The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 24      July 4, 2011

Coal contract gives up
pension for new hires
For ranks, there’s no peace with mine bosses
(front page)
CHARLESTON, West Virginia—Members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union voted by 70 percent to approve a new contract with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) June 17. The agreement includes wage increases of $6 an hour over the next five and a half years. A major change from previous agreements is the elimination of union pensions for workers hired after Jan. 1, 2012.

Since only one coal company—Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy—is today a member of the BCOA, the agreement technically applies only to the 3,000 miners who work for Consol. Contract provisions on company payments into the union pension fund affect all coal companies who have union retirees, however. UMWA members at other major coal companies voted on the proposed pact, which continues to serve as a basis for union negotiations with these coal bosses.

Some miners in this region told the Militant that the new agreement would deepen divisions among miners. “The companies dangled a lot of money in front of us, which is why this passed,” said one miner who works at the Hobet coal operation near here. “But I don’t like that new miners will not receive a pension. It makes you wonder whether there will be pensions for any of us in the future.”

UMWA officials have stressed that the union’s pension fund is headed toward insolvency, having lost 22 percent of its value in 2008-2009. Union officials are instead encouraging workers to invest in company 401(k) plans. The average pension for a retired miner is $590 a month and for a surviving spouse about $300 a month. More than 40 percent of miners receiving pensions are over 75.

The new contract goes into effect as mine operators are ramping up production—and jeopardizing safety, many miners point out—to maximize profit while there is a strong market for coal.

Workers, not just in the coalfields, are paying the price for years of business unionism that placed obtaining “fringe benefits,” such as pensions and health insurance, from a particular company or industry ahead of leading a fight for the needs of the working class as a whole. These fringes are good in good times—for a shrinking number of workers who have them—but they fall apart as the capitalist system goes into crisis.

While there is some hiring today for experienced miners, there are few jobs for new workers in the mines or other industries. West Virginia mining businesses added only 375 jobs in the last year.

“I’ve never seen it so hard to get a job as it has been the last two years,” said Casey Harmon, from Madison, West Virginia. Harmon left a coal-mining job with Massey Energy after the company “realigned” the job he was working and called him back to work at $5 less an hour.

This area of West Virginia is also the site of the last major coal mine disaster, which took the lives of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine south of Charleston last year. The Massey Energy mine owners refuse to take responsibility for the mine explosion there in spite of numerous reports about unsafe practices that directly contributed to the disaster.
Related articles:
‘Workers need to get together and stand up’  
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