Racine rally blends picnic, politics
RACINE, W.Va. -- The deteriorating economic position of coal miners and other middle class Americans requires more picket lines and vigorous protests.
That was the main message United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts delivered during the annual Labor Day picnic held in Racine in Boone County.
Hundreds of miners and their families attended the Racine rally, which also featured delicious pork barbecue and hot sauce.
Joe Carter, president of Charleston-based UMW District 17, hosted the event.
"This is a day we all gather to enjoy ourselves and meet old friends. And it is a day that exists to recognize working peoples' contributions to this country."
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin told the crowd at John Slack Park, "The United States is one of the strongest countries in the world because of coal miners. You have made our state strong and our country strong."
Severance taxes on coal, Tomblin said, help West Virginia pay its bills and keep its state pension programs solvent.
Tomblin criticized the "attack on coal from the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. I will not stand by and let them destroy our jobs. Recently, we have won cases four times in federal courts."
In the upcoming Nov. 6 election, Tomblin faces Bill Maloney, a Republican businessman in Morgantown.
"We have to fight the big money coming in from out of state. Just 20 or 25 percent of people voting will not cut it," Tomblin said, urging people to get their friends out to vote. Early voting begins 10 days before Election Day.
Letitia "Tish" Chafin, a Democrat endorsed by the UMW for state Supreme Court, said, "I am so proud to have support from the union. You are what makes this state move."
Cecil Roberts said, "The middle class was built by organized labor."
Referring to Massey Energy's former president, Roberts said, "Don Blankenship used to be king. We're here today and Don Blankenship is gone."
Blankenship played a major role in increasing the number of non-union miners in West Virginia when he was a top Massey executive, before Alpha Natural Resources bought the company in June 2011.
Roberts also focused on the union's current efforts to keep health care for 22,000 retired miners now associated with Patriot Coal.
After Peabody Coal created Patriot Coal as a "spin off" company five years ago, Peabody switched their union mines to Patriot, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July. Arch Coal's union mines became a part of Magnum Coal, which later merged with Patriot Coal.
Roberts believes it was a strategy to cut off benefits for those retired workers.
Today, Patriot employs about 2,000 working union miners in West Virginia and Kentucky, while it is responsible to pay benefits to more than 10,000 retired miners and 10,000 miners' dependents in the eastern coalfields.
"You've got to block the entrances to these coal mines and block the entrances to their corporate offices," Roberts said.
The problems faced by today's labor movement, Roberts believes, began under President Ronald Reagan.
On Aug. 5, 1981, Reagan fired 11,345 striking federal air traffic controllers who ignored his order to return to work.
"He fired a whole union," Roberts said. "We didn't do anything about it. We should have shut the coal mines down, shut the steel mills down to help those workers."
Ed Barnette and Woodey Call, two aluminum workers active in the United Steelworkers strike against Constellium Rolled Products that began a month ago, also spoke Monday.
The strike is fighting company efforts in contract negotiations to increase the cost of health benefits covering 700 workers at the Ravenswood plant. The local also has 2,000 retired workers from Constellium.
Barnette, vice president of USW Local 5668, compared the current battle of Ravenswood workers to the struggle 22,000 UMW retirees now have with Patriot Coal.
"Retirees' health benefits should be guaranteed for life," Barnette said. "The assault on the health care, pensions and wages of the American worker must be stopped."
Call, a coal miner during national UMW strikes in 1977 and 1980, as well as the strike against Pittston Coal in the late 1980s, began working at Ravenswood in 1992.
Call urged the UMW to come to Ravenswood today to support their ongoing strike.
Other UMW-endorsed candidates at the Racine rally included state Auditor Glen Gainer and state Treasurer John Perdue.
Reach Paul Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.