ST. LOUIS – “We are going to stand up, fight back and go to jail for our members – and that is something Peabody can’t buy,” United Mine Workers’ of America (UMWA) international president, Cecil Roberts, told 6,000 mineworkers, supporters, and community activists, as they rallied here in downtown Kiener Plaza on April 29.
The rally was held just across the street from Peabody Energy’s national headquarters. Peabody is the nation’s largest and most profitable coal company.
According to the Mineworkers, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal created the spinoff company, Patriot Coal, in a scheme to deny pension and health care benefits to over 20,000 union members and their dependents.
Patriot Coal filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in July, 2012 and shortly thereafter asked to be released from its promises to UMWA members in West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio.
Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are both headquartered in St. Louis, Mo and the bankruptcy case was moved to St. Louis last November.
Dozens of mineworkers have been arrested over the past few months for peacefully sitting down in the street just outside Peabody’s headquarters.
President Roberts emphasized that the ongoing rallies, marches and civil disobedience are “about saving lives.”
He said, “Somewhere near a coalmine there is a family, a priest or minister, and a doctor” and a coal miner “who has paid the ultimate price” due to black lung disease or cancer, and all they expect in return is what was “promised to them, what they already paid for.”
Roberts called Peabody Energy “a Judas” and reminded the assembled union members that Judas kissed Jesus’ hand to mark him for death. He then added, pointing to the Peabody headquarters just across the street, “and they are counting the money upstairs.”
“People are coming from around the nation and around the world to be with us in this fight. They recognize that our fight is their fight. If Peabody Energy and Patriot can get away with their scheme to get out of their obligations to their retirees, then any company anywhere can do the same thing.”
UMWA secretary treasurer, Daniel Kane, echoed Roberts’ sentiment and added with enthusiastic cheer, “The labor movement is the greatest instrument for social and economic justice in the world.”
“People will only take being walked on for so long,” he continued, “before they rise up.”
Ominously, but calmly, he concluded, “The people in charge need to recognize that we are the means for a peaceful resolution to our grievances. We are going to do this until we win or for the rest of our lives.”
He called people who sit on the sidelines, who refuse to join a union, but benefit from unions, “draft-dodgers in the war for economic justice.”
Larry Cohen, international president of the Communication Workers’ Union of America (CWA), representing 700,000 members, called Patriot Coals bankruptcy “bullshit” and added that “they are the opposite of patriotic.”
Cohen added, “If the courts allow this to happen, they [large corporations] will be able to do anything they want.”
Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP, said, Peabody “has conspired to take your money, to defraud you of your hard-won benefits. It is a crime against humanity.”
UMWA leaders also emphasized the international aspects of this campaign. Secretary treasurer Kane, said, “Peabody is in Australia. We’re in Australia. Peabody can run, but it can’t hide. You can’t get away from the union.”
“We will go across the country or across the world if we have too.”
Steve Smyth, president of the Queensland, Australia Construction, Forestry and Mining Employees Union (CFMEU), which represents more than 5,000 miners at nine Peabody mines, said, “We won’t stand for a multinational company that rips you off.”
“Peabody has simply turned its back on the mine workers. They didn’t do this by mistake. They knew what they were doing. They planned this.”
Former White House aide and president of Rebuild the Dream, Van Jones, said, “Any corporation, any boss, who looks a man in the eye and tells him to go down into that hole and risk your life to keep the lights on…there’s a name for that man who’s sent down that hole: he’s a hero.”
“The promise of lifelong health care for miners and their widows is a sacred moral promise and you can’t get out of it,” Jones said.
After the rally, union members marched six blocks to the federal courthouse where Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy case is being heard. Sixteen protesters blocked the street in front of the courthouse, including Roberts and Cohen, and were arrested.
Later that night, faith leaders from all across St. Louis led a 250 person candle light vigil in support of the mineworkers at the federal court house.
Missouri Jobs with Justice director, Lara Granich, welcomed the faith leaders, and said, “We are grounded in the idea of a covenant. No matter what happens in this building that covenant cannot be broken.”
Earlier president Roberts brought the assembled union members to a roar when he said, “I will die standing up for the principle that you should keep your promise. Peabody made a promise. We’ll fight and die to see that that promise is kept.”
Photo: Tony Pecinovsky/PW