|Miners march in St. Louis April 29 against Patriot Coal’s plan to slash pensions and health care.|
After the rally they marched to the federal courthouse where bankruptcy hearings are underway for Patriot Coal, created in 2007 by Peabody Energy when it spun off all its union operations east of the Mississippi. In 2008 Patriot bought Magnum Coal, a spinoff from Arch Coal.
“Patriot Coal is just a name,” Wesley White, a retired miner from West Virginia, told the Militant. “It was a way for Peabody to get rid of its responsibilities to us miners.”
“In 2008 when the economy went down, I said, ‘they’re coming after the union,’” said Butch Epling, from Madison, W.Va., who worked at a Peabody-owned mine for 30 years. He came on a UMWA bus with seven family members. “They might be able to defeat the unions for a while, but they can’t defeat the workers. We’re going to keep fighting.”
“We had a guarantee from the company, from the government, that we would have pensions and health care when we retire,” Epling added. “Now they’re saying those guarantees are worthless. That can’t be called anything but thievery.”
“This is my sixth time to St. Louis,” said Jesse Williams, a retired miner from West Virginia and member of UMWA Local 9177. “These courts are for the companies, not for the working man, look at what happened at Hostess.” Williams was referring to Hostess closing and selling its factories after declaring bankruptcy last November and plans by the new owners to reopen some plants, but without a union.
Miners also protested April 25 at Arch Coal’s shareholders meeting in Wright, Wyo., and at Peabody’s April 29 shareholder meeting in Gillette, Wyo.
Williams, who worked for Peabody for 33 years, said he didn’t work “one day in a Patriot mine.” More than 90 percent of “Patriot” retirees today never actually worked for the company.
“We have to support other unions,” said Floyd Bell, a member of Communications Workers Local 6300 from Ballwin, Mo. “Anything that affects one affects all.” At the rally were also members of UNITE HERE Local 74 from St. Louis; Service Employees International Union; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Transport Workers Union; Laborers union; United Steelworkers and more.
A group of miners from Australia’s Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, which represents 5,000 workers at nine Peabody mines there also came. “We see this as an attack on the UMWA and all unions in the U.S.,” Steve Smyth, president of the union’s Queensland branch, told the crowd. “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
Patriot filed for bankruptcy in July 2012, claiming it could no longer “provide health care for more than 23,000 employees, retirees and their dependents,” according to its website. Patriot is seeking $150 million in wage cuts and benefit and pension givebacks and the voiding of union contracts.
Patriot’s lawyer Elliot Moskowitz told the bankruptcy court April 29 that if the company is not allowed to cut expenses “to the bone” it would liquidate.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported April 11 that Patriot offered to extend retirees’ health coverage for six months and give the UMWA 35 percent stock ownership in the company if the union would agree to the cuts. This proposal is similar to one implemented by the auto bosses following GM’s bankruptcy in 2009.
The Post-Dispatch reported April 29 that the UMWA made a counteroffer of a 57 percent stake, which Patriot rejected.
Patriot did not return calls from the Militant requesting comment.
On April 24 the bankruptcy court approved a settlement with about 1,000 retired supervisors and their families, Patriot Coal Vice President Janine Orf told the Charleston Gazette.
Meanwhile, another fight by coal miners is taking place at the Deer Creek mine near Huntington, Utah. Last year Berkshire Hathaway bought the union mine. According to the March/April UMWA Journal, the new bosses are attempting to weaken health care benefits and undermine the union safety committee. The Journal says the company fired the union safety committee chair and wants to reduce the size of the committee “from 14 to three, none to be elected by the rank-and-file, all to be appointed by management.”
Mine Workers locals 1769 and 2176, which organize the miners there, are planning protests in Des Moines, Iowa, May 3 and at the stockholders meeting of Berkshire Hathaway in Omaha, Neb., May 4.
The UMWA is organizing further protest actions against Patriot Coal May 21 in St. Louis and June 4 in the Evansville, Ind., area.
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