Donald Trump was elected by huge margins in coal country, where the dislocated now turn to him to either find new jobs in their regions or to restore their old ones. But can those coal miners rely on him to not just maintain their workplace safety protections but to also restore their health and pension benefits?
The changing of the guard in Washington probably means fewer regulations — for all industries but specifically for mining. That might bode well for those who drill for coal, oil and gas. But it also may mean fewer workplace protections. Recall the trial of Don Blankenship, the former coal mining chief executive now spending a year in prison for sidestepping mine safety laws as a result of 29 men dying in an underground explosion? He had long called on Washington to ease up on the rules, arguing that companies have more incentive to keep their operations safe than does the federal government.
At the same time, environmental rules are also blamed by many in coal country for choking off their livelihoods. In the 1950s, the state of West Virginia, for example, had more than a 100,000 miners and today it is less than 20,000. (Cheap natural gas, thinning coal seams and mechanization are also to blame.) Because of weakening demand, coal company capitalization has withered and a few dozen companies have bellied up. What’s less known, however, is that miners’ pensions and health benefits have been cut.
And those were promises made to these people from the get-go — to cover them for their ailments that they earned on the job in very dangerous work conditions. If it can happen to them, it can happen in any white collar industry as well.
“As the coal industry shrinks, less revenue is pumped into the United Mine Workers various medical and pension funds, created with federal help in 1946 to resolve a national coal strike,” says an editorial in the Charleston, WV Gazette. “The problem became a crisis this year as 16,000 retired miners in seven states were notified that their coverage would halt Dec. 31. About 120,000 current and future retirees could be affected in coming years.”
The United Mine Workers of America’s pension fund, established in 1974, is now severely underfunded, given the bankruptcies of 50 coal companies. As such, only 10,000 active workers are supporting 120,000 retirees around the country. Insolvency isn’t far off. At that point, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. covers the losses — except that it, too, would face extinction given the sheer number of claims to be made against it.
What now? Some federal lawmakers have tried to pass legislation to shift as much as $490 million a year that is now allocated to restoring abandoned mines and toward restoring these pension and health benefits. They succeed in getting about four months worth of benefits restored — just long enough to get Trump moved in and seated, and to review the situation in April or so.
The good news is that the recent spike in stock prices helps the pension issue. After all, these guys have defined benefit plans that promise to pay a specific amount at retirement. Like a lot of those plans, they had been underfunded. And conservatives raise a point, which is that this is really the responsibility of the companies that failed to meet their obligations. But are the miners to be made to suffer for whatever reason these plans are underfunded? And what is the role of the federal government?
The Gazette says just the multi-employer plans controlled by United Mine Workers’ portion is $600 billion. If you include non-union corporate plans, it goes way up — and too much for the federal government, according to the Heritage Foundation.
“Our miners worked their entire lives underground to put food on the table and send their kids to college. They deserve the full pension and health benefits they were promised,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
The bipartisan bill, which has to be resubmitted in January, would do two things: It would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to allow for certain funds that would otherwise go to clean up abandon mines to be directed instead to miners’ pensions. And, it would permit those retirees who lose their health care benefits to be a part of another multi-employer plan. An unanswered question here, however, is what then happens to those abandoned mine sites?
Given that Trump was elected a huge margins in such coal producing states as Kentucky, West Virginia and Wyoming, he will feel obligation to push for a federal solution to restoring health and pension benefits. However, if his administration were to quietly ease up of the safety measures, this too would not escape miners.