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United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)

'Coal Country' Mines Seam of Class Anger in West Virginia Explosion

By Alain Savard - Labor Notes, April 4, 2022

If Don Blankenship were a fictional character, critics would say he was a cartoon evil capitalist. Unfortunately, he’s real. One of his lesser crimes was to dump toxic coal slurry into disused mineshafts, poisoning the water of his neighbors, all to save $55,000. While they sickened, he piped his own water from the nearby town of Matewan. Yes, that Matewan. He has characterized strikes as “union terrorism.”

As chair and chief executive of Massey Energy, he received production reports from Upper Big Branch mine every half hour, including weekends. And no wonder, Blankenship’s compensation was tied to production, and UBB produced $600,000 worth of top-quality coal every day in a mile-deep operation near Whitesville, West Virginia.

That is, until it exploded in a completely preventable disaster that killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010.

The workers knew something bad was bound to happen. Methane readings were too high, the ventilation and air control systems were a shambles. One day the mine was sweltering, the next freezing cold. They operated in a fog of coal dust and exhaustion. Management threatened anyone who spoke up.

“Coal Country,” a play recently re-opened at Cherry Lane theater in New York, tells the story of the disaster through the words of the miners and their families. They are backed up by stunning original songs by Texas songwriter Steve Earle, who accompanies himself on guitar or banjo from the corner of the stage. “The devil put the coal in the ground,” he growls, and you can believe it. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen created the play, and Blank directs it.

Performance Coal, the subsidiary of Massey that ran Upper Big Branch, was created specifically to exclude the union. Gary Quarles (played by Thomas Kopache), recalls that when he first hired into the mine, he couldn’t believe how management shouted at the men. That wasn’t tolerated on his union jobs. Unrelieved overtime was another difference.

Managers brought in experienced miners like Quarles for their knowledge about extracting coal, but dismissed their knowledge about how to run a safe mine. Union mines are safer according to Phil Smith of the United Mineworkers of America, "because workers elect their own safety committees and they know they can report hazards without fear of retribution.”

United Mine Workers Partner for 350 Electric Battery Jobs in West Virginia

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2022

The United Mine Workers just announced that it will partner with energy startup SPARKZ to build an electric battery factory in West Virginia in 2022 that will employ 350 workers. The UMWA will recruit and train dislocated miners to be the factory’s first production workers.

“We need good, union jobs in the coalfields no matter what industry they are in,” said UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Brian Sanson. “This is a start toward putting the tens of thousands of already-dislocated coal miners to work in decent jobs in the communities where they live.”

The first markets for the company’s batteries are expected to be for material handling vehicles like forklifts, agricultural equipment, and energy storage.

Source: bit.ly/UMWAEnergyJobs

Texas’s Power Woes Are Just the Latest Reminder of the Danger of Privatization

By Donald Cohen - Truthout, February 17, 2022

Texas dodged a bullet earlier this month when its statewide power grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), held up during a drop in temperatures. But that’s not because state leaders, particularly Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, learned anything from last year’s horrific storm.

As Truthout’s Candice Bernd reported last week, not only did 70,000 Texans still experience power and utility services outages during the recent cold snap, but fracked gas production also saw its biggest dip in production since the February 2021 grid failure, revealing the industry’s continued vulnerability to extreme weather.

Last year, Winter Storm Uri blanketed the entire state with freezing temperatures and snow for several days, causing record energy demand. This forced ERCOT to tell energy providers to cut power as they tried to avoid a total collapse of the energy system. Nearly 5 million people lost power and at least 246 died as a result of the storm.

The latest freeze was a more typical Texas cold front. Local power outages were caused mainly by downed power lines due to trees and ice. Still, Abbott is claiming that the system is more reliable and resilient than it’s ever been.

Experts disagree. “The thing about [this month’s freeze] is, we passed the test, but it was also a really easy test, and we didn’t pass it with perfect scores,” Michael Webber, Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas, told Truthout’s Bernd. “There’s a lot of people who had problems with their power, and there was still the gas production drop, so I think we shouldn’t take away too much false confidence that we’re all good now.”

Texas’s energy system is controlled by a complex mix of public and private actors, including the nonprofit ERCOT, oil and gas companies, the Texas Railroad Commission, and others. The details don’t matter as much as what makes the state’s system unique: It’s independent; not connected to the country’s two other national grids, the Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection; and not subject to federal oversight.

This has allowed it to become one of the country’s most marketized systems, according to Johanna Bozuwa, director of the Climate and Community Project. It’s heavily deregulated, designed to allow for intense competition in the retail sale of electricity. As one portfolio manager at a financial firm put it, it’s a “Wild West market design based only on short-run prices.”

UMWA statement on Build Back Better legislation

By Cecil E. Roberts, International President - United Mine Workers of America, December 20, 2021

“The United Mine Workers and Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have a long and friendly relationship. We remain grateful for his hard work to preserve the pensions and health care of our retirees across the nation, including thousands in West Virginia. He has been at our side as we have worked to preserve coal miners’ jobs in a changing energy marketplace, and we appreciate that very much.

“The Build Back Better (BBB) legislation includes several items that we believe are important for our members and their communities – some of which are part of the UMWA’s Principles for Energy Transition we laid out last spring.

“The bill includes language that would extend the current fee paid by coal companies to fund benefits received by victims of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung. But now that fee will be cut in half, further shifting the burden of paying these benefits away from the coal companies and on to taxpayers.

“The bill includes language that will provide tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to build facilities in the coalfields that would employ thousands of coal miners who have lost their jobs. We support that and are ready to help supply those plants with a trained, professional workforce. But now the potential for those jobs is significantly threatened.

“The bill includes language that would, for the first time, financially penalize outlaw employers that deny workers their rights to form a union on the job. This language is critical to any long-term ability to restore the right to organize in America in the face of ramped-up union-busting by employers. But now there is no path forward for millions of workers to exercise their rights at work.

“For those and other reasons, we are disappointed that the bill will not pass. We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to this legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working, and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities.

“I also want to reiterate our support for the passage of voting rights legislation as soon as possible, and strongly encourage Senator Manchin and every other Senator to be prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish that. Anti-democracy legislators and their allies are working every day to roll back the right to vote in America. Failure by the Senate to stand up to that is unacceptable and a dereliction of their duty to the Constitution.”

Chomsky and Pollin: Protests Outside of COP26 Offered More Hope Than the Summit

By C.J. Polychroniou, Noam Chomsky, and Robert Pollin - Truthout, November 22, 2021

The legacy of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this fall was perhaps best encapsulated by its president, who bowed his head and — close to tears — actually apologized for the process, which ended with a last-minute watering-down of participants’ pledges on coal.

“May I just say to all delegates I apologize for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry,” said Alok Sharma, the British politician who served as president for COP26. The conference ended on November 13 with a disheartening “compromise” deal on the climate after two weeks of negotiations with diplomats from more than 190 nations.

In the interview that follows, leading public intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin offer their assessments of what transpired at COP26 and share their views about ways to go forward with the fight against the climate crisis. Chomsky — one of the most cited scholars in history and long considered one of the U.S.’s voices of conscience — is Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and currently Laureate Professor of Linguistics and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. He is joined by one of the world’s leading economists of the left, Robert Pollin, who is Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Chomsky and Pollin are co-authors of the recently published book, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy to Save the Planet.

C.J. Polychroniou: COP26, touted as our “last best hope” to avert a climatic catastrophe, has produced an outcome that was a “compromise,” according to United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, while activists conducted a funeral ceremony at the Glasgow Necropolis to symbolize the failure of the summit. Noam, can you give us your analysis of the COP26 climate agreement?

Noam Chomsky: There were two events at Glasgow: within the stately halls, and in the streets. They may have not been quite at war, but the conflict was sharp. Within, the dominant voice mostly echoed the concerns of the largest contingent, corporate lobbyists; rather like the U.S. Congress, where the impact of lobbyists, always significant, has exploded since the 1970s as the corporate-run neoliberal assault against the general population gained force. The voice within had some nice words but little substance. In the streets, tens of thousands of protesters, mostly young, were desperately calling for real steps to save the world from looming catastrophe.

Alabama Miners Are Still on Strike After 8 Months

By Nora De La Cour - Jacobin, November 8, 2021

Last week, more than 500 coal mine workers picketed in New York City, joined by a diverse army of other labor movement members and supporters. The mine workers, who extract coal for steel production, are now in the eighth month of their strike against Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama. Their aim is to force Warrior Met to restore the pay, benefits, and schedules they had before their previous employer, Walter Energy, declared bankruptcy and auctioned off its assets in 2016.

On Thursday, the mine workers marched to the headquarters of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and Warrior Met’s biggest shareholder. After the rally, five United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members and the union’s president, Cecil Roberts, sat down in the street and refused to move. The six were handcuffed by the New York Police Department and arrested for their act of civil disobedience.

The striking workers brought their picket to the middle of Manhattan because they have been barred from gathering outside the Brookwood mines. On October 27, a Tuscaloosa County circuit judge issued a temporary restraining order stopping all UMWA picket activity at Warrior Met. The injunction, which has been extended through November 15, blocks strikers from gathering within 300 yards of any mine entrance or exit.

That’s a huge restriction. As Haeden Wright, president of the UMWA auxiliary for two of the striking locals, explained to Jacobin, moving the pickets three football fields back from the mines “could put you on a completely separate road from Warrior Met property.” In in an interview with Jacobin, labor scholar Steve Striffler called the restraining order “an unconstitutional act that effectively takes away the miners’ right to free speech and assembly at the conflict’s most important sites.”

The injunction is the apparent product of an aggressive campaign by Warrior Met to spread the misleading narrative that UMWA members are engaging in violence and vandalism on the picket lines. Labor journalist Kim Kelly reported that Warrior Met hired the public relations firm Sitrick and Company to “neutralize the opposition” and “reframe the debate” around a strike that has garnered local and national support despite embarrassingly insufficient coverage from the corporate media.

Mine Workers from Across Appalachia Arrested Outside BlackRock Headquarters in NYC

U.S. Labour unions divided on carbon capture

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 8, 2021

A new Labor Network for Sustainability background paper asks Can Carbon Capture Save Our Climate – and Our Jobs?. Author Jeremy Brecher treads carefully around this issue, acknowledging that it has been a divisive one within the labour movement for years. The report presents the history of carbon capture efforts; their objectives; their current effectiveness; and alternatives to CCS. It states: “LNS believe that the use of carbon capture should be determined by scientific evaluation of its effectiveness in meeting the targets and timetables necessary to protect the climate and of its full costs and benefits for workers and society. Those include health, safety, environmental, employment, waste disposal, and other social costs and benefits.”

Applying those principles to carbon capture, the paper takes a position:

“Priority for investment should go to methods of GHG reduction that can be implemented rapidly over the next decade” – for example, renewables and energy efficiency. … “Carbon capture technologies have little chance of making major reductions in GHG emissions over the next decade and the market cost and social cost of carbon capture is likely to be far higher. Therefore, the priority for climate protection investment should be for conversion to fossil-free renewable energy and energy efficiency, not for carbon capture.”

“Priority for research and development should go to those technological pathways that offer the best chance of reducing GHGs with the most social benefit and the least social cost. Based on the current low GHG-reduction effectiveness and high market cost of carbon capture, its high health, safety, environmental, waste disposal, and other social costs, and the uncertainty of future improvements, carbon capture is unlikely to receive high evaluation relative to renewable energy and energy efficiency. Research on carbon capture should only be funded if scientific evaluation shows that it provides a better pathway to climate safety than renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

“…..People threatened with job loss as a result of reduction in fossil fuel burning should not expect carbon capture to help protect their jobs any time in the next 10-20 years. There are strong reasons to doubt that it will be either effective or cost competitive in the short run. Those adversely affected by reduction in fossil fuel burning can best protect themselves through managed rather than unmanaged decline in fossil fuel burning combined with vigorous just transition policies.”

This evaluation by LNS stands in contrast to the Carbon Capture Coalition, a coalition of U.S. businesses, environmental groups and labour unions. In August, the Coalition sent an Open Letter to Congressional Leaders, proposing a suite of supports for “carbon management technologies” – including tax incentives and “Robust funding for commercial scale demonstration of carbon capture, direct air capture and carbon utilization technologies.” Signatories to the Open Letter include the AFL-CIO, Boilermakers Local 11, International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Laborers International Union, United Mine Workers of America, United Steelworkers, and Utility Workers Union of America. Although the BlueGreen Alliance was not one of the signatories, it did issue a September 2 press release which “applauds” the appointment of the Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy and Carbon Management within the U.S. Department of Energy. The new appointee currently serves as the Vice President, Carbon Management for the Great Plains Institute – and The Great Plains Institute is the convenor of the Carbon Capture Coalition.

One Million Rounds: The Battle of Blair Mountain

By Vince Ceraso - The Socialist, August 29, 2021

When you think of violent labor disputes, which come to mind? For some, it may be the infamous 1886 Haymarket Affair, 1912 Lawrence textile strike (famously known as Bread & Roses), 1894 Pullman Strike, or something as modern as the 1991 Justice for Janitors police riot. But not many will recall the Battle of Blair Mountain, a week-long civil war that took place in West Virginia during the late summer of 1921. Some 13,000 mineworkers took on 3,000 law enforcement officials, military personnel, and the usual local scabs. Rather than take oppression sitting down, these miners put on their hard hats and geared up for war. However, despite the numbers, the miners suffered a crushing defeat and what resulted was the near collapse of the United Mineworkers of America. But how did it all begin?

In the spring of 1912, West Virginian mineworkers, who all lived in small towns near their respective coal fields, attempted to negotiate contracts with the mining companies to give them higher pay raises and union dues that would be automatic. As you might expect, negotiations fell through, resulting in 7,500 workers going on strike throughout West Virginia. Even local supporters who were not mineworkers joined in. This caught the unwanted attention of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a private police force that was called to the task of using brutality, fear, and intimidation to break up strikes. To really send the message, the agents began evicting miners from their homes, for unionizing with the UMWA.

Eventually, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, co-founder of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, joined the strikers, but was later arrested for her involvement in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912. In the early months of the year-long said strike, the miners issued their own declaration of war against the West Virginian government. Several instances of guerilla-style conflicts began to explode in Kanawha County, WV. Things got so bad that WV Governor William E. Glasscock placed the region under martial law. After a year of bloody combat, more than 50 people were reported dead. The Paint Creek-Creek Cabin strike was the beginning of a 9-year labor conflict, now famously referred to as the West Virginia Mine Wars.

Fast-forward to 1920. The Baldwin-Felts agents were at it again, ransacking homes and evicting miners and their families at the Pocahontas Coalfield in the town of Matewan in Mingo County, West Virginia. This time around, they came face to face with Sid Hatfield, the Matewan police chief and beloved labor organizer. Unlike the vast majority of cops in West Virginia, Chief Hatfield was very outspokenly pro-union, using his position of authority to protect striking workers. He confronted the Baldwin-Felts agents and threatened to arrest them, prompting the agents to brag about their own arrest warrants against Hatfield.

Over the years, the circumstances of what happened next have been debated, but according to official court transcripts published in David Alan Corbin’s Gun Thugs, Rednecks & Radicals: A Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars, an eyewitness testified that Cabell Testerman, the mayor of Matewan, said outright that the detectives’ warrants were “bogus,” triggering an angry Albert Felts, one of the heads of the Baldwin-Felts agency, to pull a firearm from his briefcase and shoot the mayor, who died of his wounds minutes later. Immediately after, Hatfield began firing, and a firefight between him and the agents ensued. When the dust settled, one miner, an innocent bystander, seven Baldwin-Felts agents and Mayor Testerman lay dead, while several other townsfolk were wounded in the crossfire.

In the Coal Mines, Workers Are Dying to Make a Living: Mining companies increasingly rely on cheaper contractors who face longer hours and higher risk of accidents

By Kari Lydersen - In These Times, August 18, 2021

Trebr Lenich always called his mother before his drive home from overnight shifts at Mine No. 1, operated by Hamilton County Coal in Hamilton County, Ill. The call she answered the morning of Aug. 14, 2017, worried her. 

“He said, ​‘Mom, I am just so exhausted, so wore out,’ ” Teresa Lenich says. 

Her son routinely worked long hours on consecutive days. That day, he never made it home.

Coworkers following Trebr said his driving was erratic and suspected he was falling asleep, Teresa says. Heading back to the West Frankfort home he shared with his parents, girlfriend and baby daughter, Trebr drove into a ditch and hit an embankment. According to the sheriff’s report, his engine then caught fire. 

Like many young miners, Trebr was employed through a contracting company that provides temporary workers for mines with no promise that they’ll be hired on permanently.

This staffing structure — and the disappearance of labor unions from Illinois mines — has made work less safe and more grueling for miners, according to advocates and multiple studies. Without job security, temporary workers are reluctant to complain about potentially unsafe conditions (including long work hours) and to report accidents. And because temporary workers may have inadequate experience in a particular mine, they might not understand that mine’s specific risks.

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