The Death of the 'Good Union Job': Plight and Protest of Thousands of Mine Workers Barely Noticed By Mainstream Media
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Remember the phrase “good union job”? In contrast to the contingent fragile world of retail, service and fast food, a good union job is the sort union coal miners have. At least that’s what thousands of veteran union miners thought, until suddenly last summer, they discovered that just like some Walmart sub-contractee, a boss they’d never worked for was trying to break their contract.Contracts are the heart of “good union jobs.” The work may not be glamorous, but the contract gives workers a fair shake. Through collective bargaining, they’re able to cut a deal, and in the case of coal miners, that deal is a matter of life and death. Talk to any miner’s wife and she’ll tell you she worries every minute he’s underground, but once he hits the surface, and if he makes it to retirement, at least he and the family will have “Cadillac” coverage. That's what they've won, in exchange for spending their lives digging rock out of the underside of a mountain in the dark, so the rest of us can run our factories, or turn our lights on.Living wages, basic safety protections, and guaranteed quality healthcare for life. That’s the deal the union fought for, and after 120 years in existence, complete with coalfield wars from Colorado to Harlan County, that’s the deal the venerable United Mineworkers of America was able to extract from American coal companies.As union leaders explained in a recent informational video, the UMWA extracted decades of those contracts with Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. The companies signed, the miners worked, and the contracts, and the profits piled up, until we hit era of extreme corporate hubris, which is to say, the turn of this century.At the same time that companies like Apple and Google were figuring out how to avoid paying tax by moving to tiny exotic islands (or Ireland), and banks and mortgage companies were coming up with derivatives and bundled assets, big coal companies, like Peabody and Arch found that by spinning off smaller companies they could rearrange their responsibilities and their liabilities. One of those smaller companies was Patriot Coal. In 2007 The Patriot Coal Corporation was created by Peabody and acquired all the company's union operations east of the Mississippi. By 2012, Patriot had acquired most of the union mines of Arch Coal too. Their sort of coal mining was in decline, but they sure had a lot of those retired miners’ contracts -- and a lot of liability – for thousands of retirees, who’d never worked a day in their life for Patriot.To no ones surprise but the miners' and their families, in July 2012, Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy and announced its intention to modify its collective bargaining agreements. The company said it was responding to market declines and trying to survive. Just like Google and Apple, Peabody and Arch say everything they did was legal. The union accused Peabody and Arch of intentionally setting up a shell to dump their union pensions. Now a federal judge in Patriot's hometown of St Louis has until May 29th to decide if Patriot’s bankruptcy plan is valid.
Jim Hall is a retired union miner. Twenty-four years ago, when the Pittston Coal company tried to stop paying retiree health benefits, he and his wife along with thousands of other UMWA families went on strike on behalf of their fathers and uncles and the generation before them. "I was working then. The struggle was about the retirees," said Hall last month. "Now I'm retired and I know what it means to need good healthcare. I'll do anything the union asks me to." "And so will I" said Shirley. The couple has already traveled out of state from their home in Castlewood VA, to join a Patriot protest.