Thousands of miners risked their lives for coal, but now coal company bankruptcies endanger promises of hard-earned healthcare for former workers.

Coal miners in the US have just gotten a federal bailout on their health care, but questions about the future of the industry and its workers remain.
Coal miners in the US have just gotten a federal bailout on their health care, but questions about the future of the industry and its workers remain. (TRT World and Agencies)

Thousands of coal miners in the United States got a reprieve this week after nearly losing their union-negotiated health benefits.

The whole world knows how Americans, especially those who are out of work, have trouble paying for medical treatment, but the miners' story reveals the precarious nature of healthcare for many ordinary working Americans – even those who sacrificed their health for their jobs.

Some 8,400 miners had spent years working for a company called Patriot Coal in the states of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Along with several other firms, the company went bankrupt in 2015, after a series of risky investments failed to pan out. Including miners from other bankrupt companies and their families, 22,600 people faced the fear of losing their healthcare.

As part of a continuing collaborative series with 100 Days in Appalachia, TRT World spoke with Daniel Flatley, a West Virginia journalist who wrote an in-depth piece talking to Patriot miners in the days before the deal went through. Flatley described a community of workers left out in the cold after the bankruptcy decision.

In bankruptcy court, Patriot was able to pay out millions to executives, but also successfully argue that it could not live up to its obligations to pay the miners' pensions and healthcare benefits. Critics say that the laws unfairly penalise workers for the bad business decisions of their employers, over which they had no control.

But a budget deal reached in the US Congress this week and set to be voted on by Friday figured out an unusual fix to the problem. Revenue from customs duties will go into a fund to help keep miners covered. The benefits were set to run out at the end of April, but a last minute legislative scramble apparently saved the United Mine Workers fund and it continues to provide healthcare to the miners.

A variety of factors, including high-ranking lawmakers from coal country sitting in key positions in Congress, helped bring about the deal, said Davitt McAteer, a West Virginia attorney and former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

"You have this confluence of events no one would have predicted," McAteer told TRT World. "It sure looks good, but we have to wait to see."

And if the miners had a national public healthcare system to rely on, McAteer said, "It would look a hell of a lot different."

Read the interview with Flatley below:

Miners' rights in the US have seriously been eroded since reaching a high point in the 1970s. How has that happened and how are we seeing that today?

DANIEL FLATLEY: I think a lot of it has to do with the decline of the labour unions which happened in the 1980s, and through the early ‘90s. There's several factors that contributed to that, one of them was the decline in manufacturing and industry overall but also especially in coal country. I think there was an effort by coal producers who opposed [the unions] to drive the unions out, and that [campaign against the unions] started in the mid-‘80s and continued through the mid-1990s, and really degraded the effectiveness of the unions to a certain extent.

What does that mean for miners, being in a union mine versus a non-union mine?

DF: I think a big part of it was the story of [the mining company] Massey Energy. Beginning in the late ‘80s through to the ‘90s, they took over [the mining industry in] Eastern Kentucky and moved into Southern West Virginia. They would offer higher wages than [wages in unionised mines], so they could get miners to go to work for them and so it made union mining less attractive for people. [But] after a while the wage structure changed and part of it was that the union-guaranteed benefits [were eroded]: health benefits, pensions and if you thought you were working in unsafe conditions you could complain to you union representative and there were ways to fix those sorts of problems. But in a company-owned mine where the union wasn't a factor it became harder to control working conditions.

Why is mine safety important, and in the case of Massey Energy what was the result of the lack of mine safety?

DF: In April of 2010, you had the Upper Big Branch explosion in southern West Virginian. And that sent [Massey Energy owner] Don Blankenship prison for one year [in 2016]. The issue there was that there were a lot of safety practises that were supposed to be followed, including putting up ventilation curtains to keep gases from building up, but in order to do these things, to stay safe, it would slow down the production of coal and that was a conflict for the business owners, who wanted to produce as much coal as possible.

Your story is about a different mining company that was a union mine? What's happening to coal miners who worked for Peabody Energy and Patriot Coal, is their experience unique or is it part of a larger trend?

DF: Peabody, in 2007, took all of its mining operations and created a new company called Patriot Coal because mining in the eastern US had become really expensive, in part because of the history of the labour movement which demanded higher wages for workers, which was still sort of a factor, and also ... that there wasn't as much coal to be mined because a lot of the easy-to-access seams of coal had been mined out. Peabody was interested in shifting to its coal operations in Wisconsin and Montana, and that was all surface mining. It was cheaper to mine. You could get more coal and you could ship it overseas to India and China which were ramping up their infrastructure development projects. Along with Patriot went 8,400 miners who were retired. Eventually, about five years after [Patriot] were spun off, Patriot went bankrupt. [Note: Peabody Energy created Patriot Coal in 2007, in a move the miners believe was meant to insulate Peabody from the eventual downfall of the less profitable mines that became Patriot Coal. The company denies this was the intent.]

US bankruptcy law allows companies to reject collective bargaining agreements, like the ones they make with unions, so Patriot was able to get out of paying pensions and health care requirements.

In 2012 and 2015, a lot of people looked at this, economists and unions, and felt that Peabody had tried to get rid of these miners in order to become a more profitable company. And so now we come to a point, in April 2017, where Congress is trying to decide what they're going to do about health benefits for these miners, and whether they are going to provide federal money to backstop for those benefits.

The money really that was supposed to pay pensions and health benefits went to paying off the companies' creditors, and the business interests that were giving them money, and in a lot of respects those people didn't get all the money they were owed. Nobody really wins in these situations. What makes it seems so unfair is that the banks and creditors that lent those companies money, their health benefits aren't tied up ... For the miners, they don't have anywhere else to turn to when they get nothing, they really get nothing.

The Patriot Coal logo, pictured. The company no longer exists.
The Patriot Coal logo, pictured. The company no longer exists. (TRT World and Agencies)

Finding and keeping health insurance seems to dictate how Americans live their lives. Why is that?

DF: This is an interesting question because we have this debate over whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a GOP-sponsored plan [Note: the Republican Party is also known as the GOP]. And as I was reporting this story and I talked to a lot of people I kind of made a fairly obvious observation, I think, but one that struck me as a light bulb going-off-kind of moment.

If we had some sort of government-sponsored healthcare plan or different sort of mechanism to providing healthcare to all Americans, it wouldn't be an issue. Miners and everyone else would all fall under the same kind of healthcare plan. That might be an oversimplification, there are a lot of things that would have to happen for a single payer healthcare paradigm, but it would eliminate the need to have these kinds of debates over providing healthcare for a particular constituency. If you did the same for everyone, it would get rid of a lot of problems.

So yeah, finding and keeping healthcare insurance is a huge part of how Americans live their lives, because generally healthcare is provided through the workplace and if you don't [have a job] it's very expensive to maintain that insurance. And Americans have are a lot of health issues and it can be very expensive. If you go to the emergency room without health insurance you can walk away with a $30,000 bill. And you can either default on that or try to pay it off. And that can take a long time.

What's happening now for the miners?

DF: After years of lobbying Congress, retired miners from Peabody, Patriot and other coal operators that have gone through bankruptcy restructuring may see some relief if Congress approves a $1 trillion spending bill this week. Embedded in the bill, which will keep the government running through September, is a proposal to use $1.3 billion generated by US Customs user fees to provide health coverage for these miners – a "permanent solution" in the words of Miners Protection Act sponsor Senator Joe Manchin. The provision does not include coverage for pensions, which Senator Manchin said can be revisited later. The Miners' Protection Act originally proposed to use money from a fund set up in the 1970s to ameliorate the harmful environmental effects of coal mining. Senators from Wyoming, now the US's top coal-producing state, opposed the use of those funds for the healthcare issue.

How many miners are affected by the fix?

DF: It's 22,000 miners who will be affected by the bill. There are 8,400 from the Patriot spin-off in 2007, plus 2,300 from Magnum, which Patriot bought in 2008, which brings you to 10,700. Over time, that number increased to 12,500 as more miners retired. Then, in recent years, the UMWA also added 2,800 miners from Walter Energy and 4,000 miners from Alpha Resources to the Patriot fund after they went bankrupt. In the fund, there are also retired miners called "orphans," who are from smaller companies that went bankrupt. Finally, dependents and widows are also included in the 22,000 number.

Why is health insurance so critical these miners?

DF: Obviously Black Lung is a big issue. Black lung is disease that results from breathing in coal dust and in particular rock dust from being underground. And there's been a resurgence in black lung because the coal seams have gotten harder and harder to access. It's the rock dust that is really harmful to your lungs over time. There's no cure for black lung. Nothing and can fix it. When you have it you have it you basically suffocate to death. It makes it harder and harder to breath, so after these miners have retired, ten or 15 years later. Sometimes it doesn't take that long, they can die from this disease.

There are all kinds of injuries that happen to miners when they're underground. I spoke to a couple of miners [who had been] injured slipping and falling. When you're underground, you can break your neck, your back, become paralysed ... Those kinds of injuries introduced long-term health difficulties that need to be taken care of. Because what was great with union benefits is that from cradle to grave you were covered. These miners knew that there were going to get great healthcare, it was worth it for them to take those risks just knowing that they had that support when they were done.

If there are so many risks to being a miner why would anybody do it?

DF: So it does seem like it is a risky profession, and you might think "why would anybody want to do it?" Part of it is cultural. Most miners are not new to the tradition. They grew up in coal mining families that sometimes go back five or six generations. It's a way of life in this region. Coal mining jobs pay far and away much better than any other jobs in this part of this country. You can earn as much as $30 an hour, which can go a long way in southern West Virginia and parts of Kentucky. In the 1990s it was 15 or 16 dollars an hour.

When you're living in an economy that has been dependent on the coal industry, your only alternatives to mining in some places are to work in fast food, in a grocery store, or work for minimum wage. If you want to have a family you want to provide for your family, coal mining is the best option.

I think people are trying to change that, but it's not going to happen overnight. That's why you see a lot of anxiety and in the last presidential election. Coal became an important issue because they didn't see what the next step was going to be exactly. They were mostly concerned with preserving what was already there.

Why do the former employees of these two mining companies feel they have been treated unfairly?

DF: I think that it is really remarkable when you talk to these miners. In the story they are all males, but there are many women who work underground as well. When you talk to them they're not bitter about having gone into coal mining. A lot of them miss coal mining. They describe it as being in military or in a battlefield situation where you have a close bond with the people you are working with. And a lot of them express gratitude to Peabody Coal for giving them jobs. But now they feel the company turned its back on them, and they are a bitter about that.

Source: TRT World