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Massey's big mess

Coal miners fight union-busting bankruptcy

By David Hoskins
Charleston, W. Va.

Allegations have been flying that Horizon Natural Resources and Massey Energy Co. have conspired to undermine the wages and benefits of unionized workers. In response, a progressive coalition of miners, students and community activists was formed after a fightback rally in a town near the Cannelton, W. Va., coal mine.

In September of this year Horizon placed its Cannelton mine on idle and laid off all its unionized workforce. Horizon recently sold the mine to Massey Energy Co. Union activists claim that Massey did not place the highest bid; other bidders had promised to keep the union workforce mostly intact.

Horizon had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November 2002. This is the second time that owners of this company have used the bankruptcy court to slide out of their obligations to the workers. Horizon is a reincarnation of AEI Resources Inc., which had filed for bankruptcy in February 2002. According to the company's web site, "Less than three months later, on May 9, it emerged as Horizon, the nation's fourth-largest coal company. Horizon operates 42 mines, including 27 surface and 15 underground, in five states: Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana and Colorado."

The United Mine Workers of America protested the recent sale of Horizon because it would strip more than 5,000 active and retired coal miners of health benefits and job security.

The federal bankruptcy judge overseeing the sale allowed Massey's assault on the union to go forward when he gave permission to cancel the union contracts for current workers and retirees. Massey, the new owner of the mine, has since fired over 250 coal miners in West Virginia for connections with the UMWA. Retirees have lost the healthcare and pension benefits they were depending on after exiting the workforce, adding to the 270,000 West Virginians who already lack healthcare.

In a move reminiscent of the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars of 1912-1921, Massey has placed armed guards on the premises to intimidate workers and the community into submission.

This declaration of war on the working class by Massey Energy is nothing new to Appa lachians. For years Massey has been plagued by a bad reputation for union busting and environmental destruction.

At an Oct. 21 UMWA rally at a packed high school gym in Smithers, W. Va., near Cannelton, miners and the union promised to stand up and fight to regain their voice in the workplace. If Massey thought it was going to close this deal in the comfort of the courtroom, it is sadly mistaken. Students, miners and community activists are uniting in what looks to be a long struggle as workers fight back against Massey's war on the workers.

This progressive coalition is demanding a return of healthcare benefits to all retirees, retention of the union and its current contract, the removal of all armed guards from the Cannelton mine, and an investigation into the purchase of Horizon Mines by Massey Energy. One thing that this ordeal makes abundantly clear to West Virginians is that the business tycoons, government and judges in this country are not on the side of the workers and their families.

Reprinted from the Nov. 11, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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