Patrick McGinley, a professor of law at the West Virginia University College of Law, says that coal has long earned a special position with American lawmakers because of coal’s one-time essential role in powering the nation. It was coal that helped power factories through the wars, and that helped sustain the nation’s post-war boom. “Historically, the reason for congressional support for coal miners has been a recognition that they have contributed so much to the prosperity of American economy. Through the World Wars, through Vietnam, they have powered American industry,” he said. Smith, of the United Mine Workers, says Congress has also recognized that coal-mining jobs were dangerous. “It was because miners were putting their lives and limbs and health on the line to provide the energy to fuel the nation that caused the benefits to be set up in the first place,” he said.
Some in Congress also recognize that if the health benefits were to lapse, there could be huge ripple effects in local economies across the country. People who no longer have health insurance will show up at emergency rooms, those whose pensions are reduced will depend more on services like food banks, and local government will have to step in. About half of the 22,000 miners set to lose health insurance will be eligible for Medicare, according to Smith.
Greszler has a different argument. She says coal is special to Congress because mine workers are good at lobbying. The Senate Finance Committee passed the Miners Protection Act last year with a significant number of Republicans voting for it, which is unusual for a bill supported by a union. “Coal has a very prominent influence on the hill and among certain legislators,” she said.
That influence might not be powerful enough to get Congress to act on both healthcare and pensions. The most likely course, Smith said, is that Congress will step in to shore up the miners’ health care funds, but not the pension funds. The miners’ pension funds, then, will be left to the same fate as thousands of other flailing pension funds across the country—it will have to eventually depend on the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. And the PBGC does not have enough money to guarantee those pensions in the long run.
About 90,000 mineworkers are currently receiving a pension, and if the PBGC has to step in and pay for those pensions, it could very well bankrupt the agency. PBGC was hard hit by the financial crisis of 2008, and went from running a surplus to funding shortages, according to the Pension Research Council. As various companies in dying industries go bankrupt and stop paying pensions, PBGC is under more and more financial pressure to step in and save multi-employer plans.
Congress will eventually have to figure out a way to save the PBGC, says Barry Slevin, a principal at the law firm Slevin & Hart and an expert on employee benefits. If it doesn’t, the government agency will go bankrupt. But Congress currently has little incentive to spend taxpayer money to shore up an insolvent government agency. “We know from the Social Security debate, from the Medicare debate, that Congress does not deal with issue like this early in the problem. They tend to react to emergencies,” he said.
Congress isn’t bound to take the long view, then. Even if it does step in to help the coal miners, Congress is eventually going to have to face all the other pensioners who were also promised benefits for life. If Congress could learn anything from the experience of the mineworkers, it would be that the problems of private pensions in America are just starting to emerge.