|UMWA president Cecil Roberts discusses several issues with Carbon County organized labor leader Mike Dalpaiz during last week's District 22 constitutional convention conducted in Price. Roberts became national UMWA president in 1995.|
The job of a union president is a tough position to fill. Whether on a local or an international level, the president not only deals with companies frequently adverse to organized labor's goals or government officials who view the organization as milking industry, but with membership that may distrust union officers . Some of the mistrust has a basis for existence due to disreputable labor leaders who have cropped up in the past.
But for Cecil E. Roberts, president of the 200,000 member United Mine Workers of America, that is all in the past. His vision is of the future based on the past accomplishments of a union that sent the trend in many areas of American labor relations in its 112 year history.
"The UMWA takes a lot of pride in last century and what has been done for the American worker, not just miners," said Roberts, who was in Price last week for the organizations District 22 constitutional convention. "We have led the fight in this nation for many kinds of legislation as well as causes that at the time we began to take them on were unpopular."
According to Roberts, the UMWA began by allowing people of all races to participate equally in the organization.
"That was in 1890 when it wasn't popular to fight discrimination," said the UMWA president.
Roberts was born in Cabin Creek, W. Va. , "just a ways up the gully from Charleston." His great-uncle, Bill Blizzard, was a UMWA district official in the 1920's when John L. Lewis was president of the national union. His grandfathers were workers killed in coal mines in West Virginia.
Roberts climbed the coal mining industry ladder independently and did not become national UMWA president because of connections or education.
After serving a tour of duty in Vietnam in the U.S. Army infantry as a mortarman, Roberts returned to his home and started working in 1972 at Carbon Fuel's mine in Winifred, W.VA. He worked for six years in various jobs, including general inside laborer, shuttle car operator, unitrack operator, greaser, beltman and mechanic.
During this time, he became active in union leadership by being elected to the mine's safety and political action committees. He also participated in the Miners for Democracy movement that changed the union forever in the early 1970's, returning control to the organization's membership.
In 1977, Roberts was elected vice president of District 17 and was reelected to the post in 1981. A year later, he became the vice president of the UMWA.
One of the highlights of his career was his "on-the-scene" presence as a lead negotiator in the unions 10 month strike against the Pittston Company in Carbo, Va. The company had cut off health benefits to retirees and was trying to get out of its obligations to the UMWA health and retirement funds.
"That was a very satisfying time in my career to be able to settle that dispute," pointed out the UMWA president.
For his efforts in the strike, Roberts was recognized with the Rainbow Coalition's Martin Luther King Award.
Roberts views the UMWA and labor unions in general as the harbinger of change in society.
"Over the years, our union has led the fight for the rights of all Americans," he stated. "First, there was the fight for equal rights for races. The union was formed by people from all different backgrounds. We have worked since the beginning with civil rights groups and on legislation pertaining to equal rights for everyone."
But Roberts sees two big problems on the horizon that all Americans are going to have to deal with, both of which have raised their ugly heads time and time again in different forms.
"The first problem is some kind of national health care program," indicated Roberts. "As a union, we have been fighting for health benefits for our members since the 1940s. But we also continue to work on legislation that affects everyone in the United States."
The UMWA president pointed out that some of the first health care programs were connected with union activity.
"John L. Lewis went out in the 1940s and built 10 hospitals in various places in the country to take care of workers" explained Roberts. "Some of those are still operating today, just under a different umbrella."
Roberts belives something must be done to resolve the dilemma created by the fact that 44 million Americans currently have no health care coverage.
"And that number grows all the time as we loose full time jobs to part time employment," commented the UMWA president. "Which brings up another problem; something I call deindustrialization."
Since the Sept. 11, 2000 disaster, one million Americans have lost jobs in the nation's manufacturing sector, he added.
"These are some of the best paying jobs in America and they are going other places," stated Roberts. "During the boom of the 1990s, our trade deficit was larger than it appeared because a great deal of foreign investment was offsetting the loss. But since 9-11, that investment has stopped because of fear and that is why we are in the state we are in. Jobs are going overseas and they are not coming back. We just can't survive on service industry and government jobs."
The UMWA president views the economy of the 1990s as being a kind of false prosperity, built largely on nothing.
"At that time, when seemingly everyone was making so much money, the dotcoms were saying 'Who really needs manufacturing?' But the reality is that many of those companies are now gone along with some of the manufacturers," indicated Roberts.
The UMWA president is proud of the fact that the mine workers union has been able to keep health care intact for pensioners even in the face of a contracting coal industry in the United States. Once representing close to one million workers, the UMWA membership has dropped to one- fifth of the number. But the situation doesn't decrease the impact coal miners have on a region's or a state's economy.
"For every coal miner in an economy, another four jobs are created in that area," pointed out Roberts. "So these jobs are very important."
The result is when coal mining ends in an area or the labor force is decreased it affects the economy of the local area as well as the state it is in. With increasing automation, coal production is higher, but the number of jobs have declined.
"What unions do affects everyones job," states Roberts. "We fight for the rights and benefits of every miner."
As with all organized labor groups in the last 20 years, membership has decreased in the UMWA. But the fact remains that many of the benefits all American workers currently enjoy were the result of union activism by members years ago.
With declining membership, labor organizations have started to recruit more and more types of workers outside of the groups' core focus. For instance, the UMWA has organized workers in many different areas, including public employees, school employees, health care workers, truck drivers and land fill workers.
The UMWA has even organized all the workers in the Navajo Nation.
"In 1996, we organized the upstate New York Remington firearms plant," explained Roberts proudly. "As far as I know, that is the largest firearms plant that has been organized anywhere."