St. Louis – More than 1,000 active and retired coal miners and their families from Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia marched on Peabody Energy headquarters in St. Louis Feb. 13 to draw attention to the possible loss of pension and health care benefits for about 22,000 retired miners and dependents in the bankruptcy proceedings of Peabody spinoff Patriot Coal and Arch Coal spinoff Magnum Coal, which was later sold to Patriot compounding the problem.
Ten people were arrested for non-violent civil disobedience for blocking traffic by sitting in the street in front of Peabody’s office tower at Seventh and Market streets in downtown St. Louis.
Ten other people including United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts were arrested in a similar protest on Jan 29.
Included among those arrested last week was UMWA Secretary-Treasurer Dan Kane, who spoke to protesters during the rally across from Peabody headquarters in Kiener Plaza.
“Peabody executives may know how to wheel and deal and hire $900-an-hour corporate lawyers,” Kane said. “But they don’t know the United Mine Workers. We’re not going to abandon our retirees, who spent their lives working underground and now must have the benefits they were promised.”
Kane and the other protesters were released later in the day.
The rally was also joined by union and community supporters, including representatives of the musicians, communications workers, iron workers, auto workers, public employees, service employees, teachers, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and Jobs with Justice.
A LONG-TERM SCHEME
Patriot was spun off from Peabody in 2007 in what the union says was a long-term scheme by Peabody and Arch Coal to strip thousands of active and retired coal miners, their dependents and widows of critically needed health care and other earned benefits.
Peabody assigned Patriot some 40 percent of its health care and pension liabilities but gave the new company only about 10 percent of its revenue-producing assets. Arch Coal made a similar assignment of assets and liabilities.
The company filed for bankruptcy protection last July. The case is being heard in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in St. Louis because this is where Peabody, Arch and Patriot are headquartered.
The UMWA has filed a suit in West Virginia seeking class action status for more than 10,000 workers whose benefits were transferred from Peabody and Arch to Patriot in the 2007 spinoff. The suit claims Peabody and Arch, rather than Patriot, should be responsible for paying the retiree health benefits for the workers.
‘A FINGER IN THE EYE OF RETIREES’
Last week’s rally occurred a day after Patriot executives filed a motion in the bankruptcy case, seeking $6 million in “retention bonuses” for 120 senior executives, company managers and office personnel.
“This is nothing more than a finger in the eye of those retirees and widows, as well as the active workers who are looking at the destruction of decades of collective bargaining improvements,” Roberts, who was in negotiations and could not attend the rally, said in a press release. “These workers put their health on the line and put their lives on the line every single day to produce coal.
“It’s not their fault Patriot is in bankruptcy,” Roberts said. “For Patriot to now take millions of dollars that would help keep people alive and pass it around to already well-paid executives and managers is just wrong, and sends a terrible message to the active and retired workers who still depend on Patriot for their lives and livelihoods.”
‘HEALTH CARE ISN’T AN OPTION’
For retirees desperately dependent on their health care, Patriot’s bankruptcy is a matter of life and death.
“If I can’t get my medication for my heart disease, I won’t be around much longer,” said Shirley Inman, a retired member of UMWA Local 2286 from Madison, West Virginia, who was among those arrested. “I’m a breast cancer survivor and I have coronary artery disease. Health care isn’t an option for me; it’s what I need to survive. I’ll do whatever it takes to make these corporate executives keep the promises they made – and if that means going to jail, so be it.”
Inman spent 18 years driving a coal truck for Arch Coal in West Virginia.
Gary Hastings, 70, of Duquesne Ill, a retired Local 1392 member, worked for Arch for 31 years at the Captain Mine in Pinckneyville Ill. He said he turned out to the rally to protect what he labored and sacrificed for during his working years.
“I never worked a day for Patriot, and now the companies were spun off and loaded into Patriot,” he said. “We gave up wages to have benefits and now they want to take the benefits.”
Bill Wickwire, 74, Pinckneyville, another Local 1392 member, worked at Arch Coal’s Horse Creek Mine in Pinckneville.
If Patriot is allowed to shed its health care obligations, he said, “there’s going to be a lot of people hurt. I don’t know what we can do about it, but I hope we can prevail and get some kind of justice.”
ADDITIONAL RALLIES PLANNED
The Mine Workers have pledged to keep coming back, if that’s what it takes, to get Peabody and Arch to do the right the thing.
Additional rallies are scheduled for Feb. 26 and March 19.