Coming from yet another federal bankruptcy court’s hearing for a coal company trying to dump its contractual obligations to miners, retirees and their families, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Secretary-Treasurer Levi Allen updated the MTD Executive Board on the latest efforts to save the pensions of his members.
Allen drove straight from Birmingham, Alabama, to near Orlando to address the board and guests on February 21.
Allen began his speech on a somber note, relaying the passing of UMWA President Cecil Roberts’s mother, Evelyn, to the assembled labor and industry leaders. She was 99 years old, and had suffered a fatal stroke days earlier. (MTD President Michael Sacco asked the audience to stand for a moment of silence in her memory.)
Allen then spoke on the pensions of the UMWA members, specifically mentioning the ongoing court case (in Birmingham) with Mission Coal Company: “We’re here to talk about miners’ pensions, and this terrible, terrible scam that’s going on in this country, this Chapter 11 bankruptcy scam. I sat in a courtroom yesterday, and I listened to Mission Coal’s opening arguments, as they said, ‘We understand that this is a hard time. We understand how tough this is and we really don’t want to hurt people,’ and everything like that… I know for an absolute fact that the membership of the United Mine Workers of America was the only group in the room with a claim to dollars that started with a ‘B’. That’s right, billions … and we’ll get pennies on the dollar.”
He continued to speak on the mining company filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to avoid paying billions in earned pensions. He declared, “It’s a scam, it’s a sham, and it’s got to change. And the only way we’re going to change it, the only way we get out of this, is by coming together.”
Allen then put the dangers of working in the mining industry into perspective. After quizzing the audience on the American death tolls of major global conflicts, he replied, “How many coal miners have given their lives? More than 100,000. How many have died from black lung complications? Another 100,000. That ranks us between World War I and World War II as far as blood and lives lost for the pursuit of the freedom of this country. It’s time for Congress to act, and to make sure miners get their pensions.”
He briefly mentioned the UMWA’s fight with the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), and the greater importance of that looming insolvency: “You know what an undertow is. You know when a big ship goes down, it’ll drag you down with it. If the UMWA 1974 Pension Fund becomes insolvent in 2022, it’s going to drag the PBGC down with it. What that will do is cause $5.8 billion annually in benefits that come out of the PBGC to be in jeopardy of not being paid out anymore.
“I want you to think about where these are,” he continued. “These are places where the industry has already left. These are places where jobs are already down, with heavy amounts of retirees and liabilities and no jobs. What’s going to happen when that ship goes down? It’s going to devastate our economy, again.”
He concluded, “You didn’t cause this. None of the unions in this room caused this. There are scams out there that have allowed people to get out of the debts that they owe to American workers, and we’re fighting against that.”
The MTD Executive Board unanimously approved the following statement, submitted by the United Mine Workers of America:
Keeping the Promise to Miners and Widows
President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9728 on May 21, 1946, which required the Department of the Interior to take possession of all bituminous coal mines in the United States and the government assumed the task of negotiating and ultimately commencing “appropriate changes in the terms and conditions of employment.”
Interior Secretary Julius Krug negotiated the National Bituminous Wage Agreement with UMWA President John L. Lewis, which was signed in the White House as Truman looked on. The historic Krug-Lewis Agreement created a Welfare and Retirement Fund, which was intended to make …payments to miners, and their dependents and survivors, with respect to wage loss not otherwise compensated at all or adequately under the provision of Federal or State law and resulting from sickness…, permanent disability, death, or retirement…. The agreement also created a Medical and Hospital Fund.
The following year the government returned control of the mines to the owners. Every subsequent National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement has required that signatory employers participate in and contribute to the Welfare and Retirement Fund and then the 1974 Pension Fund. Mine operators also contractually agreed to provide lifetime health care and pensions for retired and disabled miners and their surviving spouses.
To achieve this end, miners for more than 70 years exchanged less in their wallets on payday to secure dignity in retirement for themselves and their surviving spouses.
Over the years as bankruptcies and other economic shocks hit the coal industry the government recognized that it needed to keep the promise of the Krug-Lewis Agreement and play a role in guaranteeing retiree health care for those pensioners whose companies went out of business.
The UMWA wants the record to reflect our recognition and appreciation for the Maritime Trades Department and its affiliated Brothers and Sisters who have fought beside us to save the lives of our nations’ coal miners. We salute you as true patriots and stewards of all that is good for humankind and the Labor Movement.
The Krug-Lewis promise is, however, only half fulfilled, because bankruptcy restructuring and dissolution has allowed coal employers that participated in the UMWA 1974 Pension Fund to end their contributions without paying any withdrawal liabilities. The national recession of 2008-09 caused the 1974 Fund, which was financed properly, to lose a substantial portion of it its value with no clear path for recovery. Furthermore, a depression in the coal fields has caused tens of thousands of jobs to be eliminated, diminishing contributions to the fund at the very time the number of retirees receiving benefits is at its peak.
Coal miners have sacrificed much to energize and build our nation; more than 200,000 coal miners have been killed on the job or died as a result of black lung in the last century.
Congress has bills before it that would provide necessary financial assistance to the UMWA 1974 Pension Fund, thereby preventing its collapse. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has introduced S. 27, the American Miners Act of 2019, while Congressman David McKinley (R-WV) has offered H.R. 935.
The MTD recognizes the needs of America’s coal miners. The MTD, our affiliates and our Port Maritime Councils pledge our support to our Brothers and Sisters in the United Mine Workers of America to obtain their well-deserved pensions. We further pledge to take all necessary steps to aid in the passage of S. 279 and H.R. 935 to provide the necessary financial assistance to the UMWA 1974 Pension Fund to prevent its collapse.