By KENDRA MAHON
Williamson Daily News
MATEWAN, W.Va. – Every seat in the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) Local Union 1440 building was filled on Friday afternoon and there were still people lined against the walls, each one filled with anticipation as to how United States Senator Joe Manchin would respond to their questions.
In the open town hall meeting the Senator addressed the concerns of those in attendance about the status of the miner’s protection plan.
In December 2016, over 16,000 thousand miners in seven states received letters stating their healthcare benefits would cease on April 30 of this year.
In 1946, the government and the UMWA came to an agreement that union miners with 20 or more years of experience in the mining industry would be given lifetime healthcare and pension benefits.
Now due to the downturn in the coal industry and companies going bankrupt caused a collapse in 2007 and now the plan is in jeopardy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky is the primary cause for a resolution not being passed.
“Last December when the bill was presented, there was no reason we couldn’t get a vote on it, I threatened to shut down the government, if we can’t be here for the people, and there is no reason for us to be here.” Manchin said.
At this point the UMWA members received the four month extension.
One gentleman in the audience told the Senator a friend of his had received a letter, “He had worried every day about him and his spouse losing their benefits.” Recently his friend passed away, “He went to his grave worrying about his healthcare,” the gentleman said.
Senator Manchin told the crowd money from the abandoned mine land money (AML) fund could be used to fund what is known as the 1974 Pension Plan, there is money in there that can be set aside and still have money to reclaim former mine properties.
When addressing the Senate regarding the state of the pension plan, Manchin said he told his fellow law makers, “When Wall Street collapsed you started working on a way to bail them out that night, can’t you at least bail out the ones who gave you this country.”
Retired union member Danny White told the crowd, “My wife had cancer and she had received over 100 treatments in the past two and a half years, she was a homemaker, she doesn’t qualify for SSI or medical care until she is 65 years old, without my healthcare benefits I don’t know what we would’ve done.” White told Manchin, “When the tough got tough last December, you were one of the toughest.”
Manchin assured the crowd of over 200 people a permanent healthcare would be in place by the end of April or they would shut down, he could not guarantee the pension, but he would the healthcare.
The Senator also touch on the topics of the West Virginia drug epidemic, Obamacare and the right to work act, he also spoke of his support for Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in February to fill the seat, which was left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia as an associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
A woman, who did not identify herself, asked the Senator how he could support Gorsuch when he is supposedly not for the working man, when the Senator says he is.
Senator Manchin said, “Our job as a Senator is to advise and consent, Judge Gorsuch has the highest qualifications, a good repore with his peers, when I looked at it, I saw no reason that man should not get an up or down vote, he is a conservative person, but so was Scalia, we will be replacing one conservative with another.”
The Senator did not shy away from responding to any of the questions presented to him.
Manchin’s visit to Matewan was made possible with the help of Michael Browning, a former Matewan resident, who currently serves as the Senator’s Regional Coordinator, Local Union 1440 members extended an invitation to the Senator through Browning to host the open forum and speak with the retirees and their families about their health benefits and pension plans.
Several former and current political representatives from throughout Mingo County were on hand for the event which lasted a little over an hour.
Senator Manchin recognized Local Union 1440, by saying this union is one of the most active, strongest and outspoken. Local Union 1440 has over 800 members.
At the end of the meeting the Senator encouraged the crowd to keep calling and to keep writing letters to their state representatives.
Danny Whitt, of L.U. 1440 presented the Senator with a watch and a license plate “for his boat” on behalf of the union members.
Kendra Mahon is a reporter for the Williamson Daily News.
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