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The head of the United Mine Workers of America doesn’t trust Democrats’ Green New Deal to deliver for coal miners.
In a press conference Wednesday that was part political speech and part history lesson, UMWA President Cecil Roberts said miners have been jilted too many times to expect Congress to take care of them in a government-led shift away from fossil fuels.
“When people tell us, ‘we’re going to pass legislation, you’re going to have the best jobs in the world, they’re going to be union jobs, don’t worry about anything’… we don’t believe it,” Roberts said at the National Press Club in Washington. “When people keep telling us how wonderful we’re going to have it, we’ve got many reasons to believe that’s not the case.”
Roberts pointed to the constant political fights his union has waged to preserve pensions and retiree health benefits over the last two decades, as coal companies have tried to shed their obligations through bankruptcy proceedings. The UMWA’s pension plan is on track to become insolvent within just a few years, and Congress has done nothing so far to make sure miners don’t end up with pennies on the dollar.
“People are talking about us needing a ‘transition’… Well, our transition has unfortunately been at the bankruptcy court,” Roberts said. “Nobody cares about this. Let’s be honest.”
Roberts’ speech, delivered the same day a climate town hall for presidential hopefuls would be broadcast on CNN, underscored one of the major hurdles progressive Democrats face in enacting some form of a Green New Deal to dramatically curb greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change. The proposal calls for a sweeping industrial plan to rapidly shift away from fossil fuels, plant billions of trees and rebuild infrastructure to withstand a hotter, less predictable world.
There are different versions of such a plan, though all promise to create good-paying jobs and look after workers in industries hurt in the transition. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of the most vocal proponents of a Green New Deal, has spoken often about how a climate package should fully fund the miners’ endangered pension plan. Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has a plan that includes $15 billion for the Black Lung Disability Fund and a guaranteed five years of salary, health care and pension support for workers displaced by the move to renewable energy.
Several other contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination proposed federal programs modeled on the GI Bill to help coal miners train for new lines of work.
While Roberts said he’s appreciated the dialogue his union has had with Ocasio-Cortez and others, he made clear he doesn’t buy that a Green New Deal would produce union jobs on par with the disappearing coal jobs. He mocked the very idea, noting how badly unions have struggled to successfully organize workplaces. The union membership rate is just 6.4 percent in the private sector nationally. So few jobs in the booming solar industry are unionized that the nonprofit Solar Foundation stopped tracking them in its annual census report three years ago.
I don’t think a good starting point for Democrats is to eliminate union jobs.
UMWA President Cecil Roberts
“I understand somehow, magically, if certain people get elected president, they’re going to make those union jobs, and they’re going to require them to pay what you get make now,” Roberts said. “I don’t believe that. I just can’t make that work in my mind.”
In June, the Green New Deal picked up two major labor endorsements, from the Service Employees International Union and the Association of Flight Attendants, which is part of the Communications Workers of America union. The United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America followed suit last month. But powerful construction unions that rely on the fossil fuel industry for lucrative jobs, such as the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, remained firmly opposed.
“We’re talking about not just eliminating coal miners’ jobs… it would also cost building trade jobs that they have now, utility worker jobs,” Roberts said. “I don’t think a good starting point for Democrats is to eliminate union jobs. It seems to me what Democrats need is a lot more union members, as opposed to fewer.”
Roberts made clear that he believes in climate change ― “it’s real, it needs to be dealt with” ― but argued that further curbing coal use in the U.S. would do little when coal-fired power plants continue to open in other countries.
Roberts’ speech came at a time when politicians and the media appear to be paying more attention than usual to coal miners. President Donald Trump made them a central theme of his 2016 election, holding rallies with “Trump Digs Coal” signs. News outlets have been sending reporters to Appalachia to see how the president’s coal promises are playing out, and a road blockade staged by unpaid miners in Kentucky has made front-page news. The Sanders campaign sent pizza to the miners last month.
But Roberts said political concerns for miners often turn out to be hollow. He noted that it’s been nearly 10 years since the Upper Big Branch mining disaster killed 29 miners in West Virginia, and despite promises at the time, Congress still has not reformed mine safety laws.
“Everybody wants to get their pictures taken with a coal miner [when they’re] running for office,” Roberts said. “But they don’t want anything to do with us once they get into office.”
Roberts had criticism for Trump, too. The president has often claimed, falsely, that the coal sector is being rejuvenated under his watch. But in reality, coal consumption is at its lowest level in decades, despite the administration’s efforts to deregulate the industry. Coal-fired power plants continue to close not because of emissions rules, but because of cheap natural gas.
Employment in the coal industry is hovering around just 52,000, up just a little bit more than a thousand from when Trump took office in 2017.
“Coal is not back,” Roberts said.
Roberts asked that the president, who claims to be a friend of coal miners, do them a favor on Twitter.
“If he just tweeted ― just make us 15 seconds of his day ― that he felt that coal miners entitled to pensions should have [them], I think that might be enough,” Roberts said. “I’m pleading with him to do that.”
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