Congress adjourned without acting on a bill that would save health insurance for 22,000 retired union coal miners and surviving spouses and pensions for 120,000 active and retired union miners.
For four years, the United Mine Workers of America has been urging Congress to pass the Miners Protection Act (MPA).
MPA would transfer money from surpluses in existing funds in the federal budget dedicated to the coal industry into the miners’ struggling health insurance and pension plans .
In September it looked like Congress would finally pass S. 3470, the Miners Protection Act of 2016, when the Senate Finance Committee voted 18-8 to recommend passage of the bill.
But hopes for passage dimmed when conservative lawmakers objected to the bill because it would help union workers.
Supporters of the bill tried to get the bill included in an end-of-year spending bill that Congress had to pass, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pulled the Miners Protection Act from the spending bill.
In its place, McConnell inserted language that provided four months of funding for retired miners health insurance plans that were about to run out of money by January. The language in the spending bill did nothing to insure the survival of the miners’ pension plan.
Cecil Roberts, international president of the UMWA said that the union’s efforts to mobilize its members resulted in a four-month reprieve for the 16,000 retirees and surviving spouses who were about to lose their health care benefit, but he was dismayed that Congress failed to pass the Miners Protection Bill.
“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,” said Roberts.
The Miners Protection Act is an attempt to hold the federal government to a promise it made to miners 70 years ago.
In 1946, 350,000 members of UMWA went on strike when they could not reach a fair collective bargaining agreement with coal companies.
The strike began on April 1, and by the middle of May it was having an impact on the national economy, which was struggling to adjust to peace after it had been on a war footing during World War II.
After more than 50 days of the strike, the US government seized the mines and ordered the miners back to work.
Miners went on strike again in November after coal companies refused to accept an agreement that the miners union and the government had reached.
The miners defied a return to work order issued by the judge.
The strike ended for good when the companies agreed to accept the Krug-Lewis agreement, negotiated by John L. Lewis, president of the UMWA, and Julius Krug, secretary of the Department of the Interior.
The agreement guaranteed that miners, whose grueling and dangerous work often led to serious health problems, would have cradle-to-grave health care and pension benefits.
The health and pension plans set up to deliver those promises would be paid for by royalty payments from the coal companies.
If those payments weren’t sufficient to fund pensions and health care, the government promised to help out.
Until recently, the government has honored its promise when necessary.
Prior to 2008, the miners health care and pension funds were in good shape, but the Great Recession caused losses from which the funds never recovered.
To make matters worse, the coal industry has been in deep decline for the past eight years. As a result of that decline, a number of coal companies that made payments to these funds have gone out of business or declared bankruptcy.
Recognizing the perils that retired and active miners faced, UMWA began pressing Congress to take action that would keep the promise made in 1946 and reaffirmed at different junctures since then.
As a result of the UMWA’s advocacy, the Miners Protection Act was introduced four years ago.
It would transfer surplus money from federal funds designated for cleaning closed mines and from mine leases to the miners’ pension and health care plans.
Action on the Miners Protection Act became urgent in 2016 when 16,000 retired miners and surviving spouses received notice that beginning in January they would no longer have health insurance because their plan would run out of money.
The threat to the miners pension and health care plans isn’t just a threat to the miners and retirees, it’s a threat to the communities where they live.
Editors of the Lexington, Kentucky Herald Leader explained why,
“The (miners) pension and health funds pump more than $100 million a year into Kentucky — in communities that are suffering the most from the industry’s decline. Their failure and the resulting loss of income to local businesses and medical providers would inflict more suffering on the people and places that McConnell holds up as victims of President Barack Obama’s climate policies.”
“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,” said Roberts. “To callously cast them aside as some have advocated in and out of Congress is inhumane and morally reprehensible.”
“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,” continued Roberts.