UMWA’s Cecil Roberts Talks Climate Change Ahead of 2020 Election

Sep 4, 2019

As Democratic 2020 presidential candidates embrace sweeping climate proposals like the Green New Deal to move the U.S. away from fossil fuels, United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts told a crowd of reporters and miners gathered in D.C. that those policies could further harm an already struggling coal industry. 

Roberts spoke frankly Wednesday morning at the National Press Club about the struggles coal miners across Appalachia face as the industry contracts. He also talked about the challenges his union has faced in Washington, D.C., to get legislation passed that protects healthcare and pension benefits. 

“Everybody wants to get their picture taken with a coal miner that's running for office. Isn't that amazing?” Roberts said. “But they don't want anything to do with us when they get in office.”

Most 2020 Democratric presidential candidates have offered specific policies aimed at helping miners during an energy transition. They include things like creating millions of renewable energy jobs and offering financial assistance to displaced miners. 

Roberts is skeptical.

“I just can't make that work in my mind that somehow, somebody can be president, go to Congress and say, ‘We're going to manufacture solar panels here. They’ve got to be union jobs, or they can't exist, and they’ve got to pay what coal miners make,’ ” he said. “Not gonna happen.”

His remarks came hours ahead of a scheduled seven-hour CNN town hall on climate change. 

Roberts pointed to Congress’s long history of inaction in passing laws that protect coal miners. The first major coal mining reform bill, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, was passed after the Farmington Mine disaster in 1968 that killed 78 miners. The law has been updated twice, in 1977 and 2006.

He applauded candidates who have reached out to the UMWA about climate change legislation and said most, if not all, candidates who the union approached to visit an underground coal mine have accepted or expressed interest. But he also voiced concern about the limits of governing, especially in Congress. 

“We want our pension plan saved. We want our healthcare plan saved,” Roberts said. “And if you can't do that, and it's been 10 years, how do you think we're going to believe that you're going to be able to give us a just transition from the coal industry to some other employment?”

Roberts added that doesn’t mean he wants the conversation to stop. 

“We come today to be part of this conversation, not about people talking about us, but we want to talk with everybody,” he said. 

The long-time union leader also said the federal government should invest more in technologies to remove carbon from coal-fired power plants, because while coal plants are closing in the U.S., other countries continue to build them.