West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin introduced a new bill that would protect the pensions of American workers and retirees from corporations seeking bankruptcy protection or simply trying to increase profit margins.
“For far too long, American greed has influenced Wall Street firms that have taken over companies, cut wages and paid executives large bonuses while walking away from their pension obligations for their employees and retirees,” Sen. Manchin, a Democrat, said in a statement about his proposed bill, the Stop Looting American Pensions (SLAP) Act.
If passed, the bill would offer vital financial protection for workers who have paid into a pension plan with their employer. Thousands of West Virginian workers are facing financial hardship as coal mines continue to declare bankruptcy – a trend that has gained momentum since Donald Trump took office in 2017.
On Oct. 28, Murray Energy, the largest coal company in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy. Murray was the 11th coal company to declare bankruptcy since Trump took office. The company operates 42 mines in Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Utah and West Virginia, and two mines in South America.
Despite Trump’s vows to revive the industry, his grand plan mostly included rolling back 85 environmental protection rules. But those rollbacks haven’t been enough to spare coal companies from the booming natural gas industry and surging demand for renewable energy resources.
When faced with bankruptcy and other financial challenges, however, it’s not uncommon for corporations to put employee pensions on the chopping block, leaving workers without the retirement income they planned for and need.
Sen. Manchin warned that the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) will be insolvent a year from now if Murray Energy refuses to pay its pension obligations.
“The SLAP Act ensures all workers, union and non-union, are treated fairly when a company files for bankruptcy and ends the inequities of the current system,” Sen. Manchin said. “This legislation is necessary as companies nationwide are using the laws of this nation to pull the rug from under their workers by skirting their pension obligations. In West Virginia, we’re all too familiar with this. It is unacceptable, and it’s time we stand up for the American worker and protect their pensions.”
The UMWA sounded a similar warning after hearing of Murray Energy’s bankruptcy filing.
“Now comes the part where workers and their families pay the price for corporate decision-making and governmental actions,” the union said in a statement. The organization noted that Murray “will file a motion in bankruptcy court to throw out its collective bargaining agreement with the union,” and seek “to be relieved of its obligations to retirees, their dependents and widows.”
The SLAP Act would work by taking aim at bankruptcy laws that put workers at a severe disadvantage when it comes to bankruptcy. The bill seeks to “move Americans to the front of the line” in bankruptcy proceedings.
It would also require companies to make minimum funding contributions toward pension plans during bankruptcy proceedings and expand restrictions on executive pay during bankruptcy, among other worker protections.
The UMWA also pledged to use its leverage to protect worker benefits. The union said it would not “sit idly by and let the company and the court dictate what happens to our members and our retirees.”
“We have high-powered legal, financial and communications teams in place that will fight to protect our members’ interests in the bankruptcy court,” the union’s statement said.
Dee Miles, head of the firm’s Consumer Fraud Section, is investigating cases where employee pensions are affected by corporate mergers and bankruptcy filings.