Help for coal miners: Flame the ember of hope for miners’ pension rescue

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

November 25, 2019


Right is right. A promise is a promise.

For generations, coal has powered our lives. It has heated our homes, fueled the conduction of electricity that lit our lamps, ignited the Industrial Revolution. And it was coaxed from the earth by miners who risked their lives and sacrificed their health in the effort that didn’t just blacken their faces and their hands, but also their lungs.

We are indebted and they are owed at the very least the pensions they were promised.

For the first time in years, there is an ember of hope that the United Mine Workers of America retirement plan will be rescued from the collapse projected to happen in 2022.

Miners have been pleading with federal lawmakers for years to shore up union pensions in the wake of industry bankruptcies and layoffs. They’ve had the bipartisan support of West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, a Democrat and a Republican, respectively. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey has been with them, shoulder to shoulder, as a co-sponsor. But they’ve gotten nowhere.

Finally, earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, has gotten behind the American Miners Act, which would transfer excess funds from abandoned mine reclamation to the nearly broke retirement plan.

Congress must follow his lead.

Right is right. A promise is a promise. And the promise of a pension was made not only by the industry, but by our country. President Harry Truman pledged decades ago that the federal government would not allow the UMWA pensions to fall. President Donald Trump made a promise, too. In the 2016 election, he said he would spark the restoration of coal jobs by rolling back environmental regulations. But, demand for coal has continued its downward slide as power plants use less expensive and cleaner-burning natural gas — natural gas that is abundant in Western Pennsylvania.

The logical answer is to rescue the retirement fund before it goes broke. The number of coal jobs may not be climbing, but the pensions that prevent pensioners from falling into poverty can and must be preserved. In 2017, just 10,000 workers were paying into the pension fund that supports 120,000 miners receiving pension checks. The pension fund simply cannot stand on its own without federal support.

Using excess funds from the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund makes sense. The money was collected from coal companies for mine restoration projects. Using some of it to restore the pensions of those who worked the mines is necessary. The legislation must pass both congressional chambers by year’s end.