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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.

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It makes little sense for Roberts to side with the coal companies on the EPA or anything else. The companies have little sympathy for the people of Appalachia. A century ago, they ruled the coal country like a fiefdom, murdering union organizers and forcing workers into generations of endemic poverty. It took organizers like Mother Jones and John L. Lewis to pull the companies out of the Middle Ages. In the 1880s and 1890s, coal companies in Tennessee used convicts as slave labor, leading to a major labor uprising in 1891. In 1921, West Virginia erupted into war after workers, tired of decades of oppression, took up arms when a sympathetic law enforcement was murdered by company thugs; over 100 union members were murdered in the weeks to follow. After decades of struggle, conditions for coal miners slowly improved, but the companies never stopped fighting against reforms. Thousands of miners died of black lung disease throughout the 20 th century, but the companies refused to recognize the illness or grant compensation to victims until Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

The coal companies continue to treat workers’ lives as expendable. Coal mining remains one of the nation’s most dangerous professions. We rarely hear about the miner or two dying each month in accidents, but the death of 29 miners in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch Mine grabbed Americans’ fickle attention. Massey Energy, owner of Upper Big Branch, had a long history of labor violations and was openly contemptuous of safety regulations. Most of the coal industry reflects Massey’s indifference to worker health and safety.

Moreover, the mine companies have sought to reduce employment for decades. In 1920, 784,000 Americans were employed in the coal industry. By 2000, that number fell to 71,000 while coal production has increased. Not only have the companies looked to lay off as many workers as possible, but the certainly don’t care about the people of Appalachia at large. Mountaintop removal mining has destroyed forests and streambeds, remade the region’s geology, dumped toxic chemicals into waterways and rivers, and forced people off their land. Outside of climate change, mountaintop removal is the greatest ongoing environmental disaster in the United States.

The coal companies don’t oppose carbon capture technology because they want to keep workers employed. They oppose it because they want to maximize profits without caring one iota about the health of workers or the general public. Roberts should know this. The coal companies have never operated with their workers’ interests in mind and it is unlikely they ever will. Too often, labor leaders take bosses’ side when it comes to environmental protections and jobs, fearing regulations will cause unemployment. But these labor leaders often fail to understand that corporations are just using the unions to further their rapacious agenda. Companies see both workers and nature as resources to be exploited for profit. When corporations blame environmental regulations for job losses, they are creating an excuse for how they mined and logged out a resource. They want to shift the blame for the destruction of regional economies away from corporate avarice and onto the government.

Roberts may have a valid point in expressing anger toward the Obama Administration. One can certainly question the extent to which Obama has really used regulatory agencies as a tool to protect coal miners from environmental hazards. Despite campaign promises, Obama backed away from campaign promises that it would tighten rules on coal dust that causes black lung disease, the condition that has killed 10,000 coal miners in the last decade. But if Obama has proven soft in his support of coal miner health, Republicans have gone to war against efforts protect miners. The Republican-dominated House has attempted to tie funding for the Mine Safety and Health Administration to preventing the agency from implementing proposals to prevent black lung and the political stalemate in Washington has made enforcing environmental regulations increasingly difficult.

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