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.

Last Line of Defense

Denny Pickens saw a good job at the Shoemaker mine outside Wheeling, W.Va., nearly slip through his fingers before he was able to reel it back with the help of his union, the United Mine Workers of America, which convinced Consol Energy that it should invest in revitalizing the mine.

Pickens, the president of the local UMWA union at the mine, was a key player in organizing a cooperative program that demonstrated to Consol that the mine could be profitable, saving hundreds of jobs and boosting a community that depends on mining families for its survival.

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As the head of the march neared Patriot Coal headquarters in Charleston, demonstrators were still leaving the Civic Center 11 blocks behind. More than 10,000 miners and their supporters rallied for fairness.

That battle for the economic health of coalfield communities has boiled over as Patriot Coal and its sponsors, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, are using the bankruptcy courts in an effort to dump their obligations to retirees and their families. That’s why Pickens joined more than 10,000 Mine Workers and their supporters April 1 as they marched to the Charleston headquarters of Patriot Coal, demanding a fair deal for the workers who built the companies’ fortunes.

After 45 years in the mine, Pickens would like to retire but he can’t afford to do it when retiree health care is hanging in the balance of this struggle. “If it could happen to our brothers down here, it could happen to us,” he said. “And if it goes past us, it could happen to anyone in this country.”

That is the considered view of a man who has spent nearly half a century in pitched battles with coal companies that have had little compunction about tossing workers and retirees under the bus if it helps to maximize their profits – and a man who understands the power that a union gives him when he goes to the table.

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Denny Pickens

“It’s got to stop, and it’s got to stop now,” Pickens said. “If we’ve got to be the shock troops to do it, then I guess we’ll do it.”

It was easy to see the United Mine Workers as the leading edge of a defensive stand as they marched through the streets of Charleston, outfitted in their trademark camouflage garb. Many were veterans of wars, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, recognized from the podium by UMWA President Cecil Roberts.

“Every time this country has called on us … the Appalachian coal miners have been the first ones to answer that call,” Roberts said. “Now I say, these people stood with their country and it’s time for our country to stand with them.”

Among the nearly 11,000 marchers was a young family all in camouflage – Tim and Melissa Morris with their infant Hayley, asleep in Tim’s arms. They had come from southwestern Pennsylvania because “what they’re doing is not fair,” Tim said. “We’re sticking together and fighting back.”

That’s a spirit lauded by public officials who addressed the crowd, from senior U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (via video) to Rep. Nick Rahall and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. All sang the praises of the Mine Workers and their leadership.

Perhaps no one was as effusive in praising the miners as West Virginia’s junior senator, Joe Manchin, also a former governor. He said he enjoys telling people outside Appalachia just how important coal miners have been to American history, to the economy and to the defense of the nation.

“People don’t defend this country without you,” Manchin said. “I tell other people: These are the most patriotic people in the country. They’ve shed more blood and made more sacrifices than any other group of people I know.”

The irony of these patriotic Americans fighting for fairness from a company that calls itself “Patriot” was not lost on the congregation.

Here’s Sen. Manchin’s full remarks: