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Save coal miners’ pensions: Promise shouldn’t be broken

In the 19th century, American coal miners scraped to get by even as they labored in notoriously unsafe conditions to produce the black gold that made company owners rich and the nation strong.

It took well into the 20th century — and a series of strikes — for miners to get the respect, pay and benefits they deserved. None of those things should be taken away from them now, but that’s what is likely to happen if Congress does not rescue an industry pension fund on track to go bankrupt in 2022.

There’s no reason to let that happen. Coal miners, retirees and their families straddle the political divide, working in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky that are represented at the federal level by a group of Republicans and Democrats. A pension bailout merits bipartisan support.

In addition, President Donald Trump made the revival of Middle America — largely coal country — a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign. That’s why long-blue states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia voted for him. Backing a pension rescue would be one way of showing he won’t let the people in these places be forgotten again.

Partly because of coal company bankruptcies over the years, there aren’t enough employers paying into the fund to cover all of the benefits owed to retirees. Currently, the fund has $2 billion in assets, with $15 million in annual revenue and $600 million paid out each year to about 83,000 recipients.

Payouts average $600 a month. Some miners, worried about the fund’s long-term health, have taken part-time jobs so they can set aside money for the future.

That isn’t right. They gutted out long, hard days underground to earn those pensions — mining today is better than in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it’s still body-breaking, dangerous work — so they shouldn’t have to re-join the workforce for fear a promise made to them will be broken.

That promise came from their employers, many of whom disappeared as the industry landscape changed. But there’s something more. The United Mine Workers of America argues that the end of a nationwide strike in 1946 included a federal guarantee of miners’ pensions.

Legislation to save the pension fund has been introduced in both houses of Congress. One proposal would divert surplus money from a fund used for abandoned mine cleanup, a reasonable idea. The co-sponsors include Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa,, and Reps. Mike Doyle, DForest Hills and Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon.

Other members of Congress worry about bailing out coal miners’ pensions when other industries’ retirement plans also are struggling, and some have proposed a comprehensive approach to the nation’s pension problems.

However, time is running out for the retired miners. Worse, their pensions are at risk at the same time that some retirees also face loss of company health benefits and the federal government has cut funding to the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. The nation’s retired miners at least deserve to have their pensions remain intact.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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