For Shame! Legal Maneuverings Putting Coal Miners' Futures at Risk -- Yet Again


In April of 2013, for the first time in my life, I was arrested.

It was a beautiful sunny day in St. Louis, Missouri, and I had joined legendary labor leaders Cecil Roberts, President of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and Larry Cohen, former President of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), in a rally and protest outside Peabody Energy headquarters. We made history that day by bringing together more than 6,000 members of the UMWA, CWA, UNITE HERE!, SEIU, and Jobs for Justice. We then marched to the federal courthouse several blocks away, where a group of us were arrested for impeding traffic by peacefully sitting down in the street.

Why were we there? Because the Patriot Coal company, which was created by Peabody Energy, was at the time filing for bankruptcy, which would have left 11,500 retired coal miners, their dependents or widows without health care and retirement benefits. While Peabody Energy continued to rake in massive profits, Patriot Coal's bankruptcy filing would mean that Peabody could avoid having to fulfill its obligations to the thousands of workers on whose blood, sweat, and tears their profits were made.

Over the last several years, watching developments in the Patriot Coal bankruptcy and resulting fallout for workers has been a roller coaster for those of us who care about the workers who risked their lives for decades working hundreds of feet underground. These miners gave up thousands in wages in exchange for retiree health care benefits in contract negotiations over the years; the company's attempts to avoid paying them what they were owed was putting their families' futures at risk.

Later that year, we welcomed news that the UMWA had reached a global settlement with Peabody Energy and Patriot Coal, a settlement that would provide funding of more than $400 million to cover future health care benefits for retirees affected by the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal. We congratulated our UMWA brothers and sisters and noted the ripple effect labor victories have for all active American workers and retirees. For months, the miners had fought long and hard to find compromise, keep Patriot Coal operating, save jobs, and ensure the well-earned security of its retirees. We were thrilled for their success.

But now we are learning that complicated legal maneuverings are afoot that would enable Peabody to get out of its outstanding obligations to retirees. The financial security of coal miner retirees, as well as widows and dependents, in Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois and Indiana are at risk, due to recent moves by Peabody to redirect funds away from beneficiaries -- more than 12,000 beneficiaries to be exact.

There is simply no harder or more arduous job than working underground in mines for 10 to 12 hours a day. Miners risk Black Lung disease and other injuries caused by the demanding physical labor involved. Generations of workers in communities in Kentucky, West Virginia, and other mining states gave their lives to an industry that has handsomely rewarded executives while now claiming economic failure. The industry has faced a dramatic economic shift in recent years and it's understandable that a decline would pose challenges for meeting obligations determined during a more fruitful economy. But that is not the problem of these retirees, who deserve what they are owed.

NCL has long been allied with the cause of American workers and has a close and abiding relationship with the UMWA. One of NCL's early presidents, Josephine Roche, was associated throughout her career with legendary UMWA President John L. Lewis, and NCL honored UMWA President Cecil Roberts with an award in 2012. But our support for the coal miners and families whose futures are at risk has nothing to do with that shared past; it's just common sense. What a dangerous precedent would be set if Peabody were able to get out of its obligations; what a tragedy for these workers, their widows and dependents, and for American labor as a whole. We should reward these workers -- not take away what is theirs. NCL is hopeful that Congress will realize the plight these courageous miners are going through and the adverse effects it will have on them, their families, and the industry as a whole if these bankruptcy filings are not put to a halt.