Coal mining continues to be one of the most hazardous professions in our society. Even today, while the number of large-scale mining disasters and the number of deaths have certainly declined, coal miners continue to face a work environment that is inherently toxic and unhealthy. Coal miners who survive the mines walk away from their profession with significant health impairments and shorter life expectancies than most other Americans.
Yet for centuries, miners have braved dangers for the promise of better lives for their families. And since 1946 they have been supported by a compact between miners, owners and the federal government, that made health care and pensions an integral part of the profession in this country.
However, structural changes in the U.S. economy have strained, if not unraveled, this compact. And mine owners have consistently sought to shed their obligations towards miners and their families. Most recently, a judge allowed the bankrupt Westmoreland Coal Company to abandon its promise of paying for the health care of retired union workers as well as its union contracts. The company announced March 4, 2019 that a bankruptcy court has approved the sale of many of its assets to creditors and that business will “continue operating in the normal course.”
Except that it won’t for coal miners, of course, who will lose many of their benefits even as creditors at least get some of the company’s assets. And Westmoreland is hardly the only mining company eagerly reneging on its decades-old promises.
Coal miners have literally provided the fuel for the unprecedented industrialization of this country. Living in West Virginia and having written about the plight of coal workers’ health care as a public policy scholar, I believe the way forward involves the nation honoring its commitment to past and current miners. Yet, it also involves an honest acknowledgment that nation’s energy mix of the future will likely feature a diminished role for coal.
The changing fortunes of the coal industry
At the heart of the current situation is an agreement between the federal government and the United Coal Miners of America dating from 1946. Faced with a series of strikes across different industries after World War II, President Truman, in line with a long line of federal interventions in the coal industry, took control over the nation’s coal mines in order to keep them operating. The conflict was ultimately settled by the Krug-Lewis Agreement of 1946 which, among other things, established health care and pension funds for union miners.
For several decades, with a large number of union miners contributing, the health care and pension trust funds were sufficiently funded in general. However, over time both trust funds started to incur structural deficits for a variety of reasons.
For one, employment in the coal industry has been shrinking steadily over the past few decades, from more than 850,000 in the 1920s to just over 50,000 today. Employment reductions have been driven by efficiency gains, mechanization, a shift toward surface mining, and lower demand.
Moreover, of those miners remaining, a vast majority are not union members. As a result, there are only a few thousand union coal miners left to pay into these funds, while roughly 12 times as many are currently drawing health care and pension benefits.
The Great Recession aggravated the situation. Faced with mounting obligation and declining markets, some of the nation’s largest coal companies declared bankruptcy. This allowed them to shed their obligations to their former employees. The situation has shown few signs of abatement under the Trump administration.