As boy I can remember joining my father on the picket line on the bridge leading to the Wells Complex coal mine. Boone County, W.Va. coal was booming, Peabody Coal was the dominant company in the area, and the United Mine Workers of America was strong, fighting for miners’ rights. My dad had been a coal miner with Peabody since coming home from Vietnam and was a member of the UMWA and he and his coworkers had gone on strike against Peabody for a new contract. They had been there for days, dressed in their camouflage with signs in hand. They had worked hard for their benefits and weren’t going to go back to work until they got what they had worked so hard for. They weren’t going to back down.
That seems like a lifetime ago and, my, how things have changed. My father is retired now. Coal production is at a new low. The UMWA is not as prevalent as it once was and many Union members face a new challenge. Patriot Coal, the company born of Peabody to inherit its holdings in Appalachia, has filed for bankruptcy. Retiree benefits, like my father’s, could be at risk.
Patriot is responsible for more than $600 million in health care liabilities for approximately 9,000 Peabody union retirees and their spouses in the eastern U.S. and with its bankruptcy may dissolve its responsibility to provide for Peabody’s retirees. My father, who retired in 2006, and many other former Peabody/Patriot employees cannot and must not lose their medical and other benefits they worked so hard to earn. Like many others, my father suffers the health impacts of many years mining coal.
In response to protecting these benefits, the UMWA has launched its “Fairness at Patriot” campaign. I am proud to say that we at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition support this call for fairness for workers, retirees, and their families as Patriot moves through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. We urge the company to show respect for workers and all citizens of Appalachia, even if they have not shown respect for the environment of our state.
As one of the largest purveyors of mountaintop removal in the state of West Virginia, and currently the company dismantling my ancestral home of Cook Mountain, Patriot still owes it to their workers to honor the benefits they have earned. The workers are not at fault for the practices their company chooses. However, studies have overwhelmingly shown that mountaintop removal harms residents, including the employees at Patriot and their families. They cannot afford to lose their benefits.
All residents of Appalachia must stand together to demand fairness for our current coal miners but also demand economic fairness and diversity with well paying, sustainable and environmentally friendly jobs for all. We at OVEC stand in solidarity with the UMWA and workers at Patriot, even if they decide to take their fight for worker’s rights and the benefits they worked so hard to earn to the streets. They cannot afford to back down.
Before his passing, the great Keeper of the Mountains, Larry Gibson said: “I am in favor of benefits for the working man and families!” We at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition agree and urge Patriot to act fairly and justly for everyone. Solidarity!