Bill to save multi-employer pensions not enough for sick miners
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. V., speaking to Mine Workers before the hearing. UMWA

WASHINGTON—With strong union backing, the Democratic-run U.S. House passed a bill, HR397, to help save financially ailing multi-employer pension plans. The 264169 tally saw 29 Republicans break the party line by voting for it, with no Democrats against it.

For Sam Ball and other disabled coal-miners, however, in his case stricken with black lung and barely able to walk, it may not be enough.

That’s because the measure would help two financially ailing miners’ pension plans only until 2020 – and there are so few active miners (one) and contributing coal companies (also virtually one) and so many retirees (30) for each plan – that both will run out of money before then.

And that leaves Ball, a retired coal miner from far Southwestern Virginia, part of the heart of the Appalachian coal country, broke, along with 1,200 other retirees or widows they left behind, he told a House Energy subcommittee that deals with coal mine issues on July 24, the same day the House approved the wider bill.

“I have second-stage black lung in both lungs, but have been turned down for federal black lung benefits because the government says the coal dust has not yet crystallized in my lungs and I am not disabled enough to get those benefits yet,” Ball explained. “My lung doctor says there is no reason I should be denied benefits, but the truth is what has happened to me is not unusual.

“Most people I know with black lung are denied benefits. I can tell you that I cannot walk across my yard without stopping, I do not have the breath for any activities, I sleep with an oxygen tube in my nose at night and I need a sleeping supplement to deal with that.”

After taxes, Ball’s pension from the Mine Workers is $475 a month, under a pension plan the government set up for UMWA members in 1947, the same year it set up the health care plan for retirees who gave their lives – and their health – toiling in dangerous underground mines.

A $5 per ton tax on coal, paid by the coal companies, funds the pension and health care plans. The pension fund and health care fund were fully funded until the 2008 Great Recession wiped out their assets and sent most of the coal companies into bankruptcy, where they could shed their pensions and health care responsibilities, Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts explained.

The situation is now so bad, and there are so few firms left, that one company will be paying 97 percent of the money for retirees’ health care, Roberts added. Even with that firm, grudgingly, paying the coal tonnage fees, the two funds run out of cash in 2020 or before. For every miner whose firm sends money into the two funds, there are 30 retirees or widows drawing on them.

That also puts the miners, their pensions and their health care at the mercy of both the federal government and the mine owners – who were part of the big-business capitalist bloc that convinced the then-new GOP congressional majority in 2005 to put workers at the back of the line when corporations seek bankruptcy “protection.” Bondholders and financiers come first when a firm goes broke.

“I am one of those 1,200 retirees who need you to pass both HR934 and HR935 because both our retiree health care and our pensions are on the chopping block,” Ball said. “If I were to lose my health care I don’t have the resources to purchase a plan to make up the difference between what Medicare pays and what I need, especially in terms of the prescriptions medications I have.”

“To see my pension wiped out or even cut would mean that I would no longer break even, meaning I would soon have to sell my home and go live with my daughter, if she could even take me in with three children of her own.”

“This is not what I expected would happen in my old age when I started working in the coal mines. We all knew of the government’s promise to coal miners, which was to make sure our retirement would be guaranteed if the company we worked for was no longer around. I worked hard for almost 21 years underground, put my life and my health on the line every day and helped Westmoreland Coal make a lot of money.”

But many coal companies are gone and the funds are running out of money, Roberts and Ball told the House panel. The committee’s ruling Democrats were sympathetic and promised to do what they could to both write the 1947 agreements into law and to shore up the funds.

The Republicans called a witness from the right-wing Heritage Foundation, who recommended folding the miners’ pensions and health care into the wider legislation, HR397, covering all the ailing multi-employer pension plans – and the GOP unanimously opposed that as a “bailout.”

The Republicans alleged union and company trustees overpromised and mismanaged the pension and health care plans, which were, instead, sunk by the financier-caused crash. The financiers, like coal company owners, are part of the pro-GOP capital class.

The House disregarded the GOP screams and passed HR397 anyway. That legislation would help not just the miners like Ball, but also Teamsters, Electrical Workers, other construction workers, Musicians, grocery workers, shipyard workers and stevedores all covered by multi-employer pension plans. It would establish 30-year repayable-with-interest federal loans to plans which could prove they could resume solvency without cutting payments to current beneficiaries – as a 2014 law now allows.

“The legislation is an essential step to help secure the retirement security of more than 1.5 million workers and retirees nationwide,” said David Durkee, president of the Bakery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM).

“Many experts told us as recently as last week that getting this to vote before the upcoming recess was slim to none. But here we are with another major victory because our Union never gives up. On to the Senate!”

“The BCTGM has placed the highest priority on preserving and strengthening our members’ pensions. Now, more than ever, BCTGM members in every one of our shops, together with our retirees, must remain united in solidarity and continue to raise our voices to the Senate,” he urged.

“If passed and signed into law,” the companion Senate bill, S2254 by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, “would provide low-interest government loans to struggling multiemployer plans, including the AFM-EPF,” said Musicians President Ray Hair. “These loans would allow multiemployer funds to meet their commitments to current retirees while the funds grow back to stronger financial footing.

AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel reminded lawmakers they spent $700 billion to rescue the financial firms which caused the recession in the first place. They should do no less for the workers whose pensions the bank-caused crash smashed, he said.

“Absent federal action, the retirement income security of over one million workers, retirees, and their spouses across the country will be in jeopardy because of the impending failure of their multiemployer pension plans,” he wrote.

“By establishing a federal loan program for troubled plans meeting certain criteria, HR397 reflects the fact that allowing these plans to fail will have a devastating impact not only on individual retirees and their families, but also on their communities and their employers.”

“Working men and women whose retirement income security is at risk have not forgotten the 2008 record-setting federal rescue of Wall Street. Multiemployer pension plan participants and retirees are no less worthy than the financial services firms who were the beneficiaries of the $700 billion. Moreover, unlike the Wall Street banks, they played no part in either the industry deregulation or financial crisis that weakened many multiemployer pension plans,” he stated.

The Senate has yet to consider Brown’s legislation, and no date was set for a House panel work session on the two measures to aid the coal miners.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.