Both sides vow to continue talking
St. Louis – Following months of tough negotiations, bankrupt Patriot Coal has imposed wage and benefit cuts affecting thousands of its workers represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), but the pullbacks are less severe than those authorized by a bankruptcy judge.
The UMWA remains in negotiations with Patriot, and the company said it will keep retiree health care benefits unchanged for the next two months.
“Patriot made changes to the terms and conditions of work for active employees, as they were allowed to do by the bankruptcy judge,” UMWA Director of Communications Phil Smith said. “The terms they implemented include some improvements over the judge's order that we negotiated with them. We continue to negotiate in an attempt to make further improvements. It’s important to note that we have been able to extend retiree health care benefits at current levels for another two months.”
Neither the UMWA not Patriot detailed the cuts, imposed more than a month after a bankruptcy judge empowered Patriot to abandon its collective-bargaining agreements, but both sides appeared optimistic about their negotiations.
“Recent talks with the UMWA have resulted in substantial progress toward a consensual resolution,” Patriot said last week. “Patriot exercised the authority granted to it by the Bankruptcy Court to implement changes to wages, benefits and active employee healthcare, but chose to implement terms that are significantly improved from those approved by the court. Patriot and the UMWA are continuing to meet in a diligent effort to resolve the outstanding differences and reach a consensual agreement.”
On May 29, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States gave Creve Coeur-based Patriot the green light to effectively eliminate the current system of health care for more than 23,000 retired miners and their families and make 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 thousands of 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, which filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July, has said it needs $150 million in savings from the union to stay in business.
FIGHTING FOR FAIRNESS
Prior to Patriot imposing the cuts, Miners, union leaders and supporters descended on Kiener Plaza June 17 to show they are not giving up the fight for retirees’ health care and pensions, or their demand that Peabody and Arch live up to their obligations to the miners.
The rally was similar to those the Miners held leading up to the bankruptcy judge’s decision.
Thousands of union members and supporters wearing identifical “Peabody Lied!” t-shirts and carrying signs such as “Are You Next?” jammed the west end of the plaza stairways to hear speakers including UMWA International President Cecil Roberts.
Afterwards, Roberts and other union leaders and speakers joined in a peaceful arrest by St. Louis Police, climbing into paddywagons waiting on North 7th Street.
The speakers were defiant in declaring the injustice of the legal system’s unhinging of the retirees’ benefits.
“If there is no justice for the retired coal miners, there shall be no peace in St. Louis for Peabody, Arch and Patriot,” said Lew Moye, president of the St. Louis Chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), an early supporter of the miners’ struggle. He then led the crowd in a chant, “Peabody promised, Peabody lied!”
He asked, “Are you ready to stand up for your rights? Are you ready to stand up for your union?”
Once again, the Communication Workers of America were prominent at the rally in support of the miners. Their national chief of staff, Ron Collins, recalled UMWA members helping in his union’s fight in West Virginia against Verizon, which was trying to abandon some vital telephone lines.
“Your fight is our fight,” Collins told the miners. “We need to be in the streets, because they’re coming after all of us. I’ve had enough!”
He noted a lack of public officials at the rally. “Where are the politicians?” he demanded. “If they’re not there for us, we’re not going to be there for them.”
A PASTOR’S FLOCK
The religious sector was represented by Rev. Donna Blythe, pastor of Sunfield United Methodist Church in Du Quoin, Ill., the home church to many UMWA members. She spoke at the rally and later to the Labor-Tribune.
“My members have been at every rally,” she said. “These are good, hard-working people. If I can be with them at church, I need to be with them in this spot.”
She later gave the benediction just before the arrests were made.
For his part, Roberts gave the kind of stirring and emotional speech that he is known for, at times sounding like a country preacher.
“This is not just a United Mine Workers fight,” he shouted. “This is a union fight! This is a civil rights fight! …This is everyone’s fight!”
Roberts made a point of recognizing the many veterans in attendance. When he asked for a show of hands, hundreds responded.
“They call us a lot of names up there in the (Peabody) tower,” he said. “They should call us patriots! Every time there’s a war, the ones who stand up to defend the U.S. of A. are the coal miners and the working class. All we ask for today are what we are entitled to.”
As he spoke, a young man wearing a long-sleeve shirt, dress slacks and a tie strode quickly across the Plaza and came right up to Roberts as he spoke, attempting to hand him a note and a bag that appeared to contain a bottle of liquid. He was promptly escorted away, and Roberts resumed his speech.
“This is a movement as old as Jesus of Nazareth. This is a movement as old as Gandhi. This is a movement that was founded on the principles of Martin Luther King. This is a movement founded on the principles of John L. Lewis,” Roberts declared, his voice rising throughout the names.
“This is a movement that will not go back! This is a movement that will not be turned around!”
He asked if the Peabody executives might think the UMWA might be going away. “Well, look out the window! We’re back, and we come seeking justice! And we’ll be back, and we’ll be back, and we’ll be back!”
Roberts claimed Patriot is spending $100 million in exorbitant legal expenses on the bankruptcy – more than enough to pay for the retirees’ health care.
“I need you to go back to your churches and pray about this,” Roberts said. “Because we’re on the side of justice.”