In the Court of Public Opinion

I am going home to cover a big story, just like old times. When 4,000 United Mine Workers and community supporters rally Tuesday, June 4, at the Henderson County (Ky.) Courthouse, I’ll be there to write about it, to blog live in my hometown, where I began my career as a newspaper reporter.

This is a story that Henderson should know well, the fight by coal miners to earn a decent living, to survive in a dangerous job. Coal was King in Henderson for many years, along with corn, soybean and tobacco, now overtaken by marijuana, as markets change, including energy. Coal has fallen on hard times, but not nearly so much as the miners who spent decades underground mining the coal. Many struggle for breath, many live out their lives in pain.

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A retiree rallies in St. Louis. The rigors of coal mining have taken their toll on miners, but they’re fighting back through the United Mine Workers of America.

These are men and women dependent on health care benefits that St. Louis-based Peabody Energy and Arch Coal promised to deliver but dodged artfully through a corporate swindle – I don’t know how else to describe it. They have offloaded their retirement obligations to these miners onto a little company that may have been “created to fail.” Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy last year and is getting a gentle hand from U.S. bankruptcy court, even as Peabody and Arch wash their hands, like Pontius Pilate.

And here’s the lead: Patriot Coal on Wednesday, May 28, was awarded a bankruptcy court ruling that essentially gave the company the green light to gut the contracts of 1,700 active Mine Workers and strip life-saving health care benefits from 23,000 retirees and their family members. The Mine Workers immediately announced they would appeal the ruling, and continue their fight in other courts, in Congress and in the court of public opinion.

Now the story is coming to Henderson, and I believe it is a place where miners can get a fair hearing – at least in the court of public opinion. Patriot operates the Highland mine in adjoining Union County, and until last summer operated the Freedom mine in Henderson. Patriot shut down Freedom and others in West Virginia, and many are operating well below capacity. It’s a bittersweet reminder for citizens of Henderson that coal has always held both promise and peril.

Every coalfield family has been affected by the rigors of coal mining.  They’ve all lost friends and relatives to pneumoconiosis (black lung) and other respiratory diseases, or to the dangerous life underground. Coal is part of the DNA of these communities, and UMWA health care is a lifeline to the next day. Sadly, every American is affected by the erosion of health benefits, and by courts that increasingly favor the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals.

That is where we are today, facing a judicial system that somehow gives corporations the rights of people, while diminishing the rights of real people. “As often happens under American bankruptcy law, the short-term interests of the company are valued more than the dedication and sacrifice of the workers, who actually produce the profits that make a company successful,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

Roberts has vowed to continue the fight in every forum, including in federal court in Charleston, where the UMWA has sued Peabody and Arch for violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), alleging the companies conspired to deny benefits to their longtime employees and their families.

“Peabody and Arch can decide to live up to their obligations and end this problem tomorrow,” Robert said. “But if they don’t, we will continue our litigation against them and are optimistic about our chances.”

The rally in Henderson next week continues an aggressive campaign by the Mine Workers to make the miners’ case for justice in the communities where they live, where they raised their kids and contributed to local economies often driven by coal. As a young reporter, I waded through records at the Henderson County Courthouse, tracking the trade in mineral rights, to Peabody, Reynolds and other industry heavyweights of the day.

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The Henderson County (Ky.) Courthouse, where 4,000 Mine Worker and their supporters will rally next Tuesday.

Now it’s come to this: Giant coal companies that extracted the mineral wealth of communities now discard the workers who made their fortunes on a gob pile, like they were merely the waste of the operation – a sad reflection on corporate America. But we also are witnessing the courage and the determination of the miners and their union.

While the UMWA train stops in Henderson as it searches for justice, inevitably it is on its way to Washington, D.C., where the voices of miners already are being heard.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), denouncing the bankruptcy court ruling as a “travesty,” declared, “It is wrong that Peabody can set up a company such as Patriot, fill that company with its liabilities and then spin that company off for the sole purpose of avoiding its contractual and moral obligations to its workers. I don’t think bankruptcy laws were ever designed to shield corporations from their promises and responsibilities. I will continue to fight for fairness in the bankruptcy system.”

This is a fight that affects us all. Stay tuned. You will be able to follow the action in Henderson via the live blog, or watch it via livestream video here, beginning at 10 a.m. CT Tuesday, June 4.

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: