This story is the sixth and final part in the series Patriot Coal: An American Bankruptcy. To begin reading the story from the beginning, jump back to the first part, Take Warning.
Patriot Coal may be gone but its legacy is still visible on the landscape of southern West Virginia and western Kentucky. Faded signs line the roads here; some of them once marked the way to the company’s mines. Friends of Coal stickers and license plates decorate the vehicles outside the grocery stores and shopping malls—a sign to all who pass by that mining is a way of life in this region. And in the UMWA offices on Route 281, a group of five retired miners are gathered sipping coffee and making small talk, having once traveled through the company’s books on their way through the world. Lines on a balance sheet now made flesh.
In the ruling that allowed the company to reject its collective bargaining agreement with the UMWA in the first Patriot case, Judge Surratt-States said there was plenty of blame to go around.
“The legacy of unfunded retirement medical benefits was itself the result of Congressional inaction, a changing manufacturing landscape, and the benign neglect and false hopes of companies and unions alike,” she wrote.
In their opposition to the Miners Protection Act, conservatives have pointed out that there are many private and public pension funds that are as distressed, if not more so, than the UMWA’s health and pension funds. In this, they are not wrong. As the U.S. economy has shifted steadily from the manufacturing to the service sector, the industries that traditionally provided defined‑benefit pension plans have experienced significant financial challenges, and many of the companies operating in these sectors have disappeared entirely. Most employers have shifted to defined-contribution benefits such as those supplied by 401k plans to provide some sort of retirement benefits to their employees. The UMWA itself has followed suit. New entrants to the union are no longer offered the same kind of defined-benefit pension plans its retirees receive.
From 1980 to 2008, the proportion of private-sector employees participating in a defined-benefit pension plan went from 38 percent to 20 percent. Between 1997 and 2010, the percentage of private-sector employers offering retiree health benefits to early retirees went from 28.9 percent to 17.7 percent. Now, the numbers are even lower. Only 13 percent of private sector workers have a traditional pension, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Many of the early proponents of the 401k have recently begun to question its utility, asserting that it was only meant to be a supplement, not a replacement for the defined-benefit pension system. “It was oversold,” Gerald Facciani, former head of the American Society of Pension Actuaries, told the Journal.
The fate of the Patriot retirees will be settled by Congress, one way or another, in the near future. The fate of the rest of America’s retirees is more uncertain. In many ways, we are all in danger of entering our golden years without enough money in the bank.
Many people no doubt think of coal miners as hard-nosed people who climb down into the earth to extract an ancient form of energy. Miners often describe themselves in these terms. But the miners at the UMWA office in Madisonville were exceptionally emotional about their plight. At least two broke down in tears. It was clear that despite decades of time spent underground in some of the most difficult working conditions imaginable, these men were not made of stone. The stress of the last four years had begun to take its toll. Oddly enough, they also expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work for Peabody, the company they feel eventually turned its back on them.
After unburdening himself of this secret he had been carrying around for almost two decades, Richie became more reflective, more philosophical about his predicament. Ironically, the company that now represented the biggest threat to him and his fellow miners was the subject of his appreciation.
“I do want to thank Peabody for having the coal mines for me to go work at,” he said. “I do want to thank them, because they didn’t have to do that. I’m glad there was a Peabody Coal Company. I’m not against corporations, but I’m against dirty corporations. I’m against corporations that runs a scam to steal from their employees. But Peabody had never done that before. Peabody was always a good company to work for, up ’til then.”
Daniel Flatley (@daniel_flatley) is a West Virginia native and a former Marine. He covered politics and government at a newspaper in upstate New York before attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, from which he will graduate in May 2017.