Getting It Together

What does it take to get Democrats and Republicans to work together? Apparently all that’s needed is a recognition that they must act – because people are hurting and they’re yelling and screaming about it. Better to work out a deal than be tossed out on your ear on Election Day.

ImageThat’s a cynical view, and I still applaud the 19 members of the House that agreed to sponsor or co-sponsor HR 2918, the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protections Act of 2013. That’s a good piece of legislation that should become the basis for law, helping Mine Workers and their families stay alive, essentially. And the United Mine Workers of America have made sure that Congress gets the message with a vigorous public education campaign over the past eight months.

The bill’s supporters are eight Democrats and 11 Republicans, most from the coalfields of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Democrat George Miller of California also signed on to the bill because he is a labor champion who would not pass up the opportunity to support families in dire need of health care benefits promised for a lifetime of work underground, at risk of life and limb.

Most of these miners worked for Peabody Energy or Arch Coal, but those companies managed to dump their health care obligations onto a spin-off company, Patriot Coal, that may have been created by Peabody to fail. Thousands of Mine Workers and supporters rallied in Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield’s front yard, the Henderson County Courthouse, back in June to assail a bankruptcy judge’s decision that would give Patriot carte blanche to dump benefits and abrogate current contracts.

Congressman Whitfield was attending to the funeral of his father that day, but he sent an aide to pledge his commitment to introduce legislation to protect those benefits. His promise served as an opening to craft this bipartisan bill, which resembles a bill sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, (D-W.Va.). This one, however, is bipartisan, a rare commodity in Washington politics, giving Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, good reason to sponsor both bills.

“This effort is about standing up for coal miners, their widows, and our coalfield communities,” Rahall said.  “After a lifetime of labor, they have earned the right to retire and live in dignity and I refuse to stand idly by as our miners see the benefits they earned over a lifetime eroded by forces beyond their control.”

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Some 5,000 Mine Workers and their families gathered in heavy rain in Fairmont, W.Va., last month to urge Peabody Energy and their elected representatives to do the right thing.

West Virginia Republicans David McKinley and Shelley Moore Capito are co-sponsors of the bill, as are Kentucky Republicans Whitfield and Andy Barr. Five Republicans from Ohio also signed on.

The eight Democrats are spread across seven states, including Missouri, where William Lacy Clay Jr. is upholding the fine Missouri Clay tradition of his father, the great Rep. Bill Clay, who championed workers as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.

For the most part, however, all these legislators have a single common interest. Mine Workers and their families and friends and allies in the labor and religious communities are a core constituency, a single-minded and committed group of voters who do not forget.  They are a powerful political force.

The Mine Workers have mobilized thousands of members, dressed in camouflage or militant T-shirts, virtually camping out in front of Peabody’s headquarters in St. Louis over the past six months, using billboards and TV and print ads to punctuate the frequent rallies. More than 10,000 miners and allies rallied outside Patriot’s West Virginia headquarters in Charleston, W.Va.

But that is in the coalfields, a natural audience for the UMWA message. Now the voices of miners and their struggle must be amplified to reach the population and financial centers of America, to make their case to an audience that doesn’t really get coal, or the human costs of mining. 

In a sea of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 19 hardly make a ripple.  But that’s how every movement begins. Eventually, with a little agitation, we can make a splash. For this Congress, it may take a full immersion.

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