They say that coal keeps the lights on.
That it does. But we know miners are the ones who keep us in coal, which keeps the lights on.
We know that walking into a mine is safer today than it was 10 years ago. But we also know that improved and enhanced mine safety measures and requirements all too often come after tragedies. Consider that more than 100 years ago, the explosion at the Monongah Mine caused lawmakers to consider establishing more formal regulations governing the mining of coal. The 1968 Farmington No. 9 Mine disaster led to another overhaul of the mine inspection and safety system. The Sago Mine explosion led to more safety measures and requirements for protection in the event of explosion.
Two years later, we are still waiting for lawmakers to take up legislation that would give miners even more enhanced safety and mine oversight following the lessons learned after the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion.
We’ve made many, many strides in mine safety. But the truth of the matter is that mining can still be a dangerous job. Yet brave men and women put on their gear each and every day to work long, hard shifts in the depths of the earth. Why? Because they come from a long line of miners. Or because they enjoy the profession. Or, quite simply, to put food on the table and clothes on the backs of their family members.
And for their years of service, they deserve to be compensated.
And it’s unnerving for us that so little is known about how the Patriot Coal Chapter 11 bankruptcy will affect past and present miners and their families. We cannot imagine how those who will be affected, numbering more than 22,000 in five states, must feel. Many of the ranks are from right here in Marion County — the past and current employees of Federal No. 2 just outside of Fairview.
But we are confident that they will be represented well by the United Mine Workers of America, which said last week that it will fight to maintain health benefits for those members who worked in Patriot mines or the company's predecessor, Peabody.
"The UMWA will bring every resource to bear on behalf of our membership as this process unfolds," Roberts told local union leaders at a meeting last week.
First of, the UMWA has hired a New York City law firm to represent it as an unsecured creditor during the bankruptcy proceedings. The first official action of the law firm was to file a request that the case be decided in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Southern District of West Virginia instead of where it will filed by Patriot, in New York.
"We believe this belongs in the coalfields where the mines are and where the miners and their families are,” said Phil Smith, UMWA communications director. "We do not know what relief the company is seeking. We filed the motion to move the case to a West Virginia court where it can be decided in the backyard of the people it affects most — the miners, the retirees and the beneficiaries.
“One of our concerns is what with eventually happen with the health care benefits,” he explained. “The answer to that may be ‘nothing,’ but who knows? We’re not exactly sure what will happen during this bankruptcy proceeding.”
Representing more than 2,000 active UMWA members working for Patriot operations in West Virginia and Kentucky, the union also has more than 10,000 retirees who receive health care benefits from the company. The UMWA says that in all, there are more than 22,000 active or retired members and their dependents who are affected by the Patriot bankruptcy.
There’s very little as important as protecting the rights of these miners, many of whom went down into the mines for the benefits and retirement to care for their families as they worked and through their retirement years.
“All we can right now is to prepare and keep the members informed,” said UMWA District 31 International Vice President Mike Caputo. “If its a fight they (Patriot) want, I promise you its a fight they'll have.”
And we have faith the union will fight that battle until it’s been won. Miners, past and present and future, deserve nothing less.
They say that coal keeps the lights on.
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