CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Disposable soda bottles. Disposable cleaning rags. Disposable diapers. Disposable people.
"You, too, are disposable." That is what the Patriot Coal bankruptcy case tells more than 12,000 present and former miners and their families as Patriot attempts to shed responsibility for health, pension and contractual rights. "You," Patriot Coal is saying, "are no longer useful to us, and what happens to you is no concern of ours."
That Patriot Coal, saddled as it is with pension and health benefits for at least 10,000 retirees and several of the few remaining UMWA contracts, should be facing bankruptcy is no surprise. There is no way that 2,000 active miners are able to support that number of pensioners even with a healthy coal market and continued growth in production.
What is surprising is that few, if any, of these pensioners ever worked for Patriot. They worked for Peabody Coal and for Arch Coal subsidiaries Hobet, Apogee, and Catenary Coal.
Peabody and Arch looked at the costs of pensions and health care for their retirees and determined that the bottom line would be improved by disposing of them. In 2007, Peabody spun off Patriot Coal, grouping most of its union mines and almost all of its retiree responsibilities into that entity. One year later, Patriot Coal acquired Magnum Coal Company, which in 2005 had bought the Arch subsidiaries named above after Arch had loaded them with most of its retiree responsibilities. Neither the EPA, nor the UMWA, nor the Obama administration can be blamed for driving Patriot into bankruptcy. Its difficulties are the result of deliberate business decisions by Peabody and Arch to dump what they call "legacy liabilities."
That Patriot would resort to bankruptcy court to shed these liabilities (otherwise known as human beings) could have been easily predicted.
The bankruptcy strategy for profit has become increasingly common in the corporate world. Much of the profitability of Mitt Romney's Bain capital stemmed from a strategy of borrowing large sums of money to take over companies and then burdening those companies with the responsibility for paying off those debts. The companies ended up in bankruptcy court where they were reorganized or dissolved without liability for pensions, wage agreements, severance pay or other human impediments to Bain's profits. If you ever wondered what happened to KB Toys, which used to have outlets in West Virginia malls, it was taken over by Bain capital, loaded with debt, and driven into bankruptcy while Bain Capital realized a 370 percent return on its initial investment.
Bain Capital is immensely successful, as are Arch and Peabody, if success is measured in profits and enormous wealth for the handful who own and run them. The ability to purchase numerous houses, a half-dozen vehicles for personal use, and a tax-deductible dancing horse is, by this definition of success, a just reward for the hard work that went into accumulating the wealth.
While most of us agree that hard work should be rewarded, that is not what is happening at Patriot Coal or indeed for millions of people who work hard year after year. After years of work, people are faced with being stripped of the rewards they were promised. Success, for those of us who work day to day, means maintaining a "decent living," earning enough to meet the bills, to own a home, to have a reliable vehicle, to meet our children's needs and provide for their education, to get the health care we need and eventually to retire while still able to enjoy life a bit and without burdening our children. We don't need to be multi-millionaires to feel successful. But we do need to have the value of our work recognized.
Fayette Fair Share, a local political action committee founded for the purpose of championing the right of ordinary people to a decent living, regards the preservation of the standard of living for Patriot employees and pensioners as a matter of simple justice and recently passed this resolution: "Fayette Fair Share supports the UMWA campaign to require that the health care and pension benefits of Patriot Coal employees and retirees be permanently protected and upheld."
Coal miners work hard, sometimes sacrificing their health or their lives to earn that decent living. The "success" of those who run or profit from Arch and Peabody and all other businesses and corporations depends on the hard work of their employees. Their employees should share in the rewards of that success rather than be cast aside like old shoes. "Bankruptcy for profit" schemes that rob human beings of benefits they earned or obtained through legal contracts, should be treated as the crimes they are.
Young is a retired college career counselor and a former member of the Beckley and West Virginia Black Lung Associations.