A United Mine Workers rally in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania became a showcase for frustration from miners who are seeing their jobs and benefits threatened as the industry faces a steep decline.
Workers blamed both environmental regulations and corporate CEOs for the problems.
Thousands of miners attended the rally on Friday, which was held just a few miles from a pair of mines owned by Alpha Natural Resources. Earlier this week, the company asked a bankruptcy judge to allow it to break its union contract and cut retiree benefits.
Chuck Knisell, president of local 2300 at Alpha’s Cumberland Mine in Waynesburg, told the crowd the latest move by Alpha was wrong.
“All we’re saying is—we put the time in, we breathed the dust—when we retire, we deserve to have health care,” Knisell said to applause. “When we’re working, we deserve to have health care for our children.”
The company declined comment.
Robert Buggey, a retired miner from Indiana, Pennsylvania, said he’s worried about his health care.
“Promises were made,” he said. “I worked 30 years in a coal mine—no one ever gave me nothin’. I had to work for it.”
The rally comes as coal production in the U.S. has reached its lowest level in 30 years. Bankruptcies and layoffs are sweeping the industry.
Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, also cast blame on the government’s plan to cut carbon emissions through the Clean Power Plan, which is projected to decrease the demand for coal.
“Somebody’s decided Appalachia should solve climate change by itself,” Roberts said. “We can’t. If you close every coal mine in America, you’ll reduce greenhouse gases by 1 percent.”
But Roberts reserved his greatest ire for the coal industry’s CEOs, who’ve asked bankruptcy judges for cuts to worker benefits—even as they’ve sought bonuses for themselves.
“We’re talking about Wall Street robber barons who couldn’t tell you the color of coal if you gave them two guesses,” he said. “They worked for that health care—they gave their life for that health care—and nobody should be allowed to take it.”