Miners support legislation that could protect workers’ health care and pension benefits
More than 1,000 retired coal miners and supporters from Kentucky and surrounding states came together in Madisonville to support legislation that could protect workers’ health care and pension benefits.
The United Mine Workers of America held the rally Monday at the Ballard Convention Center as part of the union’s effort to push ongoing legislation forward.
Through the proposed Miners’ Protection Act of 2015 and Coal Healthcare and Pension Protection Act of 2015, which were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate respectively this year, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 will be amended.
This would transfer funds from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to the Multiemployer Health Benefit Plan to pay health benefits to retired miners, according to the U.S. Congressional website.
Under both acts, workers who are now enrolled in the plan will continue receiving benefits, and retirees who would otherwise be denied benefits if their former employer declares bankruptcy, will now be protected.
UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Dan Kane told the crowd the legislation was only a matter of ensuring that coal companies keep their promises to laborers.
“(In World War II) The American soldier was supplied better than anybody else on Earth and that was done by American industrial might,” Kane said. “We mined the coal that made the steel, ships, guns and bombs and if it were not for that effort, this world would be living under tyranny today.
“When we (won the war) we were promised in the White House that if we supplied the energy that this country needed,” he continued, “if we work in the mines and gave our youth and health to the coal companies, we would get health care and pensions for life — from cradle to the grave. This is not an entitlement. We are not asking for a handout. We are saying that we fulfilled our part of the bargain and now it’s time for you to pay your bills.”
Yet, declaring bankruptcy should not absolve a company of its obligation to its workforce, Kane said.
“We have the 14th (Constitutional) Amendment and that guarantees us equal treatment under the law,” he said. “How is it equal that a company can walk away from its bills, declare bankruptcy and who gets paid? The lawyers and the people at the top — the workers don’t get paid. That’s not equal treatment under the law and we’re not going to stand for it.”
Michael Pape, former district director for Rep. Ed Whitfield, told supporters that they must fight for survival as former miners in a fledgling industry.
“My father and grandfather were coal miners … they knew what hard work is,” he said. “Those men taught me a valuable lesson when I was growing up. When you shake someone’s hand and say you’re going to do something, that’s your bond. That’s your word.
“In your case, it was written down on paper,” he continued. “But I will say this — bankruptcy should never be a safe-clause for moral obligation.”
According to UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts, passing legislation as quickly as possible is critical to the health of the retired.
“Right this minute, right now, there are people in hospitals across Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Virginia in emergency rooms,” Roberts said. “They’re on the operating table right now. People are in hospice and they’re dying and taking their last breaths.
“We’re not asking for anything that doesn’t belong to us,” he added. “This belongs to us. For those of us who mined coal 50 years ago, when did we ever ratify a collective bargaining agreement?”
For the price of American coal producing the cheapest electricity in the world, 105,000 miners have died on the job and 100,000 eventually succumbed to black lung disease, Roberts said.
“We sacrificed our brothers and sisters so America could be great,” he said. “We came to this room today earning what we asked for. We earned the right to petition our government to protect our pensions and health care, and we will win this fight.”
Kane said he was optimistic the bills will be passed.
“We’ve talked to some representatives and a bunch of people in Congress have stood up for us,” he said. “Together there is nothing we can’t accomplish. We’ll get this legislation passed because its the right thing to do, and this is the most financially responsible way of doing it.”
By Laura Buchanan
The Messenger, Madisonville