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Environmental Protections Help Workers More than Greedy Corporate Bosses

It makes little sense for UMWA President Roberts to side with the coal companies on the EPA or anything else. The coal companies continue to treat workers’ lives as expendable.

Working-class Americans often lack protection from exploitation. If they are lucky, they have union representation. But even if they lack an organized voice in the workplace, government regulations on workplace safety and health provide them some security from the ravages of industry. Fifty years ago, workers lacked these protections. But in the 1960s and 1970s, environmental organizations, often with backing from unions, helped pass laws that allowed working-class people to live healthier and safer lives.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts recently attacked the government agency doing more than any other to protect working-class health. On the West Virginia talk radio show MetroNews Talkline, Roberts blasted the Environmental Protection Agency, saying, “The Navy SEALs shot Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington.” This came as a response to proposed EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions in coal-fired power plants, rules that the industry claims would move the nation away from burning coal for energy. In targeting the EPA, Roberts took on an agency that has done more than almost any other government agency to protect working-class people. The creation of the EPA in 1970 was a major victory for environmentalists and labor unions seeking to protect their workers from industrial hazards. EPA oversees regulators tasked with ensuring that Americans have clean water and clean air, as well as protection from toxic substances and industrial waste.

Regardless of the wisdom of comparing his own union to Al Qaeda, Roberts’ attack on the EPA was deeply upsetting. Even if industry influence and Republican defunding have weakened the agency, the EPA still has great power to protect Americans from the byproducts of industrial production. Under President Obama, the EPA has slowly moved its attention to fighting climate change, which the new emissions requirements would help accomplish.

Roberts has a tough job. Declining coal seams, technological innovation, and coal company investment in the lightly unionized American West have placed his union under tremendous pressure. West Virginia has few high-paying jobs, so even with the health and safety problems of coal mining, including the threat of mine cave-ins and black lung disease, it remains a plum job in a region with limited economic development. With Americans beginning to move away from coal-fired energy to natural gas and renewables, UMWA members are desperate to hold onto their jobs. But fighting the EPA means the union has is taken a stand that hurts the health of its own members.

Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency as an agency to oversee the enormous number of environmental regulations passed since President Lyndon Johnson made environmentalism central to his Great Society. During his administration, Johnson signed a plethora of bills protecting Americans from environmental hazards, including the Clean Air Act of 1963, the Water Quality Act of 1965, and the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965.

These laws pioneered protections for Americans from the hazards of industrial life. They especially mattered to working-class Americans. Income and housing quality reflect proximity to hazardous waste and sources of pollution; working-class people lived next to pipes pumping sewage into rivers and smokestacks belching heavy metal-laden smoke onto their homes. Rich people can live far away from pollution, but the poor often cannot. When the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland in 1969, it was poor people who breathed in the smoke. Rich people would never build homes on top of toxic sludge, but living at Love Canal made sense for working-class homeowners. The EPA gave the working class tools to fight for safe and healthy lives.

Today, climate change is our greatest environmental risk. The EPA proposed its new rules for the coal industry as a way to limit carbon emissions and fight climate change. Like other environmental disasters, climate change predominantly affects the poor. As we have seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in flooding in Bangladesh, and with tornadoes that kill people living in poorly constructed mobile homes without foundations, “natural disasters” often kill people because social inequities place their lives at risk. Climate change will exacerbate these problems, creating refugees around the globe. Fighting climate change should be central to any working-class agenda in the 21 st century. The UMWA should be especially concerned with how increasingly massive storms and torrential rainfall will combine with deforestation and erosion to exacerbate the problems with flooding that have plagued Appalachia over the past fifteen years.

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