On April 1st, the streets of Charleston, WV were filled with thousands of mine workers, trade union activists and concerned citizens who were protesting the unfair business practices of Patriot Coal.
Sponsored by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), an affiliate of the MTD, the march and rally attracted supporters from as far away as Indiana and Illinois.
“This is a crime!” declared UMWA President Cecil Roberts. “We’ve been robbed, tricked and lied to! This cannot stand – and with thousands of us from all over the country marching today and keeping up this fight tomorrow, it will not stand!”
At issue is an attempt by Patriot Coal to use the federal bankruptcy court to rid itself of retiree health and pension obligations, which the company dubbed “unsustainable labor-related liabilities” in its 2012 filing. Patriot was created in 2007 when Peabody Energy dumped its union contracts and retiree obligations on the newly formed and underfunded Patriot. A year later, Patriot acquired Magnum Coal – which had been spun off in much the same manner by Arch Coal – to increase its obligations to more than $1.3 billion. More than 90 percent of Patriot’s obligations are to retirees and widows who never worked for Patriot. In addition, Patriot was run by former Peabody executives.
The MTD Executive Board passed a statement in support of the Mine Workers at its February meeting.
Roberts added to the crowd of 10,000, “Patriot doesn’t have to go down this road. We can help Patriot solve its problems, with a solution that keeps the promises made to retired miners, and provides decent pay, benefits and working conditions to active miners. Patriot’s problems are not rooted in competition with other coal companies. They’re rooted in not having the assets to pay Peabody’s and Arch’s bills in a coal market that is on a downswing.”
“In America, our word is our bond,” stated AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “Peabody and Arch and Patriot, they want to just take the money and run. Not this time, and not these workers. We won’t allow them to take the money and run without taking the worker with them. You can’t be a ‘friend of coal’ unless you’re a friend of coal miners.” (Trumka is a former UMWA president.)
Additional speakers professing their support at the rally read like a virtual “Who’s Who” of West Virginia politics.
“A lot of people, when they see the coal miner’s face covered with dust, all they see is that worker,” cited West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin at the rally. “I see a family, a wife, and children they are responsible for, and they’re working every day to make sure their family is taken care of, in case anything happens to them. Those are the benefits we’re talking about losing here today. I will continue to encourage Patriot to be fair as we go through these negotiations. And we need to urge the bankruptcy court to be not only fair to retired miners, but to do what’s right.”
“Patriot and Peabody and Arch, I know these people,” said U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WA), “and I told them: Where I come from you can’t make wrong into right. We’re not going to let it happen. We’ve given too much, we’ve sacrificed too much. We’re going to make the changes we need for the working men and women of this country.”
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) told supporters he will fight to maintain federal guarantees which ensure health and welfare funds for retired miners. “That promise MUST be kept, It simply MUST be kept.” Legislation introduced by Rahall, Manchin and U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) “will allow trustees [of mine workers health and pension funds] to reach back and make sure those entities who are responsible be held responsible.”
The situation at Peabody has attracted the attention of the entire labor movement, because it involves a fight to maintain contracted benefits that have been paid for over the years. When he spoke before the MTD Executive Board in February, UMWA Secretary-Treasurer Daniel Kane warned if Patriot can get away with this, it could become open season for all other union contracted obligations.
Following the rally at a downtown civic center, Mine Workers and their supporters marched to the steps of Patriot Coal’s Charleston office where 16 people – including President Roberts – were arrested.