In 1946, faced with the prospect of a long strike that could hamper post-war economic recovery, President Truman issued an executive order directing the secretary of the interior to take possession of all bituminous coal mines in the United States and to negotiate with the United Mine Workers of America “appropriate changes in the terms and conditions of employment.”
After a week of negotiations, the historic Krug-Lewis agreement was announced and the strike ended. It created a welfare and retirement fund to make payments to miners and their dependents and survivors in cases of sickness, permanent disability, death or retirement. It also created a separate medical and hospital fund to be managed by trustees appointed by the UMWA.
In 1947, the government returned control of the mines to their owners and a new collective bargaining agreement was reached with the companies that guaranteed retirement benefits to miners and their dependents and survivors for life. The UMWA Health and Retirement Funds was born.
A Consistent Promise
For the next 65 years, miners accepted less in wage increases and pensions so that more money could be dedicated to their health care in retirement. They knew they would be sicker than the average senior citizen, with more nagging injuries and a greater risk of black lung or some other cardiopulmonary disease. They wanted to make sure they had a measure of comfort in their old age.
The federal government has repeatedly confirmed its role in guaranteeing retirement benefits for coal miners. In 1992, Congress passed the Coal Act, which established an industry-funded mechanism to pay for the health care of retirees whose companies had gone out of business. President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. In 2006, Congress amended the Coal Act to expand the financial resources available to the fund.
A Devastated Industry Sheds Jobs, Benefits
Today, a depression reigns in America’s coalfields. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost. Multiple companies have filed for bankruptcy, and received approval to shed their retiree obligations. Nearly 20,000 retirees whose companies filed for bankruptcy in 2015 alone confront the loss of their health care benefits in a matter of months.
Like many other multiemployer pension funds, the UMWA 1974 Pension Fund lost a significant portion of its value in the Great Recession. The pension fund will not receive enough contributions from employers to make up the shortfall it currently has. The coal industry has significantly contracted, while at the same time the pension fund is paying benefits to more people than ever. There now are approximately 13 retirees for every active union worker in the coal industry.
Even if the UMWA 1974 Pension Fund wished to, it could not effectively take advantage of provisions in the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014. The average monthly benefit paid by the 1974 Pension Fund is $550. The fund cannot cut benefits enough to get out of its hole.
Keeping the Promise
To address these issues, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) have introduced legislation—S. 1714, the Miners Protection Act of 2015—that would amend the Coal Act once again to allow retirees from recently bankrupt companies to get health care from the UMWA Health and Retirement Funds; and would repurpose the balance of an existing appropriation to provide funding to shore up the pension plan. Companion legislation in the House, H.R. 2403, has been introduced by Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.).
America’s coal miners have sacrificed much for our nation. Some 105,000 were killed on the job in the last century. More than an additional 100,000 miners have died from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung. Knowing these risks, miners continue to go to work every day to build a secure future for their families and communities.
Our nation has an obligation to these workers. The AFL-CIO wholeheartedly supports the Miners Protection Act and urges Congress to pass this critical legislation as soon as possible.