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Labor Federation Backs Legislation to Honor Obligations to America’s Miners

Labor Federation Backs Legislation to Honor Obligations to America’s Miners

Bill Stephens

February 25th, 2016

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FEBRUARY 24, 2016 NEWS RELEASE

SAN DIEGO – The Executive Council of the AFL-CIO, America’s largest labor federation, at its winter meeting gave strong backing today to bipartisan legislation that will honor the nation’s obligation to retired mine workers and their families.

“We deeply appreciate the support we’ve received today from our brothers and sisters in the labor movement,” said United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts. “Now we need to get this bill passed and get it on the President’s desk.

The Miners Protection Act (S. 1714) and the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act (H.R. 2403) have dozens of bi-partisan co-sponsors in the House and Senate. The pending legislation is a response to the depression that is gripping America’s coalfields and threatening pension and health care benefits for more than 120,000 retired miners and their families.

“Everybody in America who turns on a light switch owes a debt to a coal miner,” Roberts said. “Energizing America is work we are proud to do. But more than that, we made an agreement with the American government decades ago: We will go down in the mines, and we will take on the risk of death or severe injury, black lung disease and emphysema and all the rest. And in return, the federal government promised to guarantee our health care and we’ll have a small pension when we retire.

“We kept our side of the bargain,” added Roberts. “But now, thousands of people could lose their benefits if Congress doesn’t act.”

By repurposing an existing appropriation to shore up miners’ pension and health care funds, the bipartisan bills will avoid a costly bailout by the taxpayer-backed U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

Pension and health care funds for mine workers and their families were established decades ago, with contributions based on coal production. The goal was to provide retirement and health security for workers who undertook dirty, dangerous jobs to meet the energy needs of a growing U.S. economy.

Costly mergers and bad bets on foreign mines by coal company managers, combined with competition from low-cost natural gas and a rising tide of government environmental regulations has devastated company after company. Coal tonnage and the price per ton for coal has been sharply reduced in recent years, causing many operators to go bankrupt. Some operators were relieved of their responsibilities to make payments to pension and health care funds through the bankruptcy process. Due to reduced employment in the industry, only one active union miner works for every 13 retirees.

With reduced payment from employers – and an increasing number of retirees who are paid benefits – the pension and health care funds for retired miners are facing insolvency. Some funds are in danger of going broke later this year.

“This is a must-pass piece of legislation and we appreciate the AFL-CIO’s support very much,” said UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Dan Kane. “America’s coal miners did everything our nation asked of them. They earned every penny of their retirement and health care benefits – and every penny can and must be paid.”

“The longer we wait,” Roberts said, “the more suffering there will be in the coalfields – and the more costly this problem will become in the long run.”

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