Forty Hours with the ‘Four Amigos’

On a 40-hour, 1,200 mile trip to protest bankruptcy proceedings of Patriot Coal, union miners fight “unfairness” one belly laugh at a time.

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Listen to Parker Hobson’s radio report for WMMT-FM. Since this report was filed, the UMWA, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal have reached a partial agreement on some of the miners’ concerns.

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.

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.

 

Parker Hobson is a reporter for WMMT-FM. You may read more about the agreement between UMWA and Patriot Coal herehere, and here.

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