Thousands of retired union coal miners rallied Tuesday in Lexington to call on Congress to protect their health and pension benefits as the industry struggles and operators seek bankruptcy protection from debts.
Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, told the gathering of more than 3,500 members that union miners spent their careers working in dangerous places to provide America’s electricity and steel and make it the most prosperous nation on Earth.
Some retirees arrived in wheelchairs while others walked with canes or carried oxygen bottles, underscoring the health problems union members said a career underground can cause.
The miners don’t deserve to have their benefits put in jeopardy, Roberts said.
“What do they want these people to do, get out of their wheelchairs and go back to the mines?” Roberts remarked after the rally.
“We have stood up for America, and it’s time America stood up for us!” said Roberts, who is popular among the union membership for his fiery oratorical style. “America owes us, and we will collect on that debt!”
The UMWA said 22,000 retired union miners, widows or dependents — including about 3,200 in Kentucky — would lose health care benefits at the end of the year if federal legislation they are backing isn’t enacted this year.
Benefits are at risk because the miners worked for companies, including Patriot Coal and Arch Coal, that declared bankruptcy in recent years.
Monthly pension checks also could be cut.
The bankruptcies and a depressed U.S. coal market have decreased contributions to the pension fund by two-thirds from last year’s levels, according to the union. The union is reeling, especially in Kentucky, which no longer has any mines that employ UMWA members.
Currently about 89,000 union members or widows are receiving a pension, according to the union. Almost 10,000 retirees in Kentucky could see pension cuts without Congressional action, according to the UMWA.
One union retiree, 63-year-old George Massey, worked in underground mines in Harlan County for 24 years before leaving the job because of leg injuries. The benefits problem is a crisis, he said.
“Coal miners have always fought, this here is nothing new for us. We’ve always had to fight for everything we got,” Massey said.
Union miners said the promise of good health care and pensions dates to 1946, when the federal government promised benefits in resolving a labor dispute.
The benefits are not a handout, said Michael Partin, 61, of Bell County, a retired UMWA member who worked underground for 30 years.
“We’re not asking for welfare,” said Partin, who suffers from bulging discs in his neck. “We’ve earned these benefits.”
Gene Adams, a 67-year-old UMWA retiree from London, said if he loses health benefits he will have to use his pension to buy health coverage.
“That’ll hurt,” he said.
The UMWA said members from Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Alabama attended the rally. Some drove, but many arrived by charter bus for the 90-minute event at the Lexington Convention Center.
The Senate legislation at issue, SB 1714, would increase money passed through the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to cover health benefits for UMWA members.
The bill is sponsored by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, but has supporters in both parties.
UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said current law appropriates $490 million annually for benefits for union retirees, but that not all of it gets spent.
The proposals in Congress would make use of the money being appropriated but not used, Smith said.
There also is a bill in the House on the issue. U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, is a co-sponsor.
Barr said in a videotaped statement played at the rally that it would be morally right for the federal government to make good on the decades-old promise of health benefits and pensions that UMWA miners sacrificed to earn.
“Congress must find a solution to keep the promises it has made,” Barr said, who argued that federal environmental regulations have hurt the coal industry, leading to companies’ inability to pay into the benefit funds.
Roberts said if the pension fund fails, taxpayers would be on the hook for retired UMWA miners’ pensions at a cost of $2 billion.
Some union members believe Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is holding up progress on the proposal in his chamber.
However, Roberts said that while McConnell had some reservations earlier, he has become more receptive and said a solution must be found to the problem.
McConnell’s office said in a statement that he “remains committed to helping ensure the retirement security of our nation’s retirees, including coal miners.”
The statement said McConnell believes the issue “deserves open, transparent debate through the regular order committee process.”
Roberts asked the crowd of thousands to each bring five friends to a rally for the union in Washington D.C. later this year.
Herald-Leader Reporter Bill Estep and the Associated Press contributed to this story.