Breaking the Krug-Lewis Agreement: Retired Coal Miners Fear Loss of Promised Benefits

Photo courtesy of Pixabay


By Natalia Holliday, Staff Writer

For many Pennsylvanians, coal mines are a source of both great pride and serious tension and uncertainty. Miners have powered America through the 20th century and implemented one of the most impactful and hard-earned, pro-worker unions in the United States. They have believed in the security of their benefits since the 1946 Krug-Lewis Agreement between the U.S. government and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).[1]

That contract, signed in part to end a months-long national coal strike, created a fund guaranteeing retirement security and cradle-to-grave healthcare for mining families in return for miners’ labor in an often abusive work environment.[2] The UMWA Health and Retirement Funds are sustained through contributions from coal companies and the federal government, but the Funds are on a fast path to insolvency.[3] Mismanagement and overly-generous benefits are not to blame; rather, the depreciation of the value of the coal industry and ensuing bankruptcies by coal companies have put the Funds in a precarious position.[4]

When coal companies file for bankruptcy, whether for legitimate or strategic reasons, they are relieved of their legal obligations to pay into the Funds, risking the promised benefits of thousands of retirees.[5] Congress has previously stepped up to support “orphaned” miners in difficult times.[6] Now, it is reluctant to pass legislation that would “bail out” unionized workers — despite the Krug-Lewis Agreement.[7]

The proposed legislation is the Miners Protection Act. It is a bipartisan bill to amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to transfer funds to the Multiemployer Health Benefit Plan and 1974 UMWA Pension Plan.[8] According to UMWA President Cecil Roberts, the Act would save the Pension Plan and the multiemployer plan from sure failure, at relatively low cost to the federal government.[9] With coal companies now regularly filing for bankruptcy, insolvency of the Funds is approaching at an accelerated pace.[10]

Congress avoided enacting the Miners Protection Act at the end of 2016, passing only a four-month stopgap measure ensuring benefits through the end of April 2017.[11] With the expiration of the stopgap fast approaching, sponsors of the Miners Protection Act are fighting for support for the permanent fix.

The bill’s cosponsors, Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin, premise their fight on the belief that the federal government cannot abandon coal miners, many of whom were induced to go into the mines by the promise of lifetime health care through the Krug-Lewis Agreement.[12] Opponents to the bill premise their stance on the belief that it is not the federal government’s job to bail out unionized workers.[13] Miners who rely on the benefits simply fear for their families’ futures without pensions or health care.

As a region whose economy and culture was largely built on coal, the outcome of the fight for the Miners Protection Act will directly affect many Pennsylvanians and their families. While the coal industry itself is a topic of heated debate, promised retiree benefits is an independent issue worthy of serious interest and concern from Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The temporary stopgap expires on April 28, but union coal miners are unlikely to let that date be the end of it.



[1] UMWA, The Promise of 1946,

[2] Id.

[3] Testimony of Cecil E. Roberts, International President United Mine Workers of America before the United States Senate Committee on Finance on S. 1714, the Miners Protection Act, March 1, 2016.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Anne Li, UMWA Health and Retirement Funds Warns Retired Miners that They May Lose Benefits,

[8] S. 175, Miners Protection Act of 2017,

[9] Testimony of Cecil E. Roberts, supra.

[10] Id.

[11] H.R. 2028, Further Continuing and Security Assistance Appropriations Act, 2017,

[12] Anne Li, supra.

[13] Scott Simon, Benefits In Jeopardy For Retired Coal Miners,

Comments are closed.