After Nearly A Decade Of Anxiety Over Pensions, Coal Miners See Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Dec 19, 2019

Credit Becca Schimmel

Union coal miners and retirees breathed a collective sigh of relief after the U.S. Senate passed a spending bill that includes support for miners’ pensions, which had been at risk due to the coal industry’s downturn. 

The bill, which funds the federal government for the coming year, also includes The Bipartisan American Miners Act which secures pension and health benefits for retirees.

The United Mine Workers says that without Congressional action about 82,000 retirees and widows could have lost some or all of their retirement benefits in 2020. 


The union spent years fighting for what they call a “moral-promise” the federal government made to coal miners to provide for them from cradle-to-grave.  

The legislation shores up miners’ retirement benefits through increased contributions from a fund related to the Abandoned Mine Lands program. 

UMW spokesperson Phil Smith praised the passage of the spending bill and the Miners Act. 

“This is a very good day and a good week for retired miners and their widows and their families,” Smith said. “We have come to what we hope to be the conclusion of an almost decade long fight to preserve pensions.”

Smith said the union is relieved to have secured health and retirement benefits after nearly ten years of fighting, but their work isn’t done.

“We have a lot of work to do to preserve the jobs of our active members. Y’know coal is, despite what some say, coal is not back,” Smith said. “We’re still losing jobs. Coal-fired power plants are still closing.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky recently signed on as a co-sponsor to the bill with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and other Ohio Valley lawmakers. McConnell had earlier avoided Senate action on miners’ pensions. For example, in 2017 McConnell introduced his own bill to provide for miners’ health benefits without dealing with pensions.  

A previous version of the current legislation, which did not have McConnell’s support, included a provision to restore a tax that helps fund the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, but that was removed from the bill.

A separate provision was added to the spending bill that extends for one year a tax that supports the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

 

That excise tax on each ton of coal mined was roughly doubled in 1981 and renewed at that rate ten years ago.

 

Last year, however, Congress allowed that rate to expire, sending it back to its 1980 level, and federal budget experts say the fund is heading into billions of dollars in debt.

In a statement, McConnell took credit for securing miners’ benefits.

“It is because of my role as Senate Majority Leader our legislation was included in the government-funding bill and that President Trump will be signing the Bipartisan American Miners Act into law by week’s end.” 

Earlier this month, Manchin pledged to block all Senate action until he was “assured” that coal miners’ pension and health benefits would be saved. 

The miner’s pension plan was weakened by a series of coal industry bankruptcies. Murray Energy of Ohio was the last major employer contributing to the fund before its bankruptcy declaration in October. A bankruptcy court will decide if the company can escape those obligations.

The bill now goes to President Trump, who is expected to sign it.

Clarification: This story has been updated to specify that the tax rate supporting the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was reinstated for one year.