Peabody Energy today got a first taste of what promises to be an intense in-your-face confrontation with the United Mine Workers, the first day of hearings in the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal, a company Peabody spun off to offload its union operations – and pension and health care obligations for thousands of retirees and their families.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts led hundreds of active and retired coal miners in a rally across from the federal building where the court hearing was in session, and then in a march to Peabody headquarters where he and nine others were arrested for sitting in the street and refusing to disperse.
Most of the miners and retirees whose benefits are at risk in the bankruptcy never worked a day at Patriot, but were victims of the double-breasting practices of Peabody and Arch Coal, which also dumped its union operations on Patriot. The UMW charges that Peabody created Patriot specifically to rid itself of the legacy costs, and that Patriot was built to fail.
“What we have here is a company reneging on its promises,” Roberts said of Peabody. “We’re not going to take it. We will fight for our members and their families in the courts, in the coalfields and in the streets of St. Louis. Patriot and Peabody have a moral obligation to those who mined their coal.”
The UMW live-streamed much of the rally and march from St. Louis, and also live-blogged at the event, which had the flavor of old-fashioned mass demonstrations and street theater. Roberts vowed the union would continue to hammer away at the companies in the court of public opinion.
Before marching to Peabody headquarters, Roberts called to the stage the nine other mine workers who he said were committed to go to jail, two of whom had oxygen tanks strapped over their shoulders. One was on oxygen 24 hours a day, several had black lung disease, and one was a Vietnam veteran with Agent Orange poisoning.
Roberts, who speaks with the passion and rhythm of an evangelical preacher (“Jesus was an organizer,” he declares), read from the Bible to chasten Peabody and Arch managements, urging them to pray to understand the error of their ways, and to repent. He called for a moment of silence for those in hospice “who will not see the morning come,” others with lung, heart and blood problems, “who without their medicines will not live.”
“I urge the people at Peabody to think about what they are doing to them,” he said. “We march for them, and ask God’s guidance in returning everybody to their homes and the strength to return here again, and again and again and again.”
The union had bused in the miners and retirees from the mining towns throughout southern Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia, where most of the Patriot mines have closed down. And it has been hammering its message about corporate greed and community abandonment in two TV ads that have been airing this month in the St. Louis area, as well as billboards in prominent areas.
And stay tuned. As Roberts said, the miners will be back. And they won’t back down.