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 spin-off that operates a dozen mines. 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 gut union contracts and end benefits covering 10,000 retirees and their 13,000 dependents. The move could amount to a death sentence for older miners, many of whom have black lung and other debilitating work injuries and depend on “lifetime benefits” set down in UMWA contracts since the 1940s.
“Patriot wants to redo the whole contract, wages and benefits and they want to do away with us,” James Gibbs, UMWA international vice president, told the Militant. Mining company “Alpha is waiting to see what happens with this, Consol is waiting. They thought we were so small we can’t fight, but we can fight and we will.”
“The Company can no longer afford to pay above-market wages and benefits to its 1,600 union employees as compared to its 1,300 nonunion miners doing exactly the same jobs,” Patriot Chief Executive Officer Bennett Hatfield said in a March 14 press statement.
This move takes place in the context of a recent contraction in domestic demand for coal, fueled in large part by falling natural gas prices. Today there are about 82,000 active miners in the U.S., down from some 89,000 in January of last year. About one-quarter of working miners are organized by the UMWA, according to the Wall Street Journal, far lower than the proportion decades ago.
In place of the current retiree health plan, responsible for $1.6 billion in benefits, Patriot is pushing a trust tied to “profit sharing” with a maximum fund of $300 million.
Gibbs said the union has reserved 43 buses for the April 1 action, which will start with a 10 a.m. rally at the Charleston Civic Center, followed by a march to Patriot Coal’s office. April 1 is Mitchell Day, a paid holiday for UMWA members and traditionally a day of miners’ union actions.
“We have to support the older guys,” Greg Stewart, 25, who works at Patriot-owned Federal No. 2 Mine near Morgantown, W.Va., told the Militant. “But we’re not just fighting for them, we’re fighting for ourselves.”
“The mine that I worked for closed down in 1999 and reopened nonunion five years later,” said David Beck, from Linton, Ind. “Now Peabody put all of us into Patriot. Peabody is still going big, but the Patriot mine is going bankrupt.”
Mine deaths on the riseMeanwhile, eight coal miners have been killed on the job in less than three months this year, as bosses go after unions and safety protections.
The latest was Elam Jones, 29, who was killed March 22 when a thick slab fell on him at the Rhino Resource Partners mine in Bear Canyon near Huntington, Utah. Rhino bought the mine in 2010 from C.W. Mining. Previously known as the Co-Op mine, it was the site of a union-organizing battle in 2003-2004.
Rhino had been carrying out a dangerous operation known as “retreat” mining, which involves extracting coal from pillars that support the roof. Just miles from Rhino, six miners and three rescuers were killed in an August 2007 collapse at the Crandall Canyon Mine caused by retreating mining.
On March 13, Asa Fitzpatrick, 63, was killed when a slab of rock fell on him at the Patriot-owned Peerless Rachel Mine near Racine, W.Va.
Postal workers protest plan to cut Sat. delivery
More than 193,000 jobs slashed since 2006
Join April 1 miners’ rally in W.Va.
Organized labor must fight for entire working class
NY school bus companies slash wages after strike
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home