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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Getting It Together

What does it take to get Democrats and Republicans to work together? Apparently all that’s needed is a recognition that they must act – because people are hurting and they’re yelling and screaming about it. Better to work out a deal than be tossed out on your ear on Election Day.

ImageThat’s a cynical view, and I still applaud the 19 members of the House that agreed to sponsor or co-sponsor HR 2918, the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protections Act of 2013. That’s a good piece of legislation that should become the basis for law, helping Mine Workers and their families stay alive, essentially. And the United Mine Workers of America have made sure that Congress gets the message with a vigorous public education campaign over the past eight months.

The bill’s supporters are eight Democrats and 11 Republicans, most from the coalfields of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Democrat George Miller of California also signed on to the bill because he is a labor champion who would not pass up the opportunity to support families in dire need of health care benefits promised for a lifetime of work underground, at risk of life and limb.

Most of these miners worked for Peabody Energy or Arch Coal, but those companies managed to dump their health care obligations onto a spin-off company, Patriot Coal, that may have been created by Peabody to fail. Thousands of Mine Workers and supporters rallied in Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield’s front yard, the Henderson County Courthouse, back in June to assail a bankruptcy judge’s decision that would give Patriot carte blanche to dump benefits and abrogate current contracts.

Congressman Whitfield was attending to the funeral of his father that day, but he sent an aide to pledge his commitment to introduce legislation to protect those benefits. His promise served as an opening to craft this bipartisan bill, which resembles a bill sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, (D-W.Va.). This one, however, is bipartisan, a rare commodity in Washington politics, giving Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, good reason to sponsor both bills.

“This effort is about standing up for coal miners, their widows, and our coalfield communities,” Rahall said.  “After a lifetime of labor, they have earned the right to retire and live in dignity and I refuse to stand idly by as our miners see the benefits they earned over a lifetime eroded by forces beyond their control.”

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Some 5,000 Mine Workers and their families gathered in heavy rain in Fairmont, W.Va., last month to urge Peabody Energy and their elected representatives to do the right thing.

West Virginia Republicans David McKinley and Shelley Moore Capito are co-sponsors of the bill, as are Kentucky Republicans Whitfield and Andy Barr. Five Republicans from Ohio also signed on.

The eight Democrats are spread across seven states, including Missouri, where William Lacy Clay Jr. is upholding the fine Missouri Clay tradition of his father, the great Rep. Bill Clay, who championed workers as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.

For the most part, however, all these legislators have a single common interest. Mine Workers and their families and friends and allies in the labor and religious communities are a core constituency, a single-minded and committed group of voters who do not forget.  They are a powerful political force.

The Mine Workers have mobilized thousands of members, dressed in camouflage or militant T-shirts, virtually camping out in front of Peabody’s headquarters in St. Louis over the past six months, using billboards and TV and print ads to punctuate the frequent rallies. More than 10,000 miners and allies rallied outside Patriot’s West Virginia headquarters in Charleston, W.Va.

But that is in the coalfields, a natural audience for the UMWA message. Now the voices of miners and their struggle must be amplified to reach the population and financial centers of America, to make their case to an audience that doesn’t really get coal, or the human costs of mining. 

In a sea of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 19 hardly make a ripple.  But that’s how every movement begins. Eventually, with a little agitation, we can make a splash. For this Congress, it may take a full immersion.

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.

Faith and Justice

As Mine Workers and their supporters prepare to descend on St. Louis Tuesday to again raise their voices outside the federal courthouse, they are bolstered by a new report by religious leaders that finds the miners’ battle against Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and the bastard child Patriot Coal to be right and just.

And they are heartened by their own sense of faith and hope that justice will be served – if not by the ruling by the bankruptcy judge sometime before May 29, then in the federal court in Charleston, W.Va., where the United Mine Workers of America has sued the coal companies for violating federal law, or in the U.S. Congress, where relief legislation has been introduced in both the Senate and the House.

But there are huge mountains to climb to preserve the health care coverage for coal miners and their retirees, and nobody knows that better than the union that has been fighting for the rights of these energy pioneers since 1890. It’s no secret that corporations increasingly are using the bankruptcy courts to dump retiree benefits.

“This has happened to steelworkers, airline workers, bakery workers, glass workers and now mine workers,” said Mike Caputo, a UMWA vice president and majority whip in the West Virginia House of Delegates. “Enough is enough. It’s time to take a stand.”

The stand by the Mine Workers has galvanized support not only from the labor movement, but also from consumer, civil rights, environmental and religious organizations. On April 29, at the last rally in St. Louis, UMWA President Cecil Roberts was joined in civil disobedience, and arrest, by 15 supporters that included CWA President Larry Cohen, National Consumers League Director Sally Greenberg, and Van Jones, executive director of Rebuild the Dream and a former Obama aide.

The support from the religious community has been consistent throughout the campaign, reflecting the fact that churches are the bedrock institution of mining communities throughout Appalachia and along the Ohio Valley, where Peabody and Arch have hauled away their fortunes.

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Mine Workers and their supporters bow their heads in prayer during a candlelight vigil outside the federal courthouse in St. Louis April 29.

Two of the Mine Workers interviewed by the religious groups in their report, “Schemes From the Board Room,” released May 1, are also Free Will Baptist preachers, and they portrayed the dire straits faced by their coworkers in starkly religious terms.

“The Lord may have called me to open my big mouth,” said David McCloud, who retired from a Peabody mine. “Peabody defrauded workers at their mines. They made promises they didn’t mean to keep. They oppress the poor and working people. I know we are supposed to depend on the Lord to provide, but sometimes we need to speak out and do something ourselves.”

Another miner-preacher speaking up was Elbert Collins Jr., who noted, “Ninety-five percent of our church members are miners. Thank the Lord for life and health benefits. But now we’ve come to a time of crisis.” His wife is on the wait list for cancer treatment, Collins said. “If we didn’t have a health care, the bills would overwhelm us.”

The fact-finders heard from Shirley Inman, a diminutive woman who left a well-paying job in Chicago to return home to West Virginia to work in coalmines because of the guaranteed health care benefit. She worked for Arch for nearly 30 years as an equipment operator but was forced into retirement by injuries to her spine and neck. “A cancer survivor, she is now experiencing spinal deterioration and other health problems, and relies on multiple prescriptions,” the report stated.

The rigors of coal mining has been on display at the rallies in St. Louis and Charleston, as some marchers carried oxygen equipment and others were consigned to wheel chairs as they struggled to breathe through the ravages of black lung, the scourge of coal miners. “People know that coal dust is bad, but they tend to overlook it to keep bread on the table,” Dr. Dan Doyle of the Cabin Creek (W.Va.) Health System told the fact-finders.

It’s not just mining families but entire communities that stand to lose if the courts allow Patriot to walk away from some $1.5 billion in health care liabilities, benefits promised to the miners. Brian Sanson, the UMWA Health and Retirement Fund liaison and the union’s director of research, said coalfield communities could lose $1.3 billion a year in pension and health care dollars.

“In 2012, Patriot and the UMWA Health and Retirement Funds provided health care payments that totaled over $320 million to West Virginia, $107 million to Kentucky, $58 million to Illinois and $33 million to Indiana,” Sanson told the religious fact-finding mission. “The retirees, widows and dependents do not have the financial means to pay for these benefits.” Most would be forced into personal bankruptcy or forced onto welfare rolls, he said.

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Religious Leaders for Coalfield Justice and Interfaith Worker Justice held hearings at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Charleston, W.Va., back in March, producing this report.

Of the 10,633 families receiving retiree health benefits from Patriot, 90 percent never worked a day for Patriot or Magnum, which Patriot absorbed from Arch, Sanson said. “Clearly, the primary motivation behind the Arch/Magnum transaction and the Peabody/Patriot spinoff was to avoid the liabilities to its former employees.”

The report, produced by Interfaith Worker Justice and Religious Leaders for Coalfield Justice, accuses Arch and Peabody of abandoning coalfield communities and their own families — people who have built their companies — for the sake of misguided notions of economic freedom. Quoting Psalms, the religious leaders urge people of all faiths to “stand with mine workers, their families and communities as they seek a just solution to their plight. And we invite prayers for them, as well as for owners and managers of Arch, Peabody and Patriot.”

You can read the full report here.

Meanwhile, miners continue their demonstrations to dramatize the unfairness of the scheme by the giant coal companies to steal their benefits, maintaining their faith in the U.S. justice system. They also are working to make sure that Congress gets the message. The Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee (CARE) Act, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller in the Senate and by Rep. Nick Rahall in the House, would extend the federally guaranteed welfare and retirement system for coal miners and their dependents, in place since 1946.

The CARE Act would shore up the UMWA 1974 pension plan, undermined by the 2008 recession, and give union retirees who lose health care benefits because of company bankruptcy eligibility for the 1992 benefit plan and hold employers accountable for contributions.

For the time being, the campaign is playing out in the streets of St. Louis, but it will not stop there. Capitol Hill looms on the horizon. Federal Courts, the Congress, the President. The Mine Workers are prepared to leave no stone unturned in the search for justice. They say faith moves mountains.

If you can’t be in St. Louis tomorrow, you can follow the rally via live stream here.

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.

Scene of the Crime

Traveling south from Charleston, W.Va., through Boone County is a visual treat, a land weathered by time and fortune. You can see it on the truck-cracked roads that roll past narrow streambeds, on the little coal towns sunk into the hollers or nestled up against the mountains, abandoned coal tipple conveyers rising along the mountain peak, and on the mountains themselves.

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An abandoned church, once used as a Mine Workers union hall in coal-rich Boone County, is being swallowed by weeds and coal sludge from a nearby mountaintop-mining operation. (Courtesy of OVAC)

Time had certainly worked over Big Mountain before Patriot Coal Co. shut down its coalmine there earlier this year. When I visited in 2011, it was down to Big Mountain #16, and miners were busy working the remaining veins. At the time, Patriot seemed determined to work it until the coal was exhausted, producing nearly 2 million tons of coal from Big Mountain that year.

That was fine with the miners, members of the United Mine Workers of America. In fact, management and labor were in the process of putting aside years of bitter fighting to talk about cooperation, safety and prosperity. The supervisor at Big Mountain #16, Dave Belcher, was a former rank-and-file union miner who allowed that he liked and respected the local union president, John Alderson, and Alderson said the feeling was mutual.

Alderson wasn’t always so easy to get along with. Before he lost a few steps working the mines, “Big John” Alderson was a heavyweight boxer who was able to go a few rounds with “Iron Mike” Tyson, the eventual heavyweight champion. Alderson was game:

When I met him in 2011, Alderson certainly commanded the respect of the miners, as a relatively new local union president. And he also had Belcher’s respect. “I can always go to Dave Belcher and work out any problems,” Alderson said. “He takes a lot of pride in the work we do in the mines up here.”

That open communication between management and labor didn’t necessarily guarantee safe and profitable operations – the mine was cited for failure to report safety violations in May of that year and had consistent safety problems because of the bad roof conditions endemic to the Appalachian geology, and Patriot shut it down in February 2012, citing reduced demand for coal. The company declared for bankruptcy five months later.

Alderson, Belcher and the rest of the Big Mountain crew were transferred to Patriot’s Black Oak mine, up the road toward Charleston, as the company consolidates as it works through restructuring. Big Mountain could be opened again, but there are no promises.

“If we don’t work together we’re in trouble, because everybody is against coal,” says Carl Egnor, the local union president at Black Oak. “If we work together we can prove them wrong and all these young miners will have an opportunity to make a good living for their families.”

As Egnor suggests, miners in West Virginia and other states in the coalfields believe that coal will continue to fuel the economic engine of their communities. That was clearly the consensus I found in conversations with miners and operators not only at Big Mountain and Black Oak, but also at Shoemaker and Blacksburg, in northern West Virginia.

But the bankruptcy filing by Patriot may herald a steep downward slope for the industry – or a further erosion of our reliance on fossil fuels in general. Even the most dubious of the climate change doubters are coming around to the realization that extreme weather patterns, such as Hurricane Sandy this year, are the result of global warming trends that are increasingly influenced by human activity.

Still, the rise in “clean” natural gas production give us new turns at fossil fuel production, and there are a few jobs in those pipelines. Some power producers, including FirstEnergy Corp, American Electric Power and Duke Energy, are shutting down many of their coal-fired plants in response to stricter environmental rules, switching to natural gas.

While natural gas may be emerging as a replacement for coal in power generation, it is not without environmental risk. Many experts believe that we are headed into a period of “mix-and-match” energy generation, as coal continues to give way to natural gas, as well as additional nuclear production while such renewable clean energy technologies as solar, wind, wave and geothermal are developed.

What becomes of mining communities as coal becomes less and less attractive as an energy source? In November, Patriot announced that it has agreed to phase out mountaintop removal and other forms of strip mining, which may be good news for Appalachian communities fighting environmental degradation but which will pose new challenges for their economies. Patriot didn’t suddenly get environmental religion, of course. It was facing a costly suit from environmentalists, plus the company wouldn’t mind shedding two of the stronger local unions in the coalfields.

“Coal mining has always been an occupation of continuous change, whether it’s technological change, changes in mining methods, changes in markets, or changes in regulations,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said. “Companies have always made strategic decisions based on those changes and workers are left to live with the consequences. That is what has happened here.”

For Roberts and his union, Patriot’s withdrawal from strip mining could mean fewer coal mining jobs in the long run, but also more difficulty in ensuring that Patriot lives up to its obligations. Since declaring bankruptcy in July, Patriot is trying to jettison its responsibilities for health care and pensions for miners and their families, including retirees and widows.  The UMWA is fighting for the miners in bankruptcy court in St. Louis.

The union is also fighting the real villain here, Peabody Coal Co., the original guarantor of worker benefits that offloaded those jobs and the benefit obligations onto Patriot, a subsidiary it created just for the purpose of shedding the liabilities.  The UMWA has filed suit against Peabody claiming violation of the Employment Retirement and Income Security Act, which prohibits defrauding workers out of earned benefits. That case is being heard in Charleston.

Peabody’s double-breasted scam on workers, using shell companies like Patriot to offload pension obligations, then using the bankruptcy courts to cash in while dumping workers, is a scenario playing out in a lot of industries, including the airlines. But Big Coal has managed to set some record low standards.

In 2004 Horizon Energy dumped more than 5,000 miners and their families, unloading the company through bankruptcy to Massey Energy, operator of the Upper Big Branch mine that collapsed and one of the most disreputable employers in the coalfields. The Patriot fiasco is the latest in a long line of treachery by the nation’s coal barons.

A lot of families in the coalfields are depending on the UMWA to once again carry the day against Big Coal, in the courts of law and in the courts of public opinion. But they will also have to contend with the changing dynamics that makes coal less important to the nation than it has been throughout our history.

When you think about how much coal has played a role in the culture and arts of the communities of Appalachia, it’s not too far-fetched to think that one day they’ll be gathering in school auditoriums and community theaters to celebrate Coal: The Musical. Don’t laugh! The production is already underway:

King Coal and Paradise

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

— John Prine, “Paradise”

Coal was King when I was growing up in western Kentucky. Grandpapa Van was a coal miner who died of lung disease, Parkinson’s and a belly full of hard living. Other friends and relatives have sacrificed their health to go underground to provide for their families.  There was always money in coal, working it or selling the rights. Or hauling it in or hauling it out over the L&N rails. Coal was the story. It fired our lives.

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Me and Papa Van in rural Henderson County, circa 1950.

As a junior reporter at the Henderson Gleaner, I’d spend hours poring over deeds at the Courthouse, jotting down longhand the transfer of mineral rights, mostly. That was the big story. Below that farmland, and stretching all the way back to the Appalachian foothills, lay the newest seams of coal, gold to energy titans like Peabody Coal and Reynolds Metal. Only years later did those rights diminish because of the high-sulfur content of the coal, and the idea of coal gasification replaced the drill. But that too was fool’s gold.

The truth is Mr. Peabody never stopped hauling away coal and wealth from the communities of western Kentucky, southern Indiana and Illinois and, of course, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where many seams already are tapped out.  And while hauling Paradise away, Peabody wasn’t too keen in keeping his word to the communities it lay bare, nor to the miners who dug up the company’s fortune.

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In November 2007, Peabody spun off many of its mature underground mining operations into a company called Patriot Coal Co. Patriot got all of the union-represented miners and their health and retirement liabilities, even though Peabody had signed agreements to continue paying into those funds, along with other members of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association.

Patriot later absorbed the older, unionized mines of Arch Coal Co., further extending its liabilities. As demand and the price of coal declined over the past few years, it probably was little surprise that Patriot got overextended. The company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, leaving vulnerable the hard-won retirement and health benefits of 10,600 former miners and their families, and the jobs and benefits of 2,000 current miners.

The sheer mendacity and duplicity of Peabody Coal Company in unloading its human assets fired up the United Mine Workers and their President Cecil Roberts, who lambased the company for its double-dealing.

The union on Oct. 23 filed suit on behalf of 12,600 retirees and active workers, charging that Peabody and Arch “planned to transfer (their) employees and benefit plan obligations to Patriot for the purpose of depriving (their) employees and retired employees of their welfare and retiree benefits,” which is illegal under the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act (ERISA). That case is being heard in Charleston, W.Va.

The union also sought to have the bankruptcy trial moved to West Virginia from New York, where Patriot had set up two dummy corporations to make its case in the shadow of the nation’s financial centers, where it expected to get a better hearing without the consideration of mining families and their communities. On Nov. 27, the bankruptcy court judge ordered that the case be moved to St. Louis, a victory for the miners. As Roberts said in a statement:

“Nobody has ever mined one ounce of coal in Manhattan. Patriot Coal executives … wanted their case heard in a forum far from the coalfields. … St. Louis is where Patriot Coal is headquartered. More important, it’s the headquarters for Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.  These two companies spun off their operations to Patriot in an attempt to run away from pension and health care obligations to thousands of miners and their survivors.”

Stay tuned. This is an important story, and we need to bring it out in the open and shed light on it. Here’s the talented mailman from Maywood, Ill., reflecting on those trips to Muhlenberg County, before Mr. Peabody’s coal train hauled it away: