By TIM ROWDEN
More than 2,000 United Mine Workers of America, and local supporters, marched March 19 from Peabody’s headquarters in downtown St. Louis to the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse on south 10th Street where Peabody spinoff Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy case is being heard.
The protest marked the fourth the miners have held in St. Louis since Patriot’s bankruptcy case was moved here in January, and it was the largest turnout so far, with local labor and faith representatives and community activists joining in the rally and march.
“This is not a coal miners’ struggle,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts told the coal miners and supporters in a rousing speech outside Peabody’s headquarters. “This is a workers’ struggle. The rest of the labor movement is getting behind this struggle.”
Roberts told the crowd that the NAACP and the AFL-CIO Executive Council had both recently made statements of support for the miners.
The St. Louis Labor Council delegates in an action Tuesday night, hours after the protest, also unanimously approved a motion supporting the miners. (See related story.)
BENEFITS AT RISK
The rally and march occurred just days after Patriot filed a motion in its bankruptcy case that, if approved, would allow Patriot to unilaterally change its collective bargaining agreements with the union to reduce future retirees health care benefits, and rid themselves of the obligations completely, by shunting them to an underfunded trust. The company is also seeking to reduce wages and alter work hours for UMWA-represented miners.
BONUSES FOR EXECUTIVES
The day before the rally, Patriot attorneys argued in the bankruptcy court that its executives should be awarded nearly $7 million in retention bonuses, saying the company needs to keep its best managers in order to survive.
Peabody spun off Patriot in 2007, saddling it with its health care and pension benefits for union retirees.
Peabody assigned Patriot some 40 percent of its health care and pension liability but gave the new company only about 10 percent of its revenue-producing assets. 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.
The case is being heard in St. Louis because this is where Peabody, Arch and Patriot are headquartered.
‘WE WILL COME BACK …UNTIL WE WIN’
Twelve of the protesters, including Roberts, were arrested last week after they sat down on south 10th Street, outside the courthouse, and refused to move. Roberts was also arrested in a previous protest here on Jan. 29.
“I don’t know what they do to you for getting arrested twice, but we’ll find out today,” Roberts told the protesters before the march began. “We will find out what it’s like to be arrested three times, and four times and five times until Peabody and Arch and Patriot understand we will come back, and we’ll come back and we’ll come back until we win.”
Others who were arrested included Lew Moye, president of the St. Louis Chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), Lara Granich, director of the Missouri Jobs with Justice Coalition (JwJ) and Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ).
Speaking to the miners before the march, Granich said: “I am furious at the reason for your visit. I am furious that you have to travel hundreds of miles to hold accountable people that hold in their hands the fate of your family. They cannot hide from the shame of what they are doing to you.”
Teachers, communications workers, painters, steelworkers and others also participated in the rally.
‘WE NEED THIS’
The miners rode to St. Louis on buses from Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, hoping their presence, and continued pressure from the union, will influence the judge in the bankruptcy case.
Paul Douglas, a 64-year-old retired miner from Browder, Ky., said Patriot’s plan would be catastrophic. He and his wife, Linda, both have heart conditions. Linda also has crippling arthritis.
“It would ruin my whole complete life,” Douglas said. “We need this. We need it bad.”
Another retired miner, Benny Hill, 76, of Muhlenberg County, Ky., said Patriot’s plan would ruin him financially.
“It would bankrupt me,” he said.
The miners are planning at least two more rallies – one on April 1 in Charleston, W.Va., and another on April 16 in St. Louis.
Labor getting behind coal miners’ fight
St. Louis labor leaders are standing solidly behind the United Mine Workers of America in its fight to preserve retiree healthcare and pensions in the bankruptcy proceedings of Peabody Energy spinoff Patriot Coal.
The delegates of the St. Louis Labor Council voted unanimously March 19 to stand with the miners and send the UMWA a letter of support for their fight against Patriot and former parent company Peabody Energy.
“We’re in full support of them,” Labor Council President Bob Soutier said. “They were promised these benefits for life and this is just an attempt on a large corporation’s part to skirt their responsibility and pass the buck, and they’re trying to use the legal system to do that. It’s just not right.”