November 30: Life or death deadline for many miners
UMWA retirees talk pension protection with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. Courtesy office of Sen. Brown

WASHINGTON — Harry Diess of Uniontown, Pa., brought a simple message to Congress on September 27: Protect retired miners’ pensions. “And until it does, we’ll be here.”

Diess, a retired coalminer and member of Mine Workers Local 1748, was one of more than two dozen UMW members who journeyed to D.C. this week to lobby their lawmakers to, as another coal mine retiree put it, “stop kicking the can down the road,” and ensure the small pensions retirees and their dependents live on don’t run out.

The group, led by Mine Workers Legislative Director Phil Smith, met with lawmakers of both parties from the coal states of Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, plus Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., on the fate of two pension funds the government runs for retired miners. Congress faces a November 30 deadline for action.

Those funds, established 71 years ago, are in financial trouble because there are fewer and fewer coal companies paying into them – as the law requires – due to bankruptcies in the Great Recession plus declining demand for coal.

The result? Like many other troubled multi-employer pension plans nationwide, the two miners’ plans are running out of money. And Congress faces a deadline just after the November election to have its special joint committee on the pensions do something about it.

Whether it will or not is another matter, the retirees told People’s World. Democrats, led by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, co-chair of the special panel, were sympathetic and supportive, the group said. Other supportive Democrats include Sen. Bob Casey and Reps. Mike Doyle and Conor Lamb, all of Pennsylvania.

“But when you see the Republicans, you don’t get much of a response,” said Chuck Pettit of Local 1473 in Benwood, W. Va. And Rep. David McKinley, R-W. Va., “gave us the impression that several Republicans from non-coal states don’t even want to talk about this.”

By contrast, Schweikert, a self-described “math geek,” without a coal mine in his district, wants to work his way through to a solution to the pension problems, said Chris Lester of Local 2232 in southwestern West Virginia. And Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kent., who also represents a coal area, “said he would help us if it comes out of the committee.”

“The assumption is they’ll do this after the election,” said Rich Fink of Local 2283 of Royal Valley, Pa. The current deadline is November 30.

The congressional panel has other multi-employer pension plans to worry about besides the miners’ funds. Both the Machinists and the Teamsters have also lobbied lawmakers about the fate of the multi-employer plans. They include the Teamsters Central States Pension Plan, the Ohio Southwest Carpenters Pension Plan and the Bakers and Confectioners Pension Plan, Brown said. The Ironworkers Local 17 plan already cut benefits, Brown said.

“If nothing is done to the plans, they will fail and retirees will face massive cuts to the benefits they earned over decades of work,” Brown said.

“These multi-employer funds are backstopped by the U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which itself is nearing insolvency. If the PBGC goes bust, U.S. taxpayers will be on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars to keep it afloat,” a backgrounder says.

But there’s one more potential roadblock to aiding the miners, said Michael Phillippi, a Mine Workers staffer who’s also a member of Local 1702 in Morgantown, W. Va.: Donald Trump. The GOP president “creates so many issues” with his explosions, off-the-cuff remarks and angry tweets “that it’s hard to get Congress to focus on anything. So now we have to do damage control.”


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.