May 18, 2017 - Mitch McConnell made them sweat until there was no chance that Democrat Barack Obama could get any credit, but finally the Senate majority leader gave a green light to rescuing the health-care benefits owed to 22,600 union coal miners and their widows.
Now McConnell and the rest of Congress must get busy protecting the pensions of miners and thousands of other Americans who worked hard all their lives but are facing impoverishment in old age because of faltering pension plans.
The pension crisis threatens almost 120,000 miners and widows, including 9,000 in Kentucky, and will be thornier than health care to fix because it’s part of a wider problem.
The federal insurance plan for multi-employer pensions, those plans in which a number of employers in the same industry join to pool pension payments, is severely underfunded and likely to run out of money by 2025. Meanwhile, almost a million Americans are in multi-employer pension plans that are classified as in critical or declining status, according to the Pension Rights Center.
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal agency that insures pensions, would likely be busted by the failure of the miners’ pension plan. The United Mine Workers of America pension plan, which was in good shape before 2008, has been crushed by the double whammy of the 2008 stock market crash and the coal industry’s decline.
In December 2015, McConnell blocked the Miners Protection Act, a bipartisan rescue of miners’ health care and pensions that had the Obama administration’s support.
More recently McConnell, the most powerful Kentuckian in Washington, successfully pushed for a temporary health-care fix and then the permanent plan that cleared Congress and was signed by President Donald Trump last week as part of a big spending bill.
The rescue came just in time as 3,000 Kentuckians whose employers have gone bankrupt were about to be cut off from the health-care benefits on which they depend. (This rescue won’t help miners whose benefits are threatened by coal companies going out of business in the future.)
We join the UMWA in thanking McConnell for protecting the miners and their hometown medical providers from losing $59 million a year in health-care benefits in Kentucky alone.
McConnell, who took credit for the health-care rescue, has said nothing about the related and looming crisis in the coal miners’ pension fund.
But the challenges of securing Americans’ retirements will only grow as work becomes ever more automated and baby boomers age out of the workforce in ever greater numbers. Those combined trends will leave behind a smaller number of workers to contribute to pension funds for the larger senior population.
The average UMWA pension is $530 a month. Even in today’s fast-changing and politically polarized times, Americans surely still agree that decades of hard — and, for coal miners, deadly — work should be rewarded with more than an old age in poverty.