RACINE — Eddie Hendricks, president of the Boone County Commission, welcomed about 500 people to the United Mine Workers 76th annual Labor Day celebration in Racine on Monday.
“My grandfather was killed in a rock fall in a coal mine in 1958, the year I was born,” Hendricks said to the crowd gathered at John Slack Memorial Park.
Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said he has been to Pittsburgh and to Washington, D.C., to participate in union protests seeking to protect coal mining from environmental overregulation. “But we have to diversify our economy,” Stollings said. “Every indication is that no matter what we do, the coal economy is not going to come back to where it used to be. We need to diversify our economy.”
After his public remarks, Stollings said the economy of Boone County is the least economically diverse of all 55 counties in the Mountain State.
“We will continue to fight for your pensions. I did that with Patriot Coal,” Stollings told the crowd.
Having pension benefits is one of the reasons unions are so important, UMW President Cecil Roberts reminded those in attendance.
“We may not be the largest union anymore. But we are the hardest, roughest and most dedicated union in the country,” he said. “Today, we must thank all union organizations for benefits like the eight-hour workday, the 40-hour week, safety laws and pension benefits.”
On Monday, Roberts and the UMW announced their endorsement of Secretary of State Natalie Tennant in her race against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
“You stand with us,” Roberts said to Tennant, “so today, we proudly stand with you.”
Tennant told the union miners and retirees and their families that her first act as a U.S. senator would be to endorse the Robert C. Byrd Coal Mine and Safety Act.
“She [Capito] was the only member of the West Virginia delegation to vote against the Byrd Act,” Tennant said.
The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd introduced the legislation in response to the Upper Big Branch Disaster at a Massey Energy-owned mine that killed 29 miners in 2010.
Capito voted for four national budget bills that would cut the number of Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors, according to a UMW news release.
“Capito also voted to cut black lung benefits,” Tennant said. “And, she voted, time and time again, to cut Medicare and turn it into a voucher system and voted to put Social Security in the hands of Wall Street.”
Tennant also talked about the ongoing controversy over air pollution from coal-fired electric power plants.
“I have a plan to save coal and keep our air clean,” she said. “I have urged the president to invest in advanced coal technology.”
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Allen Tackett, former leader of the West Virginia National Guard and chairman of Tennant’s campaign, said after the rally that the endorsement would help Tennant beat Capito.
“The UMW endorsement of Natalie Tennant puts everything in perspective as to who represents the working people of West Virginia,” he said.
Amy Graham, a spokeswoman for Capito’s campaign, issued a news release Monday in response to the endorsement.
“Hard-working West Virginia coal miners know that Shelley Moore Capito is the only candidate in this election fighting on their behalf every single day. Shelley led the fight for the most significant update of mine safety laws since the 1970s and she worked alongside the UMWA to protect miners’ health care and pensions,” Graham stated, referring to the MINER Act of 2006, which “contained the most significant update of mine safety laws since the 1970s as a result of the Sago Mine accident.”
The release also said Capito co-sponsored the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act, which was backed by the UMW.
During her speech, Tennant said, “Capito voted five times against ‘equal pay for equal work’ legislation [to make women’s wages equal to men’s wages]. She voted against minimum wage increases eight times. I will always put people before profit.”
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., first elected to Congress in 1976, said West Virginia has “taken a hit” with the death of Byrd, the impending retirement of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and the 2010 defeat of Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., who spent 28 years in Congress.
“You have only one long-experienced representative left,” Rahall said, referring to the 38 years he has been in Congress. “I am also probably the last pro-coal Democrat in the House.”
Rahall criticized out-of-state money flowing into this year’s political races — including his own race against state Sen. Evan Jenkins, a Democrat turned Republican.
Huge contributions, he said, are coming from the multibillionaire Koch brothers, defeated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.
Rahall said Jenkins wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which allows children to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies until they are 26 and prevents companies from prohibiting insurance coverage because of pre-existing health conditions.
Several Century Aluminum retirees, who have been fighting to keep their health benefits since the closure of the Century plant in Ravenswood, also attended Monday’s UMW rally. Those benefits were promised under contracts between the company and the United Steelworkers of America.
Karen Gorrell, a leader of Century retirees, said, “We are happy to travel the state in support of Natalie Tennant. She stood up for us when Century Aluminum stole our retiree health-care benefits.
“Many retirees reached out to Shelley Capito at the same time. Shelley accepted Century’s position that they could terminate our benefits.”
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously referred to Boone County as the largest coal-producing county in West Virginia. Marshall County produced the most coal in the state in 2013.