July 17, 2016

Get this done: Senate action urged on Miners Protection Act | Register-Herald

Who knows what the Miners Protection Act is?

Given its name, you would probably be forgiven for thinking it has something to do with mine safety, but no, it’s something entirely different.

United Mine Workers of America retirees need another type of protection now, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and a bipartisan group of his colleagues have banded together to make sure they get it.

First, we have to turn the clock back 70 years to 1946, when the U.S. was in the midst of a post-World War II economic recovery. Mine workers were negotiating their contracts and a strike was looming.

Enter President Harry S. Truman, who knew what a vital role the coal industry was playing in economic recovery efforts and he feared a prolonged strike. To prevent that, he issued an Executive Order directing the Secretary of the Interior to take possession of bituminous coal mines and to negotiate with the union.

The resulting Krug-Lewis Agreement created the promise of health benefits and retirement security for the nation’s miners. The agreement used royalties on coal production to create a retirement fund for miners and their dependents in cases of sickness, disability, death and retirement.

Fast forward to 2016. Coal companies large and small have filed for bankruptcy protection. Production is down, as is price. Consequently, dollars flowing to the health and retirement fund have slowed as well.

If action isn’t taken, by the end of this year thousands of retirees will receive notices that they will lose their benefits.

West Virginia has 27,694 retired miners — the most of any state — receiving an average monthly pension of $587, according to 2014 UMWA figures.

Manchin’s bill, introduced last year, but languishing in the Senate Finance Committee, would transfer excess money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to the 1974 UMWA Pension Plan.

Interest from the AML fund is currently being absorbed into the U.S. Treasury, and the new legislation would redirect some of that interest to safeguard pensions and benefits.

While many thought the Senate would vote on the Miners Protection Act before it recessed Friday, Manchin is keeping it front and center before his colleagues.

Last week, he took to the Senate floor to defend the act from attacks made by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. (See the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= eP4YSZSQqO0&feature= youtu.be)

Enzi specifically questioned the promise that was made to miners in 1946, saying that it was made between coal companies and unions, not the federal government. Manchin reminded Enzi that the Krug-Lewis Agreement included language reading, “This agreement between the Secretary of the Interior, acting as Coal Mines Administrator under the authority of Executive Order No. 9728 ... and the United Mine Workers of America ... .” 

The title of the agreement says “Executed at the White House, Washington, D.C., May 29, 1946.”

Manchin said, “I believe that the Secretary of the Interior and the White House were representatives of the federal government back in 1946, just like they are today.”

Manchin also reminded Enzi that, in the end, passage of the act will help “America to remain financially solvent.”

“If we do not pass the Miners Protection Act, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) will shoulder the burden of the outstanding liabilities. Passing the Miners Protection Act now means covering $3.5 billion in health and pension benefits,” Manchin said.

“If we do not enact this law, the pension liability alone will carry a price tag of $6 billion. So I would say to my friend, Sen. Enzi, join me in this effort, and we can save the taxpayers $2.5 billion and prevent the crippling of the PBGC.”

Some would argue that the end of the year is still more than five months away. But really, not much time remains for the Senate to act — as the body is in recess now for party conventions and such, and will take another recess prior to the November general election.

Many believe the legislation is lying untouched in Finance because of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., alleging he has a grudge against the UMWA for supporting his opponent in 2014.

Although not officially confirmed, it would not be a surprise if it were true. Playing politics with other people’s lives happens all too frequently at all levels of government. And there is little those people can do to change things.

When senators reconvene in September, we urge them to work as quickly as possible to vote the Miners Protection Act out of committee and to be passed by the full Senate, moving it to the House of Representatives.

More than 90,000 retired miners and their families nationwide are depending on you.