Remember the phrase “good union job”? In contrast to the contingent fragile world of retail, service and fast food, a good union job is the sort union coal miners have. At least that’s what thousands of veteran union miners thought, until suddenly last summer—when they discovered that, just as if they were Walmart sub-contractees, a boss they’d never worked for was trying to break their contract.
Contracts are the heart of “good union jobs.” The work may not be glamorous, but the contract gives workers a fair shake. Through collective bargaining, they’re able to cut a deal, and in the case of coal miners, that deal is a matter of life and death. Talk to any miner’s partner and they’ll tell you they worry every minute their significant other is underground, but once they hit the surface, and if they make it to retirement, at least their family will have “Cadillac” coverage. That’s what they’ve won, in exchange for spending their lives digging rock out of the underside of a mountain in the dark, so that the rest of us can run our factories, or turn on our lights.
Living wages, basic safety protections and guaranteed quality healthcare for life—that’s the deal the union fought for, and after 120 years in existence, complete with coalfield wars from Colorado to Harlan County, that’s the deal the venerable United Mineworkers of America was able to extract from American coal companies in the second half of the 20th Century.
As union leaders explain in this informational video, the UMWA negotiated decades of those contracts with Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. The companies signed, the miners worked and the contracts and profits piled up, until we hit era of extreme corporate hubris.
At the same time that companies like Apple and Google were figuring out how to avoid paying tax by moving to tiny, exotic islands (or Ireland), and banks and mortgage companies were coming up with derivatives and bundled assets, big corporations like Peabody and Arch found that by spinning off smaller companies they could rearrange their responsibilities and their liabilities. One of those smaller companies was Patriot Coal. In 2007 The Patriot Coal Corporation was created by Peabody, and acquired all the company’s union operations east of the Mississippi. By 2012, Patriot had most of the union mines of Arch Coal, too. Their sort of coal mining was in decline, but they sure had a lot of those retired miners’ contracts—and a lot of liability—for thousands of retirees who’d never worked a day in their life for Patriot.
To no one’s surprise but the miners’ and their families’, in July 2012 Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy and announced its intention to modify its collective bargaining agreements. The company said it was responding to the market and trying to survive. Just like Google and Apple, Peabody and Arch say everything they did was legal. The union accused them of intentionally setting up a shell to dump their union pensions. Now a federal judge in Patriot’s hometown of St. Louis has until May 29 to decide if Patriot’s bankruptcy plan is valid.
Jim Hall is a retired union miner. Twenty-four years ago, when the Pittston Coal company tried to stop paying retiree health benefits, he along with thousands of other UMWA families, went on strike on behalf of their fathers and uncles and the generation before them. “I was working then. The struggle was about the retirees,” said Hall last month. “Now I’m retired and I know what it means to need good healthcare. I’ll do anything the union asks me to.” “And so will I” said Jim's wife Shirley. The couple has already traveled out of state from their home in Castlewood, Virginia, to join a Patriot protest.
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“What’s at stake at Patriot is the union,” says Jan Patton, now approaching her 90s, a miner’s widow in Clincho, Virginia. “I know what a difference the union makes because I watched what my father and grandfather went through before they had one."
In 1989, thousands of miners, miners’ wives, church groups and community supporters lay down in the streets at the entrance to Pittston’s mines to block the coal trucks, and make the media take notice. Reverend Jim Lewis, former rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, was among those arrested then in a struggle which ultimately was mostly victorious.
This spring, their benefits on the chopping block once more, miners and their supporters have been lying down in the streets again, but this time in front of the federal court house in St. Louis. The protests are barely registering in the media.
Cecil Roberts, the president of the UMWA who was a leader in the Pittston strike, was one of a dozen protesters arrested in St. Louis in the latest peaceful protest Monday. Lewis was arrested in a protest late last month.
"In comparison to 1989, I looked over the crowd and saw people much older, weaker, in a weaker environment, economically and in terms of movements,” said Lewis, who was recently part of a fact-finding mission by religious leaders that produced a report, “Schemes from the Board Room.”
If the plan is approved, the report estimates that more than 23,000 retired miners and their families will lose their benefits and that lifetime guarantee. The company’s proposing a trust fund instead, which will start at $15 million and go up to a maximum of $300 million. That, says the United Mineworkers of America, is miserably inadequate. It also sets a dangerous precedent.
What’s happening in St Louis doesn’t look like a coal-field war, but the same things are at stake: reciprocity, respect, fair play. If the companies can walk away from "good union jobs" and the UMWA then heaven help the fast food workers and those contractees at Walmart.