They go deep underground, putting their lives, limbs and lungs on the line. They take deep yet humble pride in their work -- because they know what it means for our state, our country, their families and communities.
They're coal miners. And we owe them so much -- including staying true to the promise of lifetime health benefits and a fair pension after they retire.
A couple decades ago, coal companies were beginning to walk away from that pledge -- leaving a handful of more honorable companies to pay the full tab, and steering two key health benefit funds dangerously toward insolvency and thousands of retirees toward a life without health care coverage.
That's why, beginning in the late 1980s, I fought year after year and shoulder-to-shoulder with miners and advocates to protect the health benefits of tens of thousands of retired coal miners.
This fall, we marked the 20-year anniversary of succeeding in that effort with the passage of my Coal Act of 1992, which created two new funds to protect health and death benefits for retired UMWA miners, their spouses and children.
At the time of its passage, my legislation protected benefits for more than 113,000 retired miners and their families across America. Today, those funds continue providing benefits to nearly 24,000 individuals nationwide including more than 8,200 West Virginians.
Over the years, I've heard from miners and their loved ones across our state about what good health -- and the security that comes with having health coverage -- means to them. Some fought right along with me -- even to the very last years of their lives -- to preserve benefits for their fellow UMWA retirees and widows.
That's what West Virginians do, isn't it? We know the meaning of, "a promise made is a promise kept." And we stand up for each other, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds and corporate interests that often look at the bottom line rather than the impact on real people.
The struggle for miners' benefits didn't begin with the Coal Act of 1992. It's a long and storied battle dating back to President Truman's administration. Next to my desk I have a photo given to me by Cecil Roberts of the signing of the famous 1946 agreement that created the UMWA pension and health care funds. I see it every day and am reminded of the sacredness of that promise to our miners.
And we've had to continue our fight in the years since the Coal Act to protect benefits for our coal miners -- including in 2006 when we shored up health benefits for thousands of West Virginia retirees and widows with funding from interest earned on Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funds.