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:

Voices from the Coalfields

In issuing her order to move Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy case from New York to St. Louis, Bankruptcy Judge Shelley Chapman pointed to the “hundreds of hand-written
letters … received by the Court from the people whose hands mine the Debtors’ coal and their widows and children.”

These very personal and emotional statements clearly influenced her decision. The United Mine Workers had made a strong case that the bankruptcy court should not decide this case in the financial capital of New York, but in the heartland where coal was mined and lives were affected by the outcome.

Many of the letters, Judge Chapman wrote “enclosed family pictures, or lists of ailments and medications. Some of them asked for a personal response. All of them were respectful, and compelling. This decision reflects the Court’s attempt to craft a just and balanced solution to the question of which bankruptcy court will become the next custodian not only of these cases but also of these letters.”

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That’s a powerful statement about the validity of the comments from the coalfields, from these mining families that had given their lives to the success of Peabody Coal Co., which in turn had dumped them. They landed in a Peabody shell, a new company, Patriot Coal, which got little of the lucrative business but lots of human liabilities. And now they are in dire need of the benefits they were promised by Peabody, before they were discarded like chattel.

Roger Elkins of Beckley, W.Va., wrote that he suffers “from cervical fusion in the 5th and 6th vertebrae of my neck, a crushed vertebrae in my lumbar back, a broken ankle, a broken wrist and two operations on this wrist. I suffered from severe burns on my hands from an exploding cable, plus numerous soft tissue injuries from my employment” at Peabody.

In short, he had given his life to Peabody. But Peabody apparently could care less about him or any of the thousands of other retirees, widows and orphans. Wrote one widow, “(I have) heart trouble, a pacemaker. (I had) a stroke, on oxygen daily, arthritic, can hardly walk, three discs out in my back. I am 74 years old … I take daily medications. I cannot live alone … I need this insurance badly.”

Her husband worked 38 years in the Peabody mines, “lost his leg at Dugger Mines in Indiana in 1971, went back to work and retired in 1974. We moved back to Kentucky in 2000.” Now he was gone, and she was pleading with the court for survival.

Here’s Sharron Diane Small, a widow of a miner from Marissa, Ill.:

“I will lose everything if I lose my insurance and medicine. I have colon problems … I have nerve problems. I’m losing my house, and have lost my son, brother, husband, mother-in-law, mother and father, and nephew – one each year for the last eight years.

“I realize it’s not any one person’s fault but what are we suppose to do? I have to take at least 12 different kind of medicine a day. … Please help all of us who are losing. I will wait as long as I can before going to the doctor and try to do without all the medicine I can. Thank you for listening. God bless.”

These are courageous people living out their lives after spending their youth building a great American energy company, and heartless corporate scoundrel. Patriot Coal may go bankrupt, but Peabody expects to walk away scot free.

Fortunately, the United Mine Workers will not walk away from the fight with Peabody, and is pressing not only in bankruptcy court, but also in U.S. district court in West Virginia, where the union has sued Peabody for violating the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act by colluding to deprive its workers and retirees of earned benefits.

“This … promises to be a long battle for the workers, retirees, their dependents and widows at Patriot who seek only fairness,” Roberts said. “Company executives who try to evade their obligations through a slick transfer of corporate assets need to know that the UMWA will fight in every way possible to make sure a promise made is a promise kept.”

As Roberts explained in October when he accepted the National Consumer League’s 2012 Trumpeter Award, fighting for the rights of all workers against the injustice of greedy coal companies is embedded in the UMW DNA, and is at the heart of the labor movement:

“What this movement needs is a little more militancy … a little more militancy,” Roberts repeated as he moved the crowd to stand and shout. The union has taken this fight to the courts, and it is ready to go to the streets. A lot of people who were promised benefits for a life of hard work and sacrifice are depending on it.

We’ll keep on eye on those court cases, and on the fight for survival by miners and their families. And we’ll look at the future of coal and mining communities that have depended on it for not only survival, but prosperity.