Workers Vanguard No. 1020

22 March 2013


More Capitalist Cruelty: Companies Looting Retired Miners’ Benefits

(Editorial Note)

In “U.S. Health Care and the Elderly: Capitalist Cruelty” (WV No. 1019, 8 March), we noted that “for the owners of banks and industry, government spending on caring for the aged is an unnecessary overhead expense that ultimately lowers the overall profit rate.” And it’s not just government spending they’re after. The top two U.S. coal mining companies, Peabody Energy (the world’s largest private producer) and Arch Coal, have schemed to rob 22,000 retired union miners and their families of their pensions and health care.

Peabody started the process by spinning off a company called Patriot Coal in 2007. While covering only 13 percent of Peabody’s coal reserves, Patriot was assigned 40 percent of the parent company’s health care and other obligations under its contract with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). A year later, Patriot acquired Magnum Coal, an offshoot of Arch. The result is Peabody and Arch offloading $1.37 billion in liabilities. As the UMWA puts it, Patriot was “set up to fail,” created to purge the books of pension and health care obligations. Sure enough, Patriot is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

This is the route that was earlier taken by steel, auto and airline companies to shred retiree benefits in the interest of corporate profits. Now the same ax hangs over people who risked life and limb—and lungs!—every day in the mines and, if they survived, carry debilitating injuries and illnesses into old age. Black lung disease, for example, has undergone a resurgence in recent years. Retired Kentucky miner I.G. Camp, who suffers from black lung contracted in the Peabody mines, put it bluntly in a union video: “All of us old people that can’t work no more, they’d like to put us plum out.”

The UMWA’s cradle-to-grave health and retirement benefits, financed by tonnage royalties paid by the companies, are a direct product of hard-fought miners’ strikes in 1946 and 1948. Democratic president Harry Truman temporarily nationalized the mines in response to the first walkout. But the miners refused to return to work until the fund was created. The UMWA struck again two years later to force the mine owners to write the first pension check. A by-product of these struggles was the establishment of a network of Miners Memorial Hospitals up and down the Appalachian mining belt, where medical care had been all but nonexistent.

It’s been a while since the pro-capitalist union tops played hardball, however, and the UMWA has steadily given up ground to non-union outfits, which are often subsidiaries of the giant conglomerates. In regard to Patriot, the UMWA bureaucracy is pinning retirees’ hopes mainly to the union’s seat on a creditors’ committee in the bankruptcy proceeding and a class action suit against Peabody and Arch. The bureaucrats are also counting on the good graces of West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, who is pushing a measure to have the federal government pay some of the retiree pension and health care liabilities that the coal companies won’t.

The entire history of organized labor—not least that of the miners—shows that whatever workers have won has been gained through class struggle, not reliance on the courts and politicians of the capitalist enemy. That understanding must come to the fore in the struggle to defend past gains and to carry out the crucial task of organizing the unorganized. This is a burning issue in the mining industry, where union health and safety committees are the workers’ only real protection against the life-threatening hazards of the work, and against the companies that cut corners on safety to save a few pennies. But the UMWA leadership has acceded to the loss of union membership, particularly with the shift to strip mining, which requires far fewer workers than underground mines and often takes place in Western states where the UMWA lacks strong roots.

As we suggested in our article last issue, the labor movement would find many ready allies if it were to take up the fight for free, quality medical care for everyone. The Patriot case would be a good place to start. Tens of thousands of unorganized miners would see the struggle to guarantee the 22,000 UMWA pensioners and their dependents the benefits due them as in their own interests. To win such battles requires breaking with the labor bureaucracy’s class-collaborationist policies, which have only helped the bosses to throw the union movement so far back.