It’s no secret that the coal sector has taken a beating. But what is less known is that employers have long recognized that their miners do dangerous work — that they go down into the mines and often reappear years later with a number of health ailments: black lung, for example. That’s why the industry has generally offered workers lifetime health benefits, or retiree benefits.
But at least 50 coal operators nationwide have declared bankruptcy in recent years. When they go to bankruptcy court, one of the first things that the judges will allow is a change — or even a discontinuation of those health benefits; as many as 21,000 around the country could lose coverage. Companies’ goals are to remain viable and to pay the salaries of current workers.
As for Murray Energy, it wants to stay afloat and keep its promises to workers. That’s why it has persuaded its labor unions to renegotiate with it, to avoid layoffs and to avoid reneging on long-standing agreements. As a result, there will be no pay increases for at least three years but there will be no benefits cuts either, although workers will have to pay a bit more out of their own pockets.
Sixty percent of the United Mine Workers members voted in favor of the new contract.
“The coal industry is in a depression and more than 50 companies have filed for bankruptcy in the last few years. Thousands have been laid off,” said Cecil Roberts, head of the union, in a statement. “The pressures on those who are still working are tremendous and growing.
“But despite all that, our members took a courageous stand by voting to try to keep their company operating while maintaining the best wages, benefits and working conditions in the American coal industry,” Roberts said.
“This is a good day for Murray American’s UMWA-represented employees, as this agreement will go a long way toward ensuring that our coal mines can keep operating, and our employees working, even in the current depressed coal marketplace,” added Robert Murray, chief executive officer of the Ohio-based coal operator, in a statement.
The fear among Appalachia’s coal miners is that this scenario will be never-ending — where they are in constant fear of losing their jobs and their benefits. And while the the Obama administration’s regulatory rulings are the fattest target, they are by no means the industrial sector’s only problem: Cheaper and more environmentally-friendly natural gas is its chief culprit.
The Obama administration has been pushing for its Power-Plus proposal that would plow $1 billion into those distressed communities, providing retraining and temporary jobs to clean up mine sites. Hillary Clinton would up that to $30 billion, arguing that it is being intellectually dishonest to promote a false hope that this industry will ever regain the stature it once had.
There are also pending bills to help maintain — and restore — health and pension benefits to coal workers but those too are caught up in a divided Congress. United Mine Workers President Roberts said that he is hopeful that lawmakers will act this year, although he could not provide a timeframe for possible legislative remedies.