Dave Mistich Published

UMWA Grapples With Coal’s Decline, An Uncertain Future

Coal Miners-Rally

Miners at Warrior Met in Brookwood, Alabama have been on strike since the beginning of April. It’s a rare union action in the American South — especially these days when membership in the UMWA continues to decline.

President Cecil Roberts, now in office for 26 years, has been walking the picket line with miners from Warrior Met.

“We’re still doing what we’ve always done — we’re fighting for the middle class here and [to] make things better for our members,” Roberts told West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

For nearly a decade, his organization worked through the courts to secure pensions and health care benefits for miners whose employers went bankrupt.

“People told us, they’ll never give you a dime for health care,” he said. “But we had a success in 2013, where we were able to get about $400 million out of these companies.”

The UMWA then took its fight for members’ health care benefits to the halls of Congress.

“Folks told us that we’ll never pass legislation,” Roberts recalled. “‘That’s impossible,’ [they said], particularly with that time that Congress was dominated by the Republican Party.”

They ultimately won there, too. In 2017, the UMWA secured healthcare for 22,600 union members.

United Mine Workers

Jose Luis Magana/AP
FR159526 AP
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts speaks during the rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. Thousands of unionized mine workers and supporters rallied to push for a bill that would protect health-care and pension benefits for about 120,000 former coal miners and their families. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

‘No Denying What’s Happening’ 

Despite these wins, the organization faces a troubling reality.

From 2002 to 2019, the number of members actively working in a U.S. mine plummeted from 23,000 to 10,000, according to the Energy Information Administration.

In West Virginia, that figure has dropped from roughly 6,000 to 3,000 over the same time period. These trends have paralleled the decline of total employment across the industry.

Richard Mulchay, a labor historian at the University of Pittsburgh Titusville, says those numbers pale in comparison to what the industry — and union membership — once was.

“When the union hit its height during the New Deal, it had about a membership — I would say — of anywhere from about 500,000 to 470,000 miners,” Mulchay said.

Since the mid-20th century, those numbers have dropped off. Mulchay says automation played a big role — lessening the need for so many workers.

“The industry became far more machine intensive than it is today, thereby more efficient,” he said. “And so a lot of people were attrited out — you know, retired — this sort of thing.”

Concerns over climate change and dramatic shifts in the economics of energy production have also taken their toll.

“There is no denying of what’s happening out here,” said West Virginia state senator and UMWA District 31 Vice-President Emeritus Mike Caputo.

Caputo is quick to acknowledge the coal industry’s decline in recent years. But, he said, the UMWA is still trying to play a role — even as the nation’s energy needs shift.

“We’re the only ones out there fighting to preserve the way of life in coal country,” Caputo said. “We fight that — if the industry does decline — that we can find a way to transition miners into other jobs. And that’s very important, because they’re just some things we can’t control.”

UMWA Looks To Expand Membership — But Where?

With President Joe Biden’s administration pushing a cleaner energy future, Roberts, Caputo and others in the UMWA’s leadership have had to walk the proverbial tightrope when it comes to acknowledging the reality of the coal industry’s future.

On one hand, they know that coal’s glory days are over. On the other, the union still represents those left working in the industry.

Meanwhile, industry-funded groups like Friends of Coal have stepped in to create a sense of collective identity and an alliance between employers and workers — a kind of company union.

Mulchay, the labor historian, says the UMWA’s current situation reflects that of the wider U.S. labor movement. With traditional manufacturing on the decline, they’re at a pivotal moment.

“They’re trying to redefine themselves and certain other unions are doing the same thing or have been doing the same thing,” Mulchay said. “A lot of basic industrial unions are going into the direction of trying to organize white collar workers — or maybe new varieties of mass production workers, and so on.”

But how fast is the UMWA moving? And could they be doing more?

Davitt McAteer, who served as assistant secretary of the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton, said Roberts deserves a lot of credit — especially considering the difficult position the union finds itself in.

“He has made a turn, and said they’re recognizing that there’s limited demand for coal and for coal miners, and they’re going to have to look at the vehicle and find out where to go from here,” McAteer said.

But the UMWA has yet to say exactly what that vehicle might be. And although they have expressed interest in organizing workers in coal-adjacent technologies and other sources of energy like wind and solar, to date there is little evidence that a broad organizing effort beyond coal miners has been successful.

Roberts claims that people in coal country are skeptical of a future in the renewable energy sector.

“The thing to remember here is [that] the jobs — as they exist right now — in the renewable sector, pay only a fraction of what a coal miner makes,” Roberts said,

Roberts says, over the years, there has been a lot of talk about what could replace coal as the main driver for the region’s economy. But, he says, trying to balance the economy with environmental concerns leaves a lot of questions.

“No one in Appalachia believes there’s going to be ‘just transition’ here. They believe that the Lord will return before they get a ‘just transition’ in Appalachia,” Roberts said.

The UMWA is also at a crossroads of another kind.

With Roberts now 74-years-old and his term as president ending in 2023, the long-time UMWA leader said he doesn’t yet know whether he will run again.

While the future of the UMWA’s leadership remains in question, Caputo said he feels as though Roberts has cultivated a new generation of labor leaders who are also looking forward.

“I think Cecil’s got a lot of years left and I think that he’ll continue to lead this union for a long time,” he said. “But I think he’s just preparing for the future.”