Last week’s bankruptcy filing by Murray Energy should create an even greater sense of urgency in Congress to pass the proposed fix for the financially troubled United Mine Workers multi-employer pension plan.
The UMWA 1974 Pension Plan is headed toward insolvency by 2022, but that date will likely come sooner now because Murray is the single largest contributor to the retiree benefits for coal miners and their spouses. Most of the other companies that contribute have already gone bankrupt.
The pension provides checks to 87,000 retired miners and surviving spouses. Another 20,000 miners are vested in the pension fund but have not yet started drawing from it. Thousands of those miners are West Virginians.
UMWA Health and Retirement Funds Executive Director Lorraine Lewis told a House of Representatives committee earlier this year, “If the plan fails, it would likely mean cuts to monthly benefit payments that average $596 for all pensioners and $368 for surviving spouses. More than half of the pensioners get less than $500 a month.”
There are several legislative proposals to remedy the coming shortfall.
On the Senate side, Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito are pushing the Miners Pension Protection Act. Congressman David McKinley is working the House version and it has just recently passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee to the floor.
The legislation would allow for the transfer of excess funds from the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund to the pension plan. The available funds would continue to flow into the pension program annually until it is 100 percent funded.
The bill has run into opposition in the Senate. Manchin contends that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reluctant to take up the bill. There is speculation that McConnell is getting pressure from Wyoming’s two Senators, Republicans Mike Enzi and John Barrasso.
Wyoming is the number one coal producing state and it pays more into the AML fund, but according to the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, the state does not get its fair share in return. Additionally, a portion of the AML funds are used in Wyoming for projects related to the coal industry, but not specifically to clean up old mine sites.
Therefore, Wyoming questions diverting AML funds to the pension program when officials there already believe their state is not getting its due. Meanwhile, West Virginia’s delegation argues the AML fund is solvent enough to subsidize the pension plan without impacting AML projects.
The promise for the miners and their spouses dates to 1946 when President Harry Truman and UMWA President John L. Lewis agreed to a guaranteed pension as part of an agreement ending a nationwide coal strike. The miners have always viewed that pact as sacred and integral to their willingness to go underground and do dirty, dangerous work.
These are tough times for the coal industry. Increased competition from cheap natural gas, the environmental movement and regulatory pressures are pushing coal companies to the brink. At least they can reorganize through bankruptcy, but retired miners and surviving spouses don’t have that option.
To those men and women, the modest monthly check is vital. This Congress needs to do the right thing. A workable solution is available. Keep the promise and fix the fund.