Last Line of Defense

Denny Pickens saw a good job at the Shoemaker mine outside Wheeling, W.Va., nearly slip through his fingers before he was able to reel it back with the help of his union, the United Mine Workers of America, which convinced Consol Energy that it should invest in revitalizing the mine.

Pickens, the president of the local UMWA union at the mine, was a key player in organizing a cooperative program that demonstrated to Consol that the mine could be profitable, saving hundreds of jobs and boosting a community that depends on mining families for its survival.

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As the head of the march neared Patriot Coal headquarters in Charleston, demonstrators were still leaving the Civic Center 11 blocks behind. More than 10,000 miners and their supporters rallied for fairness.

That battle for the economic health of coalfield communities has boiled over as Patriot Coal and its sponsors, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, are using the bankruptcy courts in an effort to dump their obligations to retirees and their families. That’s why Pickens joined more than 10,000 Mine Workers and their supporters April 1 as they marched to the Charleston headquarters of Patriot Coal, demanding a fair deal for the workers who built the companies’ fortunes.

After 45 years in the mine, Pickens would like to retire but he can’t afford to do it when retiree health care is hanging in the balance of this struggle. “If it could happen to our brothers down here, it could happen to us,” he said. “And if it goes past us, it could happen to anyone in this country.”

That is the considered view of a man who has spent nearly half a century in pitched battles with coal companies that have had little compunction about tossing workers and retirees under the bus if it helps to maximize their profits – and a man who understands the power that a union gives him when he goes to the table.

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Denny Pickens

“It’s got to stop, and it’s got to stop now,” Pickens said. “If we’ve got to be the shock troops to do it, then I guess we’ll do it.”

It was easy to see the United Mine Workers as the leading edge of a defensive stand as they marched through the streets of Charleston, outfitted in their trademark camouflage garb. Many were veterans of wars, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, recognized from the podium by UMWA President Cecil Roberts.

“Every time this country has called on us … the Appalachian coal miners have been the first ones to answer that call,” Roberts said. “Now I say, these people stood with their country and it’s time for our country to stand with them.”

Among the nearly 11,000 marchers was a young family all in camouflage – Tim and Melissa Morris with their infant Hayley, asleep in Tim’s arms. They had come from southwestern Pennsylvania because “what they’re doing is not fair,” Tim said. “We’re sticking together and fighting back.”

That’s a spirit lauded by public officials who addressed the crowd, from senior U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (via video) to Rep. Nick Rahall and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. All sang the praises of the Mine Workers and their leadership.

Perhaps no one was as effusive in praising the miners as West Virginia’s junior senator, Joe Manchin, also a former governor. He said he enjoys telling people outside Appalachia just how important coal miners have been to American history, to the economy and to the defense of the nation.

“People don’t defend this country without you,” Manchin said. “I tell other people: These are the most patriotic people in the country. They’ve shed more blood and made more sacrifices than any other group of people I know.”

The irony of these patriotic Americans fighting for fairness from a company that calls itself “Patriot” was not lost on the congregation.

Here’s Sen. Manchin’s full remarks:

Roll Away the Stone

Over the past several months, Mine Workers have marched in the streets of St. Louis to protest Peabody Energy abandoning its former employees. On three occasions, miners have locked hands in the streets in a boisterous nonviolent protest, singing “Amazing Grace” as they waited to be arrested.

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United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts greets the thousands of supporters rallying in St. Louis March 19. Expect a moving speech in Charleston April 1.

Invoking the words of Jesus and passages of scripture, they have asked why courts would allow workers to be persecuted, denying them the benefits they were promised. They are asking for fairness. They ask: If we allow corporations to use the bankruptcy courts to dump retiree pensions and health care, what kind of society are we?

The question will be raised again on Monday, April 1 in the streets of Charleston, W.Va., with more than 5,000 miners and their supporters rallying outside the downtown headquarters of Patriot Coal, the shell company that was created by Peabody and Arch Coal to take over their obligations to employees, and then fail.

I’ll be there and blogging live via http://fairnessatpatriotnow.blogspot.com/, and posting here about the rally later in the week. You can get more details at http://www.fairnessatpatriot.org, and at Fairness at Patriot on Facebook.

So much is at stake, not only for retirees and their families, and for active miners and their communities, but also for every retiree depending on company-provided health care and pensions. Too often in recent years, companies have sought to dump these obligations through the bankruptcy courts. It’s in everyone’s interest that we stop it here.

The Mine Workers are taking a valiant stand, invoking not only history but also a Christian spirit that they argue should infuse the court’s deliberations. This is about fairness, about human dignity, about respect for family and hard work. This is about faith, perhaps even resurrection for struggling mining families.

The Mine Workers have come home to Charleston, seat of the bustling coal mining industry for nearly a hundred years, to state this case clearly. West Virginians understand the sacrifices that coalmine families have made to support mining in Appalachia, to build prosperous and promising lives.

Listen to these stories, sung so well by Tom Breiding of Pittsburgh, about the fight for fairness against Peabody and its agents: