Coal Tattoo

Verizon targeted for support of pro-coal rally

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The big Friends of America rally on Labor Day sounds like it’s going to be quite an event, with a crowd, as reported today by my collegue Davin White, that will rival or surpass a Mountaineer home football game.

Folks from Massey Energy and International Coal Group are promoting the event big-time, and it’s obvious that the music and the political message have a huge audience in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and beyond.

But now, several major environmental groups are trying to gear up an attack on one of the event’s other corporate sponsors — Verizon Wireless.

Jeff Biggers kicked off the movement with this piece on The Huffington Post,  and West Virginia Blue gets the award for best headline of the week for the post, Can you hear us now?

But two other organizations have also joined the call for Verizon to drop its sponsorship of the event.

First, there’s Credo Mobile, a cell phone company that contributes part of its profits to progressive political causes,  including several that are working to stop mountaintop removal.

On its Web site, Credo asks:

Why is Verizon Wireless co-sponsoring a pro-coal, anti-environment rally on Labor Day?

And it answers:

Companies like Verizon Wireless may say they are not making a political statement when they participate in events like these. But it’s never just about marketing. After all this is the same company that made a decision to block NARAL Pro-Choice America’s text messages from its network. Verizon Wireless has choices. And once again, it’s made a very poor one. 

Then, there’s the Center for Biological Diversity, which today announced it was urging its members and supporters to ask Verizon Wireless to drop out of the event:

On August 30, 2009 the Center notified Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam that it intended to organize a boycott if Verizon did not withdraw sponsorship of the event. In just one day, 14,500 letters were sent to Verizon pressuring the company to retract its sponsorship of the rally.

“Verizon Wireless can’t claim to be “going green” and then join forces with one of the dirtiest companies in the world,” said Tierra Curry, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Verizon can’t keep its hands green and sponsor an event that supports the destruction of Appalachia and the extinction of a third of the earth’s species due to climate change.”

I asked Verizon officials for a response to all of this, and after being kicked around from office to office for a bit, I landed on the phone with Laura Merritt, a Verizon Wireless spokeswoman whose region includes West Virginia.  Her response?

Basically, this was a decision at the local level to support the community. It did not involve the company’s political positions at all.

In this particular situation, we are supporting the event because it’s a local event. It wasn’t an effort to take a position on any particular issue.

Another Verizon Wireless spokesperson, Jim Gerace, went a little farther. He said his company simply paid $1,000 for the right to be able to sell its products at the rally:

It’s nothing more than that … and the groups who are trying to make it more than that are misguided. I’m definitely bothered that people are trying to put us in the middle of an argument.

A couple of interesting things … while much of the blogging on this has focused on the “union-free” nature of the event’s two biggest sponsors, Massey and International Coal Group (a company run by a number of former Massey execs), some of the chatter has missed out on the fact that Verizon Wireless (a subsidiary of the larger Verizon) itself is a non-union company. In fact, it’s a company that has been harshly criticized by the Communications Workers of America for it labor policies.

Another interesting thing is that Verizon has had tons of customer service complaints, resulting in investigations by the West Virginia Public Service Commission and a settlement in which the company agreed to an $11 million plan to improve.

Today, coal industry folks were reacting to the push-back aimed at Verizon …

Gene Kitts, an ICG vice president, tweeted: “Thank you Verizon Wireless for supporting the working people who actually pay the cell phone bills, even for clueless kids.

And Roger Nicholson, general counsel for ICG, added: “[S]hrill cries from anti-mining extremists re Verizon support of FOA rally. Guess it pains em to see overwhelming backlash vs. their views.

I guess it was inevitable that Labor Day would turn into another subplot in the growing mountaintop removal controversy in Appalachia …  and surely coal industry officials expected this kind of response when they invited someone like Lord Christopher Walter Monckton to speak. For more on Monckton’s out-of-the-mainstream views of climate science, click here, here and here.

Oddly silent about all of this has been the United Mine Workers union. The Friends of America rally was scheduled for the same day as the UMWA’s traditional Labor Day picnic and rally down at Racine (an event that’s been going on for 71 years).

But I did get a letter late last month from UMWA President Cecil Roberts, encouraging me to attend the Racine event:

Since the founding of our great union over 119 years ago, the UMWA and our members have helped to create the highest standard of living and the greatest prosperity the world has even known. Yet our struggle is far from over.

As we remember those who came before us and celebrate the work we do today, we will rededicate ourselves to meeting the serious challenges that face working families in today’s economy.