PIKEVILLE, KENTUCKY — “Mitch McConnell never mentions coal miners,” said Charles Tipton, speaking forcefully between deep breaths through a tracheostomy tube. “It’s the coal industry he’s interested in … And he can’t get money from the coal operators if he’s gonna vote for the workers to have anything.”
Tipton, 65, was a coal miner for 22 years, and worked on the railroads for seven years. “As soon as I got out of school, I went to work,” he said. “I understand coal companies have to make money. They don’t have to make it all. They have to pay for pensions, health care. [McConnell] would get rid of black lung [protections] tomorrow if he could.”
He’s referring to the part of the Affordable Care Act that makes it easier for miners to get the health care and monthly stipend that coal companies are required to give to their employees who contract black lung, an incurable lung disease that’s caused by inhaling coal and rock dust in mines.
Tipton was one of several retired coal miners attending a rally for McConnell’s opponent, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, on Wednesday. Cecil Roberts, President of the United Mine Workers of American (UMWA), got the crowd fired up about the election, saying the choice between the two candidates represented “what kind of highways we want to drive on, the kind of bridges we want to drive on,” he said, “the kind of water we want to drink, the air we want to breathe, whether we want to have healthcare just like the millionaires have, like the billionaires have.”
Both McConnell and Grimes have been spending a lot of time in Eastern Kentucky in the past few months. Though coal mining employs less than one percent of Kentucky’s workforce, coal rhetoric has been a key part of this election, with both sides trying to paint themselves as truly pro-coal. That’s led both to vehemently oppose the EPA’s regulations to cut carbon emissions from power plants, and to talk frequently about their support for “clean coal” technology. But neither of these stances are actually going to stop the region from bleeding coal jobs, a process that’s been underway for decades.
Like many in attendance, Roberts said it wasn’t about being pro-coal or anti-coal, but pro-industry or pro-worker. “We obviously support the coal industry, too, but we have to remember that the people who work in the coal industry are the most important people here,” he said after the rally.
“McConnell: bought and paid for,” said Bill Londrigan, President of Kentucky’s AFL-CIO. “He gets his money from the coal industry, from [coal executives] Don Blankenship, Robert Murray, Joe Craft, Peabody. What side is he on? He’s not on our side.”
As the miners and speakers at the rally recognized, the idea that a “war on coal” has been killing mining jobs in the name of the environment is false. It’s coal executives and companies that have been fighting the war on coal, slashing jobs with less labor-intensive mining techniques and technologies, while continuing to mine millions of tons of coal. And fossil fuel booms in natural gas and coal in the western U.S. have further cut coal employment in Appalachia.
Republican policy has typically been to cut governmental support for areas struggling with the decline of coal, and specifically to oppose protections for miners. Many in attendance at Wednesday’s rally mentioned the Coal Mine Health Care and Pension Protection Act of 2013, which would protect miners’ health plans and pensions when their employer goes bankrupt.
As Grimes boarded her bus to continue on to Salyersville, she took a minute to respond to the question of why coal miners would support her over McConnell, who’s called Grimes Obama’s ally in the so-called “war on coal”? As she’s done in debates and speeches, Grimes said it was “on Mitch McConnell’s watch” that Kentucky has been bleeding coal jobs.
“He wants to repeal ‘root and branch’ the legislation that helps coal miners get their black lung benefits,” she said, referring to the Obamacare provision that makes it easier for miners and their families to get restitution for the lung disease caused by working in coal mines.
Grimes also blamed the EPA’s new regulations on carbon pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants, which are not yet implemented, for the decline in coal jobs, as well as the lack of funding for so-called “clean coal” technology. But none of the other attendees or speakers at the rally blamed environmental regulations for the decline in coal jobs.
James R. Stapleton, a 73-year-old who mined coal near Pikeville for 22 years for Bethlehem Steel, blamed natural gas and the economy. Like other miners at the rally, he was mostly concerned with health, safety, and economic security for miners. “[McConnell] voted against black lung, against funding our pension and benefits. So he’s not for the coal miners. He votes against health and safety in the coal mines. He’s against everything we’re for,” he said.
After the rally, Londrigan mentioned the role of free trade in killing Kentucky’s coal jobs. “A lot of what’s been going on here has been due to the import of coal from Colombia, where union organizers have been killed, and it’s going to East Coast power plants,” that would normally take Kentucky coal.
“Clean coal,” also known as carbon capture, is still in its early stages, and it is receiving government money. One project is already getting an estimated $20 million government investment in Kentucky, just for an early test program to capture less than one percent of the CO2 the plant produces.
The rally was an example of the populist turn Grimes’ campaign has taken in recent weeks, as she’s pulled into close contention for the November 4 vote. Though the latest and final Bluegrass Poll Thursday had her trailing McConnell by five points, the previous week’s had her down by only one point. And Grimes’ rallies with Elizabeth Warren, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton in the upcoming weekend show she and the Democratic Party are still fighting for the Kentucky senate seat.