Almost 900,000 miners labored in U.S. coal mines during peak employment in the 1920s. In 2019, that number was fewer than 53,000, the lowest on record, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The numbers plummeted with automation, and fell again when natural gas, mostly extracted through hydraulic fracking technology, outcompeted coal in price.
Today, coal workers and their families who depend on mining for their livelihoods face an existential crisis. Cecil Roberts has been president of the United Mine Workers of America, the UMWA, for the past quarter century. He’s from a coal-mining family in southern West Virginia in the heart of coal country. As the union’s membership has decreased, he’s fought hard — and mostly successfully — to protect health and retirement benefits for miners and their families.
With a U.S. president now in office who believes we must transition to a clean energy economy, Roberts has much to say about the crisis his members now face. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with him about his priorities, which include expanding coal jobs where possible – while also organizing workers in renewable energy sectors, like solar and wind. Roberts is a strong supporter of the pro-union Protecting the Right to Organize Act or (PRO Act), which recently passed in the House of Representatives, believing it’s essential to ensure his members make a living wage in whatever industry they work in.
CECIL ROBERTS: If people who have low-paying jobs currently want to join a union, generally speaking their wages will improve, their benefit package will improve, because the union will bargain a better contract for them, better terms and conditions of employment for them. The president has made that part of his plan moving forward — that, we need to pass the PRO Act. Any jobs created with this new infrastructure plan of his moving forward would make any new jobs union jobs. Of course, there’s a question of how that is going to happen is a little more difficult than just saying it.
But if we pass the PRO Act in Congress and make it law, that’s more realistic to expect that that could happen, because most renewable jobs are not union jobs and are not jobs that pay a lot of money that would support a middle-class lifestyle. And currently, as we all know, coal-mining jobs have excellent wages and benefits attached to them. So our approach to this is let’s bring jobs that are currently in China and other locations around the world – jobs that used to be here, in some instances – let’s bring those jobs back, let’s make them union jobs again, because most of the steel production jobs that were lost were union jobs. Most of the metallurgical coal-mining jobs were union jobs. We lost those.
We gave them — or allowed somebody else to take jobs that were supporting a middle-class lifestyle for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans. The new jobs that are being created around the world in renewable industry — that technology is being produced in China. Two-thirds of solar panels and wind turbines are produced in China. We’re importing that, supporting the Chinese economy, giving jobs to Chinese workers at very low pay and taking jobs away from hard-working, unionized workers here in the U.S., something we find appalling.
MELINDA TUHUS: One question is maintaining the jobs of coal workers and people working in the natural gas industry. Both of those industries are extremely detrimental to the climate and to people’s health, as I’m sure you know. We don’t have to talk about black lung with coal mining. But even gas, there’s a lot of health impacts from that.
So, if you could organize workers to produce clean technology and clean energy and get the same pay and benefits that unionized workers in the UMWA have now to produce dirty energy and to hurt their own health and the health of their families, where’s the tipping point? Where do you draw the line in saying we really need to move to aggressively organizing these newer jobs, and then people can either retire or transition into those jobs and we won’t be promoting jobs that are so toxic for people and the planet.
CECIL ROBERTS: The UMWA is and has been and always will be interested in organizing any worker that doesn’t enjoy the benefits of having a union. So it’s not new for the UMWA; we’re kind of going back to our roots and say we want to organize everybody that doesn’t have the benefit of a union.
People in Appalachia don’t believe there’s such a thing as a just transition because quite frankly, this country’s had 20 years to develop a way to save Appalachia and have chosen not to do it. It’s just well, go down to the bankruptcy judge and see what he gives you. If he doesn’t give you anything, then you’re just going to have to go find another way to make a living. My main goal here as we move forward is to make sure the members I represent have the ability to have a middle-class lifestyle with a good-paying job, safe jobs and health care and pensions and create additional coal-mining jobs to the extent I can do that, and that can be done without harming the environment.
There’s not a worker in the world who has a good union job who would say, I’ll give my job up and see what happens here. So there’s a lot of people suggesting as soon as a coal miner gets laid off there’s gonna be a good union job for him or her to go to over here; that’s not true now. So, we will try to organize – and we have tried to organize — everybody, but we’re going to protect these jobs we have, and I disagree with those who think that carbon capture and sequestration isn’t the route to go.
For more information, visit the United Mine Workers of America website at UMWA.org.