Who would ever have thought it possible? There was the president of the United Mine Workers joining hands with West Virginia Coal Association leaders. Together they stood on the state Capitol steps to preach the evils of big government, environmentalists and anything else besetting the coal industry.
The UMW and the Coal Association are jointly sponsoring newspaper ads on the virtues of strip mining. The old rivals have apparently become fast friends.
It's an odd partnership. It was, after all, the coal industry that was shooting at miners at the Battle of Blair Mountain. It was the Coal Association that opposed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. It is its members who routinely oppose miners' claims for black lung benefits.
Apparently the UMW and its president, Cecil Roberts, are willing to let bygones be bygones. If miners have forgiven the coal industry for what it did in the past, then let's look at what it is doing in the present.
UMW President Roberts has been railing about "compromise" and the refusal of those who disagree with him to compromise. Without some details on what he wants, it is impossible to discuss what Roberts has in mind when he favors compromise. Does he mean one of those charming coal industry compromises in which a coal company agrees to continue doing just what it wants to do and everybody else agrees to learn to like it? Is it something else? Who knows?
Beyond generalities about "compromise," Roberts has said both in the Gazette and before the Governor's Task Force on Mountaintop Removal what he wants. Prominent among the goals of the UMW is protection of its members' jobs.
On this point, the UMW's new best buddies are right there beside the UMW, at least as long as it serves the industry's interest. Unless coal is mined, the industry can't make money. It needs the miners every bit as much as the miners need the industry.
Of course, it needs fewer and fewer every year. Between 1990 and 1997, the coal industry lost 10,000 jobs. This was all before Judge Haden, citizens, or anybody else started insisting that the coal industry follow the law on mountaintop removal strip mining. This was during the era when, law or no law, the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection felt free to issue a permit to anyone to mine anywhere. Even in such an atmosphere, the industry decided it could make more money with 10,000 fewer miners.
Many of the jobs were lost in Southern West Virginia, a region where coal production boomed in the 1990s. From 1990 until 1997, Logan County lost 900 mining jobs. Boone County lost more than 700. Mingo County lost nearly 400, Wyoming County lost 400, Raleigh County nearly 600.
Just recently, 350 UMW miners at Cannelton were laid off. It is owned by a company that sits on the board of directors of Roberts' new best buddy, the West Virginia Coal Association. While hoping to persuade everyone that Arch Coal should get a permit for its Dal-Tex mine, David Todd, president of New Best Buddy Arch Coal, brought us all to tears with his pain at having to look into the faces of the children of the 350 miners who would have to lose their jobs there. He has made no public statement about the children affected by the layoff at Cannelton.
If we can conclude anything from this, it is that the Coal Association will lock arms with the UMW so long as the coal companies need the miners. As soon as the companies no longer need the miners, they lay them off without batting an eye. So long as a bunch of riled-up miners will come to the Capitol and serve the industry's interest by chanting about jobs, they are the Coal Association's friend. As soon as it is no longer in the industry's interest, it reverts to its usual practice of looking for ways to mine more coal while employing fewer workers.
How else has the Coal Association worked to advance the interests of the UMW? To find out, we have to look no farther than its actions in the discussions about mountaintop removal mining.
Before the Governor's Task Force on Mountaintop Removal, the UMW supported a better system for protecting citizens from blasting damage. It suggested a system in which the company would inspect the nearby homes before blasting started. If any damage to the homes appeared during the blasting, the law would assume that the blasting caused it unless the company proved otherwise.
Even though a similar system has worked effectively in the oil and gas industry for years, the Coal Association opposed it. Instead, it chose to mutter about "perceived damage" and deny that there was a problem.
Before the task force, the UMW supported the return of mined land to its original contour. When it was not returned to its original contour, the UMW supported "real economic development plans" and specifically opposed the current practice of restoring land to "fish and wildlife habitat."
"Fish and wildlife habitat" is, of course, the darling of coal operators. Federal law requires that mountaintop removal mines be made suitable for a post-mining industrial, agricultural, commercial, residential or public use. Preparing the land for such uses is dramatically more expensive than planting grass and calling it a "wildlife habitat." In order to save money, the Coal Association prefers planting grass. Since we could not possibly build an economy around these fields of grass, the UMW opposed "fish and wildlife habitat" as a post-mining use. Its buddies at the Coal Association insisted that they be allowed to continue this practice.
Before the task force, the UMW supported placing historic sites "such as the historic portions of Blair Mountain and the Stanley family farm on Kayford Mountain" off limits of mining. The Coal Association has not yet jumped on this bandwagon.
So what are we to make of this new friendship? The Coal Association gets the support of the United Mine Workers in the dispute over mountaintop removal mining. The companies get the benefit of the miners' labor until the companies can figure out a way to mine more coal with fewer workers. If the coal industry has made any change to its policy of opposing all claims for black lung benefits, it has not announced it. If the nonunion members of the Coal Association have changed their policies of resisting all efforts to organize, they have not announced that either.
It is an odd relationship. In exchange for its political help the UMW gets no help on its traditional goals of the ability to organize, mine safety, or compensation for such of its members who are disabled. It gets no help in its newer goals of real economic development in the coalfields or protecting people near the mines from blasting. It gets no relief in its ongoing problem: that the Coal Association and its members will drop the UMW like a hot potato the instant the coal is gone or it decides it can make more money mining in another state.
Is this really the kind of treatment that the UMW should expect from a friend?
McFerrin, a Beckley lawyer, is one of the Gazette's contributing columnists.
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