By David Brandolph
Retirees around the country cheered when congressional leaders included the Bipartisan American Miners Act of 2019 in a must pass end-of-the-year federal government spending bill signed by the President.
The new law provides funds to pay the pensions of 92,000 retired miners. The money will come from surplus assets held in the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund which Congress created decades ago to clean-up abandoned mine sites.
The law, which marked the culmination of more than nine years of intense lobbying by members of the United Mine Workers of America, will make it possible for the retirees to continue to receive pensions that average about $600 per month, a small but difference-making sum for miners who risked their lives to support their families and communities.
The miners’ legislative victory demonstrates that Congress can find bipartisan solutions to protect multiemployer pension plans and their members. A December 2019 study by Cheiron, an actuarial consulting firm, showed that up to 116 other multiemployer plans are facing insolvency, putting more than one million plan members at risk of losing most or all of their benefits.
More than 90,000 workers and retirees are in plans that have already received government approval to cut benefits under a federal law passed six years ago. The latest plan to apply to cut benefits is the American Federation of Musicians’ Pension Plan. The plan’s trustees have proposed reducing benefits for nearly half of the plan’s members, ranging from relatively small cuts, to cuts as large as 40% for some of the plan’s retirees.
Karen Friedman, Executive Vice President of the Pension Rights Center, says “the need for federal legislation is urgent. If Republicans and Democrats can come together to save the pensions of miners, they can also do this for musicians, truck drivers, bakery workers, iron workers, laborers and others.”
Significant progress has been made: Last summer, the House of Representatives passed the Butch Lewis Act. Championed by Ways and Means Chairman, Richard Neal (D-MA), the bill would provide loans to financially troubled plans. In the Senate, the chairmen of the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), respectively, released an alternative proposal that would relieve plans from having to pay certain “legacy” liabilities. Now the challenge is for the House and Senate to find common ground.
Each day that passes without a solution increases the ultimate cost of any proposed remedy and prolongs the anxiety of plan members who worked hard for years all the while agreeing in bargaining to accept lower wages and fewer benefits in exchange for a pension promise they and their families are counting on for a secure retirement.