CHARLESTON, W.Va.—On a dreary day in early spring, several dozen men, mostly in their mid to late 60s, dressed in jeans and camouflage-colored UMWA t-shirts, passed by a heroic statue of a helmeted coal miner just outside the state capitol building. The men, most of whom were retired miners themselves, belonged to a local of the United Mine Workers of America in Matewan, a town in the southwest corner of the state where in 1920 a deadly gun battle between pro-union miners and company-backed detectives that became synonymous with the fight for fair wages and workers’ rights.
The men had come to Charleston to lobby for a state black lung fund that would pay as much as $5,000 per year to miners who suffer from the crippling illness. Unlike the federal fund, which is running out of money and miners say has been notoriously hard to access, West Virginia miners would not need a doctor to determine whether they qualified for benefits; the proposed bill presumes something that miners already know: If you have worked in the mines for at least a decade, you probably have the disease and will likely die of it.
On the two-hour long drive to the capital, the conversation among the miners shifted from hunting and fishing toward their political strategy. No one mentioned the emergence of the novel coronavirus, the flu-like disease that had just claimed its first fatality far away in Washington state. Talk of lockdowns, bailouts and ventilator supplies were many weeks in the future; the first confirmed case wouldn’t appear in West Virginia for another month. But the men, who had watched so many friends and family members struggle to breathe with dust-scarred lungs, knew enough to be wary of a new disease that attacked the respiratory system.
“Kind of goes hand in hand because they’re both killers,” Danny Whitt, one of the miners, would tell me later. “They get coronavirus and they have black lung, that's pretty much a death sentence for us, we’re extremely afraid of both of them.”
Whitt, 64 and gray-bearded, was a miner for 25 years, and he suffers from black lung, along with high blood pressure and diabetes. But he hasn’t been diagnosed as “totally disabled” from the disease. That means that like many miners, he hasn’t received compensation from the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund or would have to jump through several legal hoops to get it.
“They litigate you until you’re dead,” Whitt said. “The company has the right to challenge your case. This bill,” he said, referring to the one before the state legislature, “is intended to get money in people’s pockets while they’re still alive.”
That money would come from a tax on energy companies, including coal, natural gas, solar and wind, then funnel into the state’s coffers. As it stands, coal companies pay the federal government $1.10 per ton of underground coal and 55 cents per ton of surface coal mined. The tax hasn’t always held steady; in 2018, the industry lobbied Congress to slash that rate in half. Lawmakers reinstated the original tax rate the following year , but the higher tax expires at the end of 2020 and the fund has already borrowed billions of dollars from the Treasury Department to stay afloat.
For years, coal miners have occupied an outsized role in the national political discussion, how promises by politicians to restore a steadily shrinking coal industry affect miners’ political allegiances. Offend the miners and watch your election chances disappear; vow to bring back jobs and the state is yours. But spend a day with actual miners in their own state capital and it becomes quickly apparent there are issues they care about as much or more than jobs and that those priorities are not shared by their elected official. Indeed, after three years of futile efforts to get a state black lung bill funded, despite the heroic statue celebrating their work, they have every reason to believe that they don’t matter anywhere near as much as they might hope.
“We’re trying to keep the bill alive and make it known that there are miners falling through the cracks,” Whitt said.
The miners assembled in Charleston are by no means homogenous politically. All union members, yes, but they run the gamut from New Deal socially liberal Democrats to culture-war hardliners who openly scoff at any mention of gay rights. The 800-member local, they estimate, is evenly split between supporters of Donald Trump and those who back various Democratic candidates. What unites them, however, is a collective sense of abandonment and a deep-seated animosity toward the establishment.
“What’s happened is not a Trump moment or a Bernie moment or a progressive moment,” said Stephen Smith, at the time a progressive Democratic candidate for West Virginia governor, who joined the miners at the capitol. “What’s happening is an anti-establishment moment and that’s rational.”
In the eyes of the retired coal miners, Republicans and Democrats have dissolved into one machine bent toward the coal industry’s interests—not theirs. That incestuous relationship between the government and mining companies has festered since the turn of the century, when coal emerged as the state’s dominant business. Politicians invested in those same businesses and became beholden to the powerful coal barons.
“In this state, they’re all coal whores,” Terry Steele, a member of Local 1440, said. “There’s no difference in whether they’ve got a D or an R.”
The challenge for the miners on this day in February was to find out whether anyone inside the capitol, from either party, thought that a disease that kills 1,000 miners a year was worth even five minutes of their time.
Just past 9 a.m., the miners split into two groups —about half a dozen following Stephen Smith toward the House of Delegates offices, while the rest covered the Senate side. Smith lead the miners through winding hallways and up a flight of stairs before huddling outside the office of John Shott, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, one of two committees that would ultimately decide if House Bill 2537 ever made it to the floor for a vote.
Shott’s office’s secretary explained that the chairman was in a committee meeting and after that would have to rush to the floor once the House went into session.
“We need to make our presence known,” Whitt said. “We’d really appreciate it if he could actually talk to us.”
“What I can do is fill out a meeting request. It might not be today,” she said, taking his contact information as the miners crowded in the doorway. “His time is very limited.”
Of course, time is limited for the victims of black lung, too. As Whitt walked out of the office he managed to catch delegates Ben Queen and Mike Pushkin, who both sit on the House Judiciary Committee, in the hallway, who nodded politely and said they’d have to read the bill.
At that moment, Smith realized that everyone who was needed to pass the legislation was gathered inside the same committee room and the miners could grab all of the delegates at once when they took a break. Smith and the miners scooted inside, where 24 people were gathered at a long conference table headed by Shott. There were no seats, so the miners stood at the back of the room in silence.
Over a half hour passed as the group waited patiently on the sidelines. But just before the meeting ended, Shott slipped out the back door. The miners were exasperated after getting the brush, but Whitt remains optimistic.
“I feel good about [Moore] Capito,” Whitt said of the Republican vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, who is also the son of Shelley Moore Capito, the state’s Republican Senator.
After the meeting adjourned, the miners stood outside in the hallway to figure out their game plan. Dennis Dixon and his wife, Robin, opened up a book and checked off the list of delegates. It’s their first time lobbying, but the two Local 1440 members (wives are also eligible to join the union) are no strangers to black lung. Robin has watched her father and friends die from the suffocating disease while her brother, who worked in the mines for more than 38 years, is still battling with the coal company to keep his benefits.
“It’s a horrible death. It’s incurable, there’s no fixing it,” she said. “Usually you run around with an oxygen tank on, gasping for air. You just cannot breathe.”
Dennis Dixon worked in the mines until 1985 when he got injured. His wheezing voice reveals his years of labor in “low coal,” when he crawled into 28-inch holes through dust and muddy water.
“You go in healthy and if you're not killed by a rock fall or run over by a piece of equipment, the best that’s going to happen to you with 10 to 20 years of service is you’re going to have black lung,” he said. “You’ll still be alive but you’re going to suffer. So mining is a no-win situation.”
But it’s the only deal on offer. Unlike the coal supporters who turned on Hillary Clinton in 2016 after her now-infamous comment about putting “coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Dixon isn’t opposed to a new way forward for West Virginia. He wants factories built in Mingo County and across the rest of the state. He’s not particular about what they might make—could be cars or anything else. Until those new jobs come, if ever, other members of Local 1440 know that the dark corners of coal country are the best shot many West Virginians have at earning a good paycheck. As of 2018, there were still about 14,000 people working in the mines in West Virginia, down from over 20,000 in 2009.
“If I’ve got a job and I want my child to go to college, am I going to take a job at McDonald’s or a job that’s $15 an hour?” Whitt said. “You do what you’ve got to do for your family.”
For now, Dixon and the other miners want what they’re owed for their labor.
“We just want what we’re due,” he said. “We paid too. We’re tired of these politicians taking our money.”
By the afternoon, Whitt and the others made their way back downstairs and rejoined the group that had lobbied the Senate side. The capitol corridors echoed with the sound of shuffling feet and chattering lobbyists. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, going around to some of these, we can’t even get any to talk,” Terry Steele complained, as the miners rested for a moment on the hard marble steps. “And then when we do talk, they want to talk about something else.”
Wes Caudill, another UMWA member, grumbled over his interaction with Senator Tom Takubo, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “He wouldn’t give us five minutes,” he said. “And he’s a pulmonary doctor too.” (Takubo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
The Tax Department and Insurance Commissioner’s offices analyzed the senate version of the legislation and identified issues with the bill as drafted. The Insurance Commissioner’s office was unable to estimate the fiscal impact of the bill, but the Tax Department wrote that “ the tax provisions of this bill may be too vague to be properly administered .” The idea that the bill will cost too much angered Whitt, who noted with sarcasm that representatives were more than willing to grant a tax break for steam coal companies that would cost the state an estimated $60 million in its third year .
Whitt guided his group toward the office of Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, minority chair of the House Judiciary Committee. They ambled through imperial lobbies and climbed up alabaster stairwells, wheezing as the day dragged on.
The group waited outside Fleischauer’s office, which she shares with Delegate Andrew Robinson. The young delegate sits on the Judiciary Committee and was receptive to the miners’ concerns, but he was not a key to its passage like Fleischauer or Shott.
“They’re gonna be pressed for time here in the next week or so but more importantly the funding and the state of finances across West Virginia are going to be the hardest pressed issue,” Robinson told me. “When you give someone protection of health care like that, it comes with a large cost unfortunately.”
As they waited in the office, Whitt and Jarrell inevitably turned their conversation back to politics, this time toward impeachment, which had fizzled out a week earlier with President Trump’s acquittal in the Senate.
“We’re all Democrats, we just have a different view on how the president was treated, I think,” Jarrell says. A Democrat who backs Trump, Jarrell believes House members handled the impeachment process poorly. He conceded to Whitt that he plans on registering as a Republican before the November election.
“Republicans aren’t for unions and they aren’t for workers,” Whitt said.
“I told you that too, they’re not. They’re for company,” Jarrell says. But “as long as you’ve got Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler, I can’t be for it.”
Just as the miners left the office, Fleischauer buzzed past them with an aide at her side. The miners quickly gave her their elevator pitch.
“Happy to look at it,” she says, grabbing the bill and continuing on.
The miners climbed back up several flights of stairs and crossed a drizzly, outdoor passageway on the second floor of the capitol to another row of delegate offices. By 3 p.m. they were exhausted. One man felt ill and had to go home early. Whitt’s joints were stiffening. He’d been up since 6 a.m.
They decided to call it a day. Whitt’s gut told him that the bill was doomed once again. But he maintained that it was more likely to pass with a Democratic majority in the state House of Delegates. I asked him how he could be so sure the Democrats would deliver when the party failed to make any changes when it had control for years.
“I’m not saying all Democrats are perfect,” he said.
Both versions of the bill died a few days later.
“I knew it was gonna die because we got a Republican legislature,” said Bobby May, a member of Local 1440. “Rights of working people are being diminished. Did I know it was gonna get shot down before we got there? Yes, I did. I knew the deck was stacked against us.”
May and his fellow miners have canceled at least two of their union meetings since the pandemic struck West Virginia. Since the miners visited Charleston in February, the once crowded Democratic field has narrowed down to Joe Biden. May empathizes with Biden’s scrappy nature and hopes he wins the general, but he’s not confident that he can win West Virginia. Meanwhile, the miners’ hope for Stephen Smith’s gubernatorial campaign diminished as the virus gripped the state. Smith transformed his grassroots campaign into a statewide covid-19 response team , but the upstart candidate’s ability to connect with voters physically, rather than through expensive advertising, evaporated in the face of the pandemic. He lost in a tight primary in June to Ben Salango, a Charleston lawyer and Kanawha County commissioner.
Smith said he doesn’t see coronavirus as a new challenge for West Virginians, but as a variation on an old theme.
“People in West Virginia have had to choose to go to work even when they knew it might kill them,” he said. “At the national level, you have a party saying, ‘You have to go to work or else,’ and another saying, ‘You have to stay home.’ No one is providing the economic relief so that you don’t have to work.”
Miners like Terry Steele reject the options from both parties. Caught between a slow death and an apathetic government, their only choice is perseverance.
“We will keep doing this,” he said, “and I don’t think we’re going to accomplish anything until we replace who is in control in this state.”