In Waynesburg, working class anger bubbles up at coal miners rally




Carried by an Americana folk chord progression on acoustic guitar, musician Tom Breiding’s message was as poignant as any rallying cry issued from the podium at the Greene County Fairgrounds on Friday.

“Promises made, promises broken,” Mr. Breiding crooned over a D-chord. “Alpha they promised, Alpha they lied,” calling out bankrupt coal company Alpha Natural Resources, the owner of two mines in the county that this week sought to break its contract with workers so it can restructure its finances.

In multiple verses, he named others: Peabody Energy, Patriot Coal, Murray Energy. Clad uniformly in United Mine Workers of America camouflage, more than 5,000 supporters of the Appalachian coal industry whooped and hollered.

The intermission of sorts came about halfway through a four-hour Solidarity Day celebration in which UMWA members marched and then packed into the agricultural building at the fairgrounds. The union had organized buses from West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky to bring members to Waynesburg, the center of a region with deep ties to coal. 

The message from a dozen or so speakers was that it was clear that to them the miners’ union increasingly stands alone in advocating for the industry’s future. The coal miner has many enemies, they said: out-of-touch coal executives, unrealistic environmental groups, federal air regulators, passive politicians and — recently added to the list — bankruptcy judges overseeing the restructuring of some of the country’s largest coal producers. 

Amid a heated presidential election year, the UMWA’s feelings of isolation have only worsened. The rally’s rhetoric echoed working class anger seen especially in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both of whom have blamed U.S. trade policy for the loss of blue-collar jobs. 

“I haven’t heard one [presidential] candidate stand up and say, ‘This my plan for coal miners; this is my plan for retirees and their health care,’” UMWA President Cecil Roberts declared in his trademark fiery cadence, pacing the stage and walking down the center aisle. “Until somebody does it, we will not endorse anybody!” 

Ron Baker, member of the Bakery Confectionery Tobacco and Grain Millers union who has coordinated a nationwide boycott of Mexican-made Nabisco snack products after the company shifted some operations to Mexico, blasted previous trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. Now, he said, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, known as TPP, is set up to take more jobs abroad if it wins approval. 

“TPP is on the plate, and any politician that supports TPP is not supportive of the American worker, is not supportive of the middle class, and certainly is not a friend to anyone in this room,” Mr. Baker said.

The immediate issue for miners, as the UMWA enters negotiations for a new nationwide contract to take effect next year, is the threat of disappearing pensions and retiree health care as companies seek protection from creditors

“Bankruptcy is a way to rob workers of everything they’ve earned,” Mr. Roberts said.

As members filled one lane of Route 21 from the Greene County Airport to the fairgrounds, they carried signs in support of legislation introduced last year that would free up funds from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to pay for retired miners’ health benefits. A hearing on the bill, known as Senate Bill 1714, was held in the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month.

The union is pushing for a debate soon after Congress returns from recess, said UMWA spokesman Phil Smith. “We have made some progress,” he said.

But for laid-off miners today, it’s not enough. 

At tables to the side of the stage, the union sold raffle tickets to raise money for its food bank for unemployed workers. The UMWA Career Centers Inc., a union-affiliated organization based in Ruff Creek, had a stack of applications for dislocated workers to apply for stipends to go back to school and get training certifications. 

“They just keep coming in. It’s amazing,” said Clemmy Allen, the center’s executive director. Many are applying for CDL trucking licenses and welding certifications, he said. “There’s just no end in sight.”

Sheila Kuhn, of Blacksville, W.Va., stood along the highway cheering as the marching miners stretched beyond view. She’s doubtful that her 47-year-old husband, if laid off from his job at Alpha’s Cumberland Mine near Waynesburg, could seamlessly shift to another career. 

After he would get another degree, “Who’s going to hire a 52-year-old man, then give him retirement? They’re not,” Ms. Kuhn said. “These guys, if they lose their job, that’s it. ... We have a house; we have children; we have vehicles; and we need the [health] insurance.” 

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

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