In 1981, my dad broke his back working in the mines. We spent that spring break, when I was eight years old, in Roanoke, Va., while doctors removed the ruptured disk. My dad asked if he could return to the mines when he healed.
Why? He was a coal miner. He has coal dust in his veins.
As a United Mine Worker, my father was guaranteed birth-to-grave benefits — most notably, health insurance. It was part of a deal that the federal government made in 1946 with miners to get back to work and off the picket line. The miners held their end of the bargain and so did every administration and Congress since.
Until now. Seven decades later, that agreement is in jeopardy, as are the health benefits and meager pensions of roughly 80,000-plus retired miners and their spouses. Why? The funds are there. Waiting.
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Perhaps this is payback by elected officials mad they weren’t endorsed by the UMWA? Perhaps it is being held up because it doesn’t help all miners, just union ones?
You see, we have become a “where’s my share?” society. Everyone wants their piece of the pie. Even if they didn’t earn it.
Make no mistake, these benefits were earned by union miners. They paid more than their share of dues, both physically and financially, to fight for the rights of all miners. Non-union mines benefited every time a union mine struck to improve working conditions, increase pay and receive better benefits.
When I was growing up, my dad spent more than 100 days in a row on strike — without pay — to ensure a better workplace and a fair wage. Meanwhile, across town, non-union miners were given a raise to keep them from unionizing.
But that was alright. We lived on bologna and donations from local businesses. We never were bitter. We never asked for a handout. My daddy was doing what was right and what helped the whole.
To date, my dad has undergone two more spinal surgeries and two neck fusions. You see, when the doctor removed the ruptured disk, all the rest began to collapse. My dad lives in constant pain. His medicine and health insurance is essential in providing him any quality of life in his old age. He never complains. He would work in the mines tomorrow, if he could.
He is a coal miner. A union man. He’s never asked for anything he didn’t earn. He wants our government to fulfill its part of the agreement. He wants Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul to do their jobs and make good on a promise to help coal miners — including retired ones.
These benefits are not infinite. Once men and women my dad’s age pass, and their spouses pass, the benefits go with them. It is our moral obligation to help. If you are a “friend of coal,’ does that include miners or just the companies?
This is gut-check time. Enough of the rhetoric. We should fight for them as they have fought for us.
I urge everyone to call our senators and representatives and demand passage of the Miners’ Protection Act. Time is running out.
Nema Brewer-Candy lives in Lexington.