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Many retired coal miners are suffering a slow and painful death from black lung and other chronic illnesses, but investors argue that taking away their health benefits is only feasible option. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Who Else Might Like Medicare for All? Retired Coal Miners Who Just Had Their Health Benefits Ripped Away

Virginia billionaire says that while he recognizes the nullification of the coal miners' health package and union contract is "painful," the pain is necessary for the sale to be worthwhile to an investor like him

Jon Queally

On Friday, a ruling by a federal bankruptcy judge in Texas showed why retired coal miners led to believe their health benefits would be with them for life were wrong and at least one advocate for Medicare for All noted that this is just one more reason why a healthcare system that includes everyone and excludes nobody would be a lifeline for workers which capitalism has pulled the rug out from under.

"Another reason for #MedicareForAll - healthcare for retired coal miners." —Michael Lighty, Sanders Institute Fellow

As the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming reported over the weekend, retired union members who worked at the local Kemmerer coal mine in Lincoln Country, Wyoming "likely lost their company health benefits" after Judge David R. Jones of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Houston ruled that the Westmoreland Coal Co.—now up for auction under bankruptcy proceedings—could eliminate retirement health care and a union contract in order to sell the mine.

According to the Star-Tribune:

In order to sell the Kemmerer mine to new operators, Westmoreland has argued that it must eliminate union agreements that affect the nearly 300 employees of the western Wyoming mine as well as obligations to retired miners and dependents, many of whom still reside in the region. 

United Mine Workers of America had argued that responsibilities to employees and former miners of Kemmerer are protected in binding contracts between the miners and owners of the mine. That argument now becomes one for a Virginia billionaire to hear instead of the judge.

That billionaire is Virginia businessman Tom Clarke, who said that while he recognizes the nullification of the coal miners' health package and union contract is "painful," it's necessary for the sale to be worthwhile to an investor like him.

"It's a story," admitted Clarke, "of Wall Street versus the average person that fully expected after putting in a lifetime of work at the mine (that) they were going to have a certain pension and a certain health package."

And even though Clarke recognized that a retired coal miner's body has taken a beating from his career—"When you are 55, you feel like you are 70," he said—the healthcare benefits are simply too expensive to continue. "We can't afford that," Clarke said, "nor could anybody else."

It's nothing new. Coal miners—who Republican lawmakers have used as pawns in their political battles for years—have repeatedly been sold out when their pensions or healthcare become a liability for mine owners or investors. As Common Dreams reported in 2016, Republicans—led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—refused to allow a bill to protect miners' pensions receive a vote in the Senate. "We're dying like flies," said Billy Smith, a coal miner for 39 years said at the time, as he put the onus on McConnell and his fellow Republicans.

Allies of the miner workers, like Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, said the kind of joint behavior by bankrupt companies like Westmoreland and predatory investors like Clarke is a betrayal of workers who have risked their very lives while fulfilling their side of the economic agreements:

At the same time, Michael Lighty, a fellow at the progressive Sanders Institute and former public policy director for the National Nurses United (NNU), said that such rulings prove that a single-payer system is very much needed by workers who are told their healthcare needs—despite the promises made to them—are too expensive to be covered:

"Because of the inherent health risks for mine workers, we can easily see the need for a health system that guarantees they get the care they need," Lighty explained to Common Dreams in an email. "Yet, the present U.S. system cannot consistently do that. Anyone of us could  suffer health consequences from our job, or be locked into a job we don't want because we need the health benefits. Only Medicare for All solves these problems, and provides the security workers need."

Lighty's tweet was subsequently shared by other leaders in the Medicare for All movement, including the Labor Campaign for Single Payer and Democratic Socialists for Medicare for All.

While Clarke stated that covering retired miners was cost prohibitive, Mike Dalpiaz, vice president of United Mine Workers of America District 22, which represents the miners in Wyoming, told the Star-Tribune that if the miners are not taken care of by somebody, there would be a major revolt among the workers still employed at the mine.

"If we get them people taken care of, Tom Clarke doesn't have to take care of them," he said. "But, somebody is going to take care of them, or that coal is not going to be mined up there. It's about that simple."

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