There is no other place on earth like the United States of America, where the rule of law is considered, by most citizens, to be the cornerstone of a civil society. The belief that every individual possesses equal standing in the eyes of justice to redress their grievances, seek an appropriate resolution when they are harmed or receive an impartial ruling to the claim, they place in the court docket, is taught to every citizen from their earliest days in school. Lady Justice, impartially weighing the facts, as she steps on the neck of the corrupt serpent and grasps the sword, by which she will carry out swift and final justice, establishes the appearance of fairness in the American justice system. The symbolism is great, the ideals are noble, the intent of the framers of the Constitution was apparent, but for many working people in the United States today the system simply does not live up to those lofty values.
Since July 9, 2012, when Patriot Coal Company first filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, members of the UMWA have witnessed how the legal system has been twisted and manipulated to guarantee that the powerful and well connected, or those who have the most money or run the biggest corporations, receive special treatment in the Nation’s courts. Through a multitude of bankruptcy proceedings, from Patriot Coal, Arch Coal, Peabody Energy to Westmoreland and Mission Coal and many others, UMWA Members have seen the Courts side with big business at every turn. They have seen bankruptcy laws in practice and learned the sole purpose of the Court was to allow the company to shed its obligations and emerge from bankruptcy financially sound. Nothing matters beyond the survival of the company.
Only in America
“We are all very familiar with the phrase, only in America. Normally people use such language when they talk about some of the momentous events or great achievements, either personally or for the Nation;’ stated President Roberts. “Unfortunately, The UMWA has recently experienced one of those, only in America, moments that really makes you ask, how could this happen in America?”
“We have been through many bankruptcies recently, but what is happening right now with Westmoreland and Mission Coal sheds a whole new light on just how bad the bankruptcy laws in this Country are for working people;’ continued President Roberts. “In order to fully understand what is happening here, we need to look at the facts in these cases. Near the end of 2018, both of these companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Federal Court. Mission Coal in Birmingham, Alabama and Westmoreland in Houston, Texas. As is the case in every bankruptcy the Union and the Members are victimized. Both companies went to Court, claimed poverty, asked for huge bonuses to retain the people who ran the company into the ground, while at the same time asking the Court to relieve them of their contractual obligations. We all understand that these obligations are the hard-earned pensions and health care benefits miners and their families have earned for their years of dedicated service to the company. Finally, the operators ask the court to throw out the collective bargaining agreement between active UMWA Members and the companies. In what is really just a formality, the Judge looks at the requests from the companies, checks the boxes, and gives them everything they have asked for.”
“Normally, that would be the end of the process;’ said President Roberts. “The companies would then exit bankruptcy and the Union must fight to secure the benefits retirees and their families are owed and hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement for Members at the existing operations. But this is not a normal situation. Tom Clarke, the owner of Mission Coal who ran to the Alabama Bankruptcy Court and claimed poverty also made his way to the Texas Bankruptcy Court and put in a bid to buy some of the assets of Westmoreland Coal. That is an unbelievably cruel way to treat working women and men. What else can you say about how the bankruptcy laws impact the lives of workers except, only in America.”
Bankruptcy Is about Power and Greed
The questions raised through the bankruptcy process are never centered on fairness or an equitable solution for everyone involved. Most certainly the determinations by the Courts to allow coal operators to callously terminate health care and pension benefits to long-time employees and their families, and to end collective bargaining agreements for active employees while at the same time permitting the payout of millions of dollars in bonuses to corporate executives and select company employees reinforce the idea that workers and retirees in these situations are expendable. The Judge, like the company executives who filed for protection in the Court, do not live near the people most affected by their decisions. They will not see the suffering and devastation of families and communities. It appears easy to take money from the workers’ pockets, or throw the retiree out of the nursing home, or hospital, as long as the Court and the company do not have to physically witness the act. They only see the bottom line numbers on the bookkeeper’s spreadsheet. The amount of money the company can save by eliminating hard earned retirement benefits or stripping the safety and economic security from a collective bargaining agreement is all that interests them.
The Union understands that the companies along with many unaffected bystanders will try and justify the final determinations in these cases as just business. They will attempt to convince themselves, and anyone else who will listen, that there is no personal motivation to destroy the lives of workers while enhancing their own financial status, but we all know better. This is about the power to leverage the legal system to grossly enhance the financial condition of the wealthy owners at the expense of those who can least afford it. In the end, it is all personal. It is about the ability of the worker to earn a decent living and retire in relative comfort after years of hard work. Unfortunately, in every bankruptcy case, it is about the greed of those persons who have the power to take it away.
We all have a Responsibility to Correct this Problem
“No one can deny we live in the best Country ever to exist on the face of the earth. We have freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom to protest and the freedom of religion;’ said President Roberts. “We need to remember none of these rights and privileges were given to any of us. Working men and women have fought and died to preserve our way of life. Miners, laborers, factory workers, and workers from all walks of life have made many sacrifices to help maintain and build the United States into the greatest military and economic power in the world. However, this ongoing process to create a more perfect union is not done. While we have a duty to recognize the efforts of those who came before us, we must also understand our obligation to build on that foundation and make our Country a fairer and more inclusive Nation. We must make it a society that works for everyone, not just the rich and powerful. That is our responsibility as citizens of the United States and Members of the United Mine Workers of America and we will meet that challenge.
The Westmoreland Decision
In the Westmoreland case, Judge David Jones of the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Alabama issued his decision to permit the elimination of health care and pensions to retirees along with granting the company’s request to terminate the collective bargaining agreement on February 19, 2019. Certainly, because of the rash of bankruptcies in the coal industry since 2012, this came as no surprise to any Member of the UMWA. However, if you look closely at the comment by Judge Jones, who does not appear to offer public comments on his cases often, to the Wall Street Journal (wsn about his decision to give the company a free hand to destroy the lives of these miners and their families, it makes you wonder if he actually understands the gravity of the decisions he makes.
According to the WSJ, Jones stated, “The decision itself was not hard for me. The impact of what my decision does is what’s hard for me.” The Union would argue that if this is a plea for compassion because of the impossible position the Judge thinks he finds himself in, he might want to consider placing himself in the shoes of the people whose lives have been shattered by his decision. The idea that the decision was an easy one for him cannot be squared with his patronizing plea for sympathy. The UMWA believes it would have been better for him to say nothing than try to absolve himself of his actions.
“Unfortunately, the UMWA has been here before in these bankruptcy situations. But we must admit the idea that Tom Clarke may purchase some assets of bankrupt Westmoreland Coal while dragging his own company, Mission Coal, into bankruptcy is really a new twist. We need to move forward and protect the retirees and active workers who are impacted by the bankruptcy process,” said Secretary-Treasurer Allen. “Once again, it is time to follow the lead of President Roberts, rely on the dedication of the Members and make sure the promise made to miners in 1946 by President Truman is upheld.”