Joe Brown worked for more than 30 years as a roof bolter at the Federal #2 Mine in Marion County. Installing roof supports is one of the most hazardous jobs in coal mining, essential to the safety of all the other miners. Even though Brown’s lanky 6-foot-3 frame made bolting easier for him than others, he’s had four surgeries ― two on his back, two on his knees ― as a result of his decades at the mine.
But the union job helped Brown and his wife, Jo-Ann, buy a modest ranch house with a yard big enough for a ride-on mower, and put their three now-grown daughters through school. A small sign hangs on a tree beside Brown’s driveway, just across the street from a church: “Welcome to Brownsville, population 5. Mayor: Joe Brown.”
The mining work also assured him security in old age through retiree health coverage and a defined-benefit pension ― crucial perks that made the dangerous work and risk of black lung disease worth undertaking for Brown, who was one of just a few African Americans in his mine. When his injuries forced him into early retirement and onto disability in 2002, the benefits became even more vital.
“It was in writing that the pension would be secure,” Brown, now 78, said on a recent afternoon, taking a break from remodeling his bathroom. “A pension ’til I pass away ― that was the deal.”
But the pension plan through the United Mine Workers of America that Brown and 86,000 other retirees rely on is on track to be insolvent in about three years, which could result in deep cuts to once-guaranteed monthly payments. A growing number of plans are in similarly bad shape. If nothing is done, the coming rash of insolvencies could torpedo part of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, or PBGC, the government-run corporation that insures defined-benefit pensions.
Brown’s is what’s known as a multiemployer pension plan. Anywhere from a handful to hundreds of companies contribute funds to these plans on behalf of their workers, with payments negotiated through union contracts. The plans are common in the construction, transportation and service sectors, providing a portable benefit in cyclical industries where workers frequently change jobs. But many plans have run into trouble, losing their stream of income, as industries change and unionized employers go out of business.
While most of the 1,400 multiemployer plans in the U.S. are not in any danger, some 130 plans are projected to be insolvent within 15 to 20 years. The PBGC’s multiemployer insurance program, which would need to step in to help cover pension payments for those plans, is expected to go under by 2025 if lawmakers don’t intervene with a plan to save it.
Brown currently receives around $1,300 a month through his pension ― which, combined with his and his wife’s Social Security and the income from her part-time job, is enough to cover their basic expenses. If PBGC’s program collapses, his pension could be worth almost nothing.
The only real options for policymakers are to increase contributions by employers, shave benefits for retirees, or provide plans with government aid, such as federally backed loans ― an idea that has already drawn “bailout” criticisms from conservatives. The most likely course is a combination of all of the above.
Of course conservatives are going to whine about giving West Virginia coal miners their pensions. The entire article is actually a pretty sophisticated economic analysis of the situation with a long comparison to the trucking industry, some mild criticism of Trump, and then this:
Cecil Roberts, the president of the UMWA, said the key to any legislative fix is the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky senator hasn’t allowed any plan to go to the floor for a vote, but he is facing reelection next year and represents a big coal state. McConnell would want the pension issue taken care of before next fall, especially if Democrats can put up a viable challenger against him.
“He can either be the obstacle or the catalyst here,” Roberts said. “We’re hoping the senator realizes that there are a lot of retirees in Kentucky who need these pensions.”
Merriman hopes to make it to the miners’ next rally and lobbying effort at the U.S. Capitol, but his health issues don’t always make such trips easy. Now 67, he’s had five heart attacks and two open-heart surgeries. Much of his $981 monthly pension goes toward co-pays and medicine for him and his wife. Even with good health insurance through his union, retirement has become more expensive than he imagined.
At the end of the month, he added, “there’s really nothing left.”
For all the talk about how coal miners love Trump and all, the UMWA is still a pretty strong union for progressive causes. Yes, they can’t get too far out in front of their membership. But Mitch McConnell is absolutely the right person to focus on here. The problem isn’t Congress, it’s Republicans. Of course, none of this will convince coal miners to vote for Democrats because they kill babies and love Mexicans. But still, the union is on the right page here.