Coal Tattoo

Searching for Cecil Roberts


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?