Coal Tattoo

Protecting miners: Will lawmakers get the message?


As the centerpiece of the West Virginia Coal Association’s legislative agenda continues to make its way through the Legislature,  United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts today ripped the bill in a strong op-ed piece in the Gazette:

West Virginians have been treated to a display of raw political payback over the last several weeks in Charleston. Emboldened by sweeping victories in last November’s election, a new majority in the state Legislature is advancing legislation on multiple fronts that is designed to remove decades of laws and regulations that they believe have made West Virginia “uncompetitive.”

One of the industry groups set to benefit the most from all this is the coal industry, which has been in trouble lately, no question. The industry’s supporters say that to fix that problem, we need to roll back safety regulations. That, apparently, will save money. My question is, will it be enough?

He goes on:

What will it take to compete with coal being sold at about one quarter of the price of our coal? I just don’t think rolling back decades of safety improvements will do it. Nope, we’re going to have to do more.

Let’s bring back the company store, so the companies can take back the wages they pay to the miners. Maybe the companies can once again charge the miners for the tools and equipment they use. Longwalls and continuous miners are expensive; it seems only right that the companies recoup their costs for them.

And we can bring back the company town, so the miners can pay rent to the company for the privilege of living in a forced labor camp while working at a more unsafe mine. We can put company doctors back to work, because of course they are the most qualified to say if injured miners are healthy enough to go to work or have black lung. But no painkillers, though.

Two things about this line of argument come to mind.

First, will some of the Republicans now running the West Virginia Legislature — and maybe even some of the Democrats — understand that Cecil Roberts isn’t really suggesting our state do these things? It’s hard to know, especially after listening to some lawmakers who didn’t want to adopt as state standards to limit child labor in the especially dangerous places, despite more than decade-old recommendations aimed at keeping kids safe.

Second, it’s reasonable to point out that the current movement of all variety of anti-labor, anti-worker safety and anti-environment bills in the West Virginia Legislature is fueled at least partly by the anti-Obama, anti-EPA sentiment that the mine workers have frequently been more than willing to go along with.  It’s been clear for a long time that the “war on coal” crowd is going after not only EPA’s efforts to protect all of us, but also the work of government inspectors to keep miners and other workers safe. Given some of the rhetoric we’ve heard from Cecil Roberts from time to time, it’s understandable if his members went with the anti-government crowd at the ballot box.

Of course, it’s also possible that the UMWA and the West Virginia environmental community could use their shared opposition to this particular industry bill to find all-too-rare common ground on an issue, work together, and maybe even build on this issue for improve their relationship and make progress where doing so is possible.

Even more importantly, though, was a remarkable part of the Cecil Roberts op-ed that really gets to the heart of the problem that threatens West Virginia’s ability to move forward to a brighter future:

Why stop there? Our state can save billions by once again eliminating public schools for the children of miners, because they’ll just be going to work in the mines and who needs them to know anything more than how to run the mine equipment? Heaven forbid they actually get an education and learn about the world outside the coalfields.