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Michael Bright: A promise made should be a promise kept

Oct. 08, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of a series of columns written by candidates in contested races in the Nov. 6 general election.

I imagine most of my fellow baby-boomers share the same feelings about their youth. While I certainly didn't grow up in a privileged family, my parents supplied everything my siblings and I needed and most things we wanted.

There were times when my father was furloughed from his job as a steelworker, and once or twice when a strike made things a little tight for a while, but most of the time things were pretty good as I grew up. People generally said what they meant, and meant what they said. You could consummate an agreement with a handshake, and it actually felt binding. My father taught me from an early age that keeping one's word was about as important as anything you could do.

My recollection is that corporate America operated the same way. When you were employed by a company and exhibited loyalty to that company, at the end of your work life -- when you reached the pre-determined retirement age -- you retired and enjoyed the rest of your life with the benefits that you earned and were promised. Simple enough, right? You kept your word and worked 25, 30, 40 or more years and the corporation you worked for kept its promise with your pension and benefits. What happened to that, America?

You can probably tell I'm going somewhere with this story and, of course, you're right. I find it unconscionable in this day and time when large corporations, such as Century Aluminum and Patriot Coal, are allowed to divide the corporation into several different corporations over a long period and at a point in time, file bankruptcy with the federal government and arbitrarily decide to terminate the benefits that their retired employees earned and have grown accustomed to having in order to live their lives.

Keep in mind that this is oftentimes done when the CEOs and CFOs of these same "bankrupt corporations" continue to receive literally millions of dollars in salary and bonuses. Those things never seemed to happen when I was growing up. I don't think the federal government would have permitted such an act. At least if it were attempted, a competent court would have realized the unfairness of such act, and disallowed it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not necessarily blaming our court system, or even large corporations such as Century or Patriot. It's the greed that has supplanted the concern for our fellow man that upsets me. Greed and the willingness to totally disregard a senior citizen, his or her spouse, and the dependency they have grown to the benefits that were promised to them. The powers that be seem unconcerned about what these people are supposed to do. It's as if they really don't care. It troubles me to think they don't.

So what can I do about it? Good question. I'm not sure any member of the West Virginia Legislature, delegate or senator, or either of those bodies in total has the power to change such an attitude. We certainly can't change the federal bankruptcy laws, which seem to permit these actions.

But, as a sitting delegate or senator, you certainly should have the attention of the entire West Virginia Congressional delegation. I believe the U.S. Congress has the power to prohibit these actions. I believe a member of the state legislature should have the ear of every member of West Virginia's delegation to the House of Representatives and the two sitting members of the U.S. Senate.

I wonder how many times our congressional members have been contacted by legislators in the respective districts where Century and Patriot Coal have closed off the promised benefits of their retired employees? How many times have they been contacted and asked why are we permitting these promises to be broken. What steps are you taking, what laws are you attempting to change and what can we do to help put a stop to this egregious behavior? I'm not sure how many questions have been asked in regard to this problem, but I can assure you they will be asked and asked numerous times if I'm in that position.

Michael Bright, a resident of Ripley, is the Democratic candidate for the West Virginia Senate from the 4th District, which includes all of Mason and Jackson counties and parts of Putnam and Roane counties.



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