By Bryce Gray
November 3, 2017 - On Friday and Saturday, hundreds of members of the United Mine Workers of America will return to St. Louis — the hometown of corporate coal and the city where, in 2013, the organization began its ongoing fight for benefits jeopardized by the wave of bankruptcies that have plagued the industry.
To this point, the protracted fight has largely been centered on health care, with UMWA members scoring a partial victory this year when Congress passed legislation to help fully fund the health benefits promised to more than 22,000 retirees.
But now the organization is pivoting its focus and resources to pensions, where it says there is unfinished business and lingering risk to its members.
“We’re halfway finished with it,” said Phil Smith, the UMWA’s director of communications and government affairs. “We still need to secure pension benefits.”
Stretching back to the 1970s, collective bargaining agreements the union reached with various coal companies contributed money to a single pension fund for UMWA members. The problem, Smith explains, is that many of those revenue streams have dried up, as companies paying into that fund have succumbed to bankruptcy in recent years.
“We’re down to just a few companies paying into it at this point,” Smith said.
The dwindling fund supports 87,000 beneficiaries at present, with an additional 20,000 UMWA members eventually set to join them once they reach the eligible age range, according to Smith.
This week’s special convention aims to channel the UMWA’s full resources toward a push on the pension issue by moving money into the union’s general fund.
If the effort to secure health care benefits is any indication, the fight over pensions figures to be another costly and politically charged battle. The multi-year push on that front cost the union $31 million, according to an advisory detailing this week’s proceedings. It also sparked two dozen marches, rallies and protests by UMWA members, including 12 that were staged in St. Louis in 2013, with Peabody’s downtown headquarters a main target for demonstrations.
Prior to her husband’s hospitalization earlier this week, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., had been scheduled to appear at the convention, though UMWA officials said her attendance is now in doubt.
Smith said the convention could be attended by about 900 people, including 390 UMWA delegates from the U.S. and Canada. He also said the union is “bringing in anyone who was arrested at any rally” protesting the potential loss of health benefits.