Seventy years later, the spirit of that pact is at the heart of a high-stakes political dispute as the coal industry's widespread bankruptcies -- and the subsequent rulings of federal bankruptcy judges -- threaten to leave thousands of retired miners and their families without union-negotiated health benefits.
The coal-mining communities of
Both emotions dominated the room at a
Attendees voiced frustration with coal companies and bankruptcy judges who have allowed them to winnow benefit payments to retirees, while also expressing unease about some politicians upon whom their coverage now depends.
"I put the blame on these federal bankruptcy judges who voided our labor agreements," said
He said those benefits resulted from old labor agreements in which miners agreed to take lower wages.
Earle urged those at the meeting to call Senate Majority Leader
More than half of the UMWA retirees at risk of losing medical benefits -- about 12,500 members -- receive those funds through Patriot Coal, the former
Many UMWA members have accused Peabody of setting Patriot up to fail by saddling the company with crippling financial obligations, such as those to retirees. After Patriot's first bankruptcy, Peabody agreed to pay
Peabody declined to comment on the matter.
"It's like Peabody and these coal companies were all for themselves and turned their backs on these workers," said
Barnes also expressed frustration with politicians like McConnell for holding up the bill to fund continued benefits.
"He's going to turn his back on his people in the state he's from? I'm astonished," said Barnes.
Those at the meeting said passage of the bill could be a matter of life and death for some miners and their families. Without benefits, Earle fears that tightening finances could force some struggling retirees to choose between buying groceries or paying for medications. He's afraid groceries could win out in some of those situations.
"People's lives are at stake," says Earle. "We've suffered. And you know what, they owe us. We've kept our word and they need to keep theirs."
That the coal retirees must fight for benefits doesn't sit well with others in the community.
"You got the sickest people in the world in danger of losing their health care benefits," said
That outlook was shared by
"To have insurance covered by UMWA at almost 100 percent jerked out from under them, the cost alone is just sinful," said Padget.
Making matters worse, he said, is the lack of advance warning. He says those in jeopardy were only told in October that benefits would be discontinued on
People losing their health care would have a 63-day window to select a new health plan, Padget said.
His office would help counsel them throughout the process.
He said drug coverage and supplemental benefits are at stake. Federal funds will remain in place for workers afflicted by black lung and
But Padget wonders if those will be enough.
"When I think of
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