Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Coal Miners Take the District to Press Congress to Honor Promise

United Mine Workers Rallying
at the Capital Building.
Some things should transcend politics.  Honoring promises to hard working Americans should definitely be one of them. However, America’s coal miners are concerned that this simple and principled position is getting lost on our corporate billionaire class and some of the politicians that feed at their trough.  Unless Congress takes action, 22,000 coal miners will lose their health care coverage and over 90,000 retirees will have their pensions significantly cut.  That is why thousands of miners and other activists will descend on Washington D.C. Thursday at the Keep the Promise – Capitol Hill Rally.

The promise these miners are pointing to stemmed from a 1946 agreement between the executive branch of the government and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).  The Krug Lewis Agreement promised the UMWA membership that their health and retirement benefits would not be compromised.

A Little Background

Through the first half of the 20th century, there was no industry more important to the United States than the coal industry.  The country counted on the energy provided by coal through the hard work of the miners to power them to world heights of the industrial age.  So important was the coal mine industry that miners were asked to stay in the mines throughout World War II instead of fighting on the front lines.

At the conclusion of World War II, the UMWA went on strike because an agreement couldn’t be reached with the coal companies concerning their inadequate health benefits.  Industry had turned back to production of consumer goods and Americans were in the mood to consume. The country couldn’t afford a coal shortage because of the likelihood it would halt production. The stand-still would move the country back into the dire economy of the pre-war depression.
To avoid this crisis, President Harry Truman ordered the federal government to take over the mines and start negotiating with the union.  What emerged was the Krug Lewis Act which promised benefits would not be taken away from the coal miners.

What Happened?

The funds holding together the miners’ benefits were solvent up until the 2008 economic crisis.  At that time, abuses on Wall Street destroyed the pension funds of a lot of Americans. Also, the changing energy industry and the declining price of natural gas had an adverse effect on the number of employed coal miners.

In addition, corporate shenanigans such as the Peabody/Patriot Coal spinoff perpetuated the disaster.  Patriot spun off Peabody and acquired its liabilities including retiree health benefits.  When Patriot filed for bankruptcy in 2012, these benefits were in jeopardy. If it weren’t for a modest settlement between the company and the UMWA, the crisis would have hit crisis level much earlier.  However, this minor victory for the union did nothing to ensure future availability of these benefits.

The Solution

Last year, Senator Joe Manchin, (D) WV, introduced S. 1714 “The Miner’s Protection Act.” This legislation would essentially keep the promises that were made and protect the benefits of the miners, the retirees and their families.  It is a bi-partisan bill with 18 sponsors with nine being Democrats, eight Republicans and one independent.  There is an identical bill in the House that is also bi-partisan.  It has 47 Republican sponsors, and 36 Democrats.

“Our retirees suffering from black lung, who gave not only their years of service but also sacrificed their health, will be forced to choose between getting that oxygen tank they rely on to breathe or paying their electric bill. Surviving widows will be forced to choose between buying their blood pressure medicine or putting food on their tables.”
--Sen Joe Manchin, (D) WV

Senator Joe Manchin (D) WV, introduced the
Miners Protection Act to the US Senate
So what is the hold up? The leadership has not allowed the bills to progress to a vote on the floor.  Strangely enough, the majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell is holding this bill up in the Senate.  As the senior senator from Kentucky, a big coal mine state, one can only conjecture why he hasn’t jumped to the aid of his constituents.

According to the AP, a McConnell spokesman said that the majority leader “has been and remains committed to helping ensure the retirement security of our nation’s retirees, including coal miners.”  Of course the UMWA and the many legislators that have signed on to support the Miners Protection Act logically respond, “Prove it!”

Relation State is firmly behind the UMWA and their membership. It was on the backs of coal miners that the US became the strongest, most industrialized nation in the world.  It was the energy driven by coal that pushed the factories that provided Americans jobs, but also automobiles, appliances, and other goods that kept the economy strong and created the middle class. Those that labored in the mines gave their bodies and health to push the nation forward.  Is it too much to ask that we honor our commitments and ensure that they get the benefits that they earned and were promised?  If Washington can bail out the Wall Street banks that caused the economic crisis, it is incomprehensible that the government could default on the promises made to the coal miners who were victims of it.

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