CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Health care, the future of coal in West Virginia and companies that force dissatisfied customers into secret arbitration were among the topics discussed during a Friday afternoon meeting with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in downtown Charleston.
The gathering, which focused on the state's economic future, included representatives from community groups, nurses and social workers associations and labor unions.
Rockefeller predicted Congress "basically won't do anything for the rest of the year, because Republicans won't let us" before the November elections.
Rockefeller said he was particularly proud of his recent speech about the problematic future of the coal industry, especially in Southern West Virginia.
"I've never felt so proud about anything in my life," Rockefeller said. "This issue had been gnawing at me for many years.
"And the huge emblems of 'Friends of Coal' in the Charleston Civic Center really annoy me."
The West Virginia Coal Association and "Friends of Coal" recently paid the city of Charleston fees to allow them to place their emblems on the floor of the Civic Center's basketball court.
Rockefeller said he plans to work to increase penalties for "repeated [safety] violations" by coal companies, to protect industry whistleblowers and to give the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration more enforcement power.
"Coal miners are terrified today. If they say anything critical, they are afraid they will get fired. And they will.
"We need to talk about manufacturing in Southern West Virginia. Coal is going down," Rockefeller added.
He mentioned the new federal prison in McDowell County that houses 1,800 inmates. The prison has brought 300 new jobs in the prison itself, and hundreds of additional jobs to provide food, laundry and appliance services.
Bernie Layne, a Charleston lawyer and president-elect of the West Virginia Association for Justice, urged Rockefeller to back the new federal Arbitration Fairness Act.
"For nearly 30 years, Sen. Rockefeller has been a leader and unwavering advocate on issues that affect the rights of West Virginia consumers and workers," Layne said.
The Arbitration Fairness Act would restrict corporations from putting "binding arbitration clauses" in contracts that restrict the rights of West Virginians involved in consumer, employment and civil rights disputes.
"Consumers have lost their ability to pursue their interests in a court of law as long as they [are required] to sign their rights away."
Clauses where consumers sign those rights away are often buried in lengthy contracts, typically printed in tiny type. Many arbitration hearings, unlike court hearings, are held in secret.
Arbitration clauses are placed in agreements consumers must sign to qualify for credit cards, mortgages, cellphones, staying in nursing homes and gaining employment.
"Over 75 percent of all consumer contracts have arbitration clauses," Layne said.
Larry Matheney, secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, praised Rockefeller for co-sponsoring the Bring Jobs Home Act, which will assess financial penalties on companies that export jobs.
The prosperity of West Virginia's middle class, Matheney said, has been hurt by the decline of the glass, steel and chemical industries, as more products are manufactured overseas.
Rockefeller also criticized the rise of Internet companies that hurt West Virginia. "Because everyone is buying online, [local] stores are closing."
Rockefeller also mentioned the ongoing health-care debate.
"It is stunning that health care is so controversial. When you talk about independent parts of the Affordable Health Care for America Act, people generally like them.
"But when you talk about "'Obamacare,' then they hate everything."
Rockefeller also said "there is no state that stands to gain more than West Virginia" from the recently passed federal health-care legislation.Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjny...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.