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What is UMWA President Cecil Roberts Thinking?


UMWA President Cecil Roberts embarrassed himself and his union on a West Virginia radio station:

“The Navy SEALs shot Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington,” Cecil Roberts, president of the powerful union, said during an interview Tuesday on the West Virginia radio show MetroNews Talkline.

Roberts blasted Jackson, the EPA administrator, over the proposed regulations, which would limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. Opponents of the regulations, including Roberts, say the new rules would be the death knell of the coal industry.


The United Mine Workers are in a really tough position. Automation and the disappearing West Virginia coal seams means less jobs all the time. The UMWA hasn’t been able to unionize other coal regions such as in Wyoming with much effectiveness. Without a good strategy to create union jobs in West Virginia, environmentalists become an easy target for a frustrated Roberts.

But Roberts should know better. First of all, he is siding with the bosses on this issue. These are the same bosses who quite literally could not care less whether miners live or die. Does Roberts actually believe that workers and bosses share common interests here? The mine owners have killed tens of thousands of miners over the last century through accident and black lung. Resisting carbon capture technology is just another step in corporate prioritizing of profit over safety. Does Roberts really thinking allying himself with Don Blankenship and Massey Energy, the company responsible for 29 worker deaths at the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in 2010 is a good idea?

Moreover, climate change is the single greatest threat to the working-class in the world today. Natural disasters (regardless of how “natural” they actually are) affect the poor predominantly. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t just protect an abstract “nature.” It makes sure the air we breathe is clean and the water we drink does not poison us. The EPA exists to protect working-class people from the byproducts of industrialization. Working-class bodies and working-class health are the more compromised than rich people’s bodies by industrial pollution. Rich people can move away from sites of pollution. Poor people can’t. It was working-class people who got sick and died at Love Canal. It was working-class people who lived next to the Cuyahoga River when it burned. It is working-class people who suffer during natural disasters. The EPA protects all of us, but working-class people especially because working-class people live near power plants and mines.

If any people should be concerned with clean water and air it’s the United Mine Workers, given the history of their members dying from destroyed lungs. A union job isn’t that valuable in a world not worth living in.

Then there’s the rhetoric. The UMWA is actually comparing the EPA to the military carrying out a government hit on Bin Laden? That is awful. Roberts is employing extremist rhetoric against the government, reinforcing the idea that environmental regulations are part of a big government plot against our freedoms. It’s not as if right-wingers don’t use the same kind of rhetoric against unions and labor legislation. Does Roberts not see the connection? Not to mention the massive inappropriateness of the Bin Laden comparison from a moral perspective.

This also gets at a broader issue that labor people frequently discuss–what obligation do unions have to prioritize larger progressive issues, even if it means supporting an issue that may not create jobs for your union? Certainly the primary task of a union is to create good, safe jobs for its members. But unions also need allies around the progressive community, especially in today’s political climate. When they take a position that alienates them from the allies they need, is that good for the union? In this case, I’d have to say no. Why would environmental activists be concerned with the UMWA if this is the attitude the union takes on clean air and water?

Roberts is also threatening to not endorse President Obama’s re-election.

Yes, I’m sure that a Romney presidency will be far better for coal miners and their union…..

If worker-environmentalist coalitions are going to succeed, labor has to understand that is has to embrace environmentalism just as environmentalists have to think about working-class issues. Demonizing an agency that does more than almost anyone else in the government to protect working-class lives and bodies is a terrible idea, one that will not save West Virginia coal jobs or gain the union any credence with the owners.

Roberts needs to rethink his rhetoric and his position.

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  • Western Dave

    Every time I’m about to turn in my Green Card in the face of environmentalist stupidity about labor issues, somebody in a union says something stupid like this and I realize I gotta keep both my Green and my Labor card. Your doing valuable work here, Erik, trying to bridge the divide. Somehow in the late 19th century many more folks understood that environment and labor issues were deeply connected and attention to both was necessary to benefit the working classes (think urban sanitation, attempts at zoning, building codes etc). I’m not sure when the split happened but repairing it seems to be a never-ending process.

  • BradP

    You can throw out a dud from time to time, but you are the most interesting contributer here.

    I hoping to enjoy a good discussion on this one.

  • rea

    The nerve of these wingnuts, comparing the United Mine Workers to al Qaeda. Oh, wait a minute–who said that?

    • djw

      Yeah, odious politics aside, ‘you should *not* be Osama bid Laden’ should probably be a pretty central guiding principle of analogy construction.

    • joe from Lowell

      I think his point is that the EPA is treating mine workers like they’re al Qaeda.

  • Njorl

    Sadly, there is almost no way that mining coal in West Virginia is going to be consistent with a sensible green house gas policy. Luckily for the miners, having a sensible greenhouse gas policy is even more unlikely than significant pro-union legislation being passed.

  • Sherm

    Great post, as usual.

    But to be fair, she knows that management will squeeze (with support from the media and the public made to feel envious of working people with decent wages and benefits) the extra costs associated with the regulatory compliance from the pockets of the “overpaid” union workers with their “Cadillac” health plans. As an elected official with duties to her immediate members, she can’t really afford to think long-term.

    • Sherm

      “She” was meant to be “he”, and was referring to Cecil Roberts. Hard to concentrate on a what should be a national holiday. Opening day in Flushing, Queens.

      • Western Dave

        Or, for this season, a day of mourning if you really are a Mets fan.

        • Sherm

          Day of mourning? Now on pace for a record 162-win season.

  • joe from Lowell

    Lisa Jackson really is killing the coal industry, and it really does work against the interests of the UMWA for commercial coal power to be regulated out of existence. In this one particular area, the interests of Roberts’ members really are aligned with those of the bosses.

    • Phoenix_rising

      ‘Splain me again, ’cause I’m jest a hick from Chop Bottom, how adding jobs at the top of the smokestack lowers the value of what goes in the bottom.

      Due to the lack of implemented alternatives to keep the lights on in LA and Chicago, commercial coal power–no matter how many Americans it cripples and kills during its nasty, brutish cycle from production to electric clothes dryer–is in no danger whatsoever of being regulated into submission. Let alone out of existence.

      Is there anywhere for Massey to go to make production workers, whose current operative principle is “run coal no matter who dies in the process”, more miserable? They’re not particularly underpaid, relative to the other options West Virginians who want to stay on the family land actually have. Mining is a good paying job for the lucky ones who have shifts. It’s made more dangerous by how few those lucky ones are.

      So how exactly does raising the value of the remaining coal seams, which is what regulating emissions does in practice, and making consumers in Phoenix pay for it with rate increases, work against the interests of the UMWA? What they want is more money changing hands in exchange for coal, of which there is a limited supply.

      • joe from Lowell

        First, you need to read up on the expansion of natural gas commercial power, if you think there isn’t an alternative to coal. Hiding behind the word “implemented” to ignore what’s going on in the power industry, and what we know will continue to happen for the next decade or two doesn’t make it go away. It makes you like George Will, obsessing over the market share of the Prius in 1999 in order to avoid acknowledging the changes in the automobile industry.

        Second, reducing the demand for coal – which is what the continuing attrition of old plants combined with the end of construction of new ones will do – does not increase the value of coal seams. It’s craters them.

        • PhoenixRising

          If flattening US demand for coal–which is the worst case for most of the coal that we know where it’s at and how to get it without destroying what remains of WV–were a function of increased regulation, and a factor in falling prices per ton, wouldn’t we have seen that effect at some point in the past?

          I ask this because there is a market for your bet if you want to wager on the side “$19 a ton is coming back”. If you’re right that coal prices are ever going to fall, in real dollars, you can make a killing and don’t let me distract you….

          • Njorl

            Most regs have had grandfather clauses, so they only affect plants yet to be built. The most recent regs have no grandfather clauses. Many older plants will no longer be economical to run.

            That effect will be ameliorated somewhat. The recession drove many borderline plants out of business over the last 3 years.

            All that doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with the price of coal, though. Coal is a world-market commodity now. US production and consumption tracked in the past because transport costs and low demand outside the US made export unprofitable in large quantities, but consumption of coal by countries unable to meet their own needs is increasing dramatically. Last year 10% of US coal production was exported. That number is going to increase.

            One report I read said coal will go where tobacco went.

          • joe from Lowell

            If flattening US demand for coal–which is the worst case for most of the coal that we know where it’s at and how to get it without destroying what remains of WV–were a function of increased regulation, and a factor in falling prices per ton, wouldn’t we have seen that effect at some point in the past?

            No, because the regulation of coal before this administration was an order of magnitude smaller.

            If you’re right that coal prices are ever going to fall, in real dollars, you can make a killing and don’t let me distract you….

            Or I could do what I’ve actually done, and put my money on the continued exponential expansion of natural gas, which is happening because coal is being driven out of business.

      • joe from Lowell

        ‘Splain me again, ’cause I’m jest a hick from Chop Bottom, how adding jobs at the top of the smokestack lowers the value of what goes in the bottom.

        By shutting down a lot of the smokestacks.

    • Sockie the Sock Puppet

      Sequestering coal emissions — not just carbon dioxide, but mercury, too — costs money and exacts a penalty in terms of energy. But the cost is not so high that no one will want to do it, and because of the energy penalty, you’ll need about 30 percent more coal to make the same amount of electricity.

      That sounds like more mining, not less.

      The real threat to coal right now is super-cheap natural gas. Most new generation coming on line is natural gas and wind, because those are the cheapest sources of electricity right now. If Cecil Roberts had his union members short-term interests at heart, he’d be campaigning against fracking, not against CO2 regulations.

      • joe from Lowell

        But the cost is not so high that no one will want to do it

        The cumulative effect of the regulations being put on coal plant emissions is, and will continue to, raise the price of coal-fired energy steeply, and there is no end in sight. Jackson’s policies have already started to make coal uneconomical, and it’s only going to get worse for them.

        Especially given that natural gas is both cheap, and plentiful enough to give the power companies an alternative.

    • Chief

      Only their short-term interests.

      • joe from Lowell

        The disappearance of the coal industry is certainly not in the long-term interests of West Virginia coal miners, either.

        I think the Cecil Roberts’ members are going to be harmed very much by the disappearance of their industry, and of the base industry of the region in which we live, and we need to come up with a better answer for him than denying the obvious or telling him to take one for the team.

        • Brett

          There isn’t really an answer that doesn’t involve the UMWA essentially negotiating its own death in West Virginia. Think of the longshoreman union allowing for their numbers to dwindle over time in exchange for high pay and job security for those that remain.

          Except that the UMWA doesn’t have that kind of leverage, so they’d get an inferior version – maybe better severance pay and some help from the state in job placement for younger workers.

  • mpowell

    The question here is really whether emission controlled coal-based energy production is a viable market. On the one hand, there is nothing else with the scale to replace coal. On the other, there is no such thing as industrializable clean coal currently (as far as I am aware). If clean coan turns out to be the cheapest source of base load power supply, the union is fine. If not, they will see fewer jobs (though they may still have some jobs). The union head certainly needs to think about his allies if his union is going to survive, but if this change is going to kill his union entirely, those allies won’t do him much good. And it’s hard to say what the cost competitiveness of clean coal will be if it doesn’t exist yet.

    • joe from Lowell

      On the one hand, there is nothing else with the scale to replace coal.

      Natural gas doesn’t have the scale to replace all the coal plants if they shut down tomorrow, no.

      But this isn’t going to shut them down tomorrow. They’re going to gradually wink out over the next decade or two, over the same timeframe that natural gas (and new nuclear, and renewables) ramp up.

      • joe from Lowell

        Check out the Sierra Club’s release about the Energy Information Agency’s 2012 outlook report.

        Last year’s EIA report thought coal would fall from 48 to 44 percent between 2010 and 2035, continuing the trend of having to downgrade its coal projections each year…but just two years later (ie, now) the country has already hit 44%.

        Coal is going down.

      • Njorl

        Unused capacity in existing natural gas plants is equivalent to 1/3 of current coal burning capacity. That situation can exist because of the peak and off-peak peculiarities of the market, but it probably does put many coal burning plants in a very precarious position. No one needs to build a new plant to put them out of business. Very small changes in profitability can have immediate effects.

  • wengler

    Coal miners are destroying the bodies while destroying the environment around them. Meanwhile they have been de-unionizing and voting for Republicans.

    So…should Obama really spike policies that help the environment over the phantom menace of lost jobs? He’s not gonna win West Virginny either way.

  • Gareth Wilson

    If you’re interested in preventing climate change, how many people do you want mining coal in West Virginia?

    • Tcaalaw

      You have to remember that many liberals also oppose higher gas taxes, toll roads, higher parking prices, higher density zoning, and other very straightforward measures that could quickly reduce carbon emissions because that would be “unfair” to the poor and middle class.

    • PhoenixRising

      More. Because getting the remaining coal out from under Appalachia while leaving the surface with a few rivers worth running will take more workers and less dynamite.

      • Gareth Wilson

        Interesting. I don’t want any people mining coal in West Virginia, because I believe burning coal leads to dangerous climate change. You’re welcome to deny that, of course.

      • joe from Lowell

        This is actually an excellent short-term solution, but just keep in mind that it comes with an expiration date.

  • Tcaalaw

    less jobs all the time

    “Fewer jobs,” or perhaps “less work.”

    Also, with regard the UMWA’s position, I’m reminded of a line from the Vertigo Verité series Girl in which a working class British teenage girl mentally denounces her family for their racism, homophobia, and general ignorance and declares to herself that she’s going to become a communist, “or at least a Conservative!” (Sadly, I can’t find the full quote on-line anywhere.)

  • joe from Lowell

    Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe commercially-viable, economic carbon sequestration and other “clean-coal” technologies are right around the corner, and hooray if that happens, because all our problems will be solved.

    But I think it’s a dead end. Coal is filth. Making it clean is a gargantuan, complicated task. People talk about wind and solar being unproven technologies, and about people who think they’re the answer being dreamers, but look at where they are today, compared to “clean coal.”

    • jwinters

      People who talk about wind and solar being “unproven” don’t know what they are talking about. It’s already cheaper to build 1 MW (nameplate capacity) of wind than it is to build the same capacity of new coal. And according to the nice folks at Bloomberg, standard PV panels are getting so cheap, so quickly that solar will reach grid parity in the U.S. by 2019.

      That doesn’t by itself eliminate any existing coal plants, which can run at low cost because they are paid for, but it does suggest that when it comes time to replace them — and a lot of them are closing in on the end of their expected lifespan — they won’t be replaced by coal. The intermittency problem with solar and wind will still exist, but it’s gonna wind up being less expensive to solve that than it will be to pay the price premium for a new baseload coal-fired plant.

      • joe from Lowell

        I think the “unproven” argument against solar and wind has now shifted to the claim that they haven’t been proven to be able to be ramped up enough to provide a large percentage of the power needed.

        Which is also becoming an increasingly untenable claim. Ever read of the Desertech Industrial Initiative?

        • Brett

          I’ve heard the “intermittency” argument a lot more lately. It is still true, but if we’re putting down a ton of wind mills and solar panels there’s going to be economies-of-scale in doing energy storage as well (even if it’s stuff like “pump water uphill, then let it flow down at night”).

          There’s definitely a lot of money being invested in battery research these days as well, which will hopefully pan out. I know we’re not too fond of sprawl-burbs, but I’d rather have the occupants driving through them in electric cars powered by renewable energy than what exists now.

      • Njorl

        Actually, even with the current carbon capturing technology (which nobody uses), emission free coal would be slightly cheaper than solar.

        Wind is cheap, but wind faces diminishing returns as the best sites get used up.

        Making natural gas carbon neutral would be cheaper than doing it for coal, though. Nuclear would also be cheaper. If we decide we want carbon neutrality, coal is done.

        • joe from Lowell

          emission free coal would be slightly cheaper than solar.

          Over what time frame? There are no fuel costs to solar.

          • Njorl

            You can equate start up costs to continuing costs via the discount rate. Solar has huge startup costs on a per kW basis, several times higher than even nuclear. It makes up some ground on nuclear because the time between outlay and power production is shorter for solar. But solar remains, by far, the most expensive way to generate electricity.

  • David M. Nieporent

    Shorter Loomis: ivory tower liberal thinks actual workers should lose their jobs for the sake of the “working class.”

    Also, nobody got sick and died at Love Canal, but as long as the economics are bad, might as well let the science and history be bad, too.

    And since someone above mentioned fracking, another of Loomis’s hobby horses, I wonder if he’ll ever note that the EPA had to withdraw many of its claims about contamination.

    • I wonder in Nieporent will ever note that he is a right-wing hack who never has made a valuable point in his life?

      • David M. Nieporent

        Well, even if that’s true, at least I can be consoled by the fact that I have never subtracted from the collective store of human intelligence with the single dumbest post in the history of the universe about the gendered use of language about forests.

        And it doesn’t change the fact that you’re wrong about Love Canal. (Not to mention mining, environmentalism, and economics.)

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  • Another expert who wouldn’t know what a coalmine is about even if it bit him in his fat a2s…Bastards All and fuk the sierra club…

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