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Kimberly White: Patriot spells out unhappy story for miners

Apr. 01, 2013 @ 11:25 PM

Recall the story of Robin Hood, the heroic outlaw, who, with help from the merry men, stole from the rich and in turn gave what he profited to the poor. That story dates back to medieval times and has been retold over centuries through oral tradition, books and movies.

Allow me to share another story, not folklore, but actual events that remain largely unappreciated. In this-real life version, sharply dressed men sporting expensive suits and designer labels arrive not in secret as thieves most often do, but in plain sight, carrying briefcases, emboldened by unlimited resources and power. In this version, a band of VERY merry men -- i.e. executives eager to pay high-dollar attorneys positioned to earn $1,000 an hour, according to the United Mine Workers union -- set out on a quest to steal healthcare benefits and pensions from retirees, many of whom are sick and elderly, using the U.S. court system as their primary weapon.

Right now, in West Virginia, there are more than 4,000 retired and 1,500 active duty miners at imminent risk of losing healthcare benefits and pensions. Patriot Coal, in a bankruptcy filing, seeks to free itself from the burden of honoring the commitment to pay agreed-upon, worker-earned benefits and wages. The so-called burden is placed upon the company not by those earning big salaries, sitting in posh offices, but by those working underground in a setting most of us simply cannot fathom.

Despite proclaimed financial woes, attorneys for Patriot Coal recently have petitioned the court to grant the company permission to pay nearly $7 million in bonuses to already salaried executives. Records show that since July 2012, Patriot Coal has been billed over $21,000, by its attorneys, for dinners alone. These expenses somehow fit into Patriot Coal's budget; their commitment to miners does not.

The medieval tale of Robin Hood and the not-so-fictional story of modern day corporate hoods, as I refer to them, have different protagonists, antagonists and plots, but one element of the stories is comparable. In the old story of Robin Hood, there was a sheriff who was characterized as both unscrupulous and cowardly. In today's version, we have politicians who are also unscrupulous and cowardly. Imagine if 1,500 miners had been killed in a mining tragedy. Why, the politicians would swoop in, make promises to reform, emphasize the losses, soak up the camera lights and ride that public relations wave to the next election.

Where are the politicians now? Now that we have thousands of miners at risk of losing their livelihood due to corporate mismanagement, where are these Friends of Coal? Our elected officials would be wise to remember who casts the votes that put them in office. Big companies might fund political campaigns, but workers mark the ballot.

The loss of earnings will be devastating to these miners and their families, as well as to local and state economies. If the courts give Patriot Coal a pass, there will be no media coverage detailing how these miners are faring or the tough decisions of whether to pay medical bills or electric bills. There will be no stories explaining how workers' basic sense of security and trust has been shattered by corporate mismanagement, concern only for profit, and political, judicial and healthcare systems that favor the wealthy.

Having been spared of a similar fate, at least for today, you and I will move on in our busy lives. We will recognize the unfairness, but we will take comfort in the notion that, for now, we remain unaffected. But, make no mistake, the story of the modern day Corporate Hoods will continue to unfold, and who knows, someday, you and I might find ourselves unwitting characters in a story with a very unhappy ending.

Kimberly White is a social worker, a veteran and the granddaughter of a retired Peabody coal miner.



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