Coal Tattoo

I’m just back from listening to a few of the speeches and watching a little bit of the action at the huge United Mine Workers of America rally today in downtown Charleston. Thousands of miners, family members and various supporters attended the event, held as part of the UMWA’s ongoing campaign to protect its union contract and retiree benefits at bankrupt Patriot Coal.

The event began over at the Charleston Civic Center, where they started with prayers, music and speeches for the thousands who drove or rode union-chartered buses into town early this morning. Then, the crowd marched a few blocks over to Laidley Tower, where Patriot maintains a local office.  There, 16 individuals — including UMWA President Cecil Roberts and West Virginia AFL-CIO President Kenny Purdue — were arrested after they sat down on the office tower’s steps and refused to move, in another of the union’s series of peaceful civil disobedience protests.

What I was most interested in today was hearing what the relatively few politicians who showed up and spoke had to say … we’ve talked before on this blog (see here and here) about how a lot of the “Friends of Coal” crowd among regional political leaders haven’t had much to say about Patriot’s plans to use bankruptcy protection to rid itself of union contracts, pension liabilities and health-care costs that it acquired in its formation by Peabody Coal and Arch Coal. Previously, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has been about the only local political leader to have much to say publicly on this, though the West Virginia House of Delegates did recently pass a resolution in supporter of the UMWA’s campaign.

Today’s program did have a few more political leaders on the agenda, but their enthusiasm for the cause seemed a little mixed.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, for example, bragged a bit about his efforts to fight U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation of mountaintop removal coal-mining, saying:

I know how important mining jobs are. I fight outside forces when they come in and try to take our jobs away.

Gov. Tomblin did say that he appeared at the event, “standing shoulder to shoulder today in support of the benefits for our retired miners” and that, “Those are benefits, those are rights that they’ve worked for and that we all need to fight for.” But regarding Patriot Coal officials, the strongest thing Gov. Tomblin said was that, “I will continue to encourage Patriot to be fair.”

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., was a bit stronger — comparing today’s UMWA campaign at Patriot Coal to historic union organizing battles on Paint and Cabin creeks and on Blair Mountain, and quoting liberally from Mother Jones. And Rahall, of course, touted his co-sponsorship of key legislation in Congress that’s aimed at preserving miner pensions and health-care benefits:

Those who are responsible will be held responsible under our legislation.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is also a co-sponsor (with Sen. Rockefeller) of the Senate version of that legislation, and Sen. Manchin did up his rhetoric on the Patriot issue, saying:

I know all of those people. I’ve told them, ‘where I come from, you can’t make wrong right. You can’t, no matter how hard you try.’ Also where I come from we have a different saying: you can’t shine crap, and by God, this is crap. You can’t make this stuff look good, you can’t make it smell good and you sure as hell can’t make it taste good.

But Sen. Manchin also spent a fair amount of his speech talking about issues that had nothing to do with the matter at hand, and wrongly stating that the federal government had not made any significant changes in mine safety legislation between the disasters at Farmington and Sago (his speech-writing staff might want to keep up with the issue, and make not of MSHA’s ongoing PR effort to recognize the 35th anniversary of the passage of the 1977 Mine Safety Act).

Among the political leaders who were given speaking time, it was pretty obvious — and a little surprising — that the strongest statement in the UMWA’s favor against Patriot Coal came from West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who said:

If Patriot is allowed to get its way in this bankruptcy, this is not just an attack on Patriot retirees, this is an attack on all working people. It is an attack on our way of life  Is this the way we raise our children? No. We teach them that our word matters, that we keep our promises.

Today’s event did draw a few more political leaders who didn’t speak. But looking around the crowed, the place sure wasn’t full of elected officials or would-be elected officials. Certainly, many of the folks who get all worked up and turn out to speak anytime there’s an anti-Obama EPA rally weren’t in evidence today. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pointed out, most of the self-proclaimed “Friends of Coal” were nowhere to be found:

A few months ago, there were people running all over this state, proclaiming they were ‘Friends of Coal’. Well, where the hell are they today? If you want to call yourself a “Friend of Coal” then get off your damned butt and stand with us.