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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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