The Rev. Jim Sessions, an Interfaith Worker Justice Board Member, was in the car driving to St. Louis for the “Fairness at Patriot” rally, when news of the settlement between the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and Patriot Coal was announced on the radio. *
Not knowing the details of the settlement, he called John Lonetti, the UMWA organizer who had invited him to participate in Tuesday’s rally. “Should I still come?” the Rev. Sessions asked.
If you haven’t been following the news from IWJ and the Fairness at Patriot campaign, you might be similarly perplexed about what a settlement means for miners, current or retired, and their families. The settlement represents a first step in a campaign that has a long history.
In many ways, it’s a story that reflects a situation more and more workers (in both the private and public sectors) are confronting. Though they’ve worked for years, their employer is now trying to escape their obligation to provide them with the benefits they’ve earned.
In this case, Peabody Energy created a subsidiary company, Patriot Coal, to which they offloaded millions in pension liabilities, without also transferring sufficient assets to cover those costs. And they did this knowingly. As Peabody CFO Rich Navarre proudly put it at the time, “Our relative health care liabilities and related expenses will be reduced by 40 percent.”
While that may have been good news for shareholders at the time, it’s had a devastating effect on mineworkers and their families since Patriot has subsequently filed for bankruptcy and a judge relived them of the contractual obligations they had previously made with workers.
It isn’t surprising, given all this, that Lonetti told Rev. Sessions the rally on Tuesday was most definitely still going to happen.
The Rev. Sessions described the rally as truly “rousing” with several thousand folks, many of them other mineworkers from as far away as Virginia. As one of the speakers at the rally, he delivered a speech that included these powerful words:
"I bring to you … religious solidarity from the Interfaith Board of Directors in Chicago … and the solidarity of my family. You are here for my children, for my grandchildren. My family's future is in this struggle. This is a moral struggle. This is about the moral fiber of this country.”
After the rally, the Rev. Sessions participated in a planned action of civil disobedience. While he was arrested and processed by the police, he had a chance to connect with mineworkers who were also arrested. The mood among the group, the Rev. Sessions reported, was energetic. Despite this lengthy struggle, they remain committed to fighting for justice.
It’s clear, when the Rev. Sessions speaks about the UMWA, that he has great admiration for the mineworkers and their union. “They [the UMWA] have great internal solidarity because they depend on each other so much when they’re underground [in the mines].” He also noted that many reporters and national observers miss the fact that a good number of these miners are bi-vocational pastors, who lead independent Protestant churches in addition to working in the mines. As a result, workers’ religious beliefs play a large role in shaping the union’s culture. “Everything starts and ends with prayer. [Faith] is part of the fiber and fabric of this union.”
Given the strong character of the UMWA leadership and their members, the Rev. Sessions seemed hopeful in the midst of this long battle. But, he emphasized, “it’s important” for IWJ members “to recognize that this fight is not over, Peabody Coal is still behind a nefarious spin-off game.” A game that is continues to cost mineworkers and their families dearly.
* Update (8.19.13 at 12pm): The proposed settlement, first announced on Monday, August 12th, was formally ratified by UMWA mineworkers on Friday, August 16th.