By Mike Elk
For four years, the U.S. Senate has failed to take action to protect the health and retirement funds of 120,000 beneficiaries of the United Mine Workers Pension and Retirement fund. Despite the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has labeled himself a “friend of coal,” he failed to bring the bipartisan Miners Protection Act up for a vote. Now, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is threatening to block passage of a four-month spending bill necessary to keep the federal government open unless immediate action is taken to pass the Act.
The pension and health care fund has been devastated by a series of bankruptcies in the coal industry. Now, approximately 16,000 retired miners and their families will lose their health care by the end of December and another 2,500 will lose their health care by the end of March unless action is taken.
“I have never believed partisan gridlock is a way to accomplish our policy goals, so I haven’t come to this decision easily,” said Manchin on the Senate floor yesterday in explaining why he would filibuster the spending bill. “My reason for doing this is that over two years ago we promised the retired coal miners of America—we promised them—mostly their families, and there are a lot of widows now; we promised them they would have their health care benefits that were guaranteed to them and their pensions.”
The Miners Protection Act would transfer up to $490 million per year—and an estimated average of $220 million per year over the next decade—from the EPA’s Abandoned Mine Lands to the United Mine Workers’ benefit and pension programs. In addition, the bill would revise the Coal Act, which provides government-funded health care to retirees at bankrupt companies, to cover miners whose companies have gone bankrupt after the bill was last revised, in 2006.
Without passage of the Act, many in organized labor fear the United Mine Workers Pension and Retirement plan, which covers 120,000 beneficiaries, will slip into insolvency in the next year.
Despite the grave risk this poses to many of McConnell’s own residents, he has refused to bring the bill for a vote. Many have speculated that billionaire anti-union coal owner and Super PAC donor Joe Craft has been blocking the Miner Protection Act from coming to a vote in an effort to hurt his unionized competitors. As Payday reported in October, Craft has given approximately $400,000 to McConnell.
McConnell and other Republicans have voiced opposition to the bill because it would only help unionized miners and not all coal miners. However, in more than four years of debate, McConnell has yet to propose any alternative legislation that would protect the retirement security of non-union miners as well.
Instead of bringing the Miners Protection Act to a vote, McConnell has proposed a stopgap measure, which would extend healthcare benefits for a four-month period for a group of 22,000 miners and their beneficiaries, who are expected to lose their benefits between December and next August. The plan would do nothing to help shore up the Mineworkers Pension plan.
“America’s miners put their lives on the line to provide the fuel that built our nation,” United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said in a statement. “Is their reward to become a perpetual political football, doomed to beg every four months for the benefits they earned and our nation promised them?”
“I’m disappointed that the full Miners Protection Act to address health and pension benefits for our miners was not included in the continuing resolution that was released,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said in a statement. “While the short-term, four-month patch will prevent our miners from losing their health care benefits in just a few weeks, we have more work to do. I will continue fighting until a long-term solution is reached.”
Her Senate colleague Bob Casey (D-PA) had much tougher words for the bill.
“This so-called fix designed in secret by congressional Republican leadership is nothing more than a profound betrayal of coal miners and their families in Pennsylvania and across the nation,” Casey said in a statement.
Sen. Manchin has vowed to block any spending bill from coming forward unless action is taken to pass the Miners Protection Act.
“For several months, we have joined thousands of our states’ retired coal miners and their families to call for a vote on this bipartisan, paid-for bill,” said Manchin. “And for several months those calls have gone unanswered. These miners cannot wait another day, and it’s up to us to protect what they’ve earned for a lifetime of dangerous, backbreaking work.”
Mike Elk is an award winning labor reporter and a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO, a workplace safety expert at MSNBC, and as an investigative reporter at In These Times Magazine before founding Payday Report.
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