America has an obligation to its retired coal miners. Union promised health insurance and pensions, largely depleted following the financial crisis in 2008, could vanish in less than 60 days, leaving more than 20,000 retired coal workers facing dire consequences.
The United Mine Workers Union sent notices to members Wednesday that health and pension benefits will end April 30 unless Congress acts. Prior to 1974, the pension plan was 94 percent funded, according to Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is pushing to have Congress help fund the pensions. Another big factor, of course, was the overall downturn in the coal industry with fewer jobs and companies and dues paying members to support the pensions.
In many industries, this cycle is just the facts of life. The stock market can crash and pensions can be lost. But the coal industry isn’t like other businesses. A deal dating back to 1946 between President Harry Truman and the union to end a debilitating strike pledged to guarantee pensions and health benefits for the coal miners.
Today, however, some in Congress, or with the ears of Congress members, oppose spending federal tax dollars to help a private sector union. In most cases, this would be a reasonable position. But these workers put their lives and health at risk for years with the promise they would be taken care of on the back end. And while Congress included $45 million as a stopgap in December, that will run out by the end of April, leaving thousands across the country and Ohio — which still employs about 3,000 annually in the coal industry — high and dry.
Yes, some retired miners could get health care through Medicare and Medicaid, but out-of-pocket costs would skyrocket. Lawson Shaffer, 66, of West Virginia, told CNHI reporter Kery Murakami that he has black lung disease, wears an oxygen mask at night and without his level of health care, his condition will only get worse. The pills he takes daily would cost $440 per month if he is forced off the union benefits.
Those who invested their bodies in the mines did so with a guarantee from America that they would be taken care of.
“A lot of us are pretty banged up by the time we leave the mines,” said Ronald Pauley, 58, of Madison, West Virginia, who is now in remission from cancer. “We’re not looking for a government handout. We’re asking the government to keep its promise.”
Coal mining is an industry undeniably in decline today. The idea that President Donald Trump, however good his intentions, can massively bring coal jobs back to the United States is far-fetched. But, what those in Washington can do is protect the rights and futures of those the industry has left behind.