I got an email from David Miller, a retired West Virginia coal miner and former president of a United Mine Workers' local, that made me both sad and angry. "Myself and other retired and active miners got on a bus at the Ohio Valley Mall and went to St. Louis to protest at Peabody coal," Miller wrote. "Some of the retirees were in their 70's. I sat listening while they spoke of their medical conditions to each other. Some had cancer, some problems breathing and many did not get around very well. These men took a bus trip that was about 11 hours each way to protest. The protest was on 2-13-13. Ten men were arrested."
These men who had worked at many different mines were there protesting at a time when they should have been playing with their grand kids and enjoying their senior years. They were there because they risked losing their pension and health benefits. They had mined the coal without which our lights would grow dim and there would be no steel to build our cities, and this was what was greeting them.
Their problems began back in 2007 when Peabody spun off a new company that they named Patriot Coal. They gave it 13 percent of the larger company's coal reserves, but a whopping 40 percent of future health care liabilities from 8,400 miners. These are massive obligations based largely on long past union contracts, and coal companies do whatever they can to get rid of them. Patriot went ahead and acquired a subsidiary of Arch Coal called Magnum Coal and loaded up with 2,300 more retirees health obligations. All told Patriot was saddled with $1.37 billion in future obligations according to The New Republic.
And then Patriot declared bankruptcy. The United Mine Workers is suing Peabody and Arch, saying they can't walk away from their obligations in such a blatant fashion.
This isn't the first time coal companies have figured out a way to avoid social responsibility. It's basically a way of doing business. Years ago, the A.T. Massey Coal Company figured out that they would mine the richest seams, give the lesser seams to their subsidiaries and the worst seams to contractors. In a brilliant series in 1993, the Charleston Gazette's Paul Nyden wrote that in the previous 13 years, the Massey contract operations "left behind more than $200 million in debts in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky alone."
Peabody and Arch seem to be following in a business tradition. The companies argue that they had no idea that Patriot would fail and it's not their problem.
David Miller and several thousand other retired miners think otherwise. "Do you think area newspapers print labor issues so people will know what is going on?" Miller asks. "Or do they just print stories that favor the radical right? What side is West Virginia Congressman David McKinley, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrisey, and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin on?"
Those are all good questions.