Coal Tattoo

Election update: President Obama and the UMWA

In the national media’s coverage of coalfield politics, it’s become standard background to stick in a paragraph that says something like this: The United Mine Workers union has decided to sit out this year, declining to endorse a presidential candidate.

Two months ago, the National Journal headlined their story Coal Miners’ Union Sits Out Presidential Race, and started off the piece this way:

After giving then-Sen. Barack Obama a full-throttled endorsement in the 2008 presidential election, the United Mine Workers of America has decided not to endorse either Obama or the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in 2012.

Earlier this week, an otherwise very interesting piece from the Atlantic’s Molly Ball reported that for the first time in its history, the UMWA had decided not to endorse a presidential candidate. Turns out that wasn’t exactly right, and the magazine corrected the piece to say this:

For the first time in 40 years, the United Mine Workers Union, which endorsed Obama in 2008, John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000, has declined to endorse a presidential candidate.

Phil Smith, the UMWA’s communications director, tells me that the union endorsed FDR in 1936, and then no one else for president until JFK in 1960. Apparently, John L. Lewis personally endorsed some later FDR opponents, but the union did not. There was also no endorsement in 1972. The union has endorsed a presidential candidate every election since then.

And now? Well, a UMWA endorsement of either President Obama or Governor Romney seems very unlikely at this point. But I thought it might be interesting to just very briefly talk about the union’s endorsement process, something that doesn’t get spelled out in these national media parachute-drop stories.

First, the UMWA endorsements flow through the union’s political action committee, the Coal Miners Political Action Committee, or COMPAC. Every local union has its own COMPAC committee, made up of miners elected by the local’s membership. Those groups get together before elections to make recommendations for local, state and federal offices.

Those recommendations go to each state’s COMPAC,, again elected union officials. They decide whether to accept or reject endorsement recommendations for state and local offices. Recommendations for federal offices — president, Senate and House — are referred on to the UMWA’s National COMPAC Committee, which is made up of the union’s elected international executive board.

National COMPAC committee members can also take up their own motions for endorsement. In fact, four years ago, the national committee voted to endorse then-candidate Obama without first receiving any recommendation from a state committee. Phil Smith told me that the national committee took up the endorsement issue in May 2008, amid the heated Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom had called Roberts and asked for the union’s endorsement.

So far this year, no UMWA state COMPAC committee has recommended a presidential endorsement, according to Smith. The UMWA international board, sitting as the national COMPAC committee, is scheduled to take up some other endorsements during an in-person meeting on Thursday, Smith said. If any board member felt particularly strongly, they could seek a vote on the matter during that meeting … but again, that seems unlikely at this point.

What is more interesting than all of this, though, is to go back and look at the January-February 2009 issue of the United Mine Workers of America’s Journal. Right there on the cover is the swearing in ceremony for President Obama.

Inside, there’s an article headlined, “Keeping them honest,” that spells out three top political priorities for the UMWA: Fixing the Bush economic disaster, safe and healthy workplaces, and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Not exactly stuff that is the focus of campaign talk in the nation’s coalfields, huh? But, well, let’s see … Hasn’t the administration come through to a large extent on what the UMWA wanted in two of these three areas?

President Obama managed to get through Congress a gigantic and successful economic stimulus plan (Don’t believe me? Then read Michael Grunwald’s book on the subject). The president appointed the longtime UMWA safety director, Joe Main, to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Reasonable people could debate how effective MSHA has been under Joe Main, but regardless, the UMWA got their man put in charge. Finally, though, has anybody heard talk lately about the Employee Free Choice Act or any other reforms to federal labor laws? Didn’t think so.

That month’s Journal also includes an interview with UMWA President Cecil Roberts. This will give you the flavor of Cecil’s quotes:

Although the election of Barack Obama was great news for all working Americans, UMWA members have much to be particularly proud of. Hailing from a coal-mining state, President Obama plans to invest in the future of coal in America …

The article touts the appointment of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (Joe Main had not yet been named to MSHA), and a huge amount of the interview is dedicated to explaining why the Employee Free Choice Act is considered critical by the UMWA. Cecil puts it this way:

…. Obama plans to restore the right to organize and bargain collectively again in America, a right we have been denied for far too long … Already the bad guys are circling the wagons. Big business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are wielding a huge war chest to convince any wavering members of  Congress that the Employee Free Choice Act would mark the end of civilization. Make no mistake — this will be labor’s biggest effort on Capitol Hill this year, and we intent to help lead that effort. The future strength of our union depends on our ability to organize new members.

What happened? Well, while candidate and Sen. Obama supported this legislation, it ended up getting shut down, in large part because of top Obama aides. But again, this isn’t what you hear talked about as a reason the UMWA has yet to endorse anyone in the presidential race — and certainly as a reason that coal miners are showing up at campaign events for GOP candidate Mitt Romney. And the issues that are reasons for those things got much less attention in the Journal’s Obama inauguration coverage.

In response to a question about climate change and the future of the coal industry, here’s what Cecil Roberts had to say back then:

We can expect several competing legislative initiatives to be introduced — some responsible, some not — and we intend to be a major player in that debate … The reality is this: First, climate change will be addressed by Congress in some form either this year or next. Second, with coal accounting for much of the world’s electricity, including more than 50 percent in the U.S., simply walking away from using coal to generate electricity is a fantasy. I am cautiously optimistic that common sense will prevail, and common ground will be achieved.

Well, many of the things the UMWA wanted in a climate change bill — fairly mild schedules for reduction emissions and (most importantly) tons of money for carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technology — were part of the Waxman-Markey legislation. Yet despite admitting the bill assured a future for the coal industry, the UMWA refused to formally endorse the bill. Maybe UMWA support wouldn’t have made a difference. But maybe some coalfield representatives like Nick Rahall would have come on board if the union was giving them a push in that direction.

Other UMWA Journal articles during this period also offer some interesting things to think about. Take this one, from the July-August 2008 issue, in an article titled “Presidential Campaign Update: Which Candidate Will Fight for Working Families?” The article predicts Obama would do a far better job enforcing mine safety and health laws, and includes really nothing about environmental rules. It features a photo of Obama and a large-type quote from Cecil Roberts:

“John McCain wants to keep giving multi-millionaire CEO’s like Don Blankenship huge tax breaks while at the same time taxing UMWA members’ health care. That’s just wrong, and all of us need to keep that in mind when we vote.”

Then, there’s the September-October 2008 issue, with Obama on the cover and a cover headline that proclaims: “He’s on our side: Vote Obama.”  An editorial backing Obama says little specifically about coal’s future, and certainly not much about environmental rules.

That’s right. The UMWA’s efforts to promote the Obama campaign focused almost entirely on broader issues facing the working class: Economics and taxation policies, labor union organizing rules, workplace safety, the government safety net for the elderly and the poor. The union didn’t talk nearly as much about Obama’s coal policies back then. A more cynical person than I might say that’s because union leaders didn’t want members to understand that, despite broader liberal appeal on some issues, an Obama presidency presented serious threats to coal. It’s also possible that the union leadership felt that explaining the nuances of some of the environmental issues was too challenging, or that it was simply out-funded by the industry’s massive PR efforts on these matters. Or, it could be that talking about the ongoing and coming decline (though perhaps not death) of coal makes the UMWA sound weak and in decline itself at a time when projecting strength — in facing battles like the one with Patriot Coal over retiree pensions and health care — are what is needed.

We’ve written a lot on this blog about the UMWA and the tough political tightrope Cecil Roberts walks on some of the major issues facing our nation’s coal communities (see here, here, here and here). The trends in the industry — low natural gas prices, the mining out of quality coal seams, tough competition from other basins — don’t look good for the Appalachian coalfields.  But only recently has the UMWA really begun explaining these things to its members in a more clear, concrete and forceful way, as it did with one of its more recent Journal articles. This after spending nearly four years now watching the coal industry and its political friends carry out a massive public relations campaign trying to convince coal miners that the only problems their industry faces are President Obama, his EPA, and those out-of-state “tree hugger” environmental groups like the Sierra Club.

There are two things at play here that are worth thinking about:

First, even when the UMWA has talked some sense about some of the most divisive issues facing the coalfields, it has quickly retreated to avoid having its straight-talk used against it by coal operators fighting union organizing drives. Remember when the union said it would consider talking about a phase-out of mountaintop removal as a long-term goal? When that news came out, it didn’t take Cecil Roberts long to come out with a letter and a news release distancing himself from any such talk.

Second, even when it does endorse a presidential candidate (usually a Democrat), it’s pretty tough for the union to in just a few months in an election year build membership support for that candidate when the union leadership has spent the previous three years publicly going along with the industry’s scare tactics that Democratic environmental policies are going to end all coal mining. I’m talking about using rhetoric like “the Navy Seals shot Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington, so there you go,”  but this is a problem for the UMWA that goes back certainly at least to Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000.

The union’s recent statements that Obama and EPA aren’t the only challenges facing coal are a big step in the direction of a more up-front discussion about the future of coal in this region. In their campaign at Patriot Coal, UMWA officials have a chance to find and build on common ground that is so desperately needed in the region. And the speech earlier this year by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the former UMWA president, was about as eloquent a call for more such discussions as I’ve seen anywhere.

Career campaign consultants on both sides of the presidential race are doing their best with TV commercials to tear apart and divide the people of the coalfields (see here and here). But when the election is over, and regardless of who wins — regardless of whether the UMWA ever endorses anyone — the challenges the region faces will still be here, waiting to be solved.