For months, Sen. Joe Manchin III has sold his opposition to the Build Back Better proposal as driven uniformly by a brave and hardheaded assessment of the national interest. He has warned that BBB will fuel inflation and that its climate provisions will push energy markets to evolve too quickly and lead to a dangerous dependence on Chinese supply chains.

It just got harder for the West Virginia Democrat to get away with this stance. And the culprit is none other than coal miners in his home state, whose union is redoubling calls for Manchin to support President Biden’s agenda.

What’s happening now with miners seems like a seminal moment. Some of the worst tropes in our politics — Democrats harbor nothing but elitist ill will toward miners, and miners’ “way of life” must be defended at all costs — are cracking up and falling away.

All this emerges from a new report in the New York Times that illustrates the true nature of home-state cross-pressures on Manchin. He’s caught between the miners union and mine owners, who vehemently oppose BBB.

In 2021, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) changed his top line spending number for President Biden’s agenda more than half a dozen times. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

The United Mine Workers of America backs BBB because it will help mine workers transition to a future they now see as inevitable. BBB contains tax incentives to spur manufacturing and consumption of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, to hasten our transition to a decarbonized economy.

Crucially, some of those tax incentives would steer some of this renewable manufacturing to coal-producing regions, to smooth the transition for workers away from fossil-fuel toil. Miners also support BBB because it would replenish a fund that aids miners suffering from black lung disease.

But here’s the rub: The mine owners oppose the tax incentives. Apparently, this is precisely because they would speed the transition to clean energy sources, which is bad for the coal business.

A ‘real future’ for miners

The owners aren’t shy about advertising this. The president of the West Virginia Coal Association, which represents the owners, tells the Times that the union is “waving a white flag” by supporting tax incentives, meaning they’re surrendering to coal’s inevitable demise.

“We would have thought they’d go down swinging,” the mine owners’ representative tells the Times. He says it’s folly to trade away “fossil energy jobs” for renewable ones, because the former are “extremely well paid and carry benefits.”

Now note how the union is responding to this, per the Times, by invoking Donald Trump:

Phil Smith, the United Mine Workers’ chief lobbyist, responded, “We’re still swinging, but we’re swinging in a smart way and in a way that will provide a real future for fossil energy workers in West Virginia and throughout the country.”
Union officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering mine owners, said Mr. Manchin should not be listening to the West Virginia Coal Association, which includes some of Mr. Trump’s staunchest supporters.

That’s a remarkable rift. The idea that BBB is in the interests of mine workers — but against the interests of owners — has been forced out into the open.

Clinton’s coal ‘gaffe’

To see why this is remarkable, go back to 2016, when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton declared that we’re going to put coal miners "out of business.” She added that transitioning to renewable jobs would be necessary, but that was lost amid the “gaffe.”

Donald Trump pounced, holding events with miners promising to bring coal soaring back. Indeed, the mine owners’ association endorsed Trump on the basis of Clinton’s “gaffe” and Trump’s promise, which was really a vow to resist the clean energy transition at all costs.

Of course, Trump’s promise of a glorious rebound in coal jobs didn’t come to pass. But what has been laid bare is that the mythologizing about these matters we’ve endured for years is nonsense.

Empty platitudes about defending this “way of life” won’t alter the trajectory of the future. Those looking to ease the transition of miners into renewable jobs are not coastal elitists out to destroy them, and self-proclaimed protectors of this “way of life,” like Trump, are peddling a bill of goods.

‘Squeeze every dollar out of coal’

To be clear, the miners are not aligned with climate advocates. They have legitimate skepticism that renewable jobs might not pay as well or have as good of benefits.

But nonetheless, there are signs that such jobs might offer the region a future. Jason Walsh, the executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, points to the possibility of assembling solar panels in the Ohio Valley.

But key to this, Walsh notes, is the tax incentive encouragement in BBB. Which mine owners oppose.

“The current debate reveals the fundamental lack of alignment between the coal industry and the labor unions that represent its workers,” Walsh told me. “Unions want a viable future for their workers. The industry wants to squeeze every dollar out of coal before it goes away.”

Where does this leave Manchin? He does support tax incentives that would encourage renewable jobs in coal country. And he now says an agreement is possible on BBB’s climate provisions.

Yet in his statement opposing BBB, Manchin faulted BBB’s tax incentives with a barrage of misleading industry claims about what’s truly in the national interest. Manchin says he “cannot explain” BBB to West Virginia. But if miners want it, this posture is much shakier.

Indeed, now that this fundamental conflict between mine workers and owners has been exposed, it should be harder for Manchin to sink BBB in the end, even under another pretext, without being perceived as operating in owners’ interests.

That might not be enough to persuade Manchin. But if it isn’t, what would be?