St. Louis - More than 4,500 members and supporters of the United Mine Workers marched and rallied in downtown St. Louis on May 21, as a decision nears in a pivotal case before the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
Protestors were joined by former AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Barbara Easterling, Missouri State Representative Karla May and Rev. John Stratton of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.
Fourteen miners and supporters, including United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President Cecil 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 in 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."
The UMWA is also continuing a public advocacy campaign with a full-page ad in the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Demonstrators came from Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and other states to protest the possible loss of are health care benefits for more than 23,000 retired miners and their families, as well as cuts in wages, benefits and working conditions for more than 1,700 active workers at Patriot Coal.
"I spent 32 years working underground to earn those benefits, and I'm not giving them up without a fight," said Joe Brown, a retired miner from Fairmont, West Virginia. "We had a deal. Miners accepted lower wages so we could get medical care when we retired. We kept our end of the bargain, and there's no reason these corporations should get away with breaking the promises they made to us and our families."
Patriot Coal, created by Peabody Energy 2007 with 43 percent of Peabody's liabilities but just 11 percent of its assets, filed for bankruptcy in July, 2012. Patriot has filed motions demanding the effective elimination of the current system of health care for retired miners and drastic pay and benefit cuts for active workers. U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Kathy Surratt-States is scheduled to rule on the company's motions on or before May 29.
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.
In 2008, Patriot acquired Magnum Coal, a company created by Arch Coal featuring a similar shift of assets and liabilities.
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. And 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:
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.
"There's a great song lyric by Woody Guthrie," said UMWA President Roberts. "'Some rob you with a sixgun, and some with a fountain pen.' This is robbery pure and simple, and we're not going to stand for it."
"We're advocating for the best possible result for our members before the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but this fight won't end when the judge rules," said Roberts. "We've got our own lawsuit underway in West Virginia; we've got a bill in Congress which will hold the original employers of these workers accountable; and we will continue to follow these companies and these corporate executives wherever they go."
Last month, UMWA active and retired miners confronted executives and directors of Peabody and Arch in Wyoming, where both companies moved their annual meetings after repeated protests by miners and supporters in St. Louis.
Additional information about the UMWA campaign to stand up for active and retired miners is at FairnessAtPatriot.org.
Originally published at New Hampshire Labor News.
Photo: UMWA members, several of whom were black lung victims, engage in civil disobedience, and are arrested for sitting in at the coal company office. Tony Pecinovsky/PW