After losing their healthcare benefits and pensions in recent years, local miners gained a small victory when the Miners Protection Act — Senate Bill 1714 —passed the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, Sept. 21 by a vote of 18-8.
S.B. 1714 ensures that pensions and health benefits that were lost due to several coal mining companies going bankrupt will be given to coal miners and their families from all over the country as they were promised.
But that does not mean it is a law just yet. It still has to go to the Senate floor for debate and vote. Then it’s off to the House of Representatives and the President.
Cecil E. Roberts, United Mine Workers of America International President, said he was very pleased with the vote on S.B. 1714 in the committee, which was first introduced to the Senate on July 7, 2015.
“Now that this important first step has been achieved, it is 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,” he said. “There is no more time to waste.”
It was a rough road to even get to this point. The House version of the bill, the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act, has still not been voted on. It was introduced on May 18, 2015.
H.R. 2403 would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to transfer certain funds to the Multiemployer Health Benefit Plan and the 1974 United Mine Workers of America Pension Plan. The Miner’s Protection Act would redirect yearly funds from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund.
According to the UMWA website, the struggle between coal miners and the coal companies began in 1946 when almost 400,000 coal miners refused to come to work, causing an uproar in the economy. That same year, the Krug-Lewis Agreement was passed between the UMWA and the federal government, which secured pensions and health care for the miners and their families.
“The promise made in the White House in 1946 did several things,” Roberts said. “But none was more important than guaranteeing retirement security for coal miners and their families for their service to the nation, including cradle to grave health care.”
But when some of the major coal companies declared bankruptcy in the past few years, all of those promised pensions and benefits evaporated. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 191,000 coal miners have lost their jobs since 2014.
So when both S.B. 1714 and H.R. 2403 had been stalled for over a year, thousands of UMWA members from across the county took matters into their own hands. On Thursday, Sept. 8, they swarmed on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C, as a part of the Keep Your Promise rally, designed to push for both pieces of legislation to be passed.
Out of 100 buses across the country traveling to D.C., five left from the Warrick County 4-H Fairgrounds, carrying more than 200 local miners.
Retired Squaw Creek miner and UMWA 1196 member, Bil Musgrave, was one of those protestors. The protest was more than personal for Musgrave, who has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills to treat the rare form of liver cancer he was diagnosed with in 2000.
It was so personal, in fact, that Musgrave and 100 other UMWA workers and family members were arrested for civil disobedience during the rally for dropping crosses — which represented thousands of union members who have died from black lung — into a casket and sitting down in the street.
“Even though it is long overdue, the Miner’s Protection Act’s passage through the Senate Finance Committee brings us one step closer to fulfilling the commitment that we made to our miners more than 70 years ago,” said Senator Joe Manchin of (D-W.Va), who introduced the bill.
Manchin said that if the legislation is not passed into law, 16,000 miners will lose their healthcare by the end of this year, 3,500 will lose their healthcare in March 2017 and another 3,500 will lose theirs just a few months after.
But Rachel Greszler, senior policy analyst in economics and entitlements at the Heritage Foundation, said that the reclamation fund is insufficient to cover even the UMWA’s existing unfunded health benefits. She also said 100 percent of any additional money granted by S.B. 1714 would come from taxpayers.
“It would also open the door to the bailout of trillions of dollars in other unfunded public and non-union private pension liabilities across the country,” she said.
But regardless of Greszler’s warning, several senators, including Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, said they believe the Miner’s Protection Act should be passed through the Senate.
“Miners deserve the benefits they were promised and earned,” Donnelly said. “We made a promise to these coal miners, who did their part for decades. We cannot now turn our backs on them.”
A date has not been set yet for the Senate’s vote on the Miner’s Protection Act and the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act of 2015 is currently stalled in the House in the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources committee.