The coal miners are back.
Last fall, you couldn’t walk through the Capitol’s hallways without running into mine workers wearing camouflage T-shirts.
Led by United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, a group of miners were in the Capitol on Tuesday morning to provide support to a bipartisan group of senators and House members from West Virginia and beyond. The lawmakers were introducing the newest version of legislation to protect miner pension benefits.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat facing serious re-election challenges next year, was front and center as the lead Senate sponsor.
Manchin said President Donald Trump — who dominated in the Mountain State in last year’s election — is behind the effort.
“Yes, he does support it,” Manchin told reporters. “I think all of us have had conversations with him. He’s been very vocal about the support for this from Day One.”
That is good news for the miners, and perhaps for Manchin, too.
At least one of his potential Republican challengers is backing the effort. Rep. Evan Jenkins is an original co-sponsor of the House companion introduced by fellow West Virginia GOP Rep. David McKinley.
“When our miners went down into the mines, they were made a promise: When you retire, you’ll have a good pension and healthcare benefits. I was proud to help secure a fix to permanently protect their health care, and now we need to do the same for their pensions,” Jenkins said in a statement. “The American Miners Pension Act ensures our nation will keep the promise made to our retired miners, their families and their widows.”
While Jenkins did not attend the rollout on the Senate side, Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito was there with Manchin, along with McKinley and Democratic Reps. Donald Norcross of New Jersey and Peter Welch of Vermont.
Welch’s involvement in miner labor issues might be the most unexpected, but he has fully embraced the cause as the lead House Democrat on the bill.
“I’m from Vermont, and we don’t have coal, but we do have electricity, and it’s the coal miners and their moms and dads and their grandparents who have kept the lights on for us in Vermont for generations,” Welch said. “The only people I’ve met who work as hard as the coal miners are dairy farmers in Vermont.”
McKinley even brought Welch to tour the Harrison County Mine in 2015.
“We got down there, about 1,000 feet down, two and a half miles in. … And somebody decided they’d have a little fun with somebody from Vermont, and they turned all the lights out,” Welch said. “I’m still in recovery.”
During his presidential campaign and since taking office, Trump has made repeated direct appeals to the coal miners and others in Appalachia.
“I love the miners” has been a familiar phrase of the president, but Capito and the other advocates for the UMWA miner pensions conceded they have a battle ahead, perhaps most notably with the delegation from Wyoming.
Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi and other Wyoming members have long opposed proposals to use funds paid into the Abandoned Mine Land trust for the pensions, which could lead to money flowing from coal producers in the West to pensions for retired miners back east.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who ultimately decided to legislatively split off health care benefits for the coal miners from the pension liabilities, indicated the leader would favor addressing the issues with the unionized miner pensions as part of a more comprehensive approach to overhauling troubled multi-employer pensions.
The health care benefits were protected as part of the omnibus spending bill that became law in May.
But supporters of the proposal released Tuesday said the miners had a unique agreement with the federal government dating back to 1946, under a deal reached when President Harry Truman was in office. Manchin said the UMWA has a rightful claim to the front of the line.
And Capito said that even though the payments may seem like a relatively small amount of money, they were incredibly valuable to the beneficiaries.
“We all know prices are going up on just about everything, and that $500 a month is significant when you talk about food or gasoline for their cars, maybe trips back and forth to church. Things that are important to families all across this nation,” she said.