When President Harry S. Truman was personally negotiating with labor leader John L. Lewis to avert an economically crippling coal strike in 1946, the miners’ top priority was not higher wages or more vacation but to improve the deplorable state of health care in the coalfields.
They succeeded when Truman signed an agreement promising lifelong health and retirement benefits, paid for by a royalty on coal production. The health benefit created modern hospitals, rehabbed injured miners and attracted medical professionals to places that desperately needed them.
Seventy years later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky holds the power to break or honor the promise that Truman made and subsequent presidents and congresses have renewed.
Unless Congress acts, more than 3,000 Kentuckians can expect to lose their health benefits by the end of the year, as United Mine Workers of America health and pension funds falter.
The pension and health funds pump more than $100 million a year into Kentucky — in communities that are suffering the most from the industry’s decline.
Their failure and the resulting loss of income to local businesses and medical providers would inflict more suffering on the people and places that McConnell holds up as victims of President Barack Obama’s climate policies, the places that supported McConnell’s re-election in 2014, even though the UMWA endorsed his Democratic opponent. Obama supports the plan to save miners’ benefits and has included it in his budgets.
McConnell blocked a bipartisan rescue plan last December when it was on track to be part of a year-end spending bill. Now his office is saying only that the Senate leader supports “regular order consideration of this important issue” and that it’s in the hands of the Finance Committee.
Some coal state senators are urging McConnell to act on the crisis before Congress breaks for its long summer recess. A May 27 letter to McConnell from three senators, including Joe Manchin warns that in addition to the impending loss of medical benefits to 21,000 people across the country, the UMWA pension plan will hit a “point of no return” next year.
The pension plan was well funded in 2007 before the Great Recession drained its assets; more recently bankruptcies are freeing coal companies from their pension obligations. The longer the delay in replenishing the plan, the costlier it becomes to avoid its insolvency.
The proposed fix, which has supporters in both parties, is to tap fees the coal industry pays for leasing rights and cleaning up abandoned mine sites and the interest, some of which already go to the miners’ health fund. If those sources fall short, the Treasury (taxpayers) would make up the difference — an option reviled by conservatives as a “bailout” for organized labor and a dangerous precedent.
Other pension plans involving more than one employer are also in trouble because of the 2008 crash’s lasting effects and declining numbers paying in. Also at risk is the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal agency that insures pensions; the failure of the mine workers’ fund could sink it.
The average pension received by 89,000 retired coal miners and widows is $560 a month. Losing pension and health benefits would force them to pay for Medicare supplemental insurance from their Social Security; many miners have costly job-related medical problems, another reason health benefits are treasured.
The 1946 promise from the federal government puts the UMWA pensioners in a category by themselves, in recognition of the unique sacrifices coal miners made to build U.S. prosperity in the 20th century.
McConnell excels at pro-miner rhetoric. But what the pensioners, widows and coalfield communities need from him now is a clear answer.
They need to know what, if anything, he intends to do to preserve the pension and health benefits they were promised. And they need to know without delay.