Miners march on Congress to demand legislation to save pensions

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Armed with backing from fellow unionists and support from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, several thousand unionists – most of them Mine Workers from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania – marched and lobbied on Capitol Hill on Sept. 8 to demand legislation to save pensions.

But whether they’ll ultimately get it is uncertain, even though one key pension fund will run out of money by the end of this year and another faces a similar crisis next August.

That’s because some lawmakers fear that federal aid for the miners’ pensions – which would back a 1946 law establishing federally run pensions for the nation’s underground coal miners – could open the way for similar aid laws for other industries.

The Mine Workers rallied in advance of a Sept. 14 Senate committee hearing on the financial problems of the pension funds. The combination of the Great Recession and coal company bankruptcies starting in 2012 have thrown the funds into crisis, as fewer and fewer coal firms are able to pay in the federal tax for each ton of coal that goes to support the miners’ pensions. Pensions for at least 100,000 retirees are at risk.

Several big coal companies, including Patriot, Peabody, Alpha and Jim Walter Energy, have also used federal bankruptcy law to escape from funding retirees’ pensions through the per-ton tax on coal. The coal tax to fund the pensions began in 1946 with an agreement between President Harry S Truman and legendary Mine Workers President John L. Lewis.

Clinton cited the march and her support for legislation by a bipartisan group of six coal-state senators – plus her running mate, Tim Kaine of Virginia – to rescue the pensions. The money would come from excess dollars in the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund.

It was also a way to solicit miners’ support in the elections, especially in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Polls give her a slight lead in Pennsylvania over GOP nominee Donald Trump, and are split in Ohio.

“I firmly believe that if you spent your life keeping the lights on for our country, we can’t leave you in the dark,” Clinton said in a statement. “For more than a century, America’s coal miners have put their own health and safety at risk to provide affordable and reliable energy for the nation. They are entitled to the benefits they have earned and the respect they deserve.

“That’s why I am proud to stand with” West Virginia Democratic “Sen. Joe Manchin and the United Mine Workers of America in calling on congressional Republicans to stop playing politics and give the Miners Protection Act a vote before the benefits of these hardworking men and women start expiring later this year,” she said.

She also used the occasion to speak on her proposal for retraining miners for non-mine jobs – retraining made necessary as coal-fired power plants shut down due to their carbon emissions threat to the environment. UMWA has refused to endorse Clinton because of her support for such shutdowns. It accuses her of waging “a war on coal.”

“We have a shared responsibility to reinvest in the coal communities,” Clinton explained. “That’s why last fall, I proposed a comprehensive revitalization and job creation plan, including building 21st century infrastructure and high-speed broadband, repurposing abandoned mine lands and power plants to support new economic activity, and creating a Coal Communities Challenge Fund to support locally-driven economic development priorities.

“And we need to invest in carbon capture and sequestration, which will reduce emissions from coal and natural gas combustion, and will help us meet the global climate challenge more quickly and at lower cost,” Clinton said.

Photo: Mine workers and their allies converge on Congress for a rally to protect miners’ pensions. Communications Workers photo via PAI Photo Service. 


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for 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.