UMWA leader urges conference attendees to rally for black lung benefits

Source: Williamson Daily News

That’s why Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, encouraged a room of doctors, lawyers and miners Wednesday to get on a bus with him and rally for the nation’s miners.

“If Jesus had stayed in a building somewhere with his disciples and told his disciples, ‘Write some letters and tell people about me and about Christianity because I don’t want to go outside this building because I’m afraid to go outside this building because people hate me and don’t believe what I’m saying’ – no,” Roberts told a full room, kicking off this year’s West Virginia Black Lung Conference at Pipestem Resort State Park.

The three-day conference addresses different facets of black lung disease, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, from developments in workers’ compensation to screening for the potentially fatal disease.

Roberts’ speech Wednesday came only a few days after the Government Accountability Office said in a report that the Black Lung Trust Fund could require a government bailout at the end of the year, when the coal tax is to decrease 55 percent. The survey examined different factors that might affect the trust fund, which benefited about 25,700 people in fiscal year 2017.

Even if benefits were completely shut off next year, the fund would still be $6 billion in debt in 2050 if the tax rate declines, said Richard Miller, director of labor policy for Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who requested the GAO study.

There’s no immediate risk of beneficiaries losing benefits, he said, but the cost of inaction is high.

“From an advocacy point of view, our view is that members need to be aware of this deadline coming up, because this is a relatively obscure, in-the-weeds issue and to let them understand what the consequences are and how, I would argue, irresponsible it would be to let the red ink spiral out of control,” he said.

During his speech earlier in the day, Roberts snaked around the banquet hall, urging people to stand up for what’s right.

“None of us are powerful people by ourselves, but I want to dissuade you from the fact that we can’t do something if we stick together,” Roberts said.

It’s the working class, not the millionaires, he said, who have a history of making waves. And the UMW has a history of standing strong to defend its miners, he said.

“People need to get out from in front of the television and say, if they’re going to take my black lung benefits and they’re going to take some of them away from me, I want to be part of a movement that says that isn’t going to happen,” he said. “And if you want to be part of a movement that stands up and fights back … if you want to fight back, this is the place to be, because this is a fighting movement we’ve got right here.”

Written by: Kate Mishkin