Environmental Protections Help Workers More than Greedy Corporate Bosses


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 21st 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.

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 20th 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.

Despite disappointment about Obama’s commitment to improving mine workers’ health, it’s sad to see a proud union like the United Mine Workers believe in corporate lies about environmental regulations. The EPA may slowly wean us off coal, but they hardly have created the crisis in coal employment. For instance, coal production in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin continues to skyrocket but with a small workforce. Rather, it is a century of corporate malfeasance, overproduction of the resource, and technological innovation that has led to declining employment in Appalachia.

Attacking the EPA isn’t going to bring the coal jobs back. It is just going to provide further ammunition to those who would like to eliminate an agency that protects working-class bodies from pollution. If worker-environmentalist coalitions are going to succeed, labor has to understand that is has to embrace environmentalism just as environmentalists have to think about working-class issues. Demonizing an agency that does more than almost anyone else in the government to protect working-class lives and bodies is a terrible idea, one that will not save West Virginia coal jobs or gain the union any credence with the owners.

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