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Commentary by Cecil Roberts, UMWA

Cecil E. Roberts

Horizon ruling: Bankrupt public policy dooms W.Va., U.S. coal miners

Horizon Natural Resources coal miner Kenny Kondoudis couldn’t believe it when he heard what happened in a Lexington, Ky., courtroom on Aug. 31 after a federal bankruptcy judge confirmed the sale of Horizon Natural Resources assets “free and clear” of any and all contractual obligations to its United Mine Workers of America-represented miners.

After hearing the judge’s decision, Horizon lawyers and lawyers for the entities who will soon own the bankrupt coal operator’s properties, began laughing and high-fiving each other — all knowing full well that the ruling meant that thousands of Horizon retirees and active coal miners, many suffering from chronic, high-cost medical problems like black lung disease, would soon be without promised health-care benefits and job rights.

In Kondoudis’ and the UMWA’s opinion, the lawyers’ callous display shows just how insignificant the needs and concerns of working people are to many in corporate America. It also shows why Congress must act now to help working Americans by reforming our nation’s bankruptcy laws to end corporate abuse.

Prior to the Aug. 31 hearing, 16 Horizon miners and I were arrested for sitting down in front of the courthouse entrance and blocking it. We were hopeful — much like the thousands of protesters with us outside the courthouse — that an arrest might draw some attention to the plight of these workers and retirees. We also thought that maybe the judge would have a change of heart and overturn his decision. Sadly, at the end of the day, he did not, which put big smiles on the faces of the corporate lawyers and executives inside the courtroom, and brought tears to the eyes of many of the miners and retirees outside.

Thankfully, the UMWA’s efforts to highlight the need for reform of America’s bankruptcy laws have not gone unnoticed. Our friends in Congress are now contacting us to ask what they can do to help. At our Aug. 31 rally, Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., addressed the crowd, telling them that what is happening is wrong and strongly supporting our calls for reform. And Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has recently issued statements saying he intends to introduce legislation that addresses the anti-worker bias of America’s bankruptcy laws. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and Reps. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., are also pledging to help. This is very welcome news, but the UMWA fully understands that there is much more work to be done, beginning with the Nov. 2 election.

As UMWA members were being arrested in Lexington, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards was on a front porch in Beckley, discussing the Horizon bankruptcy injustice with UMWA member Darrell Todd and his wife. After hearing from Todd how nearly 2,500 Horizon retirees and almost 1,000 active miners are soon going to lose their health-care benefits because of the bankruptcy, Sen. Edwards told Todd that he and presidential candidate John Kerry would help address the problem by enacting policies that guarantee all Americans access to the same quality, affordable-health-care benefits Congress enjoys. While not a cure for all the problems plaguing the nation’s federal bankruptcy laws, Edwards is right that a national health-care policy would help alleviate much of the suffering caused by unjust bankruptcy laws and other factors. This is exactly the kind of action the UMWA believes is needed in America.

The UMWA, Kenny Kondoudis, and thousands of Horizon miners and retirees are learning a very hard lesson about what happens to working people when politicians are elected — and judges appointed — who care more about corporate interests than those of workers. We know that America’s federal bankruptcy laws were written by business-friendly politicians and banks and that it will take an act of Congress to reform them.

For that reason, the UMWA is calling on its members — and all working Americans — to ask candidates running for federal office this year where they stand on the issues of bankruptcy law reform, a national health-care policy and finding a long-term solution to the Coal Act’s funding problems. Only by electing politicians who understand the injustice of America’s bankruptcy laws and skyrocketing health-care costs, can we help ensure that callous celebrations by jubilant, greedy corporate lawyers become a thing of the past.
Roberts is international president of the United Mine Workers of America.


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