Searching for Cecil Roberts

May 4, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


I’ve been reading and re-reading the commentary by United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts that appeared in our Sunday Gazette-Mail this weekend.

Over the last two days, as I’ve read it and walked away from it, and read it and walked away from it again, I can’t help but think that I’m glad I’m not in Cecil’s shoes. He’s stuck in the middle of some political stuff that would be tough for anybody to try to navigate.

But there’s more to this all than politics. Climate change holds the future of the planet and our society in the balance. Mountaintop removal holds the future of some of the oldest mountains and the most diverse forests and streams on Earth. And while coalfield residents and communities are struggling with the impacts of large-scale surface mining, these same communities would also struggle with the effects of just turning off the switch and shutting these mines down.

I thought about this while reading that Paul Krugman column about cap-and-trade in the New York Times — the part where he says that he cringes when “green economy enthusiasts insist that protecting the environment would be all gain, no pain.” The same is true for eliminating or seriously curbing mountaintop removal — it’s not going to be all gain and no pain, as much as folks in the environmental community would like it to be. But I don’t really believe it’s going to be the all-out economic devastation that coal industry lobbyists would have us believe, either.

Over the coming months, I hope to keep writing more about this, and to use Coal Tattoo to encourage an ongoing dialogue about it. I’ve tried to get things started, by writing about Green Jobs for the Coalfields a couple of times. I welcome reader comments, and private suggestions for how I ought to try to tackle these issues and this discussion.

For now, let me say a couple of things about Cecil Roberts’ commentary. I hope everybody who reads Coal Tattoo will take the time to read it, because I think that many of the folks who are out there saying, “The UMWA should do this,” or “The UMWA should do that,” might want to stop talking and start listening a little bit, to help everyone understand each other better.

First of all, I sincerely hope that Cecil doesn’t really think that John McCain and a GOP administration would have already ended mountaintop removal.  Come on.

That statement in his commentary gives you a glimpse of the politics that Cecil Roberts is trying to navigate.  Cecil wrote that “…re-fighting last year’s election is beside the point and does nothing to save a single coal job.” But that’s what the whole commentary is all about — re-fighting the November presidential election — because that’s what the politics of his own union (and the coal industry) are forcing Cecil Roberts to do.

On one level, you have national politics, where the AFL-CIO (and Roberts’ UMWA brother Richard Trumka) want to support Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress, because they believe Democrats are better overall for working people. But when places like West Virginia, with its huge Democratic majority, don’t go Democratic in the presidential race, where does that leave Cecil Roberts when dealing with the adminstration? Probably in a tough spot.

On a much more local and practical level, Roberts is facing campaigns by folks in the coal industry (the UMW’s old enemy Don Blankenship at Massey Energy, for example) trying to convince miners that the Democrats the UMWA endorsed are going to take their jobs away without a second thought.

And on a still more local and practical level, there’s the internal politics of the UMWA itself, where some local officers in Southern West Virginia would love to unseat some of Cecil’s slate of international union officers — and will gladly use mountaintop removal and climate change as a wedge issue to try to do just that.

That leaves Cecil Roberts boxed into having to actually defend the union participating in discussions with federal regulators and lawmakers about what will be done about climate change and mountaintop removal. As he wrote:

So for the UMWA, our members and their families – indeed, for all coal miners and our communities – the issue isn’t whether something is going to be done. The issue is, instead, what is going to be done and what we can do to influence the outcome of whatever legislation is finally passed.

That is why the UMWA has chosen to become involved in the process in Congress over this pending legislation. We believe that for us to do nothing will provide exactly that for our members and their families: nothing.

Because we are involved, members of Congress are listening to the concerns of coal miners, our families and our communities. Indeed, because many from the coalfields have decided to sit on the sidelines and engage in rhetorical attacks and political grandstanding on this issue, ours is one of the few pro-coal voices anyone of consequence in Washington is listening to.

Finally, I don’t want anyone to leave this post believing that I am sold on everything Cecil had to say. I’m not. And I’m going to write more about that later. For example, I’d like to see Cecil give his members some straight talk about climate change, and why it’s not a made up theory by some eco-crazies, and about mountaintop removal, and how the future of the Appalachian region is probably not in large-scale surface mining.

But for now, how about we all just walk for a bit in his shoes, OK?

15 Responses to “Searching for Cecil Roberts”

  1. Ken, you are a sensitive and reasonable man. We are really fortunate to have you writing for the Gazette on the environment.

  2. keith says:

    Are you kidding i live here in boone county and if you close some of theses big strips down you kill this county everything around here depends on those jobs….

  3. ids says:

    There’s so much American’t in U.S., no wonder we relying on spedning as much on the military as like the next 25 countries’ military spending combined. I suggest try using the word “misoneism” in a sentence. It seems to me of all Cecil’s worries, he’s most worried about nothing passing Congress and the EPA taking control. I think the EPA taking control is nothing to worry about.

  4. […] More: Blogs @ The Charleston Gazette – » Searching for Cecil Roberts […]

  5. watcher says:

    Its time for AII miners , union and non union , the coal industry , and companies dependant upon coal mining to come togather to try and save all our jobs. Now is not the time for divisiveness.

  6. bamsterman says:

    Personally, I think Cecil is trying to navigate his way through unchartered water. For the past eight years the mining industry has been allowed to spin, twist, and in some instances outright ignore surface mining regulations. At the beginning of those 8 years Roberts made statements that seemed to imply that he was opposed to mtr, but as the mining industry became stronger and more successful with their campaign to maximize profits at the cost of West Virginia communities and mountains, Roberts expressed his support of mtr. He may think that by supporting mtr he is supporting his membership. I differ with that thinking. I say it is just the opposite. Who employees more people on mtr sites than anyone? Massey Energy. Who has vowed to oppose UMWA organizing? Massey Energy. There is no growth of membership to be found there. Never was. I’m not saying Cecil is a bad guy because I don’t think he is. I think he has made a huge error and is now trying to find his way. My personal opinion is that if Cecil would have came flat out against mtr eight years ago and fought for real coal miners communities and jobs there is a good chance that mtr wouldn’t exist today, and UMWA membership would be much larger than it is. I realize that Cecil is not a public servant, but he is viewed as a leader. I think he possesses fantastic leadership skills, but I also think, with the help of Joe Manchin and George Bush he lost his way. I hope he finds himself and rises to the top as I know he can. We desperately need someone to charge us up and lead us out of the corporate clutches of profit before humanity. Nothing, absolutely nothing justifies mountain top removal. If Mr. Ward needs to understand what that means, then I suggest that he come to Coal River, live here, work and write from here for six months. Maybe he’ll then be able to find his way.

  7. roselle says:


    You are right that straight talk is badly needed all around. But we simply cannot equate saving jobs with mining coal. Isn’t there a huge backlog of reclamation that needs to be done on the existing surface mines? It seems like there would be plenty of good paying work for miners to do just to address that problem.

    And shouldn’t the UMWA be pushing for carbon credits for the coal seams left in the ground? They are planning on giving carbon credits for standing forests, and every ton of carbon kept out of the atmosphere represents a real savings on the cost of mitigating future climate change. This money could be used to diversify the local economy and replace those jobs with ones that won’t destroy the landscape and poison our air and water.

    And finally, shouldn’t Cecil be supporting a carbon tax, again to raise revenue to create jobs for workers who are displaced by a real effort to address climate change?

    My fear is that current climate change legislation is being watered down by special interests, and will be ineffective in addressing the problem. The Waxman-Markey bill isn’t even a cap and trade per se because it allows a stunning 2 billion tons of CO2 offsets per year.

    The auto industry had to adjust to the collapse of the SUV market by making more efficient cars. The energy industry will have to respond similarly by making energy in a much less carbon intensive way. If the issue is just about coal, everyone looses. If the issue really is about jobs, well, there is plenty of work that needs to be done.

  8. Dennis says:

    I wonder why Boone county, WV is the only WV county that beats the national average for weekly wages? Could it be those dirty coal companies paying their miners a decent wage? Heaven forbid. You WV folks better wake up and figure who pays the bills in WV. Coal Miners buy stuff. Coal Miners pay their taxes, they buy cars, trucks, TVs, boats, big ticket items. Tune in again the Gazette’s Coal Cartoon and see what the enviro clowns have to say.

  9. I like bamsterman’s comments about “losing the way.” That’s a different thing from going the wrong way on purpose. But regardless, one has to get back on the right track one way or the other.

    Also, Tierra’s call for a “full court press” on sustainable economic development resonates. It all comes together for me in the same feeling of let’s turn this thing around before more damage is done.

  10. Thomas Rodd says:

    I agree with Elizabeth Gaucher’s post. Ken Ward’s meditation on the dilemma that Cecil Roberts faces (and his call for empathy) is sensitive and reasonable.

    Good dialogue going on here!

  11. Casey says:

    You can’t fault Cecil for his position. The only way for him to do his job is to support coal and that means being on the same side as industry. Any attack on coal is also an attack on the UMWA members and retirees.

    Government decides on solutions (regulations) to problems after listening to everyone including the self interest groups. Cecil is doing his job by trying to protect his members. What else could you realistically expect from him?

  12. I understan that the UMWA has to act to protect their brothers working in the coal mines of West Virginia. They number approximately 1000.

    However, how does the UMWA protect its retired brothers, who worked as Union miners for decades, from the mountaintop removal sites around their homes? Why aren’t the lives of those retired men as important, if not more important, than protecting the destructive jobs serving mountaintop removal operations? Case in point, Butch Sebok in Boone County, who served in Vietnam and worked underground for 28 years and Jim Foster, also from Boone county, who also served our country at war and worked underground for decades? These men deserve the respect and protection of their union too.

  13. offroute says:

    Good post! Thanks for doing this blog; is really good.

    Roberts is in a really nasty box, and he knows it, i think. His Sunday commentary is a far cry from late ’90s when he went around yelling against environmental folk and the Gazette, if memory serves. I still remember a big UMW pro-mtr, anti-enviro rally in the spring of 1999 at the Capitol.

    It was nuts. That whole time was nuts.

    But hopefully, that kinda demagoguery (sp) appears to be over and Roberts is now gonna try to be a serious leader of a much weakened union. This alone is encouraging.

  14. Casey says:

    The UMWA retirees funds get and have gotten their dollars from two sources: coal companies that are signatory to the UMWA and from taxes paid by all coal companies. Regulations that put coal companies at risk also risk retiree funds. Cecil knows this and is acting accordingly.

    I think that Cecil has put the democratic agenda ahead of his membership in the past but he is now putting the UMWA first. But as you can read in his op-ed he still likes to go out of his way to attack the Republicans. Being true to the union and the democratics is a tough line to walk when it comes to coal.

  15. jamie says:

    If the umwa would get rid of cecil roberts they would be better off the union has been a joke since they came out with selective strike.There the lowest paid and the first mines to shut down because the costs are to high

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