The predicament coal miners find themselves in is very complex. In an effort to explain why this is so, here’s some background on the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and coal industry history.
The UMWA was the very first union to negotiate for benefits for its workers. In the 1920’s, there were 850,000 workers in the Coal Mining industry. By the mid 1940s (and beyond), the miners were literally powering the nation. It was coal that helped power the factories through the depression, the war and the nation’s post-war boom. Coal powered all of the nation’s homes. The miners were solely responsible for America’s economy. In 1946, the UMWA threatened to go on strike due to a lack of worker benefits. President Truman, along with the UMWA and coal companies, made a promise to the nation’s miners that they would have lifelong health and pension benefits. After all, not only had they kept the nation afloat during tough economic and war times, but the dangers associated with mining were (and continue to be) incredibly life threatening. President Truman’s agreement specifically placed the responsibility for the pension plan with the Union in a separate Union Pension Trust Fund. Historically, this “promise” has been the reason for continued congressional support for the coal mining industry.
Over the years, the coal industry continued to decline. The availability of cheaper fuel (natural gas), mechanization, the decline in coal exports, and the untoward effects of coal processing on the environment caused the coal industry to further dwindle. Many coal companies went bankrupt, leaving their workers without wages or pension benefits. By the end of 2016, the number of miners decreased to 50,000. Of these 50,000 miners, only approximately 10,000 are union members who pay into the pension fund. That number is important in explaining where the Right to Work laws come into play and how they have also affected the UMWA’s ability to fund their pensions.
Currently, the top state producers of coal are (in descending order) Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Montana, Texas, and Indiana. All of those states except for Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Montana are Right to Work states. Likewise, It’s important to note that as of 2015, the State of Kentucky has 0 (zero) union members in their mines.
The Republican Party has pushed Right to Work laws for years. Under those laws, employees in a unionized workplace are not compelled to join the union, are not compelled to pay for any part of their union representation; yet are given the same union protections as members who contribute. The intent is to bankrupt the Unions; when unions are gone, wages and benefits will go down. The Right to Work laws as well as coal company bankruptcies has further placed the unions in an untenable position. To summarize, out of the 50,000 currently employed miners, there are only approximately 10,000 union workers paying into the pension fund that is funding the pensions of over approximately 120,000 retired union coal miners (i.e., one contributing union member for every 12 retirees). There simply aren’t enough working union members to keep the funds solvent.
Government funding of pension plans is considered a “bail-out” by the current administration. In May of 2015, Rep. McKinley (R-WV) sponsored the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act. Rep. Shimkus did not sign on to co-sponsor that bill. In the fall of 2016, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) sponsored the Miner’s Protection Act which included both health care and pension benefits. Shimkus did not support that bill. Rather, in response to those bills, the Heritage Foundation explained the House Republican’s position perfectly by stating that (1) the bill would bail-out UMWA pensions at a cost of 490 million per year; (2) such action would set an incredibly dangerous precedent, opening the door to taxpayer bail-outs of other non-funded pension liabilities across the country; and (3) the government facilitated a temporary health and welfare agreement in 1946, but the plan’s funding was the responsibility of the union and fund trustees. I guess it didn’t matter to the Heritage Foundation that Republicans were partly responsible for union’s inability to keep the pension fund solvent with their quest to break up unions with Right to Work laws and their love of money from the oil and gas industries. Although Shimkus has sponsored and introduced several bills to bring back coal jobs, they never passed for obvious reasons. Yet Shimkus continued to pander to the miners knowing that coal jobs weren’t coming back and knowing that he couldn’t go against the party line to support a pension “bail-out”.
What Shimkus isn’t saying to the miners is that in order for the coal industry to make a comeback, natural gas prices would need to significantly increase (which would only result if we roll back drilling and fracking for oil and gas), federal tax breaks and subsidies would have to be given to the coal companies (coal extraction has become more difficult), all environmental protections would need to be removed, and the other five states would have to repeal their Right to Work laws. While the current administration is indeed removing some federal regulations, it is doubtful Illinois’ EPA would remove their state-mandated protections. Natural gas prices won’t increase as long as the oil and gas industries thrive and give Shimkus (and the other Republican legislators) gigantic donations. In order for the UMWA Pension Trust Fund to become fully solvent on its own, Right to Work laws in the five mining states would have to cease. In essence, all of the above scenarios would have to occur to bring back the coal industry. To make matters worse for miners to obtain other jobs, the current administration has also proposed a 40% reduction in funding for job training programs, such as WorkAdvance developed from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The budget also cuts entire funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission (provides job training, reclaim lands, and needed social services to miners). It’s time for Shimkus to come clean on these issues.
Rather than tout truth, Shimkus continues his efforts to convince miners that he will bring back coal jobs and fight for their healthcare and pensions while he gladly accepts their donations and votes. Shimkus has had the opportunity to co-sponsor five healthcare/pension bills since 2015. He only co-sponsored a health care bill in March, 2017, but this bill contained no mention of funding for pensions and never went anywhere. It’s too difficult for Shimkus to take a public stand on his position with the miners (other than in small group settings where he can easily lie) because he is beholden to the political contributions from the oil and gas industries: a whopping $180,450 in 2016 alone and a career total of $752,061, most of which has been received since 2014. In addition, Shimkus has already received $31,500 oil and gas PAC money since January of 2017. At that rate, by 2018, Shimkus will have received over a million dollars from them. The coal industry, on the other hand, has only given him $37,500 over his entire career. From what we’ve already learned about Shimkus’ other top donors (such as the pharmaceutical industry) he seems to worry only about pleasing those who give him the most money.
Shimkus touts the party line and repeatedly tells miners that the coal industry is coming back. He is bought and paid for in this situation by the oil and gas industries. He can’t continue to profess to help the miners by promising imaginary coal jobs and voting against all renewable energy bills and bail outs. He is not in a position to help the miners without giving up all that oil and gas money. He is, however, in a position to support the pension funding for the miners. He just won’t as evidenced by the only healthcare bill for miners he supported which excluded pension funding.
Carl Spoerer will sponsor pension funding legislation. Carl will ensure that any proposed budget cuts to job training programs are restored and additional resources obtained. Carl will do everything possible for these miners to include bringing renewable energy and other manufacturing jobs to the district. Carl will oppose any legislation having the intent to cripple unions. You can view Carl’s plans for Illinois’ 15th District HERE.