Keeping our promise to Virginia's miners
By Sen. Mark R. Warner
In the Bristol Herald Courier
Standing up for our retired miners and their families has brought coal state Republicans and Democrats together in the past. Now, once again, it’s time for representatives from both parties to put partisanship aside and go to bat for Virginia’s miners — before it’s too late.
Earlier this year, a federal court allowed the Westmoreland Coal Co., which operated the Bullitt Mine in Wise County, to sever its United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) union contracts with current and former workers. Now, more than 1,200 miners and their dependents around the country, including some 500 here in Virginia, stand to lose their pensions and health care coverage.
Frankly, it’s a disgrace that a company can go to court and leave its workers out in the cold, so that the company’s creditors can continue to get paid. We do need to reform our bankruptcy system, but right now my main concern is making sure these miners and their families don’t lose their hard-earned benefits. While these miners have reached a temporary settlement with Westmoreland to extend their health care benefits for a few months, the fact is, they will be left with nothing if Congress does not act soon.
That’s why I’ve teamed up with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to introduce the American Miners Act. This bill would preserve the Westmoreland miners’ pensions and health benefits by making them eligible for benefits under the Coal Act fund — a program for “orphan” miners whose companies are no longer operating.
These are hard working men and women who have endured years of back-breaking work in order to fuel the economic success of our Commonwealth. Now it’s time for the federal government to deliver on the promise it made to our miners.
In 1946, the federal government, under President Truman, made a promise to protect the hard-earned retirement and health care benefits of UMWA miners — to honor their hard work and sacrifice.
This landmark agreement gave America’s miners the security they needed and deserved. Since that time, they’ve worked hard and done everything that has been asked of them.
Now it’s time for the federal government to hold up its end of the bargain — for the Westmoreland miners, and for the thousands of UMWA retirees whose pensions are still in jeopardy.
We are coming up on the two-year anniversary of our bipartisan victory securing healthcare benefits for more than 22,000 miners and their families. This was an important win for coal country, but our work is not done yet. The pensions our miners have earned are still on the chopping block, and recent coal company bankruptcies like Westmoreland’s threaten the progress we’ve made so far.
Passing the American Miners Act will make sure that miners’ healthcare benefits and pensions will be protected going forward.
We also need to recognize that both UMWA and non-union miners across Virginia have experienced hardships, as their families have lost hard-earned benefits. All Virginia miners and their families deserve to be treated fairly and receive the benefits they have earned during their career as miners.
One of the ways we can do this is by making sure we preserve resources for those miners who have developed black lung disease. The American Miners Act strengthens the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides critical benefits for thousands of retirees suffering from this deadly disease. Coal miners in Southwest Virginia have been some of the hardest hit by black lung, and Virginia is ground zero for the recent outbreak of advanced cases of the disease known as complicated black lung.
Unfortunately, Congressional Republican leadership allowed a key funding source for the trust fund to expire in December. If we fail to restore funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, miners struggling with this debilitating disease may not have access to the high-quality care they deserve, beginning as soon as next year.
It’s far past time to fix this problem. Our miners have paid their dues and earned their benefits. Now it’s our turn to secure their healthcare and pensions and shore up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.
The President campaigned on a promise to take care of our coal miners, and frankly, so did I. Now is the time for us all to leave our Republican and Democrat hats at the door and work together to get this done. The federal government must not turn its back on a generation of miners who risked their lives and health to fuel our nation.