The Third International after Lenin

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A social movement in the Eastern coalfields?

W.Va.: Thousands protest Patriot’s attack on mine union, retirees
UMWA calls next action for April 16 in St. Louis

March in Charleston, W.Va., April 1 to protest slashing of medical benefits and pensions and tearing up of union contracts by Patriot Coal as part of company’s bankruptcy filing. 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Some 6,000-7,000 coal miners, their families, and other workers poured into the Civic Center here April 1 in the largest mobilization of miners in many years. The action was the latest in a series of demonstrations organized by the United Mine Workers of America since August 2012 to fight Patriot Coal’s attempt to use bankruptcy to gut union contracts, pensions and health care.

“Corporate greed has taken over this country. This is a death sentence for retirees,” said Benny Parker, a member of the UMWA from Mannington, who retired in 2007 from Patriot’s Federal No. 2 Mine.

Many retired miners have black lung and other debilitating work injuries from decades in the mines and depend on what they thought were lifetime benefits set down in UMWA contracts since the 1940s.

More than 50 busloads of miners came from seven states. Hundreds drove up from southern West Virginia. The rally included both working and retired coal miners as well as union delegations, including from the United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, Communications Workers of America, Ironworkers and the American Federation of Teachers.

Terry Steele, a retired miner from UMWA Local 1440, came to the rally from Matewan. He used to work at the Zeigler Old Ben Mine owned by Horizon. “In 2002 they filed for bankruptcy, just like Patriot’s doing. They got out of all their responsibilities,” he said.

In 2007 Peabody Energy spun off most of its union mines to form Patriot Coal Corp. A year later Patriot bought Magnum Coal Co., an Arch Coal spinoff. More than 90 percent of “Patriot” retirees today never actually worked for Patriot.

As part of its bankruptcy proceedings, Patriot Coal on March 14 asked a judge to sanction its plan to tear up union contracts and end benefits covering 10,000 retirees and their 13,000 dependents. Patriot’s bankruptcy takes place in the context of a recent contraction in domestic demand for coal, fueled in large part by falling natural gas prices.

There are no union mines left in Mingo County, W.Va., or Pike County, Ky., Steele said.

Both the number of coal miners and the proportion who are members of the UMWA has declined dramatically over recent decades. Only about one-quarter of working miners are members of the UMWA today, down from 43 percent in 1994. Today there are about 82,000 active miners in the U.S., down from some 89,000 in January of last year and from 175,000 30 years ago.

“The younger generation, a lot of us, were raised off the union,” said Jeff Samek, 29, a faceman at the Alpha Natural Resources Carmichaels Mine in Southwest Pennsylvania. “If Patriot does this every company will try it.”

Speakers at the rally included Democratic politicians from West Virginia, including Sen. Joe Manchin, Rep. Nick Rahall, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, in a videotaped message, promised to press for the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act, which would transfer money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund, a government fund for restoration of mined land based on taxing coal production, to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan.

The CARE Act is supposed to prop up the union’s pension plan — which faces insolvency as a result of declining unionization and funds lost through speculative investments — as well as cover retirees who lose benefits when coal bosses file for bankruptcy and reduce taxes on employer payments to benefit plans.

“What Patriot did was designed to fail so they could get rid of these liabilities,” Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, told the rally. “We won’t allow them to take the money and run. Anyone who pulls a paycheck, stand with us.”

Corey Bachman, 22, a member of Ironworkers Local 3 in Pittsburgh, said he and other workers have been on strike for eight months at Patriot Machining and Maintenance Services, which is not owned by Patriot Coal. “After we organized a union, they laid everybody off,” he said. “We have filed unfair labor practice charges.”

Steelworkers from Ravenswood came to the rally along with nurses from Bluefield, who recently formed a Nurses Union, and a van of UAW members from the Ford plant in Louisville, Ky.

“It’s going to affect all of us,” said Debbie Casey, a member of CWA Local 2204 from Castlewood, Va. She said the CWA, IBEW and UMWA brought five busloads to the rally.

“I support the UMWA in this,” said Larry Goodwin, 35, vice president of United Steelworkers Local 477 at a refractory plant in Buckhannon. He came with several others from the local. “We faced the same thing in my plant. We lost health care for retirees and current employees.”

“This is not just about the mine workers, UMWA President Cecil Roberts told participants. “This is a movement about the people.”

Following the speeches Roberts led the massive gathering out of the Civic Center, marching down the streets of Charleston to the headquarters of Patriot Coal. Chants of “U-M-W-A” and “We are union” broke out. Roberts and 15 other labor, civic and religious officials who had declared their intention to be arrested sat down in the street until cops took them away.

The next action will be in St. Louis on April 16 at 10 a.m. in front of Peabody Coal’s corporate headquarters.

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