When United Mine Workers fight, it’s almost always the coal industry in the other corner. Now the union is teaming up with management to take on an even bigger adversary.
The union, known for its camouflage fatigues and its willingness to battle for organized labor’s toughest issues, has called a truce with management so both sides can concentrate on defeating the proposed United Nations global warming treaty, which United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts says would cost thousands of jobs.
As the treaty was announced last week in Kyoto, Japan, the UMW and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association had an announcement of their own: Both sides had agreed on a new 5-year contract, nine months before the old one was due to expire.
The union has to pick its fights, Roberts said, and the overriding one isn’t with the coal operators.
“We agreed among ourselves that we would set that fight off to the side, and take on Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the United States Senate,” Roberts said.
The Kyoto agreement must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate.
“If I have anything to do with it - and I intend to have a whole lot to do with it - this just isn’t going to happen,” Roberts said.
Roberts’ union has a reputation for winning the fights it picks.
In 1993, the union claimed that some large coal operators were setting up parallel nonunion companies and shifting business there while laying off miners. After a seven-month strike involving 17,700 miners and numerous coal companies, the union won an agreement it said would protect its members.
Roberts said the union is ready to apply all its resources to defeating the Kyoto treaty.
“We’re not as big as we once were … but perhaps we should use those assets to determine who the next president will be,” Roberts said.
Doug Dahl, president of Charleston-based Eastern Associated Coal Corp., said neither coal operators nor the union is opposed to changing environmental laws. But this treaty moves too quickly, he said, requiring the United States to cut its emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels over the next 10 to 12 years.
“We know we must make improvements. We simply need the time to develop the technology and the time to amortize the debt associated with complying with more stringent standards,” Dahl said.
Many scientists contend that emissions of gases produced by burning coal, oil and gasoline are increasing the Earth’s temperatures. That could cause widespread droughts and floods and melt more glaciers, causing a rise in sea levels that could devastate low-lying areas.
Treaty supporters - including President Clinton - say the predictions of economic disaster are exaggerated. Many environmentalists say coal companies can afford even stricter standards.
But industry officials contend the treaty will do little for the environment overall because it exempts developing countries like China, which burns about 1 billion tons of coal a year, equal to all U.S. production.
Coal is still used to produce 55 percent of the country’s electricity, but the industry has been suffering massive job losses.
In 1990, there were 131,500 coal miners employed in the United States. By 1996, that number had fallen to an estimated 85,000, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
And the treaty may force companies to lay off more miners. Under the union’s proposed new agreement, due for a vote on Tuesday, miners will be eligible for a full pension if they are laid off before they can retire. If their mine closes, they will get the pension immediately.
“We’re in this together, even if it is for different reasons,” Roberts said. “They want to protect their investments and we want to protect our jobs. But our objective is the same, to stop this treaty.”