Miners’ union president Cecil Roberts talks climate change, pensions, and more in D.C.
UMWA President Cecil Roberts with other union members at the 2019 commemoration of the Battle of Blair Mountain. | UMWA via Facebook.

WASHINGTON—Never let it be said that Cecil Roberts met a written speech he really likes.

Instead, the veteran United Mine Workers president produced a detailed, free-form, interesting discourse on climate change, politics, and coal’s future at a talk to a crowd of reporters, UMWA members, and retirees at Washington’s National Press Club. His 13-page prepared speech? Uh…

Roberts is really a preacher, not a button-down president. He likes to rev up crowds, and he got applause during his remarks. But also got his points in during the September 4 NPC Newsmaker session. Among them, few of which were laughing matters:

— The Mine Workers aren’t against coping with climate change. They know it’s occurring, and they know the U.S. must do something about it.

But miners have two big domestic problems with the Green New Deal. One is its utopian goal of no U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas, by 2050. That’s not doable without developing clean coal technology to scrub carbon out of power plant emissions, Roberts says.

Otherwise “you’ll never—write that down—solve climate change,” he ordered.

UMWA advocated that for years, but the last legislative effort, in 2009, was filibustered. And abolition puts former coal miners who became natural gas pipeline builders out of jobs.

“We never denied climate change. But how we deal with it is the question…and we want to be part of the discussion.”

The other is involved and affected workers—coal miners, utility workers, and oil workers among them—weren’t considered or consulted when the sprawling Green New Deal was crafted. And that includes crafting replacement jobs. “Any politician who says ‘I’ll take away your jobs’ will never get workers’ votes.”

Except for the unionized pipeline jobs, any jobs they can grab in the coal regions of Appalachia pay half of what miners now earn, and often lack pensions and health insurance, Roberts pointed out.

Watch video of UMWA President Cecil Roberts address to the National Press Club.

— Interestingly, Roberts praised Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the prime mover of the Green New Deal, for offering a start to the solution, when she visited and talked with miners in coal country earlier this year. She said that can start with solving the miners’ pension problems, which he discussed at length.

His other solution: Five years of guaranteed income and health insurance for the miners and other energy workers who lose their jobs in the transition to clean energy, “just like in Germany…but we could never get that passed.”

— Coal’s big foreign problem is there are now 52,000-54,000 coal miners in the U.S. and coal-fired electric power plants are closing every day. But there are five million coal miners in China, out of seven million worldwide, and thousands of current coal-fired plants, with 1,600 more under construction. Many will be in China. And there are no carbon controls on those plants, he said.

“China burns four billion tons of coal every year,” Roberts noted. Though he did not say so, U.S. coal users burned 691 million tons last year, federal data show.

“There’s a word in front of the words ‘climate change’ that I haven’t heard a lot. That word is ‘global,’” Roberts said. “We can still figure out how to burn coal cleanly in the U.S.” with scrubbers. “I want to see us take the lead on that.”

The miners and other workers don’t trust Congress or other politicians to do what’s right. They’ve seen too many broken promises in the past. What’s worse, he said, some of the pols just wish the miners would disappear.

“So when the president says ‘Don’t worry’ and talks about ‘how wonderful you have it,’ we don’t believe him.”

As for Trump’s promise to revive the coal industry, “It’s not back,” Roberts declared. After years of continual decline, coal mine employment leveled off in the last two years, but it’s also shifted from the “steam coal” underground mines of Appalachia to strip mines in the West.

“And now people are saying ‘It’s going to be better, we’ll have legislation’” to fix miners and other workers’ problems “when the Democrats regain power.“ “It’s not going to happen.” (his emphasis).

Roberts pinpointed two reasons: Political lack of memory and corporate opposition. He said many Democrats often forget about the Mine Workers, Steel Workers, Auto Workers, and other unionists who, led by UMWA in the 1930s, “built the middle class.”

And it took 35 years of agitation—and a horrific fatal mine explosion in 1969 that killed dozens—to force passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act.

“It’s really hard to get Congress to move. There’s a lot of money being spent against stopping people from being killed in the mines.”

As for one big blockader of everything, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., “We’ve probably been his biggest pain in the ass,” Roberts said.

— Money held true when Congress rewrote federal bankruptcy laws to put workers last, behind company CEOs and chief financial officers who make millions, followed by banks and bondholders. Though Roberts didn’t say so, the 2005 Newt Gingrich GOP-run Congress passed that measure. “It’s just wrong,” he said.

Such backward bankruptcy’s also the reason non-union miners blocked the last coal train from their now-closed mine in Harlan County, Kent., for three weeks, Roberts noted. They’re sitting down and camping out on the railroad tracks after their last paychecks either never arrived, or bounced, and their employer shut.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, Sept. 4. | UMWA

— To their credit, Democratic presidential hopefuls are receptive to UMWA’s invitation to come visit and tour an underground unionized coal mine, Roberts reported. UMWA’s site says five have committed to do so. Democratic nominee John Kerry did in 2004, Roberts said. So did First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935. Hillary Clinton didn’t.

The coal companies, however, may not be willing to let the candidates in, Roberts admitted. “They don’t want critics there,” he deadpanned.

— The politicians’ wish that miners weren’t there arises in the key issue affecting Mine Workers right now: The health, or lack of it, of the miners’ pension plans, both dependent on per-ton taxes collected on coal.

But with coal companies going broke since the Great Recession, the two pension funds—one created in 1947 and the other in 1974—are shelling out millions of dollars more to retirees than they’re getting in revenues. Without action on Capitol Hill, at least one of the two funds may be insolvent by the end of 2020. UMWA members have repeatedly lobbied lawmakers about the issue.

Yet Congress keeps kicking the can down the road about solving the problem, which the federal government took responsibility for in a 1947 pact between legendary UMWA President John L. Lewis and U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Roberts reminded the crowd.

Some “34,000 participants in our 1974 plan alone have died in the last seven years,” Roberts explained since the firms’ bankruptcies started. “It’s just like when people die from black lung disease. We’re starting to think the government is just waiting for us to die.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.