United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts was relieved. “I feel like I’ve had a pickup truck parked on my chest for five years and somebody pulled it off.”
That euphoria came when Congress agreed on legislation funding the federal government through September, and part of that plan includes a permanent fix for the bankrupt health care program for 22,000 retired UMWA coal miners and their dependents.
The plan calls for $1.3 billion in customs user fees collected over the next ten years to be used to shore up the health fund. These are not taxpayer dollars, but rather fees that are paid on goods brought into the country.
Roberts and union retirees repeatedly made their case over the years, and West Virginia’s Congressional delegation helped carry the water on Capitol Hill. Ultimately, the plan drew enough bipartisan support, as well as leadership backing, to make it into the budget.
Critics consistently maintained any shoring up of the depleted health fund constituted a government bailout since coal companies aren’t the only bankruptcies that have wiped out promised benefits. But the UMWA and its supporters in Congress consistently argued that this union plan was different.
They point to the Krug-Lewis agreement of 1946 signed by President Truman that ended a nationwide UMWA strike and created union health and retirement funds backed by the federal government. The union and subsequent administrations have interpreted that deal to mean the U.S. Government made a promise that it has an obligation to keep.
Not everyone agreed. Rachel Greszler, writing for the conservative Heritage Foundation last year, argued the terms of the Krug-Lewis agreement were only temporary. “The UMWA—not the federal government—has been responsible for managing its retirement and health care funds,” wrote Greszler.
However, as one coal company after another went bankrupt, the health fund drained (the pension fund is also in danger, but that’s not addressed in this plan). Roberts and the union were relentless in pressuring Congress to find a way to keep the fund solvent, and now finally there is a solution.
Coal mining is dirty, dangerous work. The hard labor of miners fueled the remarkable economic expansion of the 20th century and helped make the United States the envy of the world. Congress finally stopped quibbling and acknowledged that these coal miners went underground with the understanding that health care for them and their dependents would be paid for.
“You see these people every single day,” Roberts said of the retirees. “You know these people. They are your friends, your neighbors, your relatives and you worry yourself sick over it and then, finally, there’s an answer here.”
“I’m feeling pretty good today,” he told me on Talkline Monday. And he should, because an enormous weight has been lifted off his shoulders, as well as the shoulders of those 22,000 UMWA retirees and their dependents.