OPINION: Manchin’s choice on Build Back Better: Mine workers or mine owners


Washington — For years, burly men in camouflage hunting jackets have been a constant presence in the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Joe Manchin, their United Mine Workers logos giving away their mission: to lobby not only for the interests of coal, but also on more personal matters such as pensions, health care and funding to address black lung disease.

So when the miners’ union and the West Virginia AFL-CIO came out last month with statements pleading for passage of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act — just hours after Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he was a “no” — the Capitol took notice.

With the miners now officially on the opposite side of the mine owners, it signaled the escalation of a behind-the-scenes struggle centered in Manchin’s home state to sway the balking senator, whose skepticism about his party’s marquee domestic policy measure has emerged as a potentially fatal impediment to its enactment.

While most of the attention to the fate of the social safety net and climate change bill has fixed on ideological divisions among Democrats over its largest provisions and overall cost, the battle underway over parochial issues in Manchin’s state could ultimately matter more than the public pleas of liberal groups and relentless bargaining by Democratic leaders.

“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 their communities,” Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, or UMWA, said in a statement just before Christmas.

The far-reaching centerpiece of Biden’s domestic agenda has passed the House, but with every Democratic senator needed to push it through the Senate, Manchin’s opposition has stopped the bill in its tracks. At this point, the president and the lawmaker standing in his way cannot even agree on whether negotiations continue: Biden says they do, but Manchin says they do not.

But the decision of the Labor groups to come out forcefully in support of Build Back Better could be significant. Mine workers are likely to be more persuasive to Manchin than the progressive activists who kayaked to his houseboat at a Washington marina to harangue him or the colleagues buttonholing him at Senate votes.

“Joe Manchin grew up with coal miners,” said Jonathan Kott, a former aide to the senator who still advises him. “His heart is with them. His sweat is with them — and in the end, Manchin will always be with the UMWA.”

But Manchin has also long been allied with the coal industry. His own family has profited from waste coal from abandoned mines, which the Manchins sell to a polluting power plant in his home state. And Manchin has received more campaign donations from the oil, coal and gas industries than any other senator in the current election cycle.

For much of last year, miners and mine owners were in sync on their skepticism of the Democrats’ far-reaching social policy and climate change plan, fearing measures to hasten the economic transition from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to renewable sources like wind and solar.

But in the bill, Democrats included provisions dear to the unions of West Virginia, which have been watching employment in the coal industry diminish for years.

Most pressing was an extension through 2025 of an excise tax paid by coal mine operators and protected for years by Manchin. The levy finances a trust fund that pays about 30,000 miners coping with black lung disease and their beneficiaries a little under $700 a month. Because Build Back Better did not pass last year, the tax was cut in half as of Jan. 1, pushing the struggling fund further into debt.

The bill also includes top priorities for union leaders, such as stiff penalties for employers that block union organizing and collective bargaining.

Beyond those provisions is a weightier matter in coal country: whether to shore up a polluting power source or transition the Appalachian economy away from coal.

The bill includes industrial policies proposed by Manchin that would help wean the region away from fossil fuels, including $100 billion to aid manufacturers and $25 billion for advanced manufacturing outreach, with $4 billion of the outreach funding set aside for coal-mining regions. A tax credit for energy investments includes a generous additional subsidy for those investments that flow to communities with oil and gas workers, a closed coal mine or a shuttered coal-fired electricity generator.

For years, coal miners and operators alike looked skeptically at such efforts. Miners rallied to Donald Trump’s side in the 2016 campaign as he promised to bring their industry back, not replace it with clean energy. He did not keep that promise, and coal mining employment, which was at about 51,000 jobs when he took office, had fallen to a nadir of 39,000 by the time he was denied a second term.

Union mining jobs with good pay, pensions and health benefits have been replaced with low-wage work — if they have been replaced at all. The promise of renewable energy as a replacement has yielded little. Jobs installing solar panels or building wind turbines tend to disappear once a renewable energy facility is up and running, since such facilities require little ongoing labor.

Jason Walsh, the executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, which has brought together Labor and environmental groups to marshal support for initiatives like Biden’s domestic policy bill, said he did not fault miners for their doubts. But he pointed to active conversations about building a solar panel assembly plant in the Ohio Valley that would hire more than 2,000 union workers. Such projects could use a federal nudge.

“Build Back Better provides really the best opportunity for any industrial policy vision in these areas,” Walsh said.

It took a while, but last month, those arguments won over the unions of Manchin’s home state, which have long been the backbone of his political support. In its statement asking Manchin to return to negotiations, the state’s AFL-CIO chapter noted that the bill included his industrial policy legislation.

The bill “would help workers, our families and the Labor Movement both across the country and right here in West Virginia,” Josh Sword, president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO said in the statement.

The manufacturing provisions, in particular, have driven a wedge between coal miners and coal mine owners, who have worked hard to shore up Manchin’s opposition. The miners appear to have embraced the reality that coal is dying and they must look beyond it to survive, but their bosses do not see the end as inevitable.

Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, which represents the owners, said coal employment would remain viable for years to come, and he accused the unions of “waving a white flag.” He also suggested they did not understand the damage that renewable energy incentives in the bill would do to what is left of coal.

“Frankly, we were shocked” when the unions endorsed the social policy and climate legislation, Hamilton said.

“We would have thought they’d have gone down swinging,” he added. “I don’t think we ought to be trading one job for another, particularly basic fossil energy jobs which are extremely well paid and carry benefits — and could last for another generation.”

Phil Smith, the United Mine Workers’ chief lobbyist, responded, “We’re still swinging, but we’re swinging in a smart way and in a way that will provide a real future for fossil energy workers in West Virginia and throughout the country.”

Union officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering mine owners, said Manchin should not be listening to the West Virginia Coal Association, which includes some of Trump’s staunchest supporters and switched allegiances in 2018 to back Manchin’s Republican challenger in that year’s election, Patrick Morrisey.

Such personal considerations should not be overlooked. The United Mine Workers made Manchin an honorary member in 2020 for his work securing pension, health and black lung benefits. At every turn, the senator notes that he lost an uncle, high school classmates, friends and neighbors in a 1968 explosion at a mine in Farmington, W. Va,. that killed 78 miners.

And while Manchin has snapped at reporters in the Capitol shouting questions about Build Back Better negotiations, his spokesperson, Sam Runyon, was effusive about his concern for mine workers.

“Sen. Manchin has always been a strong advocate for the United Mine Workers of America and championed legislation to address the black lung excise tax expiration,” she said. “He will of course continue to work to shore up the black lung excise tax and address the needs of our brave miners.”

(Jonathan Weisman is a congressional correspondent, veteran Washington journalist and author of the novel “No. 4 Imperial Lane” and the nonfiction book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.” He has reported on national politics and foreign policy for The Baltimore Sun, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Reprinted from the New York Times.)

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