Labor Memorial Day

Growing up, May Day always conjured up Maypole dances and the smell of beautiful flowers at church festivals celebrating Mary, a reputed virgin mother. I learned that it was the day to celebrate St. Joseph the worker, the patron saint of workers, which I know today only partially acknowledges the importance of the holiday.

May 1 has been observed around the world as International Workers Day since 1889, in memory of the protesters killed at Haymarket Square, Chicago, campaigning for the eight-hour workday. The labor activists had set May 1, 1886 as the day for a nationwide strike for better working conditions, but the peaceful May 4 Chicago rally quickly became a confrontation with police and agitators.

The “Haymarket Massacre” became a rallying cry for the union movement in the United States and around the world. Through the struggle of those unionists and others who have followed in their footsteps, we have won not only the 8-hour day and the 40-hour workweek, but also overtime pay, fair labor standards and protections, job safety regulations, and laws that allow us to bargain with employers over pay and conditions of work, including pensions and health care.

So, May Day is something to celebrate. It doesn’t require a march with the trappings of war, as the despots in Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang have staged, or even with bullhorns and protest signs at the local Wal-Mart – although that would be appropriate. But it does require an understanding that nothing will be won in our society without a unified struggle against the corporate powers that control industry and, to a great degree, government.

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Mother Jones, right, helps a little girl with her shoe at the tent encampment of miners in Ludlow, Colo., in 1886.

It’s also a good time to remember those who have paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of economic justice – not only at Haymarket Square but also in other seminal labor fights. This is a time when the United Mine Workers honor the memory of the 66 men, women and children who were killed in April 1914 in an attack on striking miners’ camp at Ludlow, Colo., and in the protests that followed – one of the deadliest labor confrontations in our history.

The attack on the miners, orchestrated by oil baron John D. Rockefeller Jr. and a detective agency he hired, with the assistance of the governor of Colorado and the National Guard, is one of the saddest chapters in the long-running war on organized workers in this country. While the violence may have dissipated over time, corporations still take no prisoners in their systematic assault on worker rights.

May 1 also is the day famed schoolteacher, dressmaker and union organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones claims as her birthday, although the record is not clear on her birth. But she made sure the record was clear about Ludlow, where she went to help the families during the strike. Here’s her first-hand account from her 1925 autobiography:

“All day long the firing continued. Men fell dead, their faces to the ground. Women dropped. The little Snyder boy was shot through the head, trying to save his kitten. A child carrying water to his dying mother was killed. By five o’clock in the afternoon, the miners had no more food, nor water, nor ammunition. They had to retreat with their wives and little ones into the hills. Louis Tikas was riddled with shots while he tried to lead women and children to safety. They perished with him.

“Night came. A raw wind blew down the canyons where men, women and children shivered and wept. Then a blaze lighted the sky. The soldiers, drunk with blood and with the liquor they had looted from the saloon, set fire to the tents of Ludlow with oil-soaked torches. The tents, all the poor furnishings, the clothes and bedding of the miners’ families burned. Coils of barbed wire were stuffed into the well, the miners’ only water supply.

“After it was over, the wretched people crept back to bury their dead. In a dugout under a burned tent, the charred bodies of eleven little children and two women were found – unrecognizable. Everything lay in ruins. The wires of bedsprings writhed on the ground as if they, too, had tried to flee the horror. Oil and fire and guns had robbed men and women and children of their homes and slaughtered tiny babies and defenseless women. Done by order of Lieutenant Linderfelt, a savage, brutal executor of the will of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

“The strikers issued a general call to arms: Every able bodied man must shoulder a gun to protect himself and his family from assassins, from arson and plunder. From jungle days to our own so-named civilization, this is a man’s inherent right. To a man they armed, throughout the whole strike district. Ludlow went on burning in their hearts.”

Ludlow burned into the conscience of a nation, helping to improve the lot of workers everywhere, as Colorado historians explain in a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary:

The UMWA’s two-day centennial anniversary event at Ludlow May 17-18 includes family activities including a simulated coalmine, a craft area for kids and performances by local musicians. Noted authors and academics join political and labor leaders in addressing the crowd.

Arlo Guthrie is not scheduled to play, but if he were he would certainly sing his tribute to the brave miners and their families:

For more information about why Ludlow matters, check out this article in The New Yorker.

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Lessons in Social Justice

The Fairness at Patriot rally in Henderson, Ky., on Tuesday sent me tripping back through time. Here we were at the County Courthouse at the edge of Henderson’s idyllic Central Park, where I worked and played for years, demanding justice for those who mine coal while celebrating the continued importance of that resource to the community.

In this blog, I have written about the history of King Coal and Henderson, and the Mine Workers struggle for justice, including the series of rallies in St. Louis that challenged the bankruptcy court to do the right thing, which, sadly, it did not.  But nothing hit home quite so dramatically as the rally on June 4.

Again there was the deep sense of the moral outrage – expressed by politicians as well as labor leaders – for the abandonment of mining families and retirees by Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, the villains in this story. They dumped all the legacy liabilities and conveyed few of their assets onto a company that seemed to be created to fail, Patriot Coal, now in bankruptcy.

As eloquent as the speakers were, none captured the spirit of the moment as well as an associate pastor at Henderson Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, where I once served as an altar boy and choirboy.  Opening the rally with a homily and a prayer, the Rev. Anthony Shonis set the mood and the story for the event:

Father Shonis, a native of Pennsylvania coal country who has ministered at the Henderson parish for the past decade, told the story not only of the rally but also of the union that has struggled for justice in the coalfields since 1890, when its founding President John Mitchell led the charge against the ruthless coal barons of the day.

He also invoked the memory of John L. Lewis, the legendary president of the Mine Workers who revolutionized the labor movement by leading the CIO to organize industrial unions — from auto and steel to utilities and furniture manufacturers. The history of American labor largely began and was transformed through the Mine Workers – although the Locomotive Engineers, Carpenters and other craft unions may claim earlier roots.

It was Mine Workers’ struggle that inspired so many to strive and succeed. And in the words of Father Shonis’s prayer, that ongoing struggle may also hold the keys to the future:

Today, the fight that UMWA President Cecil Roberts calls “the Mine Workers Traveling Salvation Show” is offering a warning and a prescription to workers of every stripe, in every industry. The signs waved across the park with the legend, “Are You Next?” carry special significance in an era when U.S. corporations are using bankruptcy courts to dump retirement obligations and seek unilateral changes in existing contracts.

ImageThe UMWA campaign already has generated legislation in the House and Senate to protect retirement benefits for the miners, as well as calls for changes in the nation’s bankruptcy laws to prevent the easy relief for U.S. corporations at the expense of employees, a process that Roberts likened to “curb service” – just drive in and get what you want, few questions asked.

“Let’s just move the bankruptcy court to the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Roberts said. “They have long lines. You’ve got to have your paperwork in order. At least they have to stand in line with their paperwork!”

Roberts decried that the nation has become “a nation of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations,” saying that the Fairness at Patriot campaign can help the nation get back on track. “I’ve got a message for Peabody and Patriot and the judicial system in this country,” he said. “This is a movement of the people, by the people and for the people.”

I felt a sense of great pride as I listened to his words, to be a part of this democratic movement that bubbles up from the people who work for a living. And even though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, I was also proud of Father Shonis and the Church’s longstanding campaign for social justice that he represented so well at the rally in my hometown.

The Church’s teachings about social and economic justice are lessons I will carry with me all my life. They underline the truth and the strength of the labor movement, a galvanizing influence on our people and our democracy. Thanks for the reminder, Father Shonis.

In the Court of Public Opinion

I am going home to cover a big story, just like old times. When 4,000 United Mine Workers and community supporters rally Tuesday, June 4, at the Henderson County (Ky.) Courthouse, I’ll be there to write about it, to blog live in my hometown, where I began my career as a newspaper reporter.

This is a story that Henderson should know well, the fight by coal miners to earn a decent living, to survive in a dangerous job. Coal was King in Henderson for many years, along with corn, soybean and tobacco, now overtaken by marijuana, as markets change, including energy. Coal has fallen on hard times, but not nearly so much as the miners who spent decades underground mining the coal. Many struggle for breath, many live out their lives in pain.

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A retiree rallies in St. Louis. The rigors of coal mining have taken their toll on miners, but they’re fighting back through the United Mine Workers of America.

These are men and women dependent on health care benefits that St. Louis-based Peabody Energy and Arch Coal promised to deliver but dodged artfully through a corporate swindle – I don’t know how else to describe it. They have offloaded their retirement obligations to these miners onto a little company that may have been “created to fail.” Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy last year and is getting a gentle hand from U.S. bankruptcy court, even as Peabody and Arch wash their hands, like Pontius Pilate.

And here’s the lead: Patriot Coal on Wednesday, May 28, was awarded a bankruptcy court ruling that essentially gave the company the green light to gut the contracts of 1,700 active Mine Workers and strip life-saving health care benefits from 23,000 retirees and their family members. The Mine Workers immediately announced they would appeal the ruling, and continue their fight in other courts, in Congress and in the court of public opinion.

Now the story is coming to Henderson, and I believe it is a place where miners can get a fair hearing – at least in the court of public opinion. Patriot operates the Highland mine in adjoining Union County, and until last summer operated the Freedom mine in Henderson. Patriot shut down Freedom and others in West Virginia, and many are operating well below capacity. It’s a bittersweet reminder for citizens of Henderson that coal has always held both promise and peril.

Every coalfield family has been affected by the rigors of coal mining.  They’ve all lost friends and relatives to pneumoconiosis (black lung) and other respiratory diseases, or to the dangerous life underground. Coal is part of the DNA of these communities, and UMWA health care is a lifeline to the next day. Sadly, every American is affected by the erosion of health benefits, and by courts that increasingly favor the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals.

That is where we are today, facing a judicial system that somehow gives corporations the rights of people, while diminishing the rights of real people. “As often happens under American bankruptcy law, the short-term interests of the company are valued more than the dedication and sacrifice of the workers, who actually produce the profits that make a company successful,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

Roberts has vowed to continue the fight in every forum, including in federal court in Charleston, where the UMWA has sued Peabody and Arch for violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), alleging the companies conspired to deny benefits to their longtime employees and their families.

“Peabody and Arch can decide to live up to their obligations and end this problem tomorrow,” Robert said. “But if they don’t, we will continue our litigation against them and are optimistic about our chances.”

The rally in Henderson next week continues an aggressive campaign by the Mine Workers to make the miners’ case for justice in the communities where they live, where they raised their kids and contributed to local economies often driven by coal. As a young reporter, I waded through records at the Henderson County Courthouse, tracking the trade in mineral rights, to Peabody, Reynolds and other industry heavyweights of the day.

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The Henderson County (Ky.) Courthouse, where 4,000 Mine Worker and their supporters will rally next Tuesday.

Now it’s come to this: Giant coal companies that extracted the mineral wealth of communities now discard the workers who made their fortunes on a gob pile, like they were merely the waste of the operation – a sad reflection on corporate America. But we also are witnessing the courage and the determination of the miners and their union.

While the UMWA train stops in Henderson as it searches for justice, inevitably it is on its way to Washington, D.C., where the voices of miners already are being heard.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), denouncing the bankruptcy court ruling as a “travesty,” declared, “It is wrong that Peabody can set up a company such as Patriot, fill that company with its liabilities and then spin that company off for the sole purpose of avoiding its contractual and moral obligations to its workers. I don’t think bankruptcy laws were ever designed to shield corporations from their promises and responsibilities. I will continue to fight for fairness in the bankruptcy system.”

This is a fight that affects us all. Stay tuned. You will be able to follow the action in Henderson via the live blog, or watch it via livestream video here, beginning at 10 a.m. CT Tuesday, June 4.

Will There Be Justice?

Bankruptcy Court hearings begin Monday on Patriot Coal’s plan to effectively eliminate health care for retirees and impose severe cutbacks on pay, working conditions and benefits for active miners. Outside the courthouse in St. Louis, thousands of Mine Workers (UMWA) and their labor and community allies will call for justice.

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They will bear witness to a scam by Peabody Energy and Arch Coal to dump long-term benefit obligations on a company, Patriot, created specifically to absorb those obligations and eventually to fail. That case is being heard in another federal courthouse, in Charleston, W.Va., but it’s an essential underlying factor in this bankruptcy.

Consumer, environmental and civil rights leaders will join labor and religious leaders in demanding justice for those men and women who gave their entire working lives to the success of rich companies like Peabody and Arch, only to be dumped, and for the mining communities that are being abandoned in the process.

Joining UMWA President Cecil Roberts onstage will be Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America; Sally Greenberg, director of the National Consumers League; Van Jones, president of Rebuild the Dream; St. Louis NAACP President Adolthus Pruitt; and UNITE HERE Vice President Bob Proto. And Steve Smyth, president of the Australian mine workers, is coming halfway around the world to pledge support from down under.

Prayers will open and close the gathering, and the congregation comes together again in the evening for a candlelight prayer vigil across from the Federal Building.

It will be the Mine Workers “largest rally yet in St. Louis,” Roberts said, after four previous excursions that drew thousands of miners and supporters. Two weeks ago, the miners planted 1,000 white crosses to signify the number of miners who have died working for the coal companies, or who stand to lose their lives if their health care is taken from them.

The union is running a new 30-second TV spot in the St. Louis metropolitan area that dramatizes the importance of the fight. If the bankruptcy court can allow contractual obligations to miners and their families to be offloaded and then discarded, then no worker’s benefit is safe from corporate thievery.

The Peabody and Arch bigwigs, after listening to the crowd chants during previous demonstrations, got far out of town as the bankruptcy hearings begin, both holding annual meetings in Wyoming. But they can’t get away from the Mine Workers. A delegation was in Wright, Wyo., April 25 to demonstrate at the Arch meeting, and plan to yell even louder outside the Peabody meeting April 29.

“These companies can run, but they can’t hide,” said Jody Hogge, a retiree from Peabody Energy who traveled to Wyoming. She is president of UMWA Local 9819, and retired from Peabody Mine #10 in Pawnee, Ill., with 13 years of service as a miner when the mine closed in 1994. “They moved their meetings more than 1,000 miles from St. Louis because they don’t want people to see what they’re doing to us. They prefer to operate behind closed doors; we’re here to keep those doors open and let everyone see exactly how these corporations behave.”

You can follow the live blog from the rally at http://fairnessatpatriotnow.blogspot.com/. The event also will be live streamed, beginning at 10 a.m. Central Time at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/mineworkers. For more information, check out http://www.fairnessatpatriot.org, and show your support by “liking” the Fairness at Patriot on Facebook.

Last Line of Defense

Denny Pickens saw a good job at the Shoemaker mine outside Wheeling, W.Va., nearly slip through his fingers before he was able to reel it back with the help of his union, the United Mine Workers of America, which convinced Consol Energy that it should invest in revitalizing the mine.

Pickens, the president of the local UMWA union at the mine, was a key player in organizing a cooperative program that demonstrated to Consol that the mine could be profitable, saving hundreds of jobs and boosting a community that depends on mining families for its survival.

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As the head of the march neared Patriot Coal headquarters in Charleston, demonstrators were still leaving the Civic Center 11 blocks behind. More than 10,000 miners and their supporters rallied for fairness.

That battle for the economic health of coalfield communities has boiled over as Patriot Coal and its sponsors, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, are using the bankruptcy courts in an effort to dump their obligations to retirees and their families. That’s why Pickens joined more than 10,000 Mine Workers and their supporters April 1 as they marched to the Charleston headquarters of Patriot Coal, demanding a fair deal for the workers who built the companies’ fortunes.

After 45 years in the mine, Pickens would like to retire but he can’t afford to do it when retiree health care is hanging in the balance of this struggle. “If it could happen to our brothers down here, it could happen to us,” he said. “And if it goes past us, it could happen to anyone in this country.”

That is the considered view of a man who has spent nearly half a century in pitched battles with coal companies that have had little compunction about tossing workers and retirees under the bus if it helps to maximize their profits – and a man who understands the power that a union gives him when he goes to the table.

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Denny Pickens

“It’s got to stop, and it’s got to stop now,” Pickens said. “If we’ve got to be the shock troops to do it, then I guess we’ll do it.”

It was easy to see the United Mine Workers as the leading edge of a defensive stand as they marched through the streets of Charleston, outfitted in their trademark camouflage garb. Many were veterans of wars, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, recognized from the podium by UMWA President Cecil Roberts.

“Every time this country has called on us … the Appalachian coal miners have been the first ones to answer that call,” Roberts said. “Now I say, these people stood with their country and it’s time for our country to stand with them.”

Among the nearly 11,000 marchers was a young family all in camouflage – Tim and Melissa Morris with their infant Hayley, asleep in Tim’s arms. They had come from southwestern Pennsylvania because “what they’re doing is not fair,” Tim said. “We’re sticking together and fighting back.”

That’s a spirit lauded by public officials who addressed the crowd, from senior U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (via video) to Rep. Nick Rahall and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. All sang the praises of the Mine Workers and their leadership.

Perhaps no one was as effusive in praising the miners as West Virginia’s junior senator, Joe Manchin, also a former governor. He said he enjoys telling people outside Appalachia just how important coal miners have been to American history, to the economy and to the defense of the nation.

“People don’t defend this country without you,” Manchin said. “I tell other people: These are the most patriotic people in the country. They’ve shed more blood and made more sacrifices than any other group of people I know.”

The irony of these patriotic Americans fighting for fairness from a company that calls itself “Patriot” was not lost on the congregation.

Here’s Sen. Manchin’s full remarks:

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.

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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 http://fairnessatpatriotnow.blogspot.com/, and posting here about the rally later in the week. You can get more details at http://www.fairnessatpatriot.org, 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.

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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.

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.

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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:

Fairness at Patriot

Peabody Energy today got a first taste of what promises to be an intense in-your-face confrontation with the United Mine Workers, the first day of hearings in the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal, a company Peabody spun off to offload its union operations – and pension and health care obligations for thousands of retirees and their families.

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Cecil Roberts, third from left, leads miners in singing “Amazing Grace” as they prepare to be arrested in front of Peabody headquarters in St. Louis. (Photo by Mike Elk)

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts led hundreds of active and retired coal miners in a rally across from the federal building where the court hearing was in session, and then in a march to Peabody headquarters where he and nine others were arrested for sitting in the street and refusing to disperse.

Most of the miners and retirees whose benefits are at risk in the bankruptcy never worked a day at Patriot, but were victims of the double-breasting practices of Peabody and Arch Coal, which also dumped its union operations on Patriot. The UMW charges that Peabody created Patriot specifically to rid itself of the legacy costs, and that Patriot was built to fail.

“What we have here is a company reneging on its promises,” Roberts said of Peabody. “We’re not going to take it. We will fight for our members and their families in the courts, in the coalfields and in the streets of St. Louis. Patriot and Peabody have a moral obligation to those who mined their coal.”

The UMW live-streamed much of the rally and march from St. Louis, and also live-blogged at the event, which had the flavor of old-fashioned mass demonstrations and street theater. Roberts vowed the union would continue to hammer away at the companies in the court of public opinion.

Before marching to Peabody headquarters, Roberts called to the stage the nine other mine workers who he said were committed to go to jail, two of whom had oxygen tanks strapped over their shoulders. One was on oxygen 24 hours a day, several had black lung disease, and one was a Vietnam veteran with Agent Orange poisoning.

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A retired miner with an oxygen tank sits handcuffed in the paddy wagon before being hauled away to jail for civil disobedience. (Photo by Mike Elk)

Roberts, who speaks with the passion and rhythm of an evangelical preacher (“Jesus was an organizer,” he declares), read from the Bible to chasten Peabody and Arch managements, urging them to pray to understand the error of their ways, and to repent. He called for a moment of silence for those in hospice “who will not see the morning come,” others with lung, heart and blood problems, “who without their medicines will not live.”

“I urge the people at Peabody to think about what they are doing to them,” he said. “We march for them, and ask God’s guidance in returning everybody to their homes and the strength to return here again, and again and again and again.”

The union had bused in the miners and retirees from the mining towns throughout southern Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia, where most of the Patriot mines have closed down. And it has been hammering its message about corporate greed and community abandonment in two TV ads that have been airing this month in the St. Louis area, as well as billboards in prominent areas.

For more information about the coal companies’ shakedown of miners, check out my previous blogs here, here and here.

And stay tuned. As Roberts said, the miners will be back. And they won’t back down.

Voices from the Coalfields

In issuing her order to move Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy case from New York to St. Louis, Bankruptcy Judge Shelley Chapman pointed to the “hundreds of hand-written
letters … received by the Court from the people whose hands mine the Debtors’ coal and their widows and children.”

These very personal and emotional statements clearly influenced her decision. The United Mine Workers had made a strong case that the bankruptcy court should not decide this case in the financial capital of New York, but in the heartland where coal was mined and lives were affected by the outcome.

Many of the letters, Judge Chapman wrote “enclosed family pictures, or lists of ailments and medications. Some of them asked for a personal response. All of them were respectful, and compelling. This decision reflects the Court’s attempt to craft a just and balanced solution to the question of which bankruptcy court will become the next custodian not only of these cases but also of these letters.”

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Like “Fairness at Patriot” on Facebook

That’s a powerful statement about the validity of the comments from the coalfields, from these mining families that had given their lives to the success of Peabody Coal Co., which in turn had dumped them. They landed in a Peabody shell, a new company, Patriot Coal, which got little of the lucrative business but lots of human liabilities. And now they are in dire need of the benefits they were promised by Peabody, before they were discarded like chattel.

Roger Elkins of Beckley, W.Va., wrote that he suffers “from cervical fusion in the 5th and 6th vertebrae of my neck, a crushed vertebrae in my lumbar back, a broken ankle, a broken wrist and two operations on this wrist. I suffered from severe burns on my hands from an exploding cable, plus numerous soft tissue injuries from my employment” at Peabody.

In short, he had given his life to Peabody. But Peabody apparently could care less about him or any of the thousands of other retirees, widows and orphans. Wrote one widow, “(I have) heart trouble, a pacemaker. (I had) a stroke, on oxygen daily, arthritic, can hardly walk, three discs out in my back. I am 74 years old … I take daily medications. I cannot live alone … I need this insurance badly.”

Her husband worked 38 years in the Peabody mines, “lost his leg at Dugger Mines in Indiana in 1971, went back to work and retired in 1974. We moved back to Kentucky in 2000.” Now he was gone, and she was pleading with the court for survival.

Here’s Sharron Diane Small, a widow of a miner from Marissa, Ill.:

“I will lose everything if I lose my insurance and medicine. I have colon problems … I have nerve problems. I’m losing my house, and have lost my son, brother, husband, mother-in-law, mother and father, and nephew – one each year for the last eight years.

“I realize it’s not any one person’s fault but what are we suppose to do? I have to take at least 12 different kind of medicine a day. … Please help all of us who are losing. I will wait as long as I can before going to the doctor and try to do without all the medicine I can. Thank you for listening. God bless.”

These are courageous people living out their lives after spending their youth building a great American energy company, and heartless corporate scoundrel. Patriot Coal may go bankrupt, but Peabody expects to walk away scot free.

Fortunately, the United Mine Workers will not walk away from the fight with Peabody, and is pressing not only in bankruptcy court, but also in U.S. district court in West Virginia, where the union has sued Peabody for violating the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act by colluding to deprive its workers and retirees of earned benefits.

“This … promises to be a long battle for the workers, retirees, their dependents and widows at Patriot who seek only fairness,” Roberts said. “Company executives who try to evade their obligations through a slick transfer of corporate assets need to know that the UMWA will fight in every way possible to make sure a promise made is a promise kept.”

As Roberts explained in October when he accepted the National Consumer League’s 2012 Trumpeter Award, fighting for the rights of all workers against the injustice of greedy coal companies is embedded in the UMW DNA, and is at the heart of the labor movement:

“What this movement needs is a little more militancy … a little more militancy,” Roberts repeated as he moved the crowd to stand and shout. The union has taken this fight to the courts, and it is ready to go to the streets. A lot of people who were promised benefits for a life of hard work and sacrifice are depending on it.

We’ll keep on eye on those court cases, and on the fight for survival by miners and their families. And we’ll look at the future of coal and mining communities that have depended on it for not only survival, but prosperity.