In my many years in Appalachia, I’ve worked, traveled, prayed, broken bread, and raised a glass with a good many retired coal miners. I know that, in retirement, they are still paying heavily for their decades of work in the mines – you can hear it in their shortness of breath, you can see it as they struggle with painful backs and knees and other legacies of long-ago injuries, and you can feel it when they tell you how grateful they are for this time in the fresh air with their families, homes and the simple pleasures of a well-deserved retirement.
Now, many of these retired miners, who sacrificed so much to provide for their families and power the homes of millions, are facing the unthinkable – the retirement and health benefits that they rely on are in jeopardy, due to the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal. This is a life and death struggle for these miners, and is a fight with implications for workers far beyond the Appalachian coalfields.
Patriot declared bankruptcy last year, and is now trying rid itself of one of its most important responsibilities: ensuring that the companies retirees have are provided with pensions and healthcare. Patriot was created five years ago as a new company, spun off from coal giant Peabody. In what now, in hindsight, was clearly a brazen act of corporate greed, Peabody left Patriot holding the bag for two of its biggest legacy responsibilities – its unionized workforce, and mountaintop removal coal mines.
Last week, a federal bankruptcy judge in Missouri gave Patriot permission to eliminate the collective bargaining agreements that generations of coal miners fought and died for, and to cut off miner retirees’ health care.
Coal mining is one of the world’s most dangerous occupations. No one knows better than the miners that working in the coal mines can cause lifelong, debilitating illnesses like black lung disease. If there’s anything retired coal miners need, it’s health care. And Peabody can definitely afford it. Peabody is the world’s largest coal company, and earned nearly two billion dollars in profit last year alone.
The Sierra Club is a unionized organization, we’ve partnered for many years with organized labor through the Blue Green Alliance, and we are firmly committed to workers’ rights. These miners risked their lives for years in coal mines, and their union has fought hard for these basic benefits. It’s appalling that Peabody and Patriot are refusing to keep their end of the deal. It’s a corporate swindle that reaches beyond Appalachia, with implications that threaten all union workers around the nation.
Organized mine workers have more in common with the people fighting for a safe and healthy planet than Peabody and its allies would have us believe. Besides sharing a desire for safe and healthy workplaces and communities, we share some of the same opponents. As Kentucky State AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan declared at Tuesday’s rally and civil disobedience action in support of the UMWA miners, “There is a war on workers and their unions in this country” being waged by “the one percent of this country for the benefit of their unimaginable wealth,” and Peabody is right in the middle of it.
Peabody’s President sits on the Board of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the right wing legislation machine controlled by the Koch brothers and other powerful conservative interests that is responsible for many of the most anti-union, planet destroying bills introduced in state legislatures around the country. The forces behind ALEC, like Peabody and the Koch Brothers, are not only bankrolling the attacks on unions and holding the global economy hostage in their effort to destroy the safety net for people around the world, they are bankrolling the denial of climate science in the United States. And they have been systematically attacking state clean energy standards across the country, efforts that the Sierra Club and our allies have largely been able to defeat, so far.
We respect and applaud the UMWA for its steadfast commitment to the health and safety of its members, and its fight for dignity in the face of our powerful shared opponent. I hope you will join the many thousands of Americans who are calling on Patriot to fulfill its promise of retirement pensions and healthcare benefits to its workers.