game on her haunches on the sidelines in a dress and high heels, making both a basketball and a fashion statement. Diggins played every possession of the three-overtime game, 55 minutes, scoring 39 points and hitting key shots down the stretch.

As we get ready for the women’s conference tournaments this weekend, it’s refreshing to see outstanding teams like the Irish and Lady Huskies, although I can’t muster much love for the man among the great women coaches, UConn coach, Geno Auriemma. Auriemma has the best winning percentage among all women’s coaches, but he also recruits the best talent year in and year out, sending many of them on the WNBA. And he’s arrogant. Yeah, what’s not to like?

As a former girls basketball coach, I’m a big fan of the women’s game and coaches like McGraw, Tara Vanderveer at Stanford, Vivian Stringer at Rutgers, Jody Conradt at Texas and the indomitable Pat Summitt of Tennessee. Summitt, who won more college basketball games than any other coach (1,098), had to turn over the reins of her team this year, after 38 years of coaching, to deal with the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Listen to Summitt describe her fight to keep her mind in the game in this ABC News report:

A well-coached women’s college basketball team plays the game “the right way,” with no one individual generally dominating play, which occurs mostly below the rim (where I had to play). They pass, move without the ball, run the break and nail three-point shots with amazing precision.

But there are exceptions, such as the athletic Candace Parker who actually beat all the boys in the high school all-star game dunk contest. Candace went on to win national titles for Summitt at Tennessee and now plays for the L.A. Sparks. And then there’s Brittney Griner, the 6-8 star center for the No. 1 Baylor Bears. Earlier this year, Griner became only the second women’s player (after Parker) to dunk twice in a game.

Monday night, Griner scored 50 points to help Baylor beat Kansas State, getting two of those points with a classic drop step and dunk along the baseline. I’m sure that video will be available on YouTube soon enough, but it looked something like this:

Hold on to your hats: March Madness is on the horizon!