By MARK UGOLINI
Thousands of retired miners and supporters converged on Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8 to demand government action to shore up retiree pension and health care benefits. These benefits have been under a constant barrage of attacks from coal companies, which are determined to shed themselves of responsibility for the health and security of both union and non-union miners and retirees.
Retirees and their dependents also want assurance that existing health benefits and pensions will remain in place. The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) says the health and future of 120,000 retired miners and their families are at stake.
UMWA reports that their members traveled in more than 120 buses to the protest—from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
Under the impact of the coal company assault over many years, gains in retiree health care and pensions that were won in past union battles have been eroding. Current laws under attack by coal companies provide some guarantees for lifetime care for mine workers. These were largely won in 1946 from militant strikes that involved over 400,000 union miners.
During 1945 and 1946, a strike wave that spread throughout the country also involved other industries—including railroad, auto, and steel. President Truman assisted the coal companies’ strike-breaking strategy by attempting to force arbitration, and eventually by threatening the UMWA with a $3.5 million fine. However, the eventual settlement included some gains for the miners, including safer working conditions and a “promise” of health benefits and retirement pension “from cradle to grave.”
One D.C. protester was Bill Musgrave, a retired miner from Boonville, Ind., and UMWA Local 1196. Musgrave, who has been diagnosed with cancer, told the Evansville Courier: “It took me a while to [find out you have to] fight as hard to keep something as you did to get it initially. … Unfortunately the government has decided to back out of the obligation they made to the mineworkers in 1946. … Seems like the government, they have the money to bail out the bankers and the corporations, and we’re not even asking for a bailout.”
A married couple attending the protest described the need for additional medical coverage given out of pocket family medical costs of over $13,000 per month. Cindy Scherzinger told the Courier: “You go to union meetings, and it looks like a retirement home. Everyone there has their own set of problems.”
Coal companies, especially those with union-organized mines, have been declaring bankruptcies, and pressing courts to allow them to evade pension and health-care obligations to their workers. One of most recent examples was Patriot Coal, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy that closed down via bankruptcy last year.
The attack on retirees is part of a broader attack against all union miners. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 2014 nearly 191,000 coal-mining jobs have been lost. Many mines that have not closed down suffer large-scale layoffs and dismissals. Workers are being thrown out on the street, and those who remain face ever increasing forced overtime hours, and steadily degrading and unsafe working conditions.
This trend will likely continue as capitalist owners are always finding new ways to expand their profits, and as they have demonstrated, will close mines in a heartbeat as they see new and greater opportunities for profit elsewhere.
Coal companies are also under pressure as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels, an absolute necessity to address the urgent problem of global warming. And it has long been well known that generating energy with fossil fuels is also devastating to the health of mine workers, who for years have been victims of black lung disease, and other chronic illnesses specific to work in mines.
The economic impact of this necessary transition to clean energy needs to fall squarely on the coal companies and their capitalist investors, who bear full responsibility. Guaranteed jobs at top union wages must be provided to any worker displaced during a transition to clean and renewable energy sources.
“Our party stands in solidarity with mine workers and retirees currently under attack from the coal bosses,” said Jeff Mackler, Socialist Action presidential candidate in a statement released on Sept. 8. “It’s part of the generalized global crisis of capitalism, lashing out at workers and the oppressed everywhere—making the working class pay more and more in every way to satisfy the ruling class’s insatiable drive for profits. And both capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans, are in lock-step agreement on the goal of maximizing profits for corporations at the expense of the working class. We desperately need our own party, a Labor Party, to advance our political interests.
“We support pensions for all at top union wages, and for closing down the profit-gouging ‘health’ insurance industry to establish a universal and free national health system that meets the medical needs of all ‘from cradle to grave.’”