By Van Jones and Jason Walsh
March 10, 2017 - On Monday, March 6, John Leach received a letter from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Health and Retirement Funds. The letter informed him that unless the US Congress acted by the end of April, the health benefits that he earned as a retired coal miner, and that serve as an irreplaceable safety net for his family, would be terminated on May 1, 2017.
John and his wife, Rhonda Leach, live in Beaver Dam, Kentucky. They are the parents of 3 children, all of whom were diagnosed with Friedreich's Ataxia, a rare genetic disease that attacks the nervous system. It is always fatal.
The Leaches did not learn of their children's diagnoses until after their youngest child was born. The Leaches' oldest child passed away several years ago. Their second child, Christopher, is very ill. Elizabeth, the youngest, is confined to a wheelchair. She is well aware that her time is all too short.
John worked for Peabody Coal for 21 years as an underground miner. His primary motivation for taking a mining job was the family health insurance he'd receive while working and the promise of health insurance and a pension upon retirement. And yet now those health benefits are slated for termination at the beginning of May. The Lynch family and more than 22,600 other retired coal miners and their dependents are approaching a health benefits cliff. Congress has an opportunity to help miners like John and it's imperative that they act now.
For the decades John worked for them, Peabody signed collective bargaining agreements with the UMWA that promised John and his family these benefits for life after he retired.
But several years after John retired, Peabody spun off responsibility for retiree benefits for the Leach family and tens of thousands of others to a new company called Patriot Coal. In 2012, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As a result of the bankruptcy process, Patriot was relieved of responsibility for retiree health care.
After a campaign by the UMWA, Patriot and Peabody agreed to pay into a special fund, which has continued to provide health care benefits for retirees like John and their dependents. (Full disclosure: one of the authors, Van Jones, was arrested while engaging in non-violent civil disobedience at a rally protesting Peabody in front of their headquarters in 2013, with the UMWA President, Cecil Roberts, and a number of retirees.)
Peabody Energy has ended its contributions to the special fund, and additional coal companies have gone through Chapter 11 and successfully imitated the Patriot model to shed themselves of financial obligations to their retirees through bankruptcy proceedings.
The long-term solvency of John's pension is also at great risk. As Roberts pointed out in his testimony to a Senate committee last year, the UMWA's multi-employer pension plan, which serves more than 90,000 retirees and their widows, became critically underfunded as a result of the Great Recession and because it no longer receives enough contributions from a dwindling number of employers.
There is a very important conversation that we need to have in this country about how easily corporations can abuse our federal bankruptcy laws to cheat their workers. But that conversation will take time and political will, and the Lynch family and thousands of other families don't have the luxury of waiting.
Congress can act in the meantime. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress have been trying for years to solve this crisis with a bill, the Miners Protection Act (MPA), that uses federal funds to pay for the threatened health benefits of mine worker retirees and strengthens the solvency of their pension plan. President Obama included this fix in his last two budget requests to Congress.
However, Congressional leaders, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the home state Senator of the Lynch family and roughly 3,000 additional retirees at risk of losing benefits, blocked the MPA from being included in omnibus appropriations legislation passed by Congress at the end of 2014 and again at the end of 2015.
Last year, in the Continuing Resolution (CR) spending bill passed in December, Congress once again failed to include the MPA. Instead, they added a mere 4-month extension of health benefits (which had originally been set to expire at the end 2016, establishing the current end of April benefits cliff).
During the debate over the CR, Senate Democrat co-sponsors of MPA sent a letter to then President-elect Trump appealing for his support, given his rhetoric on the campaign trail claiming himself to be a champion of coal miners. Trump, a man who knows a few things about abusing bankruptcy laws, remained uncharacteristically silent as the CR was finalized. He has remained silent about this crisis since then.
And now we are in March of 2017, with retirees receiving letters warning of benefit terminations and the MPA once again introduced with strong bipartisan support in both the Senate and House.
We have precedent for the bill's federal intervention. The US government effectively midwifed the establishment of the UMWA Health and Retirement Funds in 1946, in an agreement facilitated by President Harry Truman, which for the first time established a system to support coal miners and their dependents and survivors in retirement and in cases of illness and disability.
It was no coincidence that the agreement was reached the year after our country emerged victorious from World War II. It was a victory that would not have been possible without America's coal miners, who mined the coal that produced the power and the steel that won the war.
An implicit part of the 1946 agreement was an ongoing commitment by the federal government to protect the health and retirement security of mineworkers and their families, whose labor has continued to power our nation.
Congresses led by both parties have repeatedly recognized a unique federal commitment to strengthening the UMWA Health and Retirement Funds, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. President Obama continued the bipartisan tradition of honoring this commitment.
Coal miners have earned their health and retirement benefits by risking their lungs, limbs and lives on a daily basis for our nation.
America has a moral commitment to help them, and they need our help now more than ever.
This isn't a right or left political issue. It's an issue of right or wrong.