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Vol. 80/No. 33      September 5, 2016

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Buses ready to roll for miners’ Sept. 8 rally to defend pensions, health care

UMWA June 14 rally in Lexington, Kentucky, protests threats to miners’ pensions, health care.
ATLANTA — “We have eight buses going from Alabama,” said Mike Foster, 66, who worked at Walter Energy’s No. 4 Mine in Brookwood, Alabama, for 36 years before retiring in 2013, in an Aug. 20 phone interview. Union miners from the coalfields of Alabama, along with family members and supporters, will be joining others from West Virginia, Kentucky, southern Illinois, western Pennsylvania and elsewhere for a Sept. 8 national protest in Washington organized by the United Mine Workers of America.

The rally demands Congress pass the Miners Protection Act, which would continue funding health care and pensions for retired coal miners, their spouses and dependents. It is scheduled to be voted on in September.

“We have 100 buses coming,” Phil Smith, UMWA spokesperson in Washington, told the Militant by phone Aug. 22. “We’re looking to have as big an action as we can.”

From Alabama, “buses will go from Bessemer, Tuscaloosa and Jasper,” said Foster. “The union is asking everyone to come and support the miners.

“The rally is very important,” Foster said. “We won guaranteed health care and pensions in 1946 and this bill is needed to keep funding those programs. Miners and their families depend on them.”

After a national strike by 400,000 union miners that year, the UMWA won lifetime health care guaranteed by the federal government. But coal bosses are increasingly using a loophole to drop their obligations to pay into the fund — declaring bankruptcy.

Five of the largest coal employers — Peabody Energy, Water Energy Inc., Alpha Natural Resources Inc., Patriot Coal and Arch Coal — have declared bankruptcy in the last year, raising the total to over 50.

The coal bosses use government bankruptcy courts to try to tear up union contracts, putting hard-fought gains in wages, work rules and safety won over decades of struggle on the chopping block. Today the overwhelming majority of a shrinking number of working coal miners are in nonunion mines. Deaths and injuries are increasing.

The Miners Protection Act would fund the union pension and health care plans, even if the bosses enter bankruptcy proceedings.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of black lung disease to levels not seen since the 1970s. Some 2,000 miners die from black lung each year, more than 70,000 since 1970.

As in other mining areas around the country, coal miners in Alabama have been hard hit by the grinding capitalist depression and collapse of energy prices, which since September 2014 have cost more than 170,000 workers in mining and coal-related industries their jobs.

“The layoffs in coal and steel have hit our whole community hard, not just the workers who’ve lost their jobs,” UMWA member Wilson Maxwell told the Militant by phone Aug. 21. Maxwell, 59, works at Seneca Coal Resources’ preparation plant in Concord and lives in nearby Fairfield, like many other miners and steelworkers. Seneca bought the Oak Grove coal mine and Concord prep plant earlier this year, demanding immediate changes in the union contract.

When union members in April voted down the concessions demanded by the new bosses, Seneca laid off 49 miners.

Miners had few alternatives in the area. US Steel Corp. announced last August that it was closing the blast furnace and hot rolling mill at Fairfield Works, resulting in the lay-off of some 1,100 United Steelworkers members.

Under the gun, Mine Workers approved a contract in July that included a $5 an hour pay cut, an end to overtime pay after eight hours, loss of some personal days and other concessions.

“Everybody who can possibly go to Washington on Sept. 8 needs to go,” Maxwell said.
Related articles:
On the Picket Line
‘Coal Miners on Strike’ shows how miners fought and won
Chilean workers demand gov't-guaranteed pensions
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