CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On July 28, I stood in the hot sun in the Kanawha State Forest with about a dozen of my friends, all of us part of the RAMPS campaign to end mountaintop removal. We were facing about 100 miners and their supporters who were standing across the road from us, carrying "Friends of Coal" signs, and yelling at us. In between us there were a lot of West Virginia State Troopers. It was a tense moment.
But when people perceive that their livelihoods are slipping away, it is bound to be tense, and as much as we were able to have a dialogue that day, one of the last men to leave the Friends of Coal rally stopped and said: "We're peaceful for now, but we won't be if you trespass."
Coal companies have done a masterful job of portraying "tree huggers" as the enemy of coal miners, and they sponsor and coordinate these counter-demonstrations, turning unfortunate situations into potentially explosive ones. This has shifted some of the attention away from what executives are doing to miners and their families.
As we were standing there in the Kanawha State Park, Patriot Coal had already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with the hopes of reducing its pension "liabilities," as Mark Schroeder, the company's chief financial officer, said in a sworn statement. He explained that the company was responsible for three times as many retirees as current employees, which created a "mismatch" between the company's "legacy costs" and its "ability to generate revenue." The company's viability, he continued, depended on its "ability to achieve savings with respect to these liabilities."
In the world of finance, pensions are "liabilities." I say that pensions are not gifts from companies nor are they future compensation that companies must dig through their pockets to somehow raise the money to meet. Pensions are deferred compensation that employees earn every day that they are on the job, and once companies agree to pension plans in a contract with their employees, they have a responsibility to appropriately finance those pension funds starting that day. Also, it is not like Social Security, where the size of the current workforce compared to the number of current pensioners is relevant. So when Schroeder pointed out that there are three times as many retirees as current employees, that is a specious argument.
In its bankruptcy filing, Patriot Coal's lawyers claim that the company is struggling to compete with cheap natural gas and facing "more burdensome environmental and other government regulations." So I guess that all the tree huggers including me are to blame and not coal industry executives, right?
UMW President Cecil Roberts says otherwise. He says that Patriot is a "house of cards" that Peabody Energy created to "get out of its obligation to pay for the pensions and health care of thousands of people who spent their lives working for Peabody." Unfortunately for coal miners and retirees, bankruptcy has offered companies a convenient way to shed those "liabilities" and "costs."