Monday, August 16, 2004

Coal Miners' Health Ins Stripped in Bankruptcy

The lot of Appalachia's coal miners has ever been a struggle, above ground and below. And now comes a fresh blow for more than 3,000 unionized miners who will lose their health care and retirement benefits under a federal judge's ruling that it is not necessary for their troubled employer to honor its contract guarantees. Some veteran miners among the 2,300 affected retirees already suffer from black lung and other occupational diseases, but they nevertheless face loss of their medical benefits. So do 1,000 active miners, under the order of a bankruptcy judge in Kentucky.

The ruling makes it easier for Horizon Natural Resources, the nation's fourth-largest coal company, to sell its six unionized mines as it undergoes bankruptcy. Potential buyers prefer the company's nonunion mines as better bargains, since they are freer of ongoing financial obligations to workers. So the order canceling medical and other contract benefits presumably levels the auction field for buyers. This is small comfort for the miners caught in the crunch of federal bankruptcy law.

This cruel situation sounds like the stuff of another folk-song lament in Appalachia as the miners watch creditors go to the head of the line. But the bankruptcy judge, William Howard, found that he was well within existing law and might even save jobs if the mines can be sold and kept open in some fashion. Thus does bankruptcy law trump miners' supposedly guaranteed, doubtlessly hard-earned benefits. The union is vowing an appeal, but the law clearly needs humane revision.