In January, 10 members of the United Mine Workers of America, including several West Virginia miners, were arrested in St Louis, Mo., following a protest outside of Peabody Energy headquarters. More than 1,000 miners were protesting the possible loss of pension and health care benefits for roughly 20,000 retired miners and their dependents in the wake of Peabody’s decision to create a subsidiary known as Patriot Coal.
After spinning off Patriot Coal and offloading more than $500 million in pension and health benefits onto it, top officials at Peabody and Arch Coal, then announced that Patriot would go into bankruptcy, raising the very real possibility that the miners’ health and pension benefits would be eliminated in bankruptcy proceedings. Some union workers say this is a calculated move on the part of the coal companies to weaken the unions.
“It’s an attack,” says West Virginia AFL-CIO president Kenny Purdue. “[Protecting union members] just gets tougher every day.”
Such union-busting practices have become more common as the influence of unions have waned in the U.S. in recent years, says Ken Fones-Wolf, the Stuart and Joyce Robbins Chair in history at West Virginia University.
In fact, the number of union members nationwide and in West Virginia has declined drastically in recent years. In 2012, the number of union workers in West Virginia dropped by more than 9,000, reaching its lowest level in almost three decades, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. A recent report from the Associated Press suggests a continuing downturn in unionized jobs in the state as a result of competition from natural gas drilling, an industry known for bringing in outside workers.
Some experts say the decline in union membership means fewer decent-paying jobs in West Virginia, growing economic inequities and heightened political clout for corporate interests that can buy votes with money. However, employers defend the hiring of non-union workers for competitive reasons.
With its recent spin-off from Peabody, Patriot Coal is now responsible for the benefits of more than three times the number of retirees and inactive employees than it actually employs, says Jamie Orf, vice president of investor relations for Patriot Coal. And that makes it more difficult to honor retiree obligations.
Fones-Wolf said the decline in union numbers is due to both structural changes in the American economy — the movement away from a manufacturing base and toward a service economy — as well as the efforts of U.S. employers to weaken unions and avoid dealing with them. He notes that while unions had a strong presence in manufacturing, they have traditionally been much weaker in service jobs, such as retail stores and food service.
In some cases, employers are “moving plants to non-union states and non-union areas,” Fones-Wolf says. In other cases, they have moved plants overseas, and in still others, there is a concerted effort to “sort of chip away at the labor laws of this country that protect a worker’s right to choose unions,” he adds. The law recently passed by the Wisconsin state legislature’s to strip workers of their collective bargaining rights is an example of this.
Union membership reached its height in the United States in 1950s and 1960s, after the National Labor Relations Act established collective bargaining and fair working conditions for many workers. Union membership soared, and one in every three workers in America belonged to a union.
At present, only 11.3 percent of the workforce in America is unionized, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate of public-sector employees who are union members is five times higher than those in the private sector. For example, teachers, firefighters and other public employees are far more likely to belong to a union than workers employed by a private company.
For West Virginia, a historically poor, working-class state, the impact of declining union numbers means a widening gap between poverty and plenty.
“If you take away the middle class – these blue collar jobs that were once middle class jobs – then the tax rate shrinks, the resources that states have for education or infrastructure improvement shrink along with it, so it’s not just bad for those blue collar families, it’s bad for the state,” Fones-Wolf says.
It also widens the divide between those who have a voice in the state’s governance and those who don’t. Corporate interests, such as the coal and gas industries, are very powerful in West Virginia because they have the resources to buy politicians’ votes. With weakened unions, there are fewer checks on the power of big corporations.
“We love to talk about a democracy where everybody has an equal voice, but those that have a lot of money have a lot more influence than those that don’t,” Fones-Wolf says.