When it comes to winning elections, West Virginia’s labor movement says that candidates who hammer home the need for good jobs that are safe and fairly compensated have the right formula. It is vital in a state where the economy is tied to risky and cyclical endeavors such as coal and natural gas.
Until 2000, West Virginia voted reliably Democratic, nationally. But with the emphasis on cleaner fuels and climate change, the state’s primary money-maker — coal development — has been on the decline. The sea change — no pun intended — forced coal states to either embrace the New Energy Economy or to reject it.
The tide, though, has been too strong and too far along. But one politician said he “alone” could fix things and Make America Great Again: Donald Trump. And hard working coal miners, desperate to get back to work, bought into that amorphous slogan. Despite the emergence of cleaner and more cost effective fuels, Trump said that coal would shine again.
“No question: a lot of our members voted for Trump,” says Phil Smith, head of government relations for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), in an interview. “He was the guy saying he would put you to work. It was a simple message. He was the one candidate offering some hope.”
Jobs are paramount. But if the unions are focused on workplace safety, fair wages and good benefits, coal miners should be pushing the Trump administration and its Republican backers to do more. For starters, the president has been silent on the issue of preserving the pensions and the health benefits for retired coal miners who had worked for companies that have gone into bankruptcy. There are 106,000 current and future retirees who are risk of losing those benefits, says the UMWA.
Dwindling Coal Jobs
Secondly, the trade association is determined to preserve the dwindling number of coal jobs. About 55,000 of those positions now exist nationally, says the Mine Safety and Health Administration, with 13,000 of those in West Virginia — in a state with 1.8 million people. The best way to improve the odds, says UMWA’s Smith, is to increase the funding that would help develop carbon capture and sequestration technologies.
Utilities must find it affordable to build coal or natural gas plants with those tools. American Electric Power, for example, scrapped such a project in West Virginia. Right now, quite frankly, it is a lot easier to build a combined-cycle natural gas plant that releases about the half emissions as coal. For that reason, Trump can’t stem the loss of domestic coal jobs.
“The only way you will address climate change is through carbon capture and storage technologies,” says Smith. “Coal will still be used elsewhere in the world.” In February, 45Q legislation passed that gives a credit of $50 per ton for CO2 that is buried and $35 a ton for CO2 that is re-utilized.
Durham, N.C.-based Net Power is working on a 25 megawatt advanced coal demonstration plant in Greater Houston that it says will be operational this year. The plant, which plans to expand to 300 megawatts, is owned by Exelon Corp., CB&I and 8 Rivers. Exxon Mobil Corp. and FuelCell Energy want to advance the idea by using carbonated fuel cells that can concentrate and capture the CO2 from power plants. And NRG Energy and JXTG Holdings have a 240 megawatt Texas-based coal plant — Petra Nova — that is capturing 90% of the CO2.
But the reality is that, in Trump’s America, unions still have uphill climb. For miners, the shortage of jobs compounds the existing difficulty in trying to organize. Not only are government regulators not enforcing labor laws, but employers know they have the upper hand: If the coal mine down the street had been unionized and it is closing, workers will feel lucky to keep their jobs while safety and fair wages become secondary matters.
Those concerns, for instance, were highlighted during the 2015 trial and misdemeanor conviction of Don Blankenship. In April 2010, 29 coal miners died at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Between January 2008 and April 2010, before the accident occurred, the mine site had received 835 citations for such infractions as poor ventilation and excessive coal dust.
“West Virginia is continuing to be the state with the most fatalities in the nation,” says UMWA’s Smith. “We are seeing a much lower emphasis on safety. The state legislature there has significantly rolled back critical safety laws. As a result, there are increases in injuries, fatalities and black lung disease. The union’s power has been diminished.”
So, why are members of the labor movement in that state voting against their perceived economic interest? Josh Sword, president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO says that politicians have used social issues to endear themselves to its members and to alienate them from the national Democratic party — a cause that became even easier with the “War on Coal” campaign.
The AFL-CIO, which takes no stand at all on social issues, says that it is constantly reminding its members of what’s important. In other words, it is telling its members to vote their pocketbooks and that no one will take away their guns.
Beyond beefing up mine safety laws, Sword says that the labor movement in West Virginia is trying to maintain the “prevailing wage” and eliminate the “right to work” law. The former refers to the rate of pay that contractors and vendors must offer their workers for government-run projects. And the latter allows workers to opt out of union participation thereby diminishing its bargaining power.
“West Virginia is a socially conservative state,” says Sword, in an interview. “As the U.S. Congress started to get polarized, Republicans focused on social issues, which helped get their candidates elected to Congress in recent years.
“But when you look at the polling that is specific to working families, they support fair wages, good benefits and safe workplaces,” he adds. “We are overwhelmingly on the right side. But those positions have become overshadowed by social issues. We have seen this conservative trend but I believe it is coming back the other way.”
Sword points to the statewide teacher’s strike, which set off a national movement. In the end, the state legislature listened and approved a pay raise for them. Ninety-percent of likely voters supported their cause, he says, noting that these kinds of issues will help elect Democratic candidates for the U.S. House and Senate.
Working Family Focus
For example, Richard Ojeda, who is running for a vacant congressional seat in southern West Virginia where most of the abandoned coal mines sit, stands an excellent chance of winning. His formula? A laser-like focus on working families — and someone who led the rallying cry for teachers.
It’s potentially the template for all Democratic candidates going forward, the labor leader adds, noting that U.S. Senator Joe Manchin is ahead of his Republican challenger by 8 percentage points because he has his own brand and he is determined to protect pre-existing conditions from any overhaul of Obama Care; 800,000 of the state’s 1.8 million people have pre-existing conditions and thus benefit from the Affordable Care Act.
“All we ask is that a candidate be in favor of our issues: living wages and better benefits,” says Sword. “Even folks in the coal industry will tell you there needs to be economic diversification. A drive through southern West Virginia can show you it is dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket.
“We have a great workforce,” he adds. “We are known throughout the world as being hard working individuals. All we need is opportunities — regardless of the industry. Coal has been good to us. But there is clearly a move to diversify. We will do whatever it takes. We will provide good workers.”