Some hospitals, mostly in rural areas, are sending bills directly to miners, using collection agencies, and taking miners to court. This comes on top of lawsuits--60 to date, and the list is growing--the coal bosses have filed against paying lifetime benefits.
The coal bosses scored another victory recently when a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled that the Berwind Corporation of Philadelphia is not responsible for paying retiree benefits. Prior to the decision, Berwind was obligated to pay $295,000 in monthly premiums for more than 1,200 United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) retirees. Following the court ruling the company is only responsible for coverage of five workers.
These are examples of why the coal miners union is mobilizing thousands of miners and their supporters for a rally in Washington, D.C., May 17. The action will demand the U.S. government back up what tens of thousands of miners see as a commitment made by Washington to provide lifetime health care for UMWA retirees.
The union is holding events in coal mining regions to build the rally, and signing up busloads of miners determined to push back this assault on their rights. For many, the May 17 rally will not be the first time they have marched in defense of their rights and union in the nation's capital.
Miners believe that lifetime health care is a social right--a right that is a matter of human pride and dignity, and which directly affects all coal miner families and the larger coal mining community.
"Without this fund, I'm in the poor house," said UMW retiree Robert Fabery at last year's "Save the Coal Act" meeting in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The September meeting was attended by 2,000 miners.
The coal miners are fighting for passage of the Coal Accountability and Retired Employee Act for the 21st century, or CARE 21--legislation that would immediately transfer $172 million in Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund interest money to the UMWA's Combined Benefit Fund (CBF).
The CBF, the largest union fund, provides health-care benefits to almost 70,000 UMWA retirees and their dependents. Some 40,000 retirees from Pennsylvania and West Virginia rely on the fund, which is running an annual deficit of $50 million. The retired miners affected by the shortfall are in 18 states and as far west as Wyoming.
In 1946, following a nationwide coal miners strike, the UMWA was promised lifetime health care for its membership by the federal government, which at that time had seized the mines. This commitment was then codified in subsequent contracts between the UMWA and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA), the coal bosses' collective bargaining agent.
Counteroffensive by the bosses
Over the past 25 years, the coal bosses, with the help of the courts, have been on an offensive to sharply cut back miners' health care. This was one of the main issues in the 111-day nationwide UMWA strike in 1977-78, the most important labor battle in decades. It was the issue that provoked an 11-month strike by 1,900 Pittston miners in 1989, who fought off the company's attempt to deny medical benefits to its retired union members.
Over the course of the strike, another 40,000 UMWA miners walked out for up to six weeks in support of this fight. More than 50,000 people from across the country and around the world visited Camp Solidarity, the union's strike center in southwest Virginia.
Since then many of the unfolding fights, as well as recent UMWA strikes--the four-month-long strike by Freeman United Coal Co. in 1998, and the strikes at Jeddo Coal Co. in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, and the Deserado mine in Rangeley, Colorado, in 1999--have centered around the issue of health care and pensions.
The big-business press in coal mining communities has been running front-page articles publicizing the rally, including listing the union's phone number to call for bus reservations. The lead headline in the May 3 edition of the Observer-Reporter, in Pennsylvania, was "UMW digs in for benefits fight, plans 'critical' rally." The Harrisburg, Illinois, Daily Register ran a front-page article, "Miners to head to Washington." The reporter noted a "massive effort is under way in Southern Illinois organizing a caravan of UMWA miners and retirees to make the Washington, D.C., trip for the rally in support of the legislation."
Retirees leading effort
Retired union miners have been in the front ranks of those building the rally--especially in reaching out to UMWA members working in the coal mines--and explaining that the existence of the union is at stake. A week before the rally, the union reports that some 70 buses are filled from southwest Pennsylvania alone, and that it may need to rent more.
Support for the miners' fight is also pouring in from coal communities across the country. For example, borough councils in Homer City and Masontown, Pennsylvania, passed resolutions backing the miners' demands. "Masontown is a mining community with both retired and active members, and I believe every municipality should get out there and support the health care of miners and keep their promise," said Masontown council president Joseph Volansky. The Illinois General Assembly passed a resolution in support of the Coal Act in its spring session.
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