Faced with a financial crisis in several of their pension plans, members of the Mine Workers and their retirees will rally at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 8, demanding lawmakers act to fix the problems.
At issue is the fate of pensions for more than 100,000 retirees, put in jeopardy by coal company bankruptcies starting in 2012, and the resulting collapse in company contributions to two federally administered pension funds.
Health benefits for some 21,000 retirees and widows are also in peril, the union says.
The “Keep the Promise” rally comes just before the GOP-run Senate Finance Committee, after prodding by both Democratic and Republican senators from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, agreed to a Sept. 14 work session on corrective legislation. The Finance panel handles pension legislation.
Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W-Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W. Va., took the lead on the issue, introducing the Miners Protection Act (S1714) and using parliamentary strong-arming to make sure the Finance panel will handle it. Rep. David McKinley, R-W. Va., introduced the companion measure in the House, HR2403. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, joined them. But Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a Finance member up for re-election, hasn’t.
The Miners Protection Act would use excess money that coal companies must send to the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to help take care of the pension problems.
The measure “would secure retiree health care benefits for those retirees whose companies declared bankruptcy in 2012 and 2015 – Patriot Coal, Walter Energy and Alpha Natural Resources. The bill would also preserve the long-term health of theUMWA 1974 Pension Fund,” a Mine Workers fact sheet says.
Earlier this year, pension trustees told the Mine Workers board that without changes, funding for Patriot retirees would run out at the end of this year, while the Alpha retirees’ fund would last only until next August. And the 1974 fund would be insolvent within a decade.
“We must send a message to Congress to keep America’s promise to thousands of retirees, spouses, and dependents,” the union said in the headline issue on its website, asking miners and retirees to board buses for D.C.
“Coal miners were promised lifetime retirement benefits by U.S. President Harry Truman in 1946. That promise has been kept up to now. But with the majority of the coal industry in bankruptcy, companies are getting out of their obligations to provide retiree health care benefits and contribute to the UMWA Pension Fund. Retired miners are on the edge of losing everything they have worked for.”
“We have been asking for this action to be taken for months, because time is growing very short if the health care benefits for tens of thousands of retirees are to be saved,” Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said.
After the board meeting earlier this year, “The (pension) trustees made it abundantly clear that there is no more time to wait if these funds are to be preserved. With the current depression in the coal market the contributions to the 1974 Pension Fund have been cut by two-thirds from last year’s levels,” Roberts added.
“More and more companies are receiving approval from bankruptcy courts to stop paying into the 1974 Fund, which will cause that situation to only get worse,” he said then.
“The 1974 Fund pays out over $600 million per year to 89,000 retired coal miners and widows – an average benefit of $560 per month. Cutting those benefits won’t save the fund. Only Congress can do that, by living up to our nation’s 70-year promise to these retired miners and their widows.”
Photo: Cecil Roberts and other UMWA members, several of whom were black lung victims, engage in civil disobedience, February 15, 2013. | Tony Pecinovsky/PW