Congressional leaders have included short-term funding for health care benefits for retired miners in a must-pass spending bill this week. If approved that would buy some time for thousands of miners in the Ohio Valley region whose benefits would otherwise expire at the end of the year.
But a statement from the United Mine Workers of America called that short-term fix “a slap in the face” to 22,000 miners and their widows who depend on the health benefits. The union said the Congressional proposal is inadequate on health benefits and does nothing to provide for the pensions for 120,000 retirees and active miners.
Joe Holland, UMWA local president for Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, said the four-month health funding is just a Band-Aid.
“Are they going to hold it over our heads every four months and say, ‘Okay miners, if you play nice we’re going to give it to you four more months?’” Holland asked.
He said said miners he’s met with are devastated. Many had traveled by bus to massive rallies in Lexington, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C., in support of the Miners Protection Act, legislation which would use money in a mining reclamation fund to shore up the benefits and pensions plans the federal government guaranteed years ago.
Holland doesn’t understand why Congress needs more time to consider the Act when it’s had ample debate and was approved by relevant committees with bipartisan support.
“We built this country, when they called on us we delivered,” Holland said. “So right now we’re asking them to do the right thing.”
Union members have accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of blocking action on the Miners’ Protection Act. But at a weekend event in Louisville McConnell denied preventing a vote.
“I haven’t been preventing one at any point,” McConnell told Ryland Barton of Kentucky Public Radio reporter. “The issue is miners’ health care and I’ve advocated that the House add miners’ health care to the C.R. — the continuing resolution — that we’ll be voting on.”
McConnell’s emphasis on “health care” foreshadowed events this week, as the funding to support pensions was not included.
A group of Democratic Senators including Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin have pledged to block Senate proceedings until action is taken on the miners’ bill.
“We promised them they would have their health care benefits and their pensions,” Manchin said from the Senate floor. “And if we don’t stand for the people that made this country as great as it is then we stand for nothing.”
An Old Pledge
The retired union miners want the cradle-to-grave health and retirement benefits promised to them when Congress intervened in 1947 to settle a national coal strike. The agreement used royalties on coal production to create a retirement fund for miners and their dependents in cases of sickness, disability, death and retirement.
That legislation has been renewed at various times over the years. Now with companies going under and coal production in sharp decline it’s feared that there will not be enough money to fulfill pledges to retirees.
The Miner’s Protection Act seeks to address the potential shortages by tapping the Abandoned Mine Lands fund. The AML reclamation fund was created to address abandoned mine land from before 1977 and is funded by a fee placed on each ton of coal mined.
The interest from the AML fund is currently being absorbed into the U.S. Treasury and the new legislation would redirect some of that interest to safeguard pensions and benefits.
NOTE: This story was updated on Wednesday, December 7, to include comments from UMWA representatives and to add information throughout.