By TIM ROWDEN
Creve Coeur – United Mine Workers of America and supporting unions rallied outside of Arch Coal’s headquarters here July 30 in their continuing fight to preserve retiree health care and pension benefits in the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal.
Ten people were arrested for blocking the street in front of Arch headquarters on City Place Drive in what has become a familiar scene at the miners’ rallies of well-coordinated civil disobedience.
Arch has been largely overshadowed in the ongoing fight for fairness in the bankruptcy proceedings of Patriot Coal, a spinoff of Peabody Energy. The miners contend that Arch is no less responsible for their loss of pension and health care benefits.
Arch created Magnum Coal in 2005 and unloaded $560 million in retiree health care liabilities onto the new company. Patriot Coal, created by Peabody Energy in 2007 in a similar transaction, acquired Magnum and its liabilities in 2008.
Patriot declared bankruptcy in 2012, and has threatened the elimination of health care for retired workers. The company won approval from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in May to impose terms and conditions on both retired and active workers.
UMWA negotiators are in talks with Patriot to reduce the impact of proposed cuts on miners and their families.
‘NEVER WORKED A DAY FOR PATRIOT’
“I never worked a day in my life for Patriot,” said Shirley Inman, a UMWA Local 2286 member from Madison, W. Va. Inman worked 18 years for Arch Coal, before suffering a disabling injury.
“It’s just not right for these companies to play a corporate shell game, set up a new company that goes broke, then say they don’t have any obligation to us,’ Inman said.
“ Arch Coal made that promise to me, not Patriot. Arch needs to keep its promise and live up to the obligations it made.”
Arch Coal posted gross profits of $721 million in 2012, while Peabody Energy earned $2.14 billion.
“We want to remind Arch executives that we haven’t forgotten about them,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said. “They started this scheme when they set up Magnum Coal in 2005. These corporate executives can play accounting games all day long, but we know who made the obligations to these miners. A wrong has been done to them, and we’re not going to stop until that wrong is made right.”
Lew Moye, president of the St. Louis Chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, added an historic perspective to the rally.
“Arch, Patriot and Peabody are breaking the promise that was made to coal miners in 1946,” Moye said, referencing the Krug-Lewis agreement, signed by President Harry Truman, which promised lifetime medical care for coal miners and their dependents.
“It is criminal and thuggish,” Moye said. “They’re nothing but a bunch of corporate thugs.”
A lawsuit on behalf of UMWA members, filed in federal court in Charleston, West Virginia, charges that Peabody and Arch violated the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by scheming to eliminate contractually guaranteed lifetime health care benefits for retirees.
Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in Washington, told the miners there had never been a time when the UMWA did not stand with other unions in their struggles and the other unions are now, and must now, return that support.
“It may be your fight today,” she told the mine workers. “But it’s everybody’s fight tomorrow.”
Local unions turn out strong for miners and fast food workers
Protesting miners and fast food workers were joined at their rallies July 30 by several St. Louis unions, including iron workers, painters, grocery clerks, communications workers, machinists, laborers, service employees, teachers and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
Fast food workers who walked off their jobs last week in two days of strikes to demand higher wages and the right to form a union, joined the United Mine Workers of America at their rally July 30 outside Arch Coal headquarters in Creve Coeur. (See related story on Page 1)
For the fast food workers, most of them young people who have never belonged to a union, it was a chance to see one of the country’s oldest and most powerful unions in action.
For Andre Houston, 24, a crew manager at the East St. Louis McDonald’s, it was an opportunity to make his voice heard. Houston, an emerging leader in the fast food workers struggle, has worked for McDonald’s for nearly four years and makes $8.50 an hour.
“I look out to these people, and I think these people are going through the same things that I’m going through on my job,” Houston said. “We bust our tails from sun up to sun down and these corporations look at us like we’re nothing. And we’re the people who are out here making them money. If it wasn’t for us, what would these corporations be?”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Rafanan, co-chair of the Missouri Jobs with Justice St Louis Workers Rights Board and community director for the fast food workers’ STL Can't Survive on $7.35 campaign, told the miners, “This company has taken away what belongs to you, and we are not going to stand for it.
“It is such a good thing to be with you today, to share in this time of being together, because we have a long way to go with each other.”
James Gibbs, international vice president and organizer for the United Mine Workers, spoke at the fast food workers’ rally later in the day at Kiener Plaza. (See related story on Page 1)
“You took this stand to fight for justice,” Gibbs told the workers. “That’s all you’re asking for, an opportunity to make a living wage. We cannot keep on letting these companies and corporations get by with what they’ve been getting by with, treating people like they’re not supposed to be human. You made the biggest stand today when you stood up and said ‘I am going to strike until I get a fair and decent wage.’ You deserve it. You’ve fought for it. You’re standing for it and we are going to stand with you.”