by CECIL ROBERTS, President of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA); VAN JONES, President of Rebuild the Dream and a CNN contributor; and PHAEDRA ELLIS-LAMKINS, CEO of Green for All
You don’t often read headlines about environmentalists joining forces with coal miners. Environmentalists want to shut down coal plants that pollute our air and water, while miners understandably fight to keep and defend the jobs that the coal industry provides. Between these two forces, there sometimes appears to be little common ground.
But the events leading up to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Patriot Coal are so outrageous that the seemingly impossible has occurred – greens and coal miners are united in a common fight for fairness.
At issue: roughly 10,000 retired coal miners, 2,000 active miners and their families who may get the rug pulled out from under them by Patriot. As a result of an outrageous court filing earlier this month, the retirement health benefits they earned through years of service to their employers—Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, and Patriot Coal—may vanish into thin air.
Companies declare bankruptcy every day. But Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy is different. It appears to be part of a cynical plot by Peabody and Arch—a scheme choreographed to maximize profits at the expense of their own workers.
Peabody Energy and Arch Coal created the companies that became today’s Patriot Coal mainly for the purpose of shirking their obligations to coal miners, retirees and widows. Peabody and Arch used Patriot as a “dummy” vehicle to shed responsibility for retirement benefits they owed their employees, most of whom are active and retired members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
In other words: Patriot’s bankruptcy petition last year was not the result of a failed business plan. Bankruptcy WAS the business plan, all along. Now Chapter 11 may allow the company to slip out of its health care obligations to thousands of coal mining families, while shielding and maintaining the massive profits of Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.
If this is true, we are witnessing the calculated and brazen abuse of America’s bankruptcy process, for the sole purpose of cheating America’s most heroic workers: men and women who have already risked their lives, limbs and lungs to help keep the lights turned on in our country.
It is hard to imagine anything more unpatriotic than what Patriot Coal and its founding companies are doing. All of us should feel a moral obligation to demand that our leaders in government, in business, and in the court system protect these workers and their families.
Another sad irony: most who would be without healthcare never even worked for Patriot Coal. They had retired from Peabody and Arch before Patriot was created.
Consider the case of Joe T. Brown. For 32 years, he worked as a miner for a subsidiary of Peabody. Today, he suffers from black lung, which blocks 15 percent of his breathing capacity. In the years that Mr. Brown dedicated to the coal industry, he earned a good pension and lifelong healthcare. But now, as a result of Patriot’s bankruptcy, he is facing a bleak future without healthcare. If a person gives 30 back-breaking years of his life in service to a company, he should be able to retire securely. He should have the security of knowing that the company will hold up its end of the bargain and make good on the promises it made. He should be able to count on America’s courts to see the difference between a legitimate bankruptcy petition and a fraudulent Ponzi scheme.
This kind of misbehavior represents the worst of what American corporations can be. But by working together to fight this injustice, environmentalists and coal miners may have an opportunity to build bridges to address our mutual concerns and shared vision.
One of the major causes of contention between coal miners and greens has been resolving the difficult issue of jobs vs. protecting the environment. But we don’t have to limit ourselves to picking one or the other. Americans deserve good jobs, secure retirements and a healthy environment. We do not need to accept a false choice between our pressing economic needs and our legitimate environmental concerns.
The truth of the matter is, environmentalists and workers in our energy sector have more in common than we often acknowledge. We all want good jobs to feed our children – and a clean environment so that our kids, and our grand-kids, can thrive. We all want our kids and grandkids to breathe clean air and drink clean water and lead healthy, prosperous lives.
It’s that common vision that has driven our independent actions toward it. For years, the UMWA has worked to reduce emissions at American coal-fired power plants and has advocated for ways to encourage the same around the world. Similarly, environmentalists have called for a transition to a cleaner energy economy which also ensures that coal, oil, and gas workers and their families are protected, that the retirement benefits they have earned are secure, and that there will be opportunities for good jobs in a reinvented fossil fuel industry and an expanded renewable energy sector.
What we’ve done separately, it’s time to now do together.
It might not be easy to lead our nation toward good jobs and a healthy environment, but it is possible. And securing fairness for Patriot workers and retirees is a first step on the path to getting there.