“We are here to save lives,” United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil Roberts said told an estimated 6,000 assembled miners, supporting unions, faith leaders and other protesters rallying April 29 in Kiener Plaza across from Peabody Energy’s headquarters in downtown St. Louis. “People are coming from around the nation and around the world to be with us in this fight. They recognize that our fight is their fight.”
April 29 marked a significant milestone in the bankruptcy proceedings of Peabody spinoff Patriot Coal as witnesses for the union and Patriot began offering their testimony in a hearing on the company’s motion to reject its current union contract and make cuts to retiree health care benefits.
Protesters marched four blocks from Kiener Plaza to the federal courthouse on 10th Street, where Patriot’s bankruptcy case is being heard. Sixteen protesters, including Roberts, were arrested for blocking the street in front of the courthouse.
OBLIGATIONS TO RETIREES
Patriot attorney Elliot Moskowitz said Patriot must slash union wages and benefits by $150 million or be forced to sell itself off in pieces and 4,200 jobs will be lost.
The UMWA’s lawyer Fred Perillo challenged whether the cuts proposed by Patriot are necessary, adding that Patriot’s proposal would force the union to bear a disproportionate share of cuts needed to keep the coal producer in business.
Patriot was spun off from Peabody in 2007, with approximately 43 percent of its pension and health care liabilities but just 11 percent of its productive assets.
Arch Coal did much the same thing when it created Magnum Coal in 2005. Patriot bought Magnum in 2008 and filed for bankruptcy in July of last year.
“If Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Patriot can get away with their scheme to get out of their obligations to their retirees, then any company anywhere can do the same thing,” Roberts said.
The bankruptcy case is being heard in St. Louis because this is where Patriot, Peabody and Arch are headquartered.
TURNED ITS BACK ON MINERS
Last week’s rally was the union’s sixth in St. Louis and marked the largest turnout to date.
Speakers at the rally included Communications Workers of America (CWA) International President Larry Cohen, UNITE-HERE Vice President Bob Proto, former White House aide and President of Rebuild the Dream Van Jones, National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg, and President of the Queensland, Australia branch of the Construction, Forestry and Mining Employees Union (CFMEU) Steve Smyth. Smyth represents more than 5,000 miners at nine Peabody mines in the Australian state.
“We won't stand for a multinational company that rips you off to do business like this,” Smyth said. “Peabody has simply turned its back on the mine workers. They didn't do this by mistake. They knew what they were doing. They planned this.”
The CWA’s Cohen said: “Our union will absolutely take this fight on as our fight. “We will find ways to be out here by the tens of thousands. We absolutely understand that if the courts of this country can do this, they can do anything.”
Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP chapter, detailed Peabody’s string of financial successes since the Patriot deal, noting that the corporation has even boasted in its annual reports about shedding costs in that deal. He then staged a mock trial in which the rally crowd quickly found Peabody “guilty” of abandoning its retirees.
On the evening after the hearing started, miners joined area faith leaders and community activists for a candlelight vigil outside the federal courthouse.
The vigil, organized by St. Louis Jobs With Justice and Interfaith Worker Justice was led by clergy and faith leaders from diverse traditions, including Bishop Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation, the Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King, United Church of Christ, Father Richard Creason of Holy Trinity Catholic Church and others.
Fred and Margie Wagner, of Steeleville, IL, were among those who turned out for the rally and vigil.
Fred, 57, never worked for Patriot. He worked for 22 years in Arch Coal’s now closed Captain Mine in Percy, IL. He now has black lung disease.
“I thought I was going to have health insurance for the rest of my life,” he said ruefully. “Now they’re trying to get out of it.”