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A Brief History of UMWA Health and Retirement Funds

A Brief History of UMWA Health and Retirement Funds


The UMWA Health and Retirement Funds (the Funds) was created in 1946 in a contract between the United Mine Workers of America and the federal government during a time of government seizure of the mines. The contract was signed in the White House with President Harry Truman witnessing the historic occasion.

Today the UMWA Funds provides pensions and medical care to over 100,000 retired miners, widows and dependents. The pension payments are a vital component of the rural economies of the coal field communities, pouring millions of dollars annually into the economy. And the medical payments from the Funds form a central underpinning for the medical care structure of the coal field communities.

Intolerable Conditions

Prior to the creation of the UMWA Funds, medical care in the nation's coal field communities consisted of a pre-paid system based on deductions from the miners' paychecks. Under this system, coal companies deducted money from the miners' pay and hired doctors to provide medical services to the miners. In many cases this was necessary because the isolated, rural areas where coal was produced did not attract medical professionals and only the lure of guaranteed income could induce doctors to set up practice in coal field communities. Over time, the company doctor system came to be viewed by the miners as harmful to their interests.

Because of nationwide concern about health care matters during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt in 1935 appointed a federal Interdepartmental Committee to Coordinate Health and Welfare Activities. He named as chairman of the committee Josephine Roche, who later became neutral trustee and executive director of the UMWA Funds. One of the major activities of the committee was to convene a National Health Conference, at which Dr. Walter Polakov, Director of the UMWA Department of Engineering, called for the establishment of "group medicine and group hospitalization" in coal mining communities.

Following Dr. Polakov's presentation, the UMWA, through the Good Will Fund of Boston and the Twentieth Century Fund of New York, commissioned a report on medical conditions in the coal fields by the Bureau of Cooperative Medicine. The study concluded that there was a pressing need for medical care reform in the coal fields.

The entry of the United States in the Second World War caused the union to place its demands for a new medical system temporarily on hold. With the end of the war, however, UMWA negotiators renewed their efforts for medical care reform. When negotiations opened in 1945, the UMWA proposed a royalty of 10 cents per ton of coal to be paid to the Union to "provide for its members modern medical and surgical service, hospitalization, insurance, rehabilitation and economic protection."

The coal operators rejected the UMWA royalty proposal. The idea was ultimately dropped when Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins met with both sides and offered a compromise proposal that did not include a royalty. The UMWA accepted the compromise proposal and set its sights on the next round of negotiations.

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Krug Lewis Agreement

When the National Bituminous Wage Conference convened in early 1946, a health and welfare fund for miners was the union's top priority. The operators again rejected the proposal and miners walked off the job on April 1, 1946. Negotiations under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Labor continued sporadically through April. On May 10, 1946, President Truman summoned John L. Lewis and the operators to the White House. The stalemate appeared to break when the White House announced an agreement in principle on a health and welfare fund.

Despite the White House announcement, the coal operators still refused to agree to the creation of a medical fund. Another conference at the White House failed to forge an agreement and the negotiations again collapsed.

Faced with the prospect of a long strike that could hamper post-war economic recovery, President Truman issued an Executive Order directing the Secretary of the Interior to take possession of all bituminous coal mines in the United States and to negotiate with the union "appropriate changes in the terms and conditions of employment." Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug seized the mines the next day and ordered the miners to return to work. The miners refused, and negotiations continued, first at the Interior Department and then at the White House, with President Truman participating in several conferences.

After a week of negotiations, the historic Krug Lewis agreement was announced and the strike ended. It created a welfare and retirement fund to make payments to miners and their dependents and survivors in cases of sickness, permanent disability, death or retirement, and other welfare purposes determined by the trustees. The fund was to be managed by three trustees, one to be appointed by the federal government, one by the UMWA and the third to be chosen by the other two. Financing for the new fund was to derive from a royalty of 5 cents per ton of coal produced.

The Krug Lewis agreement also created a separate medical and hospital fund to be managed by trustees appointed by the UMWA. The purpose of the fund was to provide for medical, hospital, and related services for the miners and their dependents.

The Krug Lewis agreement also committed the federal government to undertake "a comprehensive survey and study of the hospital and medical facilities, medical treatment, sanitary and housing conditions in coal mining areas." The expressed purpose was to determine improvements were necessary to bring coal field communities in conformity with "recognized American standards."

To conduct the study, the Secretary chose Rear Admiral Joel T. Boone of the U.S. Navy Medical Corps. Government medical specialists spent nearly a year exploring the existing medical care system in the nation's coal fields. Their report, "The Medical Survey of the Bituminous Coal Industry," found that, in coal field communities, "provisions range from excellent, on a par with America's most progressive communities, to very poor, their tolerance a disgrace to a nation to which the world looks for pattern and guidance." The survey team discovered that "three-fourths of the hospitals are inadequate with regard to one or more of the following: surgical rooms, delivery rooms, labor rooms, nurseries and x-ray facilities." The study conclude that "the present practice of medicine in the coal fields on a contract basis cannot be supported. They are synonymous with many abuses. They are undesirable and in many instances deplorable."

Thus the Boone report not only confirmed earlier reports of conditions in the coal mining communities, but also established a strong federal government interest in correcting long-standing inadequacies in medical care delivery. Perhaps most important, it provided a road map for the newly created UMWA Fund to begin the process of reform.

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Pension Dispute

Shortly after the Boone report was issued, the mines were returned to their private owners and a new National Bituminous Coal contract was executed. It combined the pension and medical programs and increased the royalties to 10 cents per ton of coal produced. Thus began a two year struggle over activation of the pension program. The UMWA wanted to begin providing pensions immediately, while the operators insisted on waiting until the Fund had accumulated an actuarial reserve. After seven months of stalemate, the neutral trustee resigned in frustration, ensuring an on-going deadlock between the union and the operators.

The failure to agree on pensions caused the miners to walk out of the mines in March 1948. Recognizing the intractability of the situation, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Joseph Martin, asked the trustees to meet with him. At that meeting in the Capitol, Speaker Martin suggested Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire as a neutral trustee and both sides agreed. Senator Bridges pointed out the delay of almost two years since the Krug Lewis agreement. He proposed to set the retirement age at 62 with 20 years of service. By vote of Lewis and Bridges the resolution was adopted and the long stalemate was Broken. The first pension check was provided to Horace Ainscough of Rock Springs, Wyoming on September 9, 1948.

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Medical Care Improvements

The Funds established ten regional offices throughout the coal fields with the direction to make arrangements with local doctors and hospitals for the provision of "the highest standard of medical service at the lowest possible cost."

One of the first programs initiated by the Funds was a rehabilitation program for severely disabled miners. Under this program over 1,200 severely disabled miners were rehabilitated. The Funds staff searched the coal fields to locate the disabled miners and sent them to the finest rehabilitation centers in the United States. At those centers, disabled miners received the best treatment that modern medicine and surgery had to offer, including artificial limbs and extensive physical therapy to teach them how to walk again. After a period of physical restoration, the miners received occupational therapy so they could provide for their families.

The Funds also made great strides in improving overall medical care in coal mining communities, especially in Appalachia where the greatest inadequacies existed. Recognizing the need for modern hospital and clinic facilities, the Funds constructed ten hospitals in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. The hospitals, known as Miners Memorial Hospitals, provided intern and residency programs and training for professional and practical nurses. Thus, because of the Funds, young doctors were drawn to areas of the country that were sorely lacking in medical professionals. A 1978 Presidential Coal Commission found that medical care in the coal field communities had greatly improved, not only for miners but for the entire community, as a result of the UMWA Funds. "Conditions since the Boone Report have changed dramatically, largely because of the miners and their Union--but also because of the Federal Government, State, and coal companies." The Commission concluded that "both union and non-union miners have gained better health care from the systems developed for the UMWA."

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Legacy of the Funds Medical Program

The Funds' medical programs accomplished much more than the direct improvements in the miners' lives and in the medical care infrastructure in the coal fields. Its policies and programs broke new ground in medical care and served as a model for other unions to pursue health and welfare programs for workers. The Funds rehabilitation program, with its emphasis on rehabilitating the severely disabled, caused state governments to reexamine state rehabilitation programs that ignored the needs of the severely disabled. Many states adopted new laws that mirrored the Funds compassionate rehabilitation program.

The Funds also pioneered new concepts in medical care. It encouraged "fee for time" medical service as opposed to the prevalent "fee for service" practice and facilitated the establishment of "group practice", where physicians worked together to serve the needs of the community. The Funds developed the concept of a primary coordinating physician who would oversee all of a patient's medical care needs, from general medicine to referral to specialists and centers of excellence. These programs--with their emphasis on the needs of the beneficiary-- serve as a model for today's efforts to reform the medical care system by improving the quality of medical care while, at the same time, reducing its cost.

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The Coal Act

Medical benefits for retired miners became a sorely disputed issue between labor and management in the 1980s, as companies sought to avoid their obligations to retirees and dump those obligations onto the UMWA Funds. Courts had issued conflicting decisions in the 1980s, holding that retiree health benefits were indeed benefits for life, but allowing employers to evade the obligation to fund those benefits. The issue came to a critical impasse in 1989 during the UMWA-Pittston Company negotiations. Pittston had refused to continue participation in the UMWA Funds, while the union insisted that Pittston had an obligation to the retirees.

Once again the government intervened in a coal industry dispute over health benefits for miners. Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole appointed a special "super-mediator", Bill Usery, also a former Secretary of Labor. Ultimately the parties, with the assistance of Usery and Secretary Dole, came to an agreement. As part of that agreement, Secretary Dole announced the formation of an Advisory Commission on United Mine Workers of America Retiree Health Benefits, which became known as the Coal Commission. The commission, including representatives from the coal industry, coal labor, the health insurance industry, the medical profession, academia, and the government, made recommendations to the Secretary and the Congress for a comprehensive resolution of the crisis facing the UMWA Funds. The recommendation was based on a simple, yet powerful, finding of the commission--"Retired miners have legitimate expectations of health care benefits for life; that was the promise they received during their working lives, and that is how they planned their retirement years. That commitment should be honored." The underlying recommendation was that every company should pay for its own retirees.

Based on the Coal Commission's recommendations, Senator Rockefeller introduced legislation, known as the Coal Act, that was ultimately signed by President Bush in 1992. Under the Coal Act, all companies (including those that had abandoned their retirees) were required to pay for the cost of their retirees. Orphan retirees, or those without a surviving employer, would be paid out of transfers of surplus pension assets and interest from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund.

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The Funds Today and Tomorrow

The structure of the UMWA Funds has changed over the years, but the original promise to retired miners is still being kept. Today, the Funds provides health care benefits to approximately 75,000 retired miners and their dependents. It also provides pension benefits to nearly 110,000 retired miners and widows. It has contributed billions of dollars to improve the lives of those who worked in dangerous conditions to provide the nation with energy. And it has helped alleviate untold suffering and mind-numbing poverty. As John L. Lewis said on the twentieth anniversary of the UMWA Funds "I don't know of anything that runs further into the emotions of a human being than the matter of our Fund, with its security for our people. It is a dream that has come true, long deferred through the centuries."

The success of the UMWA Funds is a tribute to the many thousands of individuals who have strived to make this dream come true--Funds' doctors, lawyers, accountants, administrators and field staff. But mostly the success of the Funds is a testament to the men and women of the coal industry, members of the United Mine Workers of America, who made innumerable sacrifices to secure for themselves a part of the American dream.

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 Beneficiaries of UMWA Health & Retirement Funds

Note: Pension Fund numbers (1st two rows) as of 9/1/2008; Health benefit numbers (last three rows) as of 6/1/2008.  

  Pensioners Disabled Widows Dependents Total
1950 Pension Fund 4,490 455 14,576 N.A. 19,521
1974 Pension Fund 49,691 9,800 20,426 N.A. 79,917
Combined Benefit Fund 5,838 0 17,047 4,531 27,416
1992 Benefit Fund 3,809 0 2,442 3,394 9,645
1993 Benefit Fund 4,713 5 400 4,619 9,737

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