April 1, 1898 is a significant day for coal miners. It's the day when the United Mine Workers won eight-hour work days for union members.
Exactly 118 years later, more than 5,000 coal miners rallied with UMWA in Waynesburg, PA. not in celebration, but in solidarity, as ongoing bankruptcies at Alpha Natural Resources and other corporations threaten to strip union members of the pensions and benefits.
“They worked for that health care, they gave their life for that health care, and nobody should be allowed to take it,” said Cecil Roberts, UMWA president, during a fiery rally Friday.
Roberts and other UMWA officials called the rally to encourage union members to organize as the industry continues to struggle.
“There’s a desire here obviously to fight for their health coverage, there’s a desire to resist these bankruptcies, there’s a desire to resist cuts in pensions, so we have to be organized to do that,” said Roberts.
Beyond corporate bankruptcies, slashed wages and job cuts, more struggles could be on the horizon for coal miners. Some union contracts expire in 2016, and the upcoming presidential election could further weaken the industry. But Roberts said more cuts in coal jobs will hamper other industries in West Virginia and around the country.
“We want to keep our jobs, and we want more jobs," said Roberts. "We’re desperate to keep them. When I say we, I’m not talking about me and I’m not talking about the union. These are the best jobs in Appalachia.”
The rally began with a mile-long solidarity march, bringing coal miners from at least five states together. Some West Virginia coal miners attended the rally, and said their efforts won’t end soon.
“We have to stick together. We have to get the right people in office," said Mike Singleton, who works at Marion County Coal Company. "We have to make sure that, for us, myself and younger guys that came after me, that we still have jobs and ways to support our families.”
Mitch Snider, a union member who works at the Harrison County Coal Mine, knows a tough fight lies ahead to keep the benefits he and others have earned.
“We’re going to have to stand together, solidify and show these companies and Washington, D.C. that we’re not going to give up," said Snider. "But the key is that we stick together, because we are under attack.”
Roberts said the next step is to continue what he called an “intense” lobbying effort in Washington to protect pensions for 80,000 coal miners.