House Passes Bill to Protect Multi-employer Pension Plans

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

With strong union backing, the Democratic-run U.S. House passed a bill, HR397, to help financially ailing multi-employer pension plans. The 264-169 vote saw 29 Republicans defy the party line and vote for the workers and retirees, joining all 235 Democrats. But for Sam Ball and other disabled and ill retired coal miners, in his case stricken with black lung and barely able to walk, it may not be enough.

That’s because the measure would help two financially ailing miners’ pension plans only until 2020 – and there are so few contributing coal companies (one) active miners per retiree (also one) and so many retirees (30) for each plan – that both will run out of money before then.

And that leaves Ball, a retired coal miner from far Southwestern Virginia, part of the heart of the Appalachian coal country, broke, along with 1,200 other retirees or widows his former coal firm employer left behind, he told a House Energy subcommittee that deals with coal mine issues on July 24, the same day the House approved the wider bill.

“I have second-stage black lung in both lungs, but have been turned down for federal black lung benefits because the government says the coal dust has not yet crystallized in my lungs and I am not disabled enough to get those benefits yet,” Ball explained.  “My lung doctor says there is no reason I should be denied benefits, but the truth is what has happened to me is not unusual.

“Most people I know with black lung are denied benefits. I can tell you that I cannot walk across my yard without stopping, I do not have the breath for any activities, I sleep with an oxygen tube in my nose at night and I need a sleeping supplement to deal with that.”

After taxes, Ball’s pension from the Mine Workers is $475 a month, under a pension plan the government set up for UMWA members in 1947, the same year it set up the health care plan for retirees who gave their lives – and their health – toiling in dangerous underground mines.

A $5 per ton tax on coal, paid by the coal companies, funds the pension and health care plans. The pension fund and health care fund were fully funded until the 2008 Great Recession wiped out their assets and sent most of the coal companies into bankruptcy, where they could shed their pensions and health care, Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts explained.

The situation is now so bad, and there are so few firms left, that one company will be paying 97% of the money for retirees’ health care, Roberts added. Even with that firm, grudgingly, paying the coal tonnage fees, the two funds run out of cash in 2020 or before. For every miner whose firm sends money into the two funds, there are 30 retirees or widows drawing on them.

“I am one of those 1,200 retirees who need you to pass both HR934 and HR935, because both our retiree health care and our pensions are on the chopping block,” Ball said. “If I were to lose my health care I don’t have the resources to purchase a plan to make up the difference between what Medicare pays and what I need, especially in terms of the prescriptions medications I have.”

“To see my pension wiped out or even cut would mean that I would no longer break even, meaning I would soon have to sell my home and go live with my daughter, if she could even take me in with three children of her own.”

“This is not what I expected would happen in my old age when I started working in the coal mines. We all knew of the government’s promise to coal miners, which was to make sure our retirement would be guaranteed if the company we worked for was no longer around. I worked hard for almost 21 years underground, put my life and my health on the line every day and helped Westmoreland Coal make a lot of money.”

But Westmoreland is gone and the funds are running out of money, Roberts and Ball told the House panel. The committee’s ruling Democrats were sympathetic and promised to do what they could to both write the 1947 agreements into law and to shore up the funds.

The Republicans called a witness from the right-wing Heritage Foundation, who recommended folding the miners’ pensions and health care into the wider legislation, HR397, covering all the ailing multi-employer pension plans – and the GOP opposed that bill as a “bailout.”

The Republicans alleged union and company trustees overpromised and mismanaged the pension and health care plans, which were, instead, sunk by the financier-caused crash. The financiers, like coal company owners, are part of the pro-GOP capitalist class.

The House disregarded the GOP screams and passed HR397 anyway. That legislation would help not just the miners like Ball, but also Teamsters, Electrical Workers, other construction workers, Musicians, grocery workers, shipyard workers, stevedores and others multi-employer pension plans cover. It would establish 30-year repayable-with-interest federal loans to plans which could prove they could resume solvency without cutting payments to current beneficiaries – as a 2014 law now allows.

“The legislation is an essential step to help secure the retirement security of more than 1.5 million workers and retirees nationwide,” said David Durkee, president of the Bakery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM).

“Many experts told us as recently as last week that getting this to vote before the upcoming recess was slim to none. But here we are with another major victory because our Union never gives up. On to the Senate!”

“The BCTGM has placed the highest priority on preserving and strengthening our members’ pensions. Now, more than ever, BCTGM members in every one of our shops, together with our retirees, must remain united in solidarity and continue to raise our voices to the Senate,” he urged.

“If passed and signed into law,” the companion Senate bill, S2254 by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, “would provide low-interest government loans to struggling multiemployer plans, including the AFM-EPF,” said Musicians President Ray Hair. “These loans would allow multiemployer funds to meet their commitments to current retirees while the funds grow back to stronger financial footing.

AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel reminded lawmakers they spent $700 billion to rescue the financial firms which caused the recession in the first place. They should do no less for the workers whose pensions the bank-caused crash smashed, he said.

“Absent federal action, the retirement income security of over one million workers, retirees, and their spouses across the country will be in jeopardy because of the impending failure of their multiemployer pension plans,” he wrote.

“By establishing a federal loan program for troubled plans meeting certain criteria, HR397 reflects the fact that allowing these plans to fail will have a devastating impact not only on individual retirees and their families, but also on their communities and their employers.”

“Working men and women whose retirement income security is at risk have not forgotten the 2008 record-setting federal rescue of Wall Street. Multiemployer pension plan participants and retirees are no less worthy than the financial services firms who were the beneficiaries of the $700 billion. Moreover, unlike the Wall Street banks, they played no part in either the industry deregulation or financial crisis that weakened many multiemployer pension plans,” he stated.

***

 

            The Senate has yet to consider Brown’s legislation, and no date was set for a House panel work session on the two measures to aid the coal miners.  

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Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Steel for Wind Power

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

Siemens Gamesa last month laid off 130 workers at its turbine blade manufacturing plant in Iowa, just months after GE Renewable Energy decided to close an Arkansas factory and eliminate 470 jobs.

The companies reported shrinking demand for their products, even though U.S. consumption of wind energy increases every year.

America’s prosperity depends not only on harnessing this crucial energy source but also ensuring that highly skilled U.S. workers build the components with the cleanest technology available.

Right now, the nation relies on imported steel and turbine components from foreign manufacturers like China while America’s own steel industry—well equipped for this production—struggles because of dumping and other unfair trade practices.

Steel makes up the bulk of turbine hubs and the wind towers themselves. It’s also used to make the cranes and platforms necessary for installing the towers.

Yet the potential boon to America’s steel industry is just one reason to ramp up domestic production of wind energy infrastructure.

American steel production ranks among the cleanest in the world, while China has the highest carbon emissions of any steelmaking nation and flouts environmental regulations.

The nation’s highly-skilled steelmaking workforce must play an essential role in the deeply-needed revitalization and modernization of the nation’s failing infrastructure. Producing the components for harnessing wind energy domestically and cleanly is an important step that will put Americans to work and position the United States to be world leaders in this growing industry.

 

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