WAYNESBURG – The line of camouflaged-clad marchers seemed to stretch more than a mile down Route 21 from Greene County Fairgrounds Friday morning.
Holding signs reading “solidarity” and “We are… One,” with United Mine Workers of America in smaller print, about 5,000 union members and supporters walked the 1½ miles from Greene County Airport to the county fairgrounds on a mission to show solidarity.
They came for a rally sponsored by the UMW as the union faces the challenges of dealing with bankrupt Alpha Natural Resources, upcoming national contract negotiations and the push for federal legislation to shore up the union’s pension plan.
Speaking in the fairground’s livestock building, UMW President Cecil E. Roberts, the keynote speaker, gave a rousing address, citing the union’s past and its challenges ahead. In the 1930s, mine workers were known as the “shock troops” of the labor movement, Roberts said.
“Nobody else can do what we do,” he said. “Look around you, there are 5,000 people in this barn. You are still the shock troops of the American labor movement.”
Roberts recounted the union’s battles including those with Pittston Coal Co. and more recently with Patriot Coal. People ask how the union can continue to win its fights even with diminished numbers, he said.
His response to that: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
On Monday, Alpha Natural Resources filed a motion with bankruptcy court seeking to break the contract with 580 union employees at the company’s Cumberland Mine, end its pension contributions and reduce its obligation to retiree health care benefits.
“Bankruptcy is just a way for corporations to rob the workers of everything they have earned,” Roberts said.
Alpha plans to sell its core assets as part of the proceeding, including Cumberland Mine. A group of Alpha creditors agreed to purchase those assets if no other bidders surface.
As part of the bankruptcy, Alpha will cease to exist, Roberts said.
“We’re not talking about Alpha, we’re talking about Wall Street robber barons,” he said.
“We’ve got to stand together on this and fight for this,” he said. The company can sell the assets, but “these are our jobs, he said, repeating the phrase several times for emphasis.
Alpha also wants to end its contribution to retiree pensions and cut health care benefits. Those retirees “earned that health care, they worked for that health care and nobody should be allowed to take it away,” Roberts said.
Roberts also spoke of the union’s push to have Congress approve the Miners Protection Act, which will provide funding to support union pensions and health care benefits.
He said he is tired of hearing the rant of “right-wing” groups saying those pensions are too generous. The average pension under the UMW 1974 pension plan, he said, is only $500 a month.
The union’s endorsement – or lack thereof – in the upcoming presidential election is an indication of how quickly times have changed for miners in recent years.
“I haven’t heard one candidate stand up and say ‘This is my plan for coal miners to have jobs, this is my plan for retirees to have health care, this is my plan for pensioners to have pensions,” Roberts said. “Until somebody does that, we will not endorse anybody.”
Roberts also said the government seems to have things “upside down” by giving money to third world countries to prevent climate change. If every coal-burning plant in the nation was shut down, the result would be only a 1 percent drop in greenhouse gasses, he said.
A number of other labor leaders spoke, saying they will stand beside the UMW.
“There is no union on the planet like yours,” said Frank Snyder, secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. “I will tell you something and you can take it to the grave, brothers and sisters: Your fight is our fight.”
Terrence Melvin, president of the Black Trade Unionists and an ordained Baptist minister, gave an spoke passionately.
“This is not the time, this is not the season to give back health care; this is not the time, this is not the season to give back pensions,” he said. “We have worked for them, and we are not giving them back.”
Melvin said his organizations will stand with the UMW. “You’re not in this alone, we will join you; you will get what you have worked for all these years,” he said.
Ron Baker, of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union, also spoke about pushing a boycott against Nabisco.
Nabisco has begun closing its plants in the United States, moving its production to Mexico. Baker urged everyone to support the boycott and not to buy any Nabisco product that says on the wrapper that it is made in Mexico.