I am going home to cover a big story, just like old times. When 4,000 United Mine Workers and community supporters rally Tuesday, June 4, at the Henderson County (Ky.) Courthouse, I’ll be there to write about it, to blog live in my hometown, where I began my career as a newspaper reporter.
This is a story that Henderson should know well, the fight by coal miners to earn a decent living, to survive in a dangerous job. Coal was King in Henderson for many years, along with corn, soybean and tobacco, now overtaken by marijuana, as markets change, including energy. Coal has fallen on hard times, but not nearly so much as the miners who spent decades underground mining the coal. Many struggle for breath, many live out their lives in pain.
These are men and women dependent on health care benefits that St. Louis-based Peabody Energy and Arch Coal promised to deliver but dodged artfully through a corporate swindle – I don’t know how else to describe it. They have offloaded their retirement obligations to these miners onto a little company that may have been “created to fail.” Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy last year and is getting a gentle hand from U.S. bankruptcy court, even as Peabody and Arch wash their hands, like Pontius Pilate.
And here’s the lead: Patriot Coal on Wednesday, May 28, was awarded a bankruptcy court ruling that essentially gave the company the green light to gut the contracts of 1,700 active Mine Workers and strip life-saving health care benefits from 23,000 retirees and their family members. The Mine Workers immediately announced they would appeal the ruling, and continue their fight in other courts, in Congress and in the court of public opinion.
Now the story is coming to Henderson, and I believe it is a place where miners can get a fair hearing – at least in the court of public opinion. Patriot operates the Highland mine in adjoining Union County, and until last summer operated the Freedom mine in Henderson. Patriot shut down Freedom and others in West Virginia, and many are operating well below capacity. It’s a bittersweet reminder for citizens of Henderson that coal has always held both promise and peril.
Every coalfield family has been affected by the rigors of coal mining. They’ve all lost friends and relatives to pneumoconiosis (black lung) and other respiratory diseases, or to the dangerous life underground. Coal is part of the DNA of these communities, and UMWA health care is a lifeline to the next day. Sadly, every American is affected by the erosion of health benefits, and by courts that increasingly favor the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals.
That is where we are today, facing a judicial system that somehow gives corporations the rights of people, while diminishing the rights of real people. “As often happens under American bankruptcy law, the short-term interests of the company are valued more than the dedication and sacrifice of the workers, who actually produce the profits that make a company successful,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
Roberts has vowed to continue the fight in every forum, including in federal court in Charleston, where the UMWA has sued Peabody and Arch for violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), alleging the companies conspired to deny benefits to their longtime employees and their families.
“Peabody and Arch can decide to live up to their obligations and end this problem tomorrow,” Robert said. “But if they don’t, we will continue our litigation against them and are optimistic about our chances.”
The rally in Henderson next week continues an aggressive campaign by the Mine Workers to make the miners’ case for justice in the communities where they live, where they raised their kids and contributed to local economies often driven by coal. As a young reporter, I waded through records at the Henderson County Courthouse, tracking the trade in mineral rights, to Peabody, Reynolds and other industry heavyweights of the day.
Now it’s come to this: Giant coal companies that extracted the mineral wealth of communities now discard the workers who made their fortunes on a gob pile, like they were merely the waste of the operation – a sad reflection on corporate America. But we also are witnessing the courage and the determination of the miners and their union.
While the UMWA train stops in Henderson as it searches for justice, inevitably it is on its way to Washington, D.C., where the voices of miners already are being heard.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), denouncing the bankruptcy court ruling as a “travesty,” declared, “It is wrong that Peabody can set up a company such as Patriot, fill that company with its liabilities and then spin that company off for the sole purpose of avoiding its contractual and moral obligations to its workers. I don’t think bankruptcy laws were ever designed to shield corporations from their promises and responsibilities. I will continue to fight for fairness in the bankruptcy system.”