UMW president addresses pension crisis during Robena Mine memorial service

December 6, 2016
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Bob Niedbala/Observer-Reporter
Members of Masontown VFW Post 4584 rifle team stand at attention Tuesday morning at the Robena Memorial on Route 21 in Monongahela Township. Order a Print
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AP Photo
UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts testifies in February before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on the union’s troubled 1974 pension plan. At his right is Rita Lewis of West Chester, Ohio, who spoke of the insolvency of the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Plan.
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U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Order a Print

MASONTOWN – A year-end funding package expected to be approved by Congress this week is likely to provide money to support health care benefits for retired union coal miners, but not financial support for the union’s ailing pension fund, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said Tuesday.

Speaking at the annual memorial service in Monongahela Township for the 37 miners who were killed in the Dec. 6, 1962 explosion at the U.S. Steel Co.’s Robena Mine, Roberts said continuation of the health care benefits at this point, itself, is a “miracle,” but it’s not the solution the union hopes to accomplish.

“Our retirees were promised lifetime health care and they were promised lifetime pensions,” he said. “…We should not accept anything less than that.”

Congress is expected to act on the year-end funding package, or continuing resolution, by the end of the week before it adjourns for the holiday. The resolution will provide money for the government to continue to operate.

On Monday, four U.S. Senators, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said they will attempt to block action on all legislation in the Senate until Congress addresses the Miners Protection Act, the bill written to provide financial support to the union’s health care and pension programs. Casey, joined by U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Joe Manchin D-W.Va. and Mark Warner D-Va., said the four will oppose any attempts to pass legislation by unanimous consent until action is taken to address the miners’ plight.

Most legislators from the coal fields have supported the legislation 100 percent “and have been fighting hard for us,” Roberts said. But he took Congress to task for not approving a bill that appears to have more than enough votes to pass.

“How is it we have enough votes in the Senate and we have enough votes in the House … but we’re sitting here today and 15,000 people are scared to death they are going to lose their health care and eventually part of their pensions,” he asked.

Though the bill has more than enough support in both chambers, Roberts said, the leadership has failed to move it forward for a vote.

The Miners Protection Act, approved by the Senate Finance Committee in September, would provide funding for health care benefits for retired union miners who worked at bankrupt coal companies, including those miners at Alpha Natural Resources’ closed Emerald Mine near Waynesburg.

About 12,500 retired miners stand to lose their health care benefits Dec. 31 because the program that has funded the benefits will be exhausted. Benefits for Emerald miners are expected to end in August.

The act would also include money to supplement the union’s underfunded pension plan. The pension plan, which was almost fully funded prior to the 2008 recession but which now faces insolvency, provides pensions to about 90,000 retirees and covers future claims for an additional 16,000 miners.

Even though Congress might not address the union’s pension fund in the continuing resolution, Roberts said, that doesn’t mean retirees will see an immediate end to their pension checks. The solvency of the fund will not be an issue until later, he said.

The Miners protection Act called for using excess money in the Abandoned Mine Land fund to support the pension plan and provide health benefits to those who worked for companies that have filed for bankruptcy.

The UMW rallied in Washington D.C. in September to gain support for the bill, asking Congress only to keep the “promise” made by the federal government to union miners in 1946.

That “promise” of lifetime pensions and health benefits to miners and their families was first made in 1946 during negotiations between the UMW and the federal government, which had seized the nation’s coal mines to resolve long-running strikes. It was included in all subsequent union contracts.

Bob Niedbala worked as a general assignment reporter for the newspaper for 27 years in the Greene County bureau. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh.

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