Time running out for Congress to keep promise made to miners

Time is running out for Congress to act on legislation that will preserve health care benefits for 22,000 retired coal miners and protect pensions for tens of thousands of active and retired miners.

In March some retired coal miners received letters notifying them that their current health care insurance will be terminated at the end of April.

These miners retired from mines owned by companies that filed bankruptcy between 2012 and 2015.

Their health care insurance is presently paid for by the United Mine Workers of America’s Multiemployer Health Care Fund, but because of a spate of bankruptcies in the coal mining industry and the general decline of the industry, the money to pay for the health care benefit is about to run out.

Congress is currently considering passage of the Miners’ Protection Act, which would provide a mechanism for funding the retirees’ health benefit and shore up their under funded pension.

But action must be taken on the bill in the next week or thousands of retired miners will be left without health care insurance.

Retired members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) have been traveling from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to Washington DC urging lawmakers to pass the Miners Protection Act (S 175 in the Senate and HR 179 in the House).

The Miners’ Protection Act would transfer interest accumulating in the Abandoned Mine Rehabilitation Fund to the UMWA Multiemployer Health Benefit Fund.

That money would be used to shore up the under funded health benefit plan and ensure continuing health care coverage for retirees who worked for Patriot Coal, Walter Energy, and Alpha Natural Resources, all of which declared bankruptcy between 2012 and 2015.

The Miners’ Protection Act also would provide funds to protect the pensions of active and retired coal miners.

When the retired coal miners went to Washington DC, they urged lawmakers to keep a promise that the US government made 70 years ago.

In 1946, 350,000 bituminous coal miners went on strike. At the time, coal was a key resource for the nation’s economy, which was in the midst of changing from a war economy to a peace economy.

When the miners and coal companies couldn’t reach an agreement to settle the strike, President Truman seized the mines putting the government in control of the mines and forcing miners back to work.

In order to return the mines back to the coal companies, the government needed the UMWA to accept a new collective bargaining agreement.

To win the union’s acceptance, the government promised to guarantee that miners would have health care and retirement benefits for life.

Knowing that coal mining was a dangerous occupation and that health problems were a constant companion of both active and retired miners, the union agreed to the deal.

Since then there have been several instances when the miners’ lifetime health care and pension benefits have been in jeopardy.

Until now, the government has always kept its promise, but things have changed, and the current leadership of Congress has been reluctant to keep the promise.

The Miners’ Protection Act appeared to have enough votes to pass in 2016, but Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader, wouldn’t allow a vote on the bill.

Instead, Congress extended temporary funding that kept the retired miners’ health care plan solvent until April 30, 2017 and did nothing to protect the miners’ pension plan.

Donnie Smith, a female African-American retired miner, had a message for members of Congress as they consider whether to support the Miners’ Protection Act.

“They need to put themselves in our shoes,” said Smith. “Just walk around in our shoes for a while. Go underground and see what we went through and see if, you know, taking our benefits away from us is worth it.”