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The United Mine Workers and Environmentalists


The Labor and Working-Class History Association has started a new blog called Labor Online. I was asked to be a contributing editor. Here’s my first post, on the United Mine Workers attacks on environmentalists and the Democratic Party and how workers allow companies to blind them to corporate malfeasance by buying into blaming environmentalists for job losses. In part:

As someone who grew up in the middle of the spotted owl crisis of the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s, I understand why the UMWA has sided with the bosses—its members are scared to death of losing their jobs. But climate change is also a labor issue. Natural disasters inordinately affect the poor. Studies have connected climate change and poverty to project higher rates of heat stroke, asthma, and other health problems among working-class people.

Many in labor support a vigorous fight against climate change. Perhaps they can serve as a bridge to environmental organizations. What must happen is more meaningful dialogue between the UMWA and environmentalists. The UMWA’s primary mission is to protect its members’ jobs. Without coal, what happens to thousands of families in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Pennsylvania? There’s no easy answer. But attacking the EPA is not going to bring union jobs back to Appalachia. Demonizing environmentalists only serves to alienate alliances with other progressives the UMWA and other unions need to fight for a better future


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  • Vance Maverick

    Doesn’t that closing assume the conclusion? I believe, and you obviously believe, that environmental and labor activists are fighting for visions of a better future that are ultimately convergent. But rather than argue this, you say that nonconvergence threatens convergence, which is true enough but uninspiring.

    • It reads to me like Erik is going bigger picture there, saying that labor risks losing support among progressives generally if it’s seen as holding a blanket opposition to environmentalism. Given that organized labor seems to be an anachronism and something between a parochial annoyance and an afterthought to a lot of liberals, I think Erik is correct.

      • Vance Maverick

        That’s a great point, but I don’t think Erik made it. I would love to see someone stitch up the coalition that should unite coal miners and espresso-sippers like me in common cause.

  • rea

    If all the environmentalists dropped dead tomorrow, how long would the coal industry last? We’re running out of coal anyway. They need help tranistioning to another line of work, not less environmental protection.

    • DrDick

      And their families are suffering as much or more from the adverse effects of coal (mining is not a clean industry) than other Americans. We have this same problem here in Montana with both coal and oil and gas workers. This despite clear evidence for massive damage to the environment and to people from mining and oil & gas production in the state.

    • Leeds man

      We’re running out of coal anyway

      Are we? US reserves seem pretty healthy, unlike the folk who will extract them, or live nearby.

    • Linnaeus

      I agree on the need to transition to a different economy, but I suspect too many Americans will not be willing to share the costs of that transition. “Hey, it’s West Virginia, what do I care?”

  • Shredder

    “There are no jobs on a dead planet.” – Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment / Blue-Green Alliance

    Cf. Judi Bari, of course.

    Cf. WTO protests 1999 which saw a historic alliance of labor and enviros.

    • Davis X. Machina

      Cf. WTO protests 1999 which saw a historic alliance of labor and enviros.

      Which led to….

    • I will say that the Judi Bari narrative needs to be challenged. She is used as the example of how environmentalists can bridge the gap to labor, but I’ve heard a lot of negative things about her in a number of conversations I’ve had with people who lived through that time in northern California and across the Northwest.

      • Darren Speece

        As you know, in my work, Bari is used as an example of more radical activists attempting to bridge the gap, her lack of success notwithstanding. So, there’s two separate things in my mind: Enviros making the effort, counteracting the notion that Envriros ingnore(d) the plight of workers and then the analysis about how to best bridge the gap and work together…


  • PSP

    Isn’t environmentalism a complete red herring anyways, with old coal power plants being replaced by cheaper natural gas? The plants are probably cheaper to build, because of material handling. Electrical production can be varied with demand better. The gas is cheaper. The problem isn’t the EPA. The problem is economics.

    While I am deeply sympathetic to their plight, it seems like the UMW is being used.

    • There’s a lot of problems. This is one of them.

      But think of it from their perspective too. What other decent jobs are there in rural West Virginia?

      • DrDick

        Or eastern Montana.

  • jon

    It should also be noted that in the wake of lumber mills and forestry shutting down, there was a large rise in tourism and recreation that turned out to employ more people and brought more money into rural economies.

    Also worth noting is that environmental protection creates jobs and employs people, both to build and operate plants and facilities, as well as in the monitoring of pollution and the undertaking of environmental cleanup operations. Many of those jobs can and should be unionized. It is a strategic error for unions to focus on a zero sum concept of their industry. They should broaden their outlook to become the people who provide energy, which will expand their opportunities, and perhaps lead to more, better and safer jobs with less environmental impact.

    The UMW is in a losing position, because there are more people who care about clean air and water, and an intact ecosystem, than there are people in the coal mining industry.

    • “It should also be noted that in the wake of lumber mills and forestry shutting down, there was a large rise in tourism and recreation that turned out to employ more people and brought more money into rural economies.”

      Yes but that is very complicated for a few reasons.

      1. The Pacific Northwest was already setting itself up as a tourist mecca before 1990 and was very ready to capitalize on that. West Virginia is not anywhere near as developed for tourism, a few places like the New River and Snowshoe notwithstanding.

      2. Oregon and Washington had major metropolitan areas with populations ready to go into the woods every weekend. West Virginia has nothing like Portland and Seattle. It has Charleston and Huntington.

      3. We can talk about the tourist economy and it’s important. But it’s very spotty. And in much of the forestry belt the economy is driven by marijuana and crystal meth production. That’s especially true in the old redwood logging zones of northern California, but is basically true in many places. That’s the alternative for these coal miners.

      4. There are nice straight roads from tourist destination to tourist destination in the Northwest. It’s a destination in and of itself. West Virginia has an old windy road system linking nothing with not much. That’s especially true in the coal country of southern West Virginia. Even if a tourist had a reason to go to McDowell County, which they mostly don’t, it takes forever to get there.

      Basically, it’s very easy for people who support environmentalism to say these things about Appalachia but the reality on the ground shows that it is much different than the Northwest in readiness to transition to a different economy.

      • DrDick

        It is also the case that tourist industry jobs tend to pay minimum wage or only slightly over, while union logging and mining jobs are pretty well paid. That is another ongoing issue here in Montana, as we shift from an extractive economy (coal, oil, other minerals, and timber) to a service/tourism economy.

        • Yep, absolutely. Not to mention that such an economy privileges those with access to investment capital and forces blue-collar people who often lack a lot of formal education into low-paid labor.

  • As a general rule, the decline of coalfields is less to do with exhaustion of reserves and more to do with a “double whammy” of drops in coal value and the exhaustion of coal reserves that can be mined cheaply enough. In the past 40 years a lot of the world’s coal production has shifted from deep-mined to open-cast, the latter being a lot less labor and engineering intensive. In the UK, where I used to live, the coal industry was destroyed by that double-whammy starting in the 1970’s. There is a lot of coal still underground in the UK, but it will not be economical to mine it until coal prices rise dramatically (which they may do, once other fossil fuels are exhausted).
    The key issue, as noted in the comments, is that a lot of mining areas have limited alternative sources of employment without a lot of government money being provided to seed alternative commercial ventures. A lot of former coal mining areas in the UK are still suffering from chronically high unemployment, which tends to lead to “Welfare Sinks” where multiple generations have not enjoyed any consistent employment.

  • Darren Speece


    I missed you in SFO, but wanted to let you know I am using this blog entry today in my seminar and pairing it with White’s classic and a bit from ABC about Powershift and unions… We’ll see how it goes.


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