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Miners Arrested in Fight to End Peabody’s Stealing of Health Benefits

February 20, 2013
By Kay Tillow

St. Louis, MO.  On February 13, 2013  Shirley Inman was arrested for peaceful, civil disobedience as she protested at the Peabody Energy headquarters against the corporate threat to rob miners and their families of the health benefits they have earned. 

Inman, a member of United Mine Workers of America Local 2286 in Madison, West Virginia, spent 18 years driving a coal truck. Head held high, Inman faced arrest with a determination much greater than her petite stature. She is serious about this fight.

"If I can't get my medication for my heart disease, I won't be around much longer," said Inman. "I'm a breast cancer survivor and I have coronary artery disease. Health care isn't an option for me; it's what I need to survive. I'll do whatever it takes to make these corporate executives keep the promises they made – and if that means going to jail, so be it."

Inman was arrested with nine of her union brothers, including UMWA Secretary Treasurer Dan Kane.  This was the second set of arrests at Peabody Energy, and it looks like there will be more to come. On January 29 UMWA President Cecil Roberts was arrested with the first group, but he was not present for this rally because of negotiations.

In 2007, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal spun off a large chunk of their health care and retirement obligations to a new entity called Patriot Coal. In a financial and bankruptcy transaction that UMWA Vice President from Alabama, Daryl Dewberry, described as “nickel slick”, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal are trying to wash their hands of responsibility for the health benefits for which they had signed contracts.

There was an air of militancy as more than 1,000 miners and supporters marched to the park and rallied between the St. Louis arch and the Peabody headquarters prior to the arrests. There was emotion also.  Health care hits close to the heart. The union has challenged the theft of benefits in court, and the case has been moved to St. Louis. Concerned that bankruptcy law may not be adequate to protect these benefits, the miners say they will win this battle by appealing to a higher moral law.

Dan Kane, UMWA Secretary Treasurer explained. “They intentionally put Patriot in the position for bankruptcy.  They want this in the bankruptcy court—they don’t want it in the court of public opinion.  This is about every man and woman who works for a living.  Health care and pension are not gifts.  You paid for it.  But these companies are using bankruptcy more and more.  Lawyers will get paid.  Million dollar bonuses will go to executives.  The heads of Patriot won’t suffer. Those who did the work walk out with nothing. That has to stop.  We don’t want their sympathy. What we want is justice.”

“We want what we’ve earned,” said Kane.  “They want to go to their palatial homes—but they deserve a cell next to Bernie Madoff.  I’m tired of an economy that walks all over the workers.  I look for a day when we win the fight so every person who wants to can be in a union without interference.  And next, I look for a day when each and every one drops
their tools and sits down for a day and tells the executives here’s what it’s like without us.”  The protesters roared approval.

Dewberry said the UMWA was founded in 1890 “when it was not popular to have all creeds and colors together, but we did it and we’ve been doing it for over 100 years.”  He said that miners are “used to adversity and we are all our brothers’ keepers.  Peabody left scars in Alabama.  Arch left scars in Alabama.  They left black lung.  Miners took less benefits to assure health care.”

“Know this, Peabody, we’re seasoned and we ain’t backing down from nothing,” continued Dewberry.   “Our members have been shot at and burned out and turned out since 1890 and nobody is going to turn us around.”  He then compared the times with an earlier era when Abraham Lincoln said, “…(C)orporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed.” Dewberry declared of Peabody “They don’t know what a fight is, but we’ll take ‘em on.”

James Gibbs, UMWA Vice President from West Virginia and a third generation coal miner spoke.  “I think about Peabody and Arch and how they lied to our retirees who today walk with canes and walkers and carry bottles of oxygen after working all these years.  They were promised health care for all their lives.  We’re not going to let Peabody get by with this. It’s not right.”

Reflecting the common heritage of the union with the civil rightsmovement, Gibbs related the story of Rosa Parks. Then he told of his father who worked the last 30 years in the mine with an artificial leg, “yet Pittston didn’t mind a bit to try to take their benefits.  But Pittston didn’t win that fight.  We win when we are right.”  He was referring to the 14 month struggle in 1989 when Pittston sought to discontinue medical benefits to miners, retirees and the disabled. Pittston was met with massive resistance when miners and their families by the thousands engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to bring the company to its knees and to a contract.

The ten volunteers for civil disobedience led the crowd to the street beside the gleaming Peabody Energy headquarters where they were arrested. The police secured their wrists with white plastic handcuffs and took them away. UMWA Vice President Steve Earle announced “We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”

Note: Every union should endorse HR 676, national single payer health care.

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