Cross Posted from Socialist Organizer
By Jim Hays
In recent months, Peabody Coal Co. has been the subject of large militant protests by both environmentalists and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Union. Peabody, the world’s largest and most prosperous coal energy company, has its world headquarters in a shining big skyscraper in downtown St. Louis, Missouri.
A few decades ago, coal companies started to shift production from deep underground mines mostly in the Eastern United States to huge open strip mines in Western states, such as Power Valley and the Navajo Nation. For decades the Eastern coal mines were centers of militant trade union struggles led by the UMWA. [See such classic films as “Harlan County,” the “Molly Maguires,” and “Matawan” for stories of theses struggles.]
In 2011, Peabody Coal shifted some of the assets in old Eastern coal fields to a new dummy corporation, Patriot Coal. This slick action was aimed at getting out of paying “legacy costs” to over 20,000 retired miners and their families. Patriot Coal is now in Federal District bankruptcy court in St. Louis declaring that it cannot pay the defined-benefit pensions and health-care coverage it negotiated with the UMWA for decades.
“Black Lung” for Workers, Soaring Profits for the Company
Many miners have worked for decades under harsh and dangerous underground conditions, including developing “Black Lung” disease.
The coal companies, like some steel and auto firms before them, hope to get big concessions in Federal bankruptcy court to their over $1 billion liabilities to retiree health care.
Several times in recent weeks, the UMWA has transported many miners and their families to large protest demonstrations in St. Louis, including 11 busloads from several states on Feb. 26.
These protests at Peabody Coal have come at the same time as demonstrations by several environmental groups and Native Americans from the Navajo Nation have targeted the company to protest pollution such as strip mining and dangerous fracking methods.
Peabody’s profits have grown in recent years as it carries out more uncontrolled pollution mining and expands trade worldwide, especially with China. More than 500 coal miners die each year in China as that country consumes more and more dirty coal.
Environmental activists and their student allies must link up with the miners and construction unions to demand conversions to non-fossil energy industries with good union jobs. Energy companies, including oil giants such as Exxon, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell, should be nationalized under public and workers’ control to begin conversion. This will only be possible under a worldwide democratic planned public owned socialist economy. As an immediate demand government concessions, subsidizes, tax write offs and hand-outs to these corporation must end now.
The protest of the UMWA against cuts to their earned pensions and benefits is part of a national and worldwide movement to resist the attacks on union-negotiated defined benefit plans.
For decades unions have given up wage and current benefits to get secure pensions and health care when workers retire.
Public workers such as teachers and firefighters have been promised good retirement if they continue to work in often unhealthy jobs and forego higher salaries in private industries. This situation is especially acute now in the state of Illinois, where the state government says it is billions of dollars in debt because of the “entitlements” of five big employee groups.
Elsewhere, pensions are being frozen or cut. For example there is an attack on the Firefighters Pension funds in the City of St. Louis, and the St. Louis Public School retired employees have not gotten a COLA raise since 2005. Meanwhile more schools are being cut and vital staff reduced.
This is being implemented in many states by state and city governments headed by both Democrats and Republicans. Meanwhile large corporations receive big tax breaks called TIFs. Peabody Coal, for example, gets tax incentives to stay in the city limits of St. Louis. This means that tens of thousands of dollars won’t go to fund schools and other public services.
Corporate lawyers and Political Action Committee have funneled large donations to the election campaigns of St. Louis Mayor Slay and to several Democratic Party Alderman candidates in the March primary.
Among the services they get for these donations is a large police “protection” for corporate buildings such as Peabody Coal and Wells Fargo bank. This included guarding the doors and arresting dozens of sit-down protesters at recent UMWA and MORE demonstrations.
Progressive activists and miners’ unions from around the world such as France and South Africa (Azania) should send solidarity messages to the UMWA and sign its petition (google the UMWA web site). Already they have received a solidarity message from the Australian miners’ union. Videos and more details are available on the UMWA website and on AFL-CIO blogs.