Mine workers vow to return for long-term pension, health care solutions
Jan Truter / Flickr (Creative Commons)

QUANTICO, Va. (PAI) — Disappointed by, but grudgingly accepting, a short-term infusion of cash for ailing pension and health care funds, the Mine Workers vowed to return to Capitol Hill early next year to lobby for a long-term solution that will keep their retirees financially whole and retain their health care.

The short-term solution is a 4-month infusion of money from mining firm bankruptcies to replace money that coal mine companies once contributed, by law – the decades-old Coal Act.

But since the 2008 crash, so many mining companies have gone broke – and shed their pension and health care obligations to thousands of retirees – that the pension and health care funds were running out of funds, starting Dec. 31.

That led the Mine Workers and 22 senators of both parties (whose constituencies include significant numbers of miners’ families) to push a long-term solution. But they didn’t get it, as the hostile Republican-run U.S. House agreed to only four months of benefits, as part of the money bill to keep the government going, and then adjourned.

That left the senators, the workers, the retirees and the union with an unsatisfactory take-it-or-leave-it choice. “Leave it” would have meant shutting the U.S. government down.

So they took it, reluctantly. “We will fight for them and the benefits they have earned in toil and blood every single day, and we will never give up. This is not a defeat, only final victory delayed,” Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said after Congress approved the money bill, including the 4-month fix, and quit for good. The fix will aid about 23,000 retirees.

“While we are extremely disappointed that we were unable to achieve a full and final fix for our retirees’ health care and pensions at the end of this year’s Congress, our efforts were successful in winning a short-term extension of health care benefits for all of our members who received notices that their benefits would be terminated in January,” Roberts said.

“But it is nowhere near to fulfilling the government’s promise to these people. We are more committed than ever to this fight, and will renew our efforts on the first day of the next Congress…We intend to hit the ground running in January and not stop until we have won the full measure of justice for our retirees.

“Congress needs to understand that these are real people whose lives are at risk, with real health care issues and real dependence on their small pensions to survive. To callously cast them aside as some have advocated in and out of Congress is inhumane and morally reprehensible.”

Led by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., the lawmakers extracted a promise from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., that Congress would get to work early next year on a permanent solution. “I continue to think the 4-month fix” in the money bill “is not a meaningful solution to this dire problem,” said Manchin. “This has been a long fight and it is far from over.”

The senators also tried to enlist GOP President-elect Donald Trump in their cause. They got no response to their early-December letter.

In the budget bill, “Republican leadership included a proposal that does nothing to protect pensions, and will extend health coverage for so short a time that recipients would be notified almost simultaneously that they are both eligible for benefits and that their benefits will terminate,” the group told Trump.

“During your campaign for the presidency, you vowed to restore and improve the livelihoods of coal miners across the country,” the senators reminded Trump. “Without immediate action on the Miners Protection Act (S3470), our miners and their families will be left without the essential healthcare benefits they earned through a lifetime of hard work and will have their pensions imperiled.”

While Trump ignored the plea from Coal Country lawmakers, McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., sat on the Miners Protection Act, and substituted the 4-month extension instead. The MPA bill would have taken the money from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund’s surplus.

Besides the health care cutoff, which affects at least 23,000 retirees, pensions of “27,391 miners in West Virginia, 12,951 miners in Pennsylvania, 9,511 miners in Kentucky, 8,810 miners in Ohio, 8,807 miners in Illinois, 7,507 miners in Virginia, and over 89,000 miners nationwide are at risk” as they were also clobbered by the crash and subsequent mining company bankruptcies, the senators told Trump.

“We have been working, fighting, and really clawing for this,” Manchin told colleagues during floor debate on the last day of the 114th Congress, Dec. 9. “If it came to the floor, it would pass, and we know that, but we have some friends on the other side — 435 over there” – meaning the entire U.S. House “who, for some reason, didn’t believe it was of urgency.

“They said, we are going to give you a 4-month extension on the health care benefits that 16,000 miners lose Dec. 31. We will give you four months, and I guess we are supposed to be happy with that. Well, I am not.”

Not only that, Manchin said, but the House added “insult to injury” by paying for the 4-month extension out of “money set aside through bankruptcy courts” to pay retirees’ health care through July, where mining firms went broke. The retirees lose three months of health care. “Where I come from that doesn’t fly. I can’t explain that. I really can’t,” said Manchin.

“If you are sick, particularly if you have a sick husband, can you imagine that you are going to get a notice every three or four months saying your insurance is going to run out?” asked Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

“How do you deal with that? How do you make doctor visits? How do you make appointments? How do you do that? It is just cruel and unusual punishment,” said Brown.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of the People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C.   Gruenberg has been editor-in-chief of PAI since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jarvis bureau chief for the Middletown NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for the Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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