War on Coal Stars at Labor Day Parade

  • Coal-fired power plant workers show their support for Governor Corbett. Photo: J.S.Jordan

Sept. 1, 2014

Energy and environmental policy took center stage as Pennsylvania’s candidates for governor faced off at Pittsburgh’s Labor Day celebrations. Union organizers of the city’s official parade on Monday disinvited Republican Governor Tom Corbett. The governor and coal workers cast this as another strike in what they call the war on coal and spoke out in counter-demonstrations and parties. 

Corbett’s Democratic opponent Tom Wolf, led the parade. Meanwhile, hundreds of coal-fired power plant union workers, called Boilermakers, held signs in support of Corbett along the parade route, and chanted, "Stop the war on coal!"

Among the protesters was 26-year-old Jim O’Rourke, a second-generation Boilermaker. He opposes Wolf because he’s had it with the country’s Democratic leadership. Specifically, with President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce power plant emissions—a plan he thinks might cost him his job. 

“They’re crippling these companies by the EPA regulations that were set forth in June,” O’Rourke says.

“The environmentalists are going to say we’re killing them. We got families, too. We got Boilermakers who got asthma and their kids got asthma. You don’t think we don’t care about that?” O’Rourke says. “We want to clean that up. All we want to do is to ask for the right time and the right policies to do so.”

Just next to the Boilermakers crowd, Diane Alexander stood alone on the sidewalk with a Tom Wolf sign. Alexander’s a longtime nurse, so she’s well aware of the rising asthma rates the EPA says it’s regulations would help stem. But that’s not why she says she’s voting for Wolf. 

“I’m not Republican,” she says. “I don’t vote Republican.”

Even so, she’s sympathetic to the Boilermakers’ complaints about regulations.

“That’s their livelihood,” she says.

Another parade-goer from the medical field, Dr. Farrell Buchinsky, admits he wasn’t sold on the EPA’s regulations in part because he admits he doesn’t know enough about the data on asthma and pollution.

“What I see going on that I really don’t like is that sometimes the profits accrue to a few,” Buchinsky says. “If the profits were accruing to whole groups of people, you could maybe offset what might be a small health risk.”

Governor Corbett says the existing U.S. Clean Air Act regulations have worked for the environment, and says they have already cost companies substantial investments. While he was snubbed by the official parade, he joined the Boilermakers for a barbecue and two rallies. 

“All you have to do is come to Pittsburgh and see how much cleaner this city is now than it was 30, 40, 50 years ago,” he says.

Corbett’s rival Wolf carefully straddles the fence on coal and the environment. The head of a cabinet-making business, Wolf spoke to service workers and others at the United Steelworkers' Pittsburgh headquarters. He says Pennsylvania can maintain its coal industry, and lead other states by adapting to the EPA proposal.

“The next governor of Pennsylvania is going to have to lead on this issue to make sure that we all recognize how important coal is in Pennsylvania, and that it has a strong future in the sustainable energy future,” Wolf says.  “Clean coal is really important.” 

One of Wolf’s supporters—she calls herself part of the Wolf Pack, is Jaclyn McCann, a community organizer with Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate for nonunion workers.

“Corbett supporters that I’ve spoken with, we don’t see eye-to-eye and I don’t necessarily think they’re going get what they’re hoping for for what they’re fighting for,” McCann says.

What voters on either side can be assured of, is that candidates and their supporters will find a lot worth fighting for in the weeks before November.

Inset photos from top: 1. Boilermaker Jim O'Rourke, of Upper St. Clair, flanked by his sister. 2. Diane Alexander, of Pittsburgh, with a Tom Wolf sign. 3. Gov. Tom Corbett, at the Boilermakers Union on Banksville Road in Pittsburgh. 4. Democrat Tom Wolf at the United Steelworkers building in Pittsburgh. All images by J.S. Jordan.