Leaders of the United Mine Workers allege that two profitable coal giants -- Peabody Energy and Arch Coal -- conspired secretly to dump their pension and medical obligations, leaving about 23,000 West Virginians and Kentuckians desperate.
First, Peabody -- the world's largest coal producer -- created a weak startup called Patriot Coal and put its unionized Appalachian mines into the new firm. Next, Arch did likewise, funneling its union operations to Magnum Coal, which merged into Patriot.
Then Patriot filed for bankruptcy, saying it can't afford the $1.6 billion pension and medical insurance commitment in its union contracts. Wiping out these obligations in bankruptcy court would devastate about 10,000 retired Appalachian miners, plus 13,000 dependents.
For a year, the UMW has been calling this situation a deliberate, cunning "paper trick" to shaft old miners and widows, while the original corporations continue reaping huge profits. Temple University economist Bruce Rader said Patriot was "designed to fail."
We had assumed that West Virginia political leaders would launch investigations and hearings into this grim situation -- but politicians mostly have been silent, except for a protest by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Finally, the House of Delegates voted almost unanimously last week (except for four Republicans) for a non-binding resolution decrying the Patriot mess.
Today, perhaps 5,000 union miners and supporters are to swarm into Charleston for a large rally and march against Patriot. They're to assemble at the Civic Center, then walk to Laidley Tower, which houses Patriot headquarters. UMW President Cecil Roberts said:
"The executives at Peabody, Arch and Patriot thought they could pull a fast one by setting up companies that were designed to fail, declaring bankruptcy, all so they could evade their health-care responsibilities to retired miners, while slashing the wages and benefits of active workers. But these corporate elites don't understand that Americans are tired of seeing the 1 percent line their pockets while the rest of us get kicked in the teeth."
Roberts said today's Charleston demonstration will be "a real warning to corporate executives who think they can take advantage of working people without any consequences."It will be tragic if 23,000 West Virginia and Kentucky oldsters lose their life-support. We can't guess how this struggle will end, but it's good that protesters are shining a spotlight on the problem.