In 2005 for example, United Air was able to unload $3 billion in pension "liabilities" through Chapter 11 restructuring, and some retirees saw their payments fall by 50 percent. That corporation then joined a long list of airlines and steel mills whose pension plans have been taken over by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a U.S. government agency, which means that taxpayers like you and me are partly footing the bill.
But I guess it's tough all over. Then again, according to the St. Louis Business Journal, Peabody Energy posted profits of $957 million in 2011, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Peabody CEO Gregory Boyce received more than $10 million in total compensation last year. He made more money in one year than I could make in two or three lifetimes of teaching history. And if Boyce loses his job with the company after a change in leadership, he will get a payout of more than $13 million.
I do not begrudge people for getting rich. But when they earn more than 200 times what a worker makes, then the system is broken. And when they earn that money by eliminating such "liabilities" as miners' pensions that the miners worked decades to earn, it is criminal.
I wonder what would have happened if RAMPS had rented one pavilion in the Kanawha State Park and the top executives of Peabody Energy had rented another. I would like to think that if the miners had to choose which one to protest, that they would have given the bosses who are getting rich a piece of their mind.
As I have protested mountaintop removal, demanding that West Virginia enforce its regulations, I have faced many miners whose jobs will be affected. I have heard what they and their families think of me. I have seen the pain, fear and sometimes hatred on their faces. But I doubt that the CEOs and the CFOs of Patriot Coal and Peabody Energy will ever have to stand under the hot sun face to face with the workers and retirees after having cut the "liabilities" that were their pensions.
The real struggle is not between the tree huggers and the miners. It is between the people and the outside corporations that will exploit the land and the people and leave nothing behind, not even pensions. That is one of the reasons I believe in working for a sustainable economy for West Virginia now.
Martin is an assistant professor of history at Chatham University.