Ohio miners say they were forced to attend Romney rally

This post has been updated.

WASHINGTON -- Employees of a major coal industry donor to Republican causes have raised complaints about their participation in an event earlier this month organized for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the crucial swing state of Ohio.

Several miners at Murray Energy’s Century coal mine in Beallsville, Ohio, contacted a nearby morning talk radio host, David Blomquist, over the last two weeks to say that they were forced to attend an Aug. 14 rally for Romney at the mine. Murray closed the mine the day of the rally, saying it was necessary for security and safety, then docked miners the day's pay. Asked by WWVA radio’s Blomquist about the allegations on Monday’s show, Murray chief operating officer Robert Moore said: “Attendance was mandatory but no one was forced to attend the event.”

The Century mine is owned by Robert Murray, an enthusiastic Romney supporter and major contributor to the Republican Party on his own and through Murray Energy, one of the largest private coal companies in the U.S. Murray and his wife have given Republican candidates a total of $471,185 since the 2008 election, including the maximum of $5,000 each to Romney this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Additionally, employees of Murray Energy and its subsidiaries contributed almost $1.5 million to Republicans over the same period.

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Murray Energy is among the biggest employers in the coal-rich Ohio valley, and worries run high there that the increased use of natural gas at the nation’s powerplants and more stringent air pollution regulations are gradually throttling coal. Robert Murray has consistently hammered President Barack Obama for allegedly waging “a war on coal,” a refrain Romney and the Republican Party have taken up. But he has denied foisting political activity on anyone.

“Nobody was ordered to attend,” said Murray, in an interview in Tampa, Fla., with a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer covering the convention. “Nobody knows who attended and who didn’t. But I can tell you this: We had 3,000 people there, it was a great day, our people enjoyed it. Barack Obama is destroying their lives, their livelihoods. These people are scared, and they came out in droves to see Mitt Romney and that’s what it was all about.”

The Romney campaign declined to comment, referring questions to Murray Energy. Calls to Moore were not immediately returned. The Obama campaign declined to comment but the Ohio Democratic Party said it is keeping a close eye on the situation.

“I don’t think it speaks well of any candidate who attends an event where attendance by employees is mandatory,” said Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Jerid Kurtz. “It takes away from the authenticity of the event.”

At the rally, Romney stood before a wall of hard-hat wearing, gray uniformed miners, some with their faces still coal-smudged from earlier shifts, as he lambasted Obama administration policies he says are intent on bankrupting coal.

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Employees who contacted Blomquist and others in the industry contend that the August event is the latest example of the lengths Murray is willing to go to back his political priorities. In the days just after the rally, about seven or eight mine workers, supposedly independent of one another, emailed and called Blomquist to tell him about the circumstances surrounding the rally. The radio host, known as Bloomdaddy, said once he began talking about the issue on the air, he was contacted by other current and former Murray employees, bringing the number of those sharing the same concerns to 15 to 20 people.

The wife of an hourly employee at the Century mine said in an interview with the Washington Bureau the event was mandatory, and that workers were told to arrive at 8 a.m. to a local school, where they registered to attend the rally and then waited much of the day to be bused to the mine. The schedule ate into her husband’s free time, which bothered him, she said. She said she did not want to be identified for fear her husband would lose his job.

“He was really upset that they took his free time with his family away from him,” she said. In general, she said “he felt like they were pushing the Republican choice on him and he felt a little intimidated by that.”

Blomquist’s correspondents said they are routinely pressured to donate to Republican causes and that the company keeps track of who gives and who doesn’t. Workers sometimes have their pay envelopes stuffed with political literature, the employee’s wife said.

Blomquist said his callers chose to stay anonymous from the radio audience for fear of dismissal, but that he had not spoken to anyone who suffered retribution for veering from Murray Energy’s politics. The mine worker’s wife said her husband did not attend the rally and so far hasn’t faced any repercussions.

Blomquist said his callers mainly wanted an end to the overt politics. “They just want the feeling of pressure and the rhetoric to stop,” he said.

During his interview with Moore on Monday, Blomquist pressed the executive about the logic of stripping workers of a day’s pay despite the fact that the work day was lost due to management’s decision. Moore responded that such a decision was Murray Energy’s prerogative and small sacrifice for workers to make.

“We’re talking about an event that was in the best interest of anyone related to the coal industry in this area or the entire country,” Moore said. “Put it in perspective: When you think about how critical this next election is and how critical it is that we get someone in this office who supports coal, to give up 8 hours for a career, I do not believe there is anything negative about that.”

While employees often serve as a backdrop when candidates of either party rally at their facilities, making attendance mandatory and withholding the pay of those who do is considered highly unusual. Century is not a union mine, so workers lack protection from such measures.

[UPDATED at 6:34 p.m.: Murray Energy gained attention during the August 2007 collapse of a mine it co-owned in Utah, Crandall Canyon Mine, during which six miners were killed and three other men perished in the rescue effort.  The media at the time revealed that Murray Energy had a far worse safety record at some of its mines than other coal companies of similar size. Robert Murray blamed the collapse on an earthquake, a theory scientists later discredited.

Robert Murray has also spoken out against further regulation of the coal and power industry and called climate change “elitists' ill-conceived ‘global goofiness' ” campaign.

Coal jobs have risen in Ohio during most of Obama’s tenure, but mines all over mid-Atlantic have been laying off people this year, said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mineworkers of America, which endorsed Obama in 2008 and has so far not endorsed a 2012 presidential candidate.  Smith said although many coal companies talk to employees from time to time about developments in the industry, Murray Energy stood apart.

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“He holds frequent meetings with employees letting folks know his views with respect to politics and trashing Obama and trashing us for supporting Obama in '08,” Smith said of Robert Murray. “They’re weekly, maybe biweekly.  So, in tone and amount of activism, he is unique.”]

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