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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 77/No. 20      May 27, 2013


Click here for Militant Labor Forums

(lead article)
Miners fight Patriot Coal
drive to ‘break our union’
‘Bosses united against workers, we must
unite against them’
Militant/Laura Anderson
Mine Workers are preparing next rally in St. Louis for May 21, the ninth action since September, to protest Patriot Coal’s plans to use bankruptcy filing to tear up union contracts. Above, workers from a number of unions stand in solidarity with UMWA miners at April 29 rally in St. Louis.

WAVERLY, Ky. — “We are fighting for our lives,” said Ed Baker, a coal miner at the Patriot-owned Highland No. 9 Mine and a member of United Mine Workers of America Local 1793. “They are doing this for the almighty dollar.”

Baker and other members of the UMWA here and in West Virginia spoke to the Militant recently about Patriot Coal’s drive to eliminate pensions and health benefits for more than 20,000 retired miners and their spouses, and rip up the union contract for some 2,000 working miners.

“Patriot was set up to go broke,” Baker said, reflecting the views of many workers in this western Kentucky coal mining area.

Patriot Coal was founded in 2007, when Peabody Energy spun off some of its mining operations in West Virginia and Kentucky, including all its union mines east of the Mississippi. A year later Patriot bought Magnum Coal, a company created in 2005 as a spinoff of all the union mines owned by Arch Coal. Patriot employs about 4,000 miners, the majority of whom are represented by the UMWA. In July 2012 Patriot filed for bankruptcy, seeking court sanction for its assault against retired and working miners and the union.

During the past several months thousands of coal miners and their supporters have demonstrated in St. Louis and Charleston, W.Va., against these attacks.

“They are trying to break the union,” said Terry Wilson, a ram car operator at the mine. “They want to throw us by the side of the ditch.”

“I believe job security and having a say-so about safety is at stake,” said Ron Keeney on his way into Patriot’s Highland Mine, which is organized by the UMWA. “I have worked in nonunion mines and seen a couple of explosions and I know what it’s like to stand up for safety and be told to shut up or go home.”

Building for May 21 march

UMWA Local 1793 is sending two buses to the upcoming May 21 rally in St. Louis, Terry Miller told the Militant. Miller is the local’s president and just returned from a Mine Workers protest at the Arch and Peabody shareholders meetings in Wyoming some 1,400 miles away. “Eighteen of us went and they were sure surprised to see us.”

The May 21 rally takes place just before the May 29 deadline for U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States to issue her ruling on Patriot’s petition.

Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield told the court either the company is allowed to implement $150 million in cuts or they will be forced to liquidate. Hatfield was the CEO of International Coal Group when its Sago Mine in West Virginia blew up in 2006, killing 12 miners.

UMWA attorney Fred Perillo said during the court proceedings that the union “may be forced to strike” if its contract with the company is voided.

Solidarity from other workers

“It seems like the corporations are uniting against the workers. Unless we begin to unite we won’t have a chance against what they are doing to us,” said Christian Musselman, recording secretary of Steelworkers Local 7-669. Musselman, who was a leader of the fight against a 14-month lockout during 2010-2011 by Honeywell in Metropolis, Ill., told the Militant that they are organizing to get a van full of members to the May 21 rally.

Bentley Kirk, 49, who is from Danville, W.Va., told the Militant that the fight against Patriot requires “us sticking together when they try to divide us.” Kirk, who has worked at the Alpha Natural Resources Progress mine for 18 years, was a surface miner at the Upper Big Branch Mine when it exploded in 2010, killing 29 miners. He works with former Upper Big Branch miners, many of whom face years of medical rehabilitation. “We work with mining equipment so huge and potentially dangerous. There is no ‘small’ accident, now,” he said.

Dennis Kuhn, also from Danville and a disabled UMWA miner, expressed the sentiment of many miners and other workers when he said, “If Patriot gets away with it, others will follow.”

The UMWA is organizing more protests in the coalfields and is urging workers to come. In addition to the May 21 action in St. Louis, there will be a vigil May 23 at the Capitol Building in Charleston, W.Va., and a rally June 4 in Henderson, Ky.

In Huntington, Utah, miners at the Deer Creek Mine are resisting the drive by the bosses to eliminate the union safety committee and impose cuts in wages, health care and pensions. The miners’ contract expired Jan. 2. Deer Creek is the only UMWA-organized mine in Utah.

“All I have to say to the Deer Creek miners is keep your head up,” said Kentucky miner Baker, “keep fighting and stick together.”

Janet Post, writing from southern West Virginia, and David Rosenfeld contributed to this article.  

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