Forty Hours with the 'Four Amigos'
Photo by Julie Shepherd-Powell
I was suddenly conscious of a distorted, tinny-sounding voice, coming from somewhere I couldn’t place:
I blinked and thrashed around in my seat in that singular way of those jarred awake from a nap on a road trip and found that somebody had been holding a cell phone to my ear.
“Son of a bitch,” I let out, as a gaggle of retired coal miners sputtered in giggling laughter. “Hey Radio Man, you sleeping on the job? They paying you to sleep?”
I felt like I’d held my own pretty well to that point in the trip, but still recovering my senses, I couldn’t do much more than grumble.
“Well, get back here. Apple wants to talk to you. Don’t you, Apple.”
I turned on my audio recorder and shuffled back to their end of the bus—they probably had something good to say.
We were somewhere in southern Illinois, on the return leg of a 1,200 mile round-trip that had seen a bus full of retired United Mine Workers of America coal miners and their families head from the mountains of southwest Virginia to St. Louis and back, all in about 40 hours. They had made the trip to rally at the corporate headquarters of Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. These companies had bundled the health and pension benefits they’d promised to thousands of other retired UMWA miners into a new spinoff company, Patriot Coal, which went bankrupt last year and took those benefits down with it. I was along to cover the adventure for WMMT, a community radio station in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
Over hours of crop-lined highway, Cracker Barrel mashed potatoes (there were mandatory stops, both ways), and waits for rest-stop bathrooms, I heard about fights for black lung benefits, right-to-work laws, Ronald Reagan, snakes (intentionally) left in bathhouses and a wide range of stories both tragic and hilarious from decades in the mines. Punctuating these stories were frequent, spontaneous eruptions of the call-and-response cheer “Are ya fired up?” “FIRED UP!!” “Fired up?” “FIRED UP!!” But more than anything there was just laughter; constant, joy-filled laughter.
Four Amigos on a Bus
While waiting for the bus the previous morning in a grocery store parking lot, I’d been taken in by a group of retired miners who called themselves “The Four Amigos.” They were close friends and regulars on these protest trips (ours was just one rally in a months-long UMWA campaign against Peabody and Arch). Matthew Pruitt, barrel-chested and friendly eyed, was the most vocal of the group. Over four decades in the mines, Matthew had contracted arthritis, black lung disease and other medical problems. But like most everybody on the bus, he’d never worked for Peabody, Arch, or Patriot—he was along to support fellow union miners and to fight for the legitimacy of his own contract.
Photo by Julie Shepherd-Powell
“They promised that we could have a hospital card,” he had told me while we waited. “And now they’re trying to take everything we worked for. Which ain’t right. Boy, they ought to stand up to what they promised.” On board, he continued: “I get aggravated. My nerves are shot. … I used to hand-load coal and all, working in these little truck mines that didn’t have no air or nothin’, in 25-26 inch coal. It just ain’t right for them to do this.”
If Matthew’s company were able to offload and eliminate his benefits in the same way, he said, “In too much time, it’d be starvation … and everybody else is in the same boat I’m in.”
At this, Troy Wimmer (another Amigo) nodded from across the aisle, adding, “Most everybody depends on that check.”
To a person, everyone I spoke with worried that if Peabody and Arch weren’t held responsible for reneging on these benefits, it could set a frightening precedent.
Danny Horton mined for Pittston Coal for 35 years, and as he put it, “We know that if Peabody goes down, we’ll definitely go down. These other companies probably got the paperwork fixed up. … The CEOs just line their pockets and they don’t lose no sleep at all,” Danny told me. “We worked all them years crawling in mud and water, because they promised us pension and hospital [benefits]. . . I’d have never stayed with it [otherwise].”
Troy said that struggles like this one are part of what led to the formation of the UMWA in the first place. As upset as they were about the Peabody/Arch situation, many of the miners were just as concerned about how union membership has declined steeply in recent decades.
“My nephew said he makes $44 an hour [mining coal],” Matthew said. “He said ‘I don’t need a union.’ I said no, now you don’t. You got two good hands and you’re stout as a bear. When you get old, and crackled up, and ain’t able, then it’s a horse of a different color. [If] you go down here to parts of Kentucky and name the union, they look at you like you’re dumb. They don’t know what the word ‘union’ is. They don’t know what it means. It means a lot. It means more than what people realize.”
“Worked Hard All My Life”
Compared with the stories and laughter and ear-flicking on the bus, the rally itself almost felt like an anticlimax. We had joined thousands of other miners and supporters from all over the country at Arch’s headquarters, an anonymous-looking suburban office complex complete with generic, glass-walled buildings, perfect lawns and gratuitous, fountain-filled ponds. A range of labor leaders spoke, there was a lot of cheering and chanting, and eventually UMWA President Cecil Roberts and a select group of others were peacefully (and intentionally) arrested.
But while there, I met several retired Peabody and Arch miners who were facing the possibility of losing their health care.
Photo by Julie Shepherd-Powell
Among them was Joseph Price of Marisa, Illinois, who broke his back, left knee and right arm during four decades of mining coal for Peabody. Now retired, he said he’s held together by an assortment of metal plates, including a manganese plate in his chest and a chromium plate in his back. But it wasn’t his own health he was concerned about.
“My wife is very ill,” he told me. “And if they take our medical [insurance], I’m going to have to watch her die. We worked all our life for ‘em and we took less money every year, for 41 years, so that we would have our medical. And now they just take it like it don’t mean anything. And I worked hard all my life and I invested my money and I’m OK, but if they take the medical, I’ll give every dime I own just to give my wife one more good day. … I’ll never go to the doctor again. I’ll just wait it out and die. But my wife needs to go.”
Just after our last Cracker Barrel supper on the long highway home, what had been a day-long gloom cracked and gave way to a vivid sunset that lit the endless farm fields in warm, blinding gold. Amid this gold, I met Katie McCowan of Clintwood, Virginia. Katie’s husband had recently passed away from lung cancer, which stemmed from the black lung disease he’d contracted over more than 20 years in coal mines. After years of being denied black lung benefits, he was finally awarded them just before the disease killed him (all the more tragic and senseless given the recent news of widespread withholding of evidence in the determination of black lung benefits).
Katie had been able to retain his benefits, but if she were to lose them, “I wouldn’t have a home, I wouldn’t have a car, I wouldn’t have anything,” she told me. “All my money would go for doctor bills, [and] hospital bills.”
And even though her health makes it difficult to travel, still she was on the bus.
“What else can you do? You’ve got to stand up for your rights, you surely do. If you don’t, you can just sit home and lose everything you got. And my husband would have never stood back. He would’ve been on every trip this bus went [on] if he were alive today, because he was a UMWA man. Wholeheartedly. So I’ve got to pick up where he left off.”
Katie and everyone else on the bus knew they were up against powerful forces and might not change anything. Many exhausted miners wondered aloud on the way home if they’d even done any good. But no one spoke of giving up the campaign; winning almost didn’t seem to be the point. Through every punch to each other’s ribs, every belly laugh and every impassioned speech into my recorder, the trip seemed less about Peabody’s exploitation of bankruptcy law and more about combating the fundamental unfairness of the world with conviction and silliness and shouting and love and fun.
And they did accomplish something. It wasn’t a full restoration of the benefits the Peabody and Arch miners had been promised for life, but the UMWA secured benefits through about 2017 for the affected Peabody retirees, due in no small part to their campaign of public protests. The union has promised to keep fighting through other avenues (like legislation) to cover all of the retirees’ care long-term, but getting anything out of Peabody was hailed by some as a real victory.
But the Four Amigos didn’t know that yet. After a mad two days, the bus dropped us off around 1 a.m. Having carpooled, the four of them squeezed into a sedan and roared off into the mountain night. I imagined they would say goodbye to each other in foggy, summer starlight thick with crickets and dew, and if nothing changed between Peabody, Arch and the miners to whom they’d promised lifetime benefits, in two weeks they would get back on the bus and do it all again.