LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Thousands of retired coal miners rallied Tuesday in Kentucky to call on Congress to protect their benefits as the industry struggles and operators seek bankruptcy protection from debts.
United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts told the gathering in Lexington of about 4,000 members from seven states that miners spent their lives working in dangerous places to provide the nation's electricity and steel. The miners, some of whom arrived in wheelchairs, don't deserve having 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.
Roberts, who is popular among the union membership for his fiery oratorical style, told the crowd, "America owes us, and we will collect on that debt."
He added, "You want to know what the problem is? Millionaires and billionaires cannot stand the thought that a coal miner has health care as good as they have."
The union said about 22,000 retired union miners would lose health care benefits if federal legislation they are touting isn't enacted this year. Those miners' benefits are at risk because they worked for companies, including Patriot Coal and Arch Coal, that declared bankruptcy in recent years.
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 also reeling, especially in Kentucky, which no longer has any mines that employ members of the United Mine Workers.
Currently about 89,000 union members or widows are receiving a pension, according to the union.
One of them, 63-year-old George Massey, worked in underground mines in Harlan County, Kentucky, for 24 years before retiring due to leg injuries. He called the benefits problem a "crisis."
"Coal miners have always fought, this here is nothing new for us. We've always had to fight for everything we got," Massey said.
Retired members from Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Virginia and Ohio arrived by bus or drove into central Kentucky for the two-hour rally at the Lexington Convention Center.
The Senate legislation, SB 1714, would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to increase the amount that can be taken from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to cover health benefits. The bill is sponsored by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and is supported by several Democrats.
A statement from Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell's office on Tuesday said the Senate majority leader "remains committed to helping ensure the retirement security of our nation's retirees, including coal miners." The statement says 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 later this year.