Since World War II, mostly out-of-state owners have eliminated 100,000 West Virginia mine jobs by replacing workers with machines. Lately, numerous coal corporations declared bankruptcy to duck liability for miner pension and health plans.
As the coal industry shrinks, less revenue is pumped into the United Mine Workers various medical and pension funds, created with federal help in 1946 to resolve a national coal strike. The problem became a crisis this year as 16,000 retired miners in seven states were notified that their coverage would halt Dec. 31. About 120,000 current and future retirees could be affected in coming years.
Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and other coal state members of Congress desperately tried to rescue the retirees and their dependents with a bill that would allow a transfer of up to $490 million a year in general tax dollars that already flow through the federal Abandoned Mine Land program annually for abandoned mine cleanup and UMW health care benefit programs.
The senators’ struggle resulted in a dubious compromise. Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund the U.S. government — and the miner pension-medical plan — for just four more months.
What will happen when this crisis reaches another deadline next April? Will 16,000 old miners and their dependents be cast into destitution, or will a permanent fix be provided?
Criticism of helping UMW beneficiaries also comes from those who point out that in addition to retired union miners, hundreds of thousands of other aging Americans likewise face possible loss of life-sustaining benefits. The right-wing Heritage Foundation says the UMW fund is “only one of more than 1,300 multi-employer (union) pension plans across the United States. Almost all of these plans have made promises they cannot keep ... In total, multi-employer plans have promised over $600 billion more than they are estimated to be able to pay.”
Even worse, non-union corporate plans “have $760 billion in unfunded liabilities, and public [government] plans have as much as $4 trillion to $5 trillion in unfunded liabilities.”
The argument there seems to be, if you can’t help everybody, don’t help anybody. Wrong.
The purpose of government is to serve citizens. Every American deserves secure retirement, and American society works better when the greatest proportion of people can comfortably afford necessities such as groceries, housing and health care, along with a few indulgences now and then, at Christmastime for example. Congress was offered a good place to start on fixing problems that, left unchecked, will result in real suffering and possibly even death of retirees and their dependents.
One way or another, it is the right and just thing to provide aid to the 16,000 old miners, and others who were promised these benefits. It is also the sensible thing.