The Right-Wing Coal Con

The Right-Wing Coal Con

[This piece was originally published on the first Home Yesterday, in April, 2016]

Mitch McConnell finally gave away the game. After years of pretending to be a friend of coal miners, he got caught red-handed and made national news. The right-wing coal con has begun to unravel.

Tens of thousands of retired coal miners depend for their health care benefits and retirement money on the United Mine Worker pension. That is to say, they depend on it for their very lives. Given the chance to protect it, as the Washington Post reported, McConnell’s decision was clear: helping the miners “was a no-go issue.”

The reason? Saving those miners lives offers no political benefit to him (the UMW didn’t support him last election), and there’s no benefit to the owners he relies on for campaign funds either. To McConnell and his ilk, coal miners are just props — wedged there beside them to keep the roof from caving in on their massive decade-long con job.

We’ve seen this pattern over and over again. As coal ownership and senior management line one set of pockets with multi-million dollar bonuses, they turn another set inside out, and cry poverty when it is time to pay miners and retirees. Accomplices like McConnell are only too happy to help — he knows his campaigns are financed by the owners and the corporate leadership, and he takes good care of them.

That’s what it means for him to be a “friend of coal.” Mitch McConnell is friends with coal money, not coal miners.

We’ve got an aspiring McConnell on our hands here in West Virginia. Patrick Morrisey, who lost a New Jersey Congressional race in 2000, packed up his game, headed out west, and picked up a West Virginia law license just in time to run for Attorney General in 2012. He saw something here he didn’t see back in Jersey. What was it?

Well, next thing you know, though, he’s posing in hard hats, touring mines, and collecting major campaign cash at a coal company headquarters in Illinois. He starts telling everyone that his mission in life is to fight the President and his war on coal. A real road-to-Damascus story.

But Morrisey didn’t see a blinding light on his road, he saw a political path. And he didn’t hear the booming voice of the Lord, he heard the President’s poll numbers. “They are LOW,” the voice said, “so when you get to Charleston, you will know what you must do.”

And so Morrisey’s coal con began. A person with no previous interest in West Virginia became a self-styled zealot for coal. He spent over a million dollars of his own money on his campaign, and an investment like that isn’t made if it’s not expected to pay off. His move has delivered a lot of political juice for Morrisey, but just as with McConnell, there’s been nothing actually in it for coal miners.

Lawsuit after lawsuit has turned the Attorney General lawsuit into a publicity factory. All the lawsuits have been ballyhooed at the filing time, trumped up with press releases at every procedural stage, and ultimately lost, or abandoned, with no tangible results for miners. The latest and loudest — a stay of the Clean Power Plan —  fits the pattern.

The CPP rules are slated to go into effect between 2020 and 2022. This tells us at least two things: 1) a stay for six to nine months has a lot more to do with election-year politics than altering the future of the coal industry, much less the lives of miners; and 2) The CPP, still far in the future no matter what happens in court, is not what ails the coal industry today. Nationally, Republicans don’t even bother talking about the “war on coal” anymore. It’s played out everywhere but here.

Utility companies have made it clear that the price of other fuels and worldwide markets are driving their moves away from coal. Billionaire Bob Murray brazenly demanded a 60% tax cut for himself in West Virginia while plotting a strategy to reap billions from the “death of coal.” Dealing from the bottom of the deck doesn’t begin to describe how dishonest the right-wing coal con has become. But McConnell “caught a hanger” with the pension move, and we can all be grateful to see the con exposed once and for all.

We might have known. McConnell’s been getting away with it for years — claiming to be a friend of coal miners and then stabbing them in the back, as the Post revealed. When Morrisey actually put a campaign manager on the public payroll, you couldn’t really be surprised at that either: his whole office is a perpetual political campaign and the “job” he worries about in his office is his own.

The investments that could improve lives in coalfield communities always seem to get held up. Actually working on the problem doesn’t suit the political con, so solutions are deliberately undermined by McConnell and the snow job continues. Continuing pain in coal country supports the scam, so they can’t let it end.

Now, the most important part of a con job is to get out while the getting is good. That why Murray is quietly getting into gas. And after Bill Cole cleared Morrisey out of the governor’s race, Morrisey can have only one thing in mind — the 2018 Senate race and a chance to get out of West Virginia and back to Washington, D.C., where he started his political career working as a committee staffer.

So coal miners who deserve better get used: first to deliver owners their billions and executives their millions; and now to protect Morrisey’s political ambitions, which point back the way he came and have nothing to do with West Virginia. Meanwhile, McConnell and Morrisey play Catch-Me-If-You-Can to become political bosses, using coal miners as props. The sooner the miners walk away from these guys, the sooner the roof comes down over the whole sickening enterprise, and the sooner West Virginia can go back to work for itself, instead of right-wing coal grifters.