By CARL GREEN
Tens of thousands of retired miners are feeling more secure now that the government has finally taken steps to salvage their pension system, much weakened by bankrupt companies being allowed to dump pension obligations in recent years.
United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts called the inclusion of Bipartisan American Miners Act in the appropriations legislation “a tremendous victory for tens of thousands of retired miners, their families and their communities.”
It’s a giant step for some 92,000 miners who were promised strong pensions through the end of their lives in exchange for working in dangerous conditions, leaving many of them sick, injured or both. The plan also covers health care for many of them. After years of failure, it took some unprecedented developments to bring Congress and the White House into agreement.
Left dangling are pensions of some 10 million workers in the once-prized multi-employer pension plans that cover multiple employers within an industry, theoretically strengthened by having more than one employer paying in.
But when an entire industry declines, all of the employers suffer and the multi-employer plans become just as vulnerable, especially because of the high number of pension participants. No solution is yet in the works for bailing out these plans.
SIGNED AND SEALED
Rescuing the United Mine Workers Health and Retirement Fund has been a goal for years for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and his measure was included in the $1.4 trillion federal spending package approved by Congress and signed by President Trump on Dec. 20.
Previous attempts at helping the miners failed. These factors went into getting it passed this time:
- Funding was available – the government has surplus money in the Abandoned Mine Land Fund that could be converted to pensions.
- Time was running out – the pension plan was expected to go belly up as soon as 2022, taking away the $600 a month that the retirees live on.
- The industry was finished – the largest union mining company, Murray Energy, declared bankruptcy in October, leaving it highly unlikely that the industry would continue funding the pensions adequately.
- Mitch McConnell is in trouble – the all-powerful Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, from Kentucky, blocked previous attempts to save the pensions. Considered a red state, in 2016, Kentucky elected a Democratic governor, showing that McConnell, too, was now vulnerable. He quickly announced he was backing the pension plan.
CELEBRATING A WIN
Manchin held a celebration on Dec. 23. “It’s a great day to say to miners and their families that you have your pensions for life. They’re not going to be cut,” he said. “And for the miners that have lost their health care, they now have their health care for life. It’s a pretty good day. It’s really a merry Christmas.”
Donnie Samms, international vice president for UMW, predicted the agreement will set a long-standing precedent.
“I think it’s the best Christmas present we’ve had for many, many years,” he said in an interview. “It’s been a battle like I’ve never seen in my 45 years in this union. This will go down in history as the biggest Labor victory in the last 130 years.”
STOP LOOTING AMERICAN PENSIONS
Manchin already has another far-reaching priority – the Stop Looting American Pensions Act, or SLAP Act, that he filed Oct. 30, as reported by Inter-Mountain, a newspaper in West Virginia.
After many years of companies using bankruptcy to avoid their obligations to workers, the bill would make workers a higher priority in bankruptcy proceedings, require companies to continue contributing to pension and health care plans, restrict executive pay and require selling assets within 60 days of bankruptcy.
“If we don’t change the bankruptcy laws in America, there will never be another worker who gets a pension or a benefit,” he said. “We’re fighting for this. It’s been the honor of my life to be able to have this fight.”
An estimated 125 multi-employer plans are expected to fail over the next 20 years, including a Teamsters plan for 390,000 workers and retirees with $40.5 billion in unfunded liabilities, enough to wipe out the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. The plan is expected to run out of money in 2025.
Meanwhile, the House has passed a bill to let pension plans borrow 30-year loans from the government, on the theory that once baby boomers are drawing fewer benefits, the pressure will be off, filed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). The Senate has not taken it up. Four pension plans are now expected to go bust by 2022.
Teamsters President James Hoffa told Politico that the miners’ solution gives him hope for the others.
“The breakthrough with Mitch McConnell is a good sign,” he said. “Maybe that’s a break in the dam. If he’ll sign on for that, maybe he’ll sign on for ours.”