Written by Anthony Moujaes
Two economic activists from the United Church of Christ are trying to help tens of thousands of coal miners and their spouses who face the loss of their health benefits. The Rev. Ted Erickson, who worked with the UCC's Homeland Ministries (predecessor of Local Church Ministries and Wider Church Ministries), and Dr. Edie Rasell, the UCC's minister for economic justice, were part a faith-based fact-finding delegation that published a report in hopes of drawing attention to this issue from the religious community and the media.
The report, titled "Schemes From the Board Room: The War by Arch and Peabody on the Aging, Ill, and Disabled," asserts that 23,000 former coal workers and their families could lose their life-long health benefits if Patriot Coal, which in 2008 acquired the operations of Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, is allowed to shed its liability for those benefits as part of a bankruptcy petition.
"We are deeply concerned about the future of coal miners," said Erickson, the report's lead author. "Peabody and Arch have engaged a nonstop battle against collective bargaining. I have seen them undermine the right to negotiate wages and benefits."
The report was the collaboration of two activist groups, Interfaith Worker Justice and Religious Leaders for Coalfield Justice. IWJ, which the UCC has partnered with in the past on economic justice issues, works to engage the faith community at the grassroots level to shape local, state and national policy. RLCJ is an informal coalition of Appalachian religious leaders working for economic and social justice issues.
In addition to the fragile situation facing the former coal workers, Rasell said the issue is also important to the public and the religious community because it has largely gone unnoticed.
"This business of the loss of worker power and worker rights and pension coverage has been an ongoing struggle. It really highlights the needs to keep people informed," she said.
IWJ and RLCJ are urging religious communities to become active and lift up the worker issues. Among the suggested actions UCC congregations and members can take are supporting federal bankruptcy reform legislation, supporting the U.S. Senate's Coalfield Accountability and Retirement Employee Act, divesting any stocks in Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, and participating in Labor Day efforts to highlight worker rights.
Representatives from RLCJ and IWJ were in Charleston, W.V. in early April to hear testimony about the 23,000 United Mine Workers of America miners, their families and dependents who face an uncertain future if their health care benefits are scrapped. The report released this week details some of those testimonies.
A federal bankruptcy judge will likely rule by the end of the month whether or not Patriot's bankruptcy plan must include continuing benefits for workers and retirees.
Another member of the fact-finding delegation, Fr. John Rauch of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, said Peabody and Arch should uphold the original promise of providing miner health benefits even though it sold off its operations. The report claims that more than 90 percent of the 23,000 people whose benefits are in jeopardy never worked for Patriot Coal because they were already retired at the time that company took over. "Peabody and Arch promised to give health benefits to their workers," Rauch said."Then, through manipulation and bankruptcy laws, they might be able to dump their responsibilities from themselves onto another company, which goes under. Peabody and Arch should continue to have a responsibility to those workers."