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Environmental Protection and Unions

[ 8 ] April 29, 2012 |

A couple of weeks ago, I slammed United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts for attacking the Environmental Protection Agency.

I have a piece up at Alternet exploring this issue in greater detail. An excerpt:

It makes little sense for Roberts to side with the coal companies on the EPA or anything else. The companies have little sympathy for the people of Appalachia. A century ago, they ruled the coal country like a fiefdom, murdering union organizers and forcing workers into generations of endemic poverty. It took organizers like Mother Jones and John L. Lewis to pull the companies out of the Middle Ages. In the 1880s and 1890s, coal companies in Tennessee used convicts as slave labor, leading to a major labor uprising in 1891. In 1921, West Virginia erupted into war after workers, tired of decades of oppression, took up arms when a sympathetic law enforcement was murdered by company thugs; over 100 union members were murdered in the weeks to follow. After decades of struggle, conditions for coal miners slowly improved, but the companies never stopped fighting against reforms. Thousands of miners died of black lung disease throughout the 20th century, but the companies refused to recognize the illness or grant compensation to victims until Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

The coal companies continue to treat workers’ lives as expendable. Coal mining remains one of the nation’s most dangerous professions. We rarely hear about the miner or two dying each month in accidents, but the death of 29 miners in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch Mine grabbed Americans’ fickle attention. Massey Energy, owner of Upper Big Branch, had a long history of labor violations and was openly contemptuous of safety regulations. Most of the coal industry reflects Massey’s indifference to worker health and safety.

Moreover, the mine companies have sought to reduce employment for decades. In 1920, 784,000 Americans were employed in the coal industry. By 2000, that number fell to 71,000 while coal production has increased. Not only have the companies looked to lay off as many workers as possible, but the certainly don’t care about the people of Appalachia at large. Mountaintop removal mining has destroyed forests and streambeds, remade the region’s geology, dumped toxic chemicals into waterways and rivers, and forced people off their land. Outside of climate change, mountaintop removal is the greatest ongoing environmental disaster in the United States.

Comments (8)

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  1. Rarely Posts says:

    I agree with your position, and I’m no expert on this issue, but I do have one question: isn’t the battle over mountain top mining one of the rare instances where worker safety is actually in direct tension with environmental protection? I’ve heard that mountain top mining is safer than shaft mining, etc. Of course, it’s also much more destructive. Any thoughts on that?

    FYI: I know that the EPA policy at issue here is not mountain top mining, but rather proposed EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions in coal-fired power plants. But, the Obama Administration has also brought new focus to mountain top mining, so I was curious. Also, I don’t think it’s merely “industry [that] claims [the new emissions rules] would move the nation away from burning coal for energy.” It’s my impression that most people think that the new emissions rules will move us away from coal (which is fine, in my opinion, but I do understand why the Union would be unhappy about it).

  2. Dan Nexon says:

    If we did this right, we would compensate workers for lost jobs just like economists suggest for job losses from free trade. Of course, that would be socialism. Or something.

    • Linnaeus says:

      I could be wrong, but I think a good deal of this tension between environmental protection and labor could be remedied by more comprehensive aid for those whose work gets displaced or eliminated. I don’t think most workers in extractive industries want to harm the environment or exhaust the resources upon which their jobs rely, but I can understand their concerns about being thrown onto the scrap heap and forgotten.

    • David Kaib says:

      Even leaving ideology aside, this approach would be difficult politically. Large scale job loss would mean less power and less agency for those displaced. An alternative would be to begin creating new industries (like alternative energy production) in the same locales so people could shift more smoothly. That would require planning, thus leading to accusations of socialism. Still I think elite, not popular opposition would be the problem.

  3. Gareth Wilson says:

    There’s a contradiction there. Coal mining is a dangerous job with great risk of violent death and chronic illness, and you don’t trust the corporations to make it safer. So why complain about layoffs? Surely it’s a good thing that one-tenth as many people are working in the mines. And the safety regulations you support are one of the reasons why so few people are employed, as they raise the costs of labour.

    • jefft452 says:

      “And the safety regulations you support are one of the reasons why so few people are employed”

      yes
      Every time a worker is killed on the job, a job opening is created

      yet us hypocritical lefties want fewer workers killed
      must be because we hate job creation

      • Gareth Wilson says:

        Suppose mining safety regulations were made strict enough, and enforced well enough, to satisfy you. It’s still a dangerous job, but now you don’t have any moral or ethical problem with the mining corporations. So under those conditions, how many Americans work in mines? If this has lead to huge layoffs, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

  4. Bruce V. says:

    On thing you are missing, Erik, is that Roberts’ outburst was less a policy statement than a generalized expression of solidarity with the working membership.

    The Mineworkers, like the Teamsters and the Longshoremen, have developed a sense that they are a despised minority in America today. Thus they cling together in defense of their own clan against the outsiders.

    Roberts is an intelligent man and I really don’t think he believes that pushing back at the EPA will create any UMWA jobs.

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