Miners press Manchin to choose between them and the coal bosses
Sen. Manchin is now feeling the heat from Miners who are insisting that he back Biden's Build Back Better Bill which he has announced he will not do. Greg Nash/Pool via AP

When one hears the words and the music of the iconic labor song, “Which Side Are You On?,” the historic epic struggles of West Virginia coal miners against their bosses come to mind. Sen. Joe Manchin has fashioned himself as a supporter of those miners whose jobs are disappearing along with the coal industry itself.

Now, however, those miners in his home state are parting ways with the senator over his stubborn opposition to and sabotaging of President Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda. It’s a significant development considering how Manchin has bent himself over backward to do everything he could do in recent years to boost miner pensions, health care, and black lung disease mitigation programs.

It is significant then that the UMWA, the very day that Manchin declared himself a “no” on Biden’s Build Back Better plan, came out with its statement demanding the passage of Build Back Better. They were backed, of course, by the national AFL-CIO, the large labor federation to which they belong.

While the news coverage of the battle over Build Back Better has emphasized the struggle between moderates and progressives in the Democratic Party and the pressure progressives are putting on Manchin the campaign mounted now by the miners may, in the end, be the thing that gets Manchin to move. The miner’s campaign is significant too because on the issue of saving coal jobs they have often been on the same side as the companies. Now, however, as they break ranks on BBB they are also beginning to break ranks on questions about the future of the coal industry itself.

“We urge Sen. Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and our communities,” said Cecil B. Roberts, the president of the union.

Supporters of BBB hope that the coming out of the miners in West Virginia for the legislation will have more of an impact on Manchin than some of the pressure from progressives.

They face an uphill battle, however. Manchin likes to portray himself as someone who came up in life with the miners, facing struggles similar to theirs and as someone having a big heart that is always thinking about them.

The real story, of course, is that he has long been a pal of the coal bosses. He and his family have become millionaires from the sale of waste coal from abandoned mines. Manchin has sold this dangerous material to a polluting power plant in West Virginia and has received more campaign donations from the oil, coal, and gas industries than any other senator.

The miners are actually beginning to express interest in provisions of BBB that would provide assistance to them during a transition to a clean energy economy. They also like provisions of the bill that penalize companies that try to sabotage union organizing and collective bargaining rights, among other things. More and more miners are accepting the idea that the coal industry is eventually going to be replaced and the West Virginia AFL-CIO has been urging them to support BBB measures that it says will help protect them during the transition away from coal and to clean energy that will provide many good jobs in the state.

The BBB bill, a 10-year rewrite and upgrade of the nation’s frayed social safety net, contains many benefits for coal miners and their families, Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, a fellow West Virginian, told Manchin in the union leader’s formal statement.

BBB’s big benefit for miners is that it would extend the higher fees mine owners now pay into the federal Black Lung Trust Fund. Legislation several years ago raised the fees, but that hike expired December 31, Roberts said.

The fees then dropped by 50%, to their former levels. The decline imperils the amount of money available to pay benefits to miners afflicted with black lung disease, or their heirs, thus “further shifting the burden of paying these benefits away from the coal companies and on to taxpayers,” Roberts said.

“The bill (also) includes language that will provide tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to build facilities in the coalfields that would employ thousands of coal miners who have lost their jobs. We support that and are ready to help supply those plants with a trained, professional workforce,” he added.

That’s part of the union’s own program for transitioning its members, and the economy, away from reliance on fossil fuels—such as coal and natural gas—and their accompanying carbon emissions which lead to global warming. The transition would be to using those fuels emissions-free, or to other work.

“But now the potential for those (new) jobs is significantly threatened,” with BBB stalled due to Manchin’s opposition, Roberts warned.

In a New York Times article, West Virginia’s mine owners, who switched from longtime backing of Manchin to support of his GOP foe in 2018, criticized the Mine Workers for “waving the white flag” on saving coal jobs. Their lobby president thought UMW “would have gone down swinging” on saving coal miners’ jobs.

That brought a response from Phil Smith, the union’s legislative and political director. He said the union “is swinging in a different way” to preserve fossil fuel industry jobs in West Virginia and the U.S., referring to UMW’s own clean energy plan. It emphasizes scrubbing power plant and other emissions of methane and other gases that lead to global warming and retraining miners for those jobs.

The BBB act also “includes language that would, for the first time, financially penalize outlaw employers that deny workers their rights to form a union on the job,” Roberts noted. That refers to higher fines for labor law-breaking, extending its coverage to more law violations, and extending liability for worker rights damages to corporate CEOs, board members, and other honchos.

All those provisions are part of the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act, labor’s #1 congressional priority, and all were inserted into the taxes section of the BBB bill. The Democratic-run House passed both the PRO Act and the BBB bill on virtual party-line votes. Unanimous Senate GOP opposition—including from the state’s other senator, Shelley Moore Capito—has hung both up.

“This language is critical to any long-term ability to restore the right to organize in America in the face of ramped-up union-busting by employers. Now there is no path forward for millions of workers to exercise their rights at work,” Roberts explained to Manchin.

BBB also has $125 billion in Manchin-authored factory subsidies, including billions targeted for advanced manufacturing in coal mining areas. Besides the PRO Act provisions, its tax section includes tax credits for communities threatened with the closure of fossil fuel energy plants.

The tax section also includes subsidies for individual purchases of electric vehicles—with a double subsidy if the vehicle is union-built. Beth electric vehicle subsidies have drawn GOP ire.

The West Virginia AFL-CIO also urged Manchin to back the BBB bill. It “would help workers, our families, and the labor movement both across the country and right here in West Virginia,” state fed President Sword said in his December statement.

Manchin, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., oppose the BBB bill so far, depriving Democrats of the two needed votes, #49 and #50, to overcome unanimous GOP opposition in the evenly split Senate. Sinema opposes its tax increases on the rich and on her corporate campaign contributors. Manchin’s reasons are more complex, but also more open.

But campaign finance records also show Manchin, who now chairs the Senate Energy Committee, as among the leading recipients of campaign contributions from fossil fuel firms, led by natural gas and coal.

By calling on Manchin to back BBB the Miners are adding their political clout to a broad away of organizations that have battled his obstruction of a range of progressive moves.The Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaks during a rally, in Charleston, W.Va., aimed at applying pressure on Manchin. | John Raby / AP

Whether Manchin will listen to Roberts and UMWA is up in the air. His constituents overwhelmingly support it in public opinion polls. And Manchin, a millionaire, has given the back of his hand to the half of West Virginians who are poor or low-income, frequently mobilized by the Poor People’s Campaign.

Manchin’s last statement on the legislation, on December 19, was flat-out opposition, even though his own bargaining with Biden forced the president to cut the measure’s price tag by 50%, to an average of $175 billion yearly over its 10-year-term.

“Despite my best efforts, I cannot explain the sweeping Build Back Better Act in West Virginia and I cannot vote to move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation,” he said. Biden’s bill would “dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face,” he charged. Except for citing inflation and the federal debt, he was not specific.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.