Mine Workers Urge Quick Congressional Action After Senate Panel OKs Pension Bill

WASHINGTON—The Mine Workers are urging quick congressional action on legislation to aid financially endangered and federally guaranteed pension plans, after a bipartisan majority of the Senate Finance Committee approved the measure, 18-8.

But whether Congress will act on the request is uncertain. Lawmakers are rushing for the exit to go home to campaign, leaving all key issues, save for a bill to keep the government going, until a “lame-duck” session after the Nov. 8 election. And the eight Republicans, out of 14 on the panel, who opposed the measure denounced it as a bailout for union miners.

Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts called the committee’s vote on the legislation, S1714, “an important first step” in its passage through the winding roads of Congress. He did not discuss the outlook in the more right-wing anti-worker GOP-run U.S. House.

Roberts thanked the bill’s sponsors – three Democratic and two Republican senators from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio – plus Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for its passage. Roberts then termed it “vital that Congress move as quickly as possible to finally pass this legislation that will mean so much to the lives of thousands of senior citizens across America. There is no more time to waste.”

Thousands of United Mine Workers, retirees and their supporters from other unions rallied on Capitol Hill on Sept. 8 to demand solons pass the legislation.  An estimated 120,000 retirees are at risk of losing their health care and pensions if Congress doesn’t act.

At the Finance work session, supporters emphasized the need for speed. Thanks to coal company bankruptcies starting in 2012, plus the decline in the pension plans’ assets due to the 2008 Great Recession, miners covered by one plan may lose their health care by the end of this year, followed by more losses in March and May, and loss of their pensions, too.

“These are hardworking people who come from communities where broken promises, bad policies and bankruptcies have hit like one wrecking ball after another for decades. These miners put in backbreaking work in one of the toughest jobs out there, and it is by absolutely no fault of their own that the industry they worked in has fallen on hard times,” explained Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the panel’s top Democrat.

“Yet the reality is tens of thousands of mineworkers and their widows and families are headed toward a cliff at the end of this year. Their health benefits are set to expire in just a few months. Their pension benefits will go soon after that.

“Congress, in my view, has an obligation to step in and make good on the promise America made back in 1946…Getting this bill through the Finance Committee is an important first step, but I want to emphasize we are just getting out of the starting gate. This legislation is long, long, long overdue, and it must get to the president’s desk.”

Hatch, who voted for S1714, called it a compromise. One of its two lead sponsors, Sen.

Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., went into more detail in a statement for the record that he sent to his colleagues before the work session. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyom., led the opposition.

“If Congress does not enact the Miners Protection Act, 16,000 miners will lose their health care at the end of this year. Then 3,500 miners will lose their health care in March and another 3,500 miners will lose their health care in July,” Manchin said.

“In addition…these miners and widows face the potential loss of their pension income. The 1974 United Mine Workers of America Pension Plan was well-managed and well-funded prior to the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, it was 94 percent funded. But, when coupled with the fact that 60 percent of the beneficiaries are ‘orphans’ whose employers are no longer in business and the fact that only 10,000 active workers are contributing for about 120,000 retirees, the financial crisis put the Pension Plan on the road to insolvency,” he explained.

Source: PAI