By Mike Tony
September 8, 2021 - The marquee speakers hadn’t yet taken the stage, but retired coal miners Alva Coleman and Danny Whitt stood near the platform with plenty to say on their own.
“It’s about caring about other people,” Coleman, 69, of McDowell County, said of unions like his — United Mine Workers of America Local 8783 in Iaeger, West Virginia.
Whitt, 66, of Matewan, has been fighting for federal black lung benefits for 15 years after a 25-year underground mining career that ended in 2001. He wants better wages and health care for the workers who have helped power the country for generations.
“American workers keep falling behind,” Whitt said.
Whitt has been fighting to obtain black lung benefits for the past 15 years, set back by denials finding that he was insufficiently disabled to receive benefits, despite his reduced lung function.
“We have so many dying,” Whitt said.
Whitt and Coleman were among the crowd of about 200 United Mine Workers supporters gathered at John Slack Memorial Park in Racine on Monday for the union’s 83rd annual Labor Day celebration, its first in two years, after it was canceled last year because of COVID-19 concerns.
Attendees heard live music celebrating the labor movement, feasted on a pig roast and heard from a slate of speakers consisting of union leaders and Democrat lawmakers, most prominently Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Manchin took the stage in an unscheduled appearance, promoting an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy that welcomes fossil fuel and renewable energy use, despite mounting pressure to address the global climate crisis by eliminating the former as soon as possible.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, who has held millions of dollars in assets in a coal brokerage he founded in 1988, Enersystems Inc., noted that the bipartisan infrastructure deal he helped secure Senate passage of last month includes more than $12 billion for carbon capture technologies.
Capturing, removing and storing carbon underground in geologic formations is seen as critical in the struggle to slow climate change, and politicians representing constituencies like West Virginia, where coal still plays a major role in the economy and electric generation, have embraced developing technologies to make those processes easier.
Addressing reporters before he took the stage, Manchin said it is “the wrong time” for his fellow Senate Democrats to move forward with a $3.5 trillion price tag for their budget reconciliation package aimed at strengthening the social safety net through expanded Medicare, enhanced child care and housing support, and protections for unions.
Manchin cited concerns about the pandemic, inflation and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as reasons for his opposition to the budget package as currently proposed.
“We need to be prepared to meet all that,” the senator said. “You just can’t run yourself so thin as far as finances that you can’t meet your obligations.”
Manchin reiterated his support for the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act, a UMW-backed bill that passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives in March that would let unions override state right-to-work laws, like the one in West Virginia, that allow workers to opt out of a union and not pay union dues while still being covered by wage and benefit provisions of a union contract.
But Manchin said he would not support reforming the Senate’s filibuster rule, which would allow Democrats to pass the bill that lacks Republican support without it clearing a 60-vote threshold in the upper chamber.
“The filibuster is who we are as an institution, who we are as a country,” Manchin said. “It gives the minority an ability to participate.”
Manchin incorrectly told reporters the bipartisan infrastructure bill would extend an excise tax that produces the main source of revenue for the Federal Black Lung Program and the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which pays benefits to miners disabled by the disease, as well as to their eligible survivors and dependents when no responsible coal operator is identified or when the liable operator does not pay.
The National Black Lung Association wants Congress to permanently extend and raise by 25% the excise tax, which coal producers must pay when coal they produce is first sold or used.
Manchin was among six Senate Democrats to introduce a bill in the last session of Congress that would have extended the excise tax through 2030. His office declined to comment on a proposal to permanently increase the tax.
United Mine Workers spokesman Phil Smith said the union supports fully extending the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund tax well into the future, instead of continuing the year-by-year extensions that have frustrated retired miners in recent years. Smith said the union does not support raising the excise tax, fearing it could contribute to more coal company bankruptcies that increase the burden on taxpayers.
The Norton, Virginia-based law firm of Wolfe Williams & Reynolds, whose Matewan branch neighbors the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum there, had a table at Monday’s event to offer free information about black lung benefit applications to retired miners. Federal black lung attorney Brad Austin said soon after the event began that a dozen miners had already stopped by the table, most of whom were clients checking in on their cases.
Severe black lung in central Appalachia has reached its highest level since record-keeping began in the 1970s, according to a 2018 report on underground miners working from 1970 to 2017.
Meanwhile, the number of union coal employees in West Virginia dropped from 5,468 in 2009 to 2,850 in 2019, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data — a decline 16 percentage points greater than the drop in nonunion members during the same time span.
Whitt expressed disappointment that the Legislature failed in its 2021 session to pass a bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, that would set up a state black lung fund supported by an increased severance tax on natural resources, including coal. That measure died in the Senate for the fourth straight year.
“I’ll keep trying,” Stollings said before addressing the crowd.
Stollings, Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, and Del. Jim Barach, D-Kanawha, urged attendees to back pro-union Democrat candidates who oppose right-to-work laws and don’t support West Virginia’s 2016 move to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law mandating a minimum wage for workers on state-funded construction projects. They also exhorted Congress to approve sweeping federal infrastructure investments in West Virginia.
UMW International President Cecil Roberts fired up the crowd by leading it through chants of “join a union” and “Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul,” the latter a show of support for the union in its 5 1/2-month strike for better wages against Warrior Met Coal Inc. in Alabama.
Roberts called all those in attendance to approach the stage who had supported the union, including those who recreated the miners march that ended in the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain over the weekend, a trek that covered 38 miles from Marmet to Sharples.
The battle was the largest labor uprising in U.S. history. But with most of the event’s attendees gathered in a ring around the stage, Roberts stressed that solidarity must continue.
“Brothers and sisters, the fight in 1921 was here,” Roberts said. “Unfortunately, it still is. It’s everywhere. It’s time for working people to stand up and take their country back.”