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—when they discovered that, just as if they were Walmart sub-contractees, 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 partner and they’ll tell you they worry every minute their significant other is underground, but once they hit the surface, and if they make it to retirement, at least their 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 that the rest of us can run our factories, or turn on our lights.
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 in the second half of the 20th Century.
As union leaders explain in this informational video, the UMWA negotiated decades of those contracts with Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. The companies signed, the miners worked and the contracts and profits piled up, until we hit era of extreme corporate hubris.
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 corporations 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 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.