By CARL GREEN
Retired union coal miners are watching their pensions and health care benefits slip a little further down the drain this fall while the Senate Republican leadership continues to block a vote that would ensure their futures.
In the latest sign of bad days to come, about 12,500 retirees from Patriot Coal received a letter from their pension plan saying it will be unable to make payments after Dec. 31 if Congress does not act.
The Patriot Retirees Voluntary Employee’s Beneficiary Association (VEBA) sent the letter dated Oct. 1, saying it was the notice required by state and federal law.
“The United Mine Workers of America and others have informed the Patriot VEBA Trustees on multiple occasions that the union has attempted and is still attempting to secure funding from Congress to secure your benefits.
“However, Congress has not yet acted. Therefore, all beneficiaries who receive benefits as a result of the Patriot bankruptcy will be terminated from coverage on Dec. 31, 2016.”
“The trustees of the Patriot VEBA truly regret these actions must be taken. We have and continue to be committed to providing you the best service possible under the Patriot VEBA, but the current financial crisis cannot be averted absent Congressional action.”
UNDER THE THUMB
The Congressional action the letter refers to is entirely controlled by Senate President Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.), who has refused to bring it to a vote of the full Senate even though it would any new funding.
The bill, filed under SB 1714 and HB 2403, would allow $155 million a year in unused money in the Abandoned Mine Land Fund to be transferred into the UMWA pension fund that serves workers from the Patriot, Peabody and Arch mining companies.
That fund was strong until the 2007 recession under President George W. Bush. It has suffered since then, in large part because low-priced natural gas has taken over much of the energy market from coal.
The legislation has bipartisan support and its dozens of sponsors are almost equally split between Democrats and Republicans. The Senate Finance Committee approved it 22-8 and sent it on to McConnell, who has said only that he might bring it up for a vote after the Nov. 8 election.
Supporters note that keeping the pension fund viable would actually save the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. some $4.6 billion while also protecting miners’ pensions.
Opponents questioned why the government should be involved in a pension contract between private companies and the union, but it stems from President Harry Truman’s temporary takeover of the coal industry in 1946 and his resulting promise to guarantee the benefits, which has been maintained ever since.
UMWA President Cecil Roberts called the situation nothing short of a betrayal of its coal miners’ sacrifices in their unhealthy underground jobs.
“America made them a promise 70 years ago: ‘You mine the coal that makes our country strong, and we will see to it that you have retirement benefits in your old age,’ ” he said. “That promise has been kept by Congresses and administrations led by Republicans and Democrats from that day to this one. This Congress and this administration have a responsibility to do so once again.
“This is a life or death matter for thousands in the coalfields. They are counting on our government to fulfill its moral obligation and pass legislation this year that will save their lives.”
Roberts called the legislation a “ready solution” to the problem that is simple, paid for and bi-partisan.
“When Congress returns to Washington, one of its first acts must be to pass this legislation and give these senior citizens the peace of mind that the benefits they paid for in sweat, toil and blood will be there when they need them.”