4,500 miners, union supporters turn outs; 14 arrested
St. Louis – More than 4,500 members and supporters of the United Mine Workers marched and rallied in downtown St. Louis May 21, as the federal judge hearing Patriot Coal's bankruptcy case neared a decision on retiree health benefits and the union contract.
U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Kathy Surratt-States was scheduled to rule on or before May 29 on Creve Coeur-based Patriot’s motions to effectively eliminate the current system of health care for more than 23,000 retired miners and their families and cuts in wages, benefits and working conditions for more than 1,700 active workers at Patriot.
Created by St. Louis-based Peabody Energy in 2007, Patriot Coal was spun off from the coal giant with 43 percent of Peabody’s liabilities but just 11 percent of its assets.
The UMWA says Patriot was created so Peabody could shed its health care and pension obligations to union retirees.
Creve Coeur-based Arch Coal did much the same thing when it created Magnum Coal in 2005. Patriot bought Magnum in 2008.
Patriot filed for bankruptcy protection in July of last year and has asked the bankruptcy court for permission to unilaterally change their union contracts to reduce future retirees health care benefits in addition to trying to rid themselves of the obligations totally by creating an independent, underfunded, health care alternative – a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) – which would be responsible for paying reduced benefits.
“There’s a great song lyric by Woody Guthrie,” United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said. “ ‘Some rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen.’ This is robbery pure and simple, and we’re not going to stand for it.”
UNIONS TURN OUT IN FORCE
Active and retired miners and their supporters rallied in Kiener Plaza, across from Peabody’s headquarters on Market Street before marching about four blocks to the U.S. bankruptcy court on South 10th Street.
Miners and retirees from Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and other states traveled to St. Louis to take part in the protest, the union’s seventh in St. Louis.
They were joined by former AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Barbara Easterling, Missouri State Representative Karla May (D-St. Louis), the Rev. John Stratton of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri and scores of supporting union members, including communications workers, steelworkers, laborers, auto workers, nurses, pipefitters, painters, service employees, police, carpenters and government employees.
They were also joined by representatives from the Alliance for Retired Americans, the National Consumer League, Jobs With Justice, Interfaith Worker Justice, Rebuild the Dream and Physicians for a National Health Program.
“There’s nothing that I’m more proud of than being a coal miner’s daughter,” said Easterling, former secretary treasurer of the CWA, the first woman secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO and the current president of the 4 million-member Alliance for Retired Americans.
“What Peabody Coal is doing is absolutely criminal,” she said. “They’re using our nation’s bankruptcy laws as a license to steal. And they are stealing. They’re stealing from the sick and the elderly, from the widows. They’re stealing from men and women who built this industry, the people who put their lives on the line down in the hole.”
Fourteen miners and supporters, including Roberts and Easterling were arrested for trespassing after sitting down on South 10th Street in front of the federal courthouse, in a peaceful act of non-violent civil disobedience.
Included among those arrested were Larry Knisell, a Peabody retiree from Morgantown, W. Va., and his son Chuck, who works at a mine in Pennsylvania and is president of UMWA Local Union 2300. “My Mom and Dad were there for me when I was growing up, taught me what was right and what was wrong,” Chuck Knisell said. “He’s counting on those benefits. I wanted to be there for him today.”
Tom Kacsmar, a retiree from UMWA Local Union 6362 was arrested along with his wife, Margie. “We both depend on the health care benefits he earned in all those years in the mines,” Margie said. “I was proud to stand with him.”
Joe Brown, a retired miner from Fairmont, W. Va., said he worked 32 years in an underground mine to earn his benefits.
“We had a deal,” Brown said. “Miners accepted lower wages so we could get medical care when we retired. We kept our end of the bargain.”
‘DESIGNED TO FAIL’
Because Patriot was created with insufficient assets to meet its liabilities to retired miners, analysts such as Bruce Rader, Professor of Finance at Temple University, have described the company as “designed to fail.”
Current Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield has acknowledged that “something doesn’t smell right” about the manner in which his company was founded.
Peabody Energy and Arch Coal executives claim that because Patriot and Magnum were spun off years ago, they have nothing to with the current litigation. But nearly all of the retired miners who may lose their health care worked most or all of their careers for Peabody or Arch, not Patriot.
A recent fact-finding mission by Religious Leaders for Coalfield Justice and Interfaith Worker Justice found that Peabody is still profiting from the operations of Patriot Coal. According to their report Schemes from the Board Room, The War by Arch and Peabody on the Aging, Ill and Disabled: “Another consequence of this scheme is that Arch and Peabody become ‘indirect employers’ of the miners that work for those corporations’ profits. Under the terms of the spin-off, certain cost savings by Patriot redound to Peabody shareholders, making Patriot a conduit for increasing Peabody’s profits.”