As McConnell Stays Silent, Mine Workers Warn of Pension Catastrophe This Winter

United Mine Workers activists arrested in St. Louis in 2013 protesting the Patriot Coal Bankruptcy (Mike Elk)

By Mike Elk

For the past four years, the United Mine Workers of America and their bipartisan coalition of coal state Senators and members of Congress have been stymied in their attempt to get a floor vote for the Miners Protection Act scheduled in the Senate.

“Without the immediate passage of this legislation, the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan will very likely enter a glide path to insolvency that will be impossible to pull out of, putting the hard-earned pensions of 120,000 miners and widows at risk,” says UMWA communications director Phil Smith. “The ultimate cost to the government of that catastrophe will far exceed the cost of taking action now and passing the Miners Protection Act.”

The bill 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.

In September, the bill cleared the Senate Finance Committee by a margin of 18-8. It enjoys wide bipartisan support from coal state Republicans and Democrats alike. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has refused to bring the bill to a vote despite the fact that he presents himself regularly in Kentucky as a champion of coal miners. McConnell told a group of Pike County, Kentucky business leaders earlier this month that “the country must not turn its back on Kentucky coal miners.”

McConnell says he does not favor the bill because it would only help union miners and not non-union miners, according to the Associated Press. A McConnell spokesperson told the news service that, additionally, “the bill should come before the Senate ‘through regular order’ and not be attached to other legislation.”

UMWA’s Smith stresses the importance of passing the legislation soon. “Failure to pass this bill this year will put the lives of some 16,000 retired miners, their dependents and widows at immediate risk, as they will lose their health care at the end of December. About 6,500 more will be at risk of losing their health care in 2017.”

However, as Payday reported back in September, many in organized labor say that the real reason McConnell hasn’t brought the bill to a vote is that he is scared of upsetting billionaire Super PAC donor Joe Craft, the CEO of non-union Alliance Resources Partners, the third-largest coal producer in the country.

Craft’s influence was seen as key to McConnell’s refusal to bring a similar bipartisan bill to a vote in 2014. In that year’s election, Alliance was McConnell’s sixth-largest campaign contributor, providing $93,450 to the senator’s campaign. In addition to these direct campaign contributions, Craft gave $300,000 to the pro-McConnell Super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership.

But McConnell isn’t the only Republican whose past pro-miners rhetoric contradicts his present behavior. Donald Trump, who has pledged to “end the war on miners” if elected president, has remained silent on the current bill.

This week, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) called on Trump to speak up about the matter.

“I know that with Donald Trump being the nominee from the Republican Party, he could be very influential in asking other Republican senators to please verbally sign on and support the Miners Protection Act,” Manchin told the Associated Press. “That would be very, very helpful.”

Neither McConnell nor Trump returned Payday’s request for comment.

“These senior citizens, who risked their health and their lives every single day providing the fuel that powered America over the last several decades, did everything right,” says Smith. “But now, because of the opposition of a minority of politicians in Congress and a couple of radical right-wing groups, they will be forced to make life-or-death decisions about whether to buy life-sustaining medicines or buy food. No American should be put in that position.”

This story is an update from earlier items that ran in Payday. To help us keep up our four-year-long coverage of the collapse of coal miner pension funds, donate today.

Mike Elk is the senior labor reporter at Payday Report and a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO and at In These Times Magazine.

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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