Coal miner unions rally at Peabody headquarters

ST. LOUIS -- Several hundred coal miners from around the country marched through downtown and held a rally outside the world's biggest coal company here, demanding that Peabody Energy Corp. let more of its workers unionize.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said Peabody is driving unions out of its work force through intimidation and firings. Peabody spokesman Vic Svec said the company doesn't want unions, but will give workers free choice in joining or rejecting them.

"The trend with Peabody, and with the coal industry everywhere, is toward union-free operations," Svec said.

As Svec spoke to reporters in Peabody's office, the resonating cheers of union members outside were clearly audible. During the rally they chanted in unison to "end corporate greed" and support the "mighty, mighty union."

Roberts said miners can't organize because of Peabody's aggressive anti-union tactics. He said the company fires union sympathizers while managers tell workers to stay away from the UMWA.

"It has a chilling effect on organizing workers," Roberts said.

Svec denied that such firings ever occur.

Roberts said that 20 years ago the union represented about 80 percent of Peabody's workers. The company said less than 30 percent of its 7,900 workers are now unionized.

The long-standing tension between organized labor and coal mine managers has been affected in recent years by changes in the industry.

Coal companies closed many mines when prices were low over the last few years. Now coal prices are climbing and mines are reopening. But Peabody and the unions said the company isn't hiring organized workers as it ramps up production.

"It's like union coal is dirty," said Stan Warden, an out-of-work miner from Carterville in southern Illinois. He was laid off a few years ago when prices fell. Mining jobs are opening near his home town, but they aren't in unionized shops, he said.

"I could go to work nonunion yesterday, but I refuse to," Warden said.

Svec said Peabody is opening more nonunion mines because it likes to have direct communication with workers. He said some of Peabody's safest and most profitable mines are union-free.

Roberts, a former coal miner from West Virginia, said Friday's event was meant to pressure Peabody into opening the doors to unions.

Normally, unions are formed by holding a vote with the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that enforces labor law. However, Roberts said he doesn't want to form a union that way because the system is "broken" and favors business over workers.

"We will not engage in a process that is doomed to failure," Roberts said. A union spokesman said Roberts tried to meet with Peabody Chief Executive Officer Gregory Boyce while in St. Louis, but was told Boyce was busy. Svec said executives didn't plan to meet with union organizers, but the company is frequently in touch with its unionized workers.