The story of the United Mine Workers of America is the story of the American labor movement as a whole. The Mine Workers were once the single most important union in the United States: the union that broke from a stodgy labor federation in 1935 to devote its resources to organizing the nation’s factories, the union that built such dynamos as the United Auto Workers and the Steelworkers; the union that sunk so much money into Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 campaign that FDR didn’t raise a peep when striking auto workers occupied General Motors’ Flint, Michigan, factories and didn’t come out until GM had recognized their union; the union that had the strength and cojones to strike during World War II’s strike ban; the union that transformed industrial America. Today, with membership shrunk to perhaps just 10 percent of their peak strength numbers, the Mine Workers, like the labor movement generally, have a past that quite outshines their present. Their retirees outnumber their current members, and they would outnumber them by an even larger margin if coal mining, with its black lung and emphysema, didn’t shorten so many miners’ lives. Clustered in Appalachia, the union, like its industry, sometimes seems to inhabit a land that time forgot.
And yet, for all that the Mine Workers can seem to epitomize yesterday’s news, the union has just waged a brilliant and innovative campaign that has ended in a stunning victory. Last week, the Mine Workers persuaded a company that had gone into bankruptcy, and whose plan to break its union contracts and end its pension and health-care obligations to retirees had been approved by a federal judge, to honor its contracts and pay its retirees after all. This isn’t how bankruptcy proceedings usually end; workers and retirees more commonly finish out of the money. But the Mine Workers—combining the old-time class-war religion of the Appalachian hollows with a new-age campaign on social media—came through for both their members and their retirees.
Perhaps the union’s greatest asset was that it was fighting a screamingly obvious swindle. In 2007, Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal company, spun off a separate company, Patriot Coal. Patriot was given 10 of Peabody’s unionized mines and the pension and healthcare obligations of 8,400 Peabody retirees and their spouses. The following year, Patriot also acquired some mines from the nation’s second largest coal company, Arch Coal, and the pension and healthcare obligations for an additional 2,300 Arch retirees. In essence, Patriot’s mission was to enable Peabody and Arch to slough off their obligations to a large share of their retirees and their spouses (counting the spouses, Patriot was responsible for 22,000 beneficiaries), while operating a small number of not very productive mines. It was a formula for failure, and early this year, Patriot filed for bankruptcy, leaving tens of thousands of retired miners and their families in the lurch. To be sure, Medicare covered some of their medical expenses and the federal government would pick up a fraction of what their pensions would come to. But Medicare doesn’t even begin to cover all the medical costs of men who’ve spent decades working in mines.
The deal worked out splendidly for Peabody, which, shorn of its obligations to thousands of its retirees, cut its health care costs by roughly 40 percent and realized $2 billion in revenues in 2012, even as Patriot was going under. Patriot did manage to find the funds to establish one small office in New York City, so that it could file for bankruptcy there, far from homes of retirees who might play on the sympathies of the court.
That was when the Mine Workers began to fight back. Its retirees deluged the New York Court with petitions to change the venue to a city with at least some presence of actual workers and retirees, and the court concurred, transferring the case to St. Louis. Miners and retirees rallied and marched in St. Louis (where Peabody is headquartered), in West Virginia and in Kentucky, demanding that Peabody assume the obligations it had sloughed off. Despite their entreaties, a federal bankruptcy judge in St. Louis granted Patriot’s bankruptcy petition and declined to compel Peabody to re-assume its responsibilities.
The Mine Workers refused to admit defeat. They mounted steadily larger demonstrations in the coal-mining regions where Peabody was a major employer, in which the indignant testimony of visibly and audibly short-of-breath retirees proved as irresistible to local television news crews as it was a complete nightmare for Peabody. The miners reached outside their ranks—something that John L. Lewis, their legendary leader from the 1920s through the 1950s, would never have considered—to enlist such civil rights groups as the NAACP as allies and to persuade sympathetic clergy to preach the gospel against Peabody from pulpits across the Bible belt. They worked the media, turning up both sympathetic retirees and academic studies to help reporters dramatize and elucidate a story of Dickensian moral clarity. They reached out to campuses and established a Facebook page that up to 100,000 people visited daily.
Their target all along wasn’t Patriot; it was Peabody. And Peabody, ultimately, decided all the negative attention wasn’t worth it. The union just wouldn’t go away—not after the judge’s ruling, not after Patriot reached a settlement in August with its current workers. In late September, workers and retirees completely encircled Peabody’s St. Louis headquarters building. And last week, Peabody gave in—signing a settlement with the union in which it pledged to provide more than $300 million to fund the retirees’ health benefits and an additional $140 million to recapitalize Patriot, enabling Patriot to come out of bankruptcy. (The union is still building support on Capitol Hill for legislation that would have the federal government assume a greater share of the retirees’ health expenses—an obligation that the federal government initially, though only partially, assumed many decades ago.)
Lewis likely would have been initially taken aback by his successors’ decision to enlist a polyglot collection of allies in support of their campaign. But the sheer, stubborn tenacity of his union, the determination of the miners not to yield, would have made him feel very much at home.