The United Mine Workers of America pension and health care funds are rapidly heading toward insolvency. The significant decline in the coal industry in recent years means too few companies are paying into the funds with a growing number of beneficiaries.
It’s estimated that within months, retired or laid off union miners will face benefit losses unless something is done.
A fix is available. The Miners Protection Act pending before Congress would annually transfer funds from the flush Abandoned Mine Land Fund until the benefit programs are actuarially sound for the roughly 120,000 retirees, about 22,000 of whom are in West Virginia.
Yes, there are issues with the bill. Critics call it a taxpayer bailout of a select group of workers. The conservative National Review opined, “This would open the door to a multi-trillion dollar taxpayer bailout of private and public pensions.”
Critics also question whether the 1946 agreement between the Truman administration and the UMWA to avoid a nationwide strike that would threaten the production of the nation’s primary energy source did—as the Union maintains—promise lifetime benefits.
However, bi-partisan support for the fix is building in Congress, which is somewhat remarkable considering the difficulty these days of getting Democrats and Republicans to agree on anything. Both West Virginia Senators—Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito—are working for passage. Manchin introduced the bill and Capito is the lead Republican sponsor.
On the House side, Congressman David McKinley (R-WV1) has been working on the issue for more than four years. He says he’s gratified that the legislation is finally starting to move in the Senate.
One of the hold-ups has been Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). One theory is McConnell opposes the bill because the UMWA backed his Democratic opponent, Alison Grimes, in a losing effort against him 2014. However, McConnell allies say the Senator simply wants the legislation to be routed through Congress on its own rather than attached to other legislation, and that’s caused a delay.
Whatever the reason, Congress should pass the bill. Coal mining is difficult and dangerous work. Men and women went into the mines with the understanding that in return for the risk they would have a safety net of health and pension benefits when they left.
Additionally, if Congress fails to act, the benefit programs will become insolvent and will be shifted to Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, a private division of the federal government that assumes responsibility for failed private pension programs. That will swamp PBGC with billions of dollars of new liabilities and threaten other pension programs.
Washington is at least partially to blame for the deterioration of the miners’ pension and health benefits. The heavy hand of the EPA has contributed to the bankruptcy of coal companies that fund these programs.
Washington now has an opportunity to offset some of the damage, not by allocating new resources, but simply by shifting unspent portions of the Abandoned Mine Land Fund annually to the preserve the health and pension benefits of hard-working miners.
Do the right thing.