|Miners and supporters demonstrate in Henderson, Ky., against bankruptcy court decision giving Patriot Coal green light to tear up union contracts and slash retiree health benefits.|
Coal miners, including a large number of retirees, came in cars, on foot, and in 28 buses from as far away as Alabama, Pennsylvania and the West Virginia panhandle. Contingents of unionists from the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union; United Steelworkers; Service Employees International Union; and United Auto Workers came in solidarity.
The protest was organized by the United Mine Workers of America in response to a pro-company ruling May 29 by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surrat-States.
That ruling gives Patriot Coal the green light to eliminate its collective bargaining agreements with the UMWA and slash health care benefits for more than 20,000 retired miners and their spouses.
In a statement after the ruling, Patriot bosses said they will recognize existing union contracts through July 1 by which time they intend to have new agreements in place with major concessions.
Surrat-States callously acknowledged that for many retirees her ruling will mean “making a choice today over medicine or food.”
“This means some people are going to die,” Darryl Hedgepath told the Militant the day before the rally.
A member of UMWA Local 1793, Hedgepath runs a scoop at Patriot Coal’s Highland No. 9 Mine in Waverly. Two days after the court ruling, he said, the company announced things would change.
“They said we would not get the $1.50 pay raise we’re supposed to get in July,” Hedgepath said. “Next year they will take away one week’s paid vacation. At the end of the shift that night the company had constructed gates at the entrance to the parking lot.”
“I have brothers who work in a nonunion mine,” said Conrad Wolfe, 32, who also works at Highland No. 9. “The thing they get from the company is to keep the union out. Now they are worried because they know that if we lose, they are not going to gain anything.”
In 2007, Peabody Energy created Patriot by spinning off many 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 by Arch Coal to take over all its union mines.
“We will continue to meet with the company this week to see if there is a way forward,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said May 29. “We have long acknowledged that Patriot is in trouble, because it can no longer pay Peabody and Arch’s bills. We remain willing to take painful steps to help Patriot get through the rough period it faces over the next couple of years.”
Bennett Hatfield, Patriot’s president and CEO, called the ruling a “major step forward.” He said he would continue to talk to the union to find a “consensual resolution.”
Today’s rally was the latest in a series of protest actions involving thousands of miners and other unionists. UMWA officials announced the next rally against Patriot will take place in St. Louis June 17 and that protests will continue throughout the summer.
The union filed suit in Charleston, W.Va., alleging that Peabody and Arch violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act by illegally dumping contractual obligations when they created Patriot and Magnum. It also announced plans to appeal the court decision.
Roberts told the West Virginia MetroNews that a strike now would be “high risk,” since it could put Patriot out of business.
Bobby Stone and Rick Lowell, both retired from Peabody Camp No. 1 Mine with close to 56 years of work between them, told the Militant that their pensions and health care are on the chopping block.
“We retired early in order to be guaranteed a pension and health care. All the corporations are watching this to see if they can do the same thing. Every union man and woman in the country needs to get involved in this fight,” Lowell said.
“We came out today to support the mine workers,” Wilbert Robinson, a USW retiree from Alcoa Aluminum in Evansville, Ind., and Midwest representative of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, told the Militant. “The judge made the wrong decision. Mining is a dangerous and heavy job. Look around and you can see that a good number of the retirees are disabled and need the medical coverage.”
“We brought a bus of 56 retired UAW members because the UMWA has supported us going all the way back to the 1930s,” said Kathy Fowler, president of UAW Local 10 in Doraville, Ga.
‘This fight is far from over’
UMWA International Vice President Steve Earle chaired the rally, drawing cheers from the large crowd when he said, “The UMWA is here to stay. We have a message to the judge that this will not be the end. This fight is far from over.”
Calling the bankruptcy court decision “a new victory by the robber barons,” Kentucky State Rep. Brent Yonts told rally participants they should urge Congress to “change the bankruptcy laws so we don’t allow this to happen to working people.”
Among other speakers at the rally were Roberts, Kentucky AFL-CIO President William Londrigan, UMWA International Financial Secretary-Treasurer Dan Kane, Kentucky State Sen. Jerry Rhoads, and Henderson County Judge Executive Hugh McCormick.
“The intent of the judge’s decision is pretty clear to me,” said Guy Scisney, 66, who works at Highland No. 9. “It was to bail the company out and give us the shaft.”
Join June 17 UMWA rally in St. Louis
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