“Before we get started with our discussion, I would like to note that December 22, 2018, marked the start of a new term for the Line Officers, members of the International Executive Board (IEB) and District Representatives of the United Mine Workers of America. Many of the members of the IEB were re-elected to a five-year term and a few others were elected for the first time. I am pleased to say every member of the International Executive Board ran for office as part of the Roberts – Allen Slate. It is extremely gratifying for me and the members of the Executive Board to have received the overwhelming support of the members of the Union. I am extremely humbled by your faith and dedication to the United Mine Workers of America. Secretary-Treasurer Allen and I, along with the entire Executive Board, will do all we can to continue to earn your trust and support.”
Journal: Are you optimistic about the challenges facing the Union in the coming year?
President Roberts: Certainly! Anyone who has been a Member of the United Mine Workers of America for any length of time and understands our history should feel confident about the Union’s ability to meet the challenges ahead. The bottom line is that the UMWA has always faced adversity head-on. It has never mattered how large the obstacle or how many say the problems cannot be solved, the UMWA never stops fighting and it never backs down. The challenges we face as a Union and as workers are significant and the solutions may not come easy, but there is no doubt in my mind we will be successful.
Journal: You are extremely confident. How do you maintain that outlook?
President Roberts: There are many reasons I remain certain we will prevail in our struggles. First, I am fortunate to work side-by-side with Secretary-Treasurer Allen and members of the International Executive Board whose sole purpose is to protect and enhance the lives of UMWA Members and their families and lift up all working women and men across this Nation. The Union’s accomplishments over the years have been the direct result of the actions of the IEB and the support of the Membership. The victory at Pittston and the ‘93 nationwide strike helped set the stage for the Union to negotiate every successor agreement to the 1993 National Bituminous Wage Agreement without a strike. The Union’s effort to protect and preserve retiree health care, from the passage of the 1992 Coal Act through the signing of the House Resolution 244, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017, which guaranteed the health care of 22,600 UMWA Members and their families, is unprecedented. We also need to remember that in 2006 the Union successfully opened the 1977 federal Mine Safety and Health Act to add additional protections for active miners. We have been in lockstep in our decisions to build on the Union’s past successes, secure the retirement our Members have earned and ensure the Union’s future for generations to come. However, the most important reason that I am convinced the UMWA’s future is bright is because of the Membership. They have been so supportive of the decisions we have made to deal with the problems facing the Union. But it is so much more than that. The resolve and solidarity of the Membership has been on display in every struggle. Since the first demonstrations against Peabody, Arch and Patriot, they have rallied, lobbied and been arrested to protect what they have earned. That commitment continues to move the Union forward today. They have always answered the call to engage in the fight. They board the buses and drive halfway across the Country to attend rallies. They continuously travel to Washington, DC to lobby Congress, and when they aren’t in D.C, they visit Congressional field offices in their state. They are everywhere they are needed, any time they are needed. The Membership of the UMWA and their families are the greatest Union Members in the greatest Union in the world. They are the reason we will win the battles ahead, and I am so proud to be President of the shock troops of the American Labor Movement.
Journal: The pension problem facing millions of American workers is reaching a crisis point. What is the UMWA’s plan for the coming year?
President Roberts: The Union’s approach will remain the same, tactics may be adjusted from time-to-time as particular situations arise, but the overall strategy has never changed. The UMWA negotiated an agreement with the President of the United States in 1946 that promised miners pensions and health care for life. We intend to continue to fight on many fronts until Congress fulfills its commitment to these miners. Miners and their families have fulfilled their obligation to this Country and now the Country must “Keep the Promise.” We are not asking for anything the Membership did not already earn. I do want to point out that the effort to secure these pensions has been continuous since this process started. We all know that the Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multi-Employer Pension Plans (Committee) formed by Congress in February of 2018 was supposed to find a solution to the problem and propose a legislative fix in November of last year. We also know that did not happen. But the Union did not stop applying pressure in the weeks and months following the Committee’s failure. UMWA Members arrived on Capitol Hill and in Congressional field offices the following week to push Members of the Committee to continue working on a solution and to lobby other members of Congress to support a legislative fix to the problem. So, the Union’s efforts to preserve the pensions of current and future retirees and their families continues uninterrupted. The International Executive Board has adopted a plan and provided the resources to carry that plan forward. The members, as is always the case, have been doing everything possible to push Congress to deal with the problem and secure the pension miners and their families have earned. I will be traveling to the coalfields soon to meet with the membership and discuss our future plans.
Journal: You mentioned the Joint Committee. What role does it play in finding a solution since it missed the November 30, 2018 deadline?
President Roberts: Well, I should start by saying some of the leaders in Congress did their best to try and create a Committee that was knowledgeable about the situation and find a solution. For others, I can’t be too sure what their motivation was. It is also difficult to understand how Senators and members of the House of Representatives from key coalfield states were not part of the Committee process. The make-up of the Committee was one obstacle we must acknowledge, but there are others. I would suggest that the field hearing conducted by the Committee in Columbus, Ohio was very telling, and by the way, it was the only field hearing the Committee held. On the day of the hearing, only one Republican member of the Committee even showed up in Columbus to participate in the proceeding. Further, no Republican spoke to the thousands of members of the UMWA, Teamsters, Bakery Workers or other Union members who held rallies at the Ohio Statehouse during the hearing. That, I think, says a lot about the commitment of some Committee members to the process. Finally, the undemocratic mandate for voting on possible legislation to present to the U.S. Senate was not helpful. I believe if a simple majority of lawmakers sitting on the Committee was all that was required to move the legislation forward, there may have been a chance to reach a solution. That is the way the democratic process normally works, but not in this case. The rules for the 16-member Committee were different. With the Committee evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the rules required 5 members from each party to vote yes to move any legislation to the Senate floor for a vote. That is a pretty tall order if you think about it. In reality, you could have 12 members agreeing on a solution, but if only four of them are from one party or the other, the process fails. That makes no sense. Without dwelling too much on this matter, let me just say this; there are some members of the Committee who are still trying very hard to find a solution to the pension crisis, and I give them credit for their efforts. However, as I said from the time the Committee members were named, the UMWA had very little faith in its ability to actually fix the problem. So, it is time to move forward and continue to work with our friends in Congress until we succeed in preserving our pensions. It is not if we will win, it is when we will win.
Journal: Since October of 2018, two more coal operators have filed for bankruptcy. How is the Union planning to deal with the situation?
President Roberts: Pretty much the same way we have dealt with the rash of coal company bankruptcies we have been involved with since Patriot first filed in 2012. Unfortunately, UMWA Members have become all too familiar with the bankruptcy process in the past several years. Mission and Westmoreland Coal are simply the latest to utilize the roadmap laid out by Patriot to get the company executives big bonuses while they destroy the lives of the men and women who worked for years to make the company millions of dollars. I have got to believe there is nowhere else in the world, except a third world country, where a company can get away with doing this to workers. Just think about how the bankruptcy laws in the United States really work. An owner or operator of a company in this Country makes certain commitments and obligations to hard working employees for their lifetime of service, then they run the company into the ground. They go to court and tell the judge the company is broke and ask if they can dump their obligations to the workers, then ask for a bonus for themselves and their friends to continue to live the lifestyle they are accustomed to while they go through the bankruptcy process. These laws are so unjust, it is hard to believe we are in America. In the end, the Union will be deeply involved in the court process, filing legal briefs and paperwork necessary to stake our position and protect the Members and families adversely affected by the actions of these two companies. Members of the Union are already involved in actions at the various mine sites and corporate offices. They have written letters to the Judges in the cases and we will use whatever leverage and tactics necessary to preserve the benefits these miners and their families have earned. I believe we have made it clear over the years that the coal operators and the courts can take the actions they feel necessary, but none of this will be over until the Union says it is. As I stated previously, we are all too familiar with the bankruptcy process and how it destroys the lives of working people. However, it must be pointed out that no UMWA retiree or family member has lost their health care or pension, and no active worker has been replaced, since the first coal company bankruptcy was filed in 2012.
Journal: What other issues will the Union be dealing with this year?
President Roberts: The Union has several other objectives we must meet in 2019. The 2016 National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement could be reopened by either side and “operate to increase or decrease wages” in the contract. Certainly, we will be assessing that possibility and working with the membership to determine the best action to take. I plan to meet with all the Local Union officers from Murray operations to discuss the reopener in the near future. There are other contracts that the Union has been working to complete in the past several months. The bus drivers at Denver International Airport are in the middle of some difficult negotiations. The Members of Local Union 8431 transport the airport staff from the various parking facilities to the terminals where they work. We will continue talks between the Union and the company until we reach an agreement. There are also ongoing talks about the collective agreements on the Navajo Nation. Some of the previous contracts with the Navajo government have expired so we need to work with the officials from the Navajo Nation to reach new agreements. The recent election on the Nation brought new leadership to the reservation and that brings new ideas and sometimes differences that were not present in the past. We are working through those issues and hope to have an agreement soon. The Union continues to be deeply engaged in the efforts to build a new prison in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. We are confident that is finally going to happen, thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Members and elected official in District 2 and Region I. The current facility was built over 100 years ago and is no longer a safe place to house prisoners or for the members of Local Union 9113 to work. This has been an ongoing struggle for the Union and the County, however, we are very optimistic a new prison will be built.
**Since the Journal’s publication, Local Union 8431 was able to successfully negotiate a contract.**
Journal: This appears to be shaping up as another busy year for the UMWA and the membership.
President Roberts: I think that is pretty much the case every year. The fact is, we must not only continue to pursue the long term issues we have been dealing with like pensions and health care, but the Union must address the matters that are coming up this year. This is nothing new. In fact, it would be shocking if we were not dealing with dozens of issues all at once. It is important to remember that all of these issues will be managed in the most efficient and effective way possible. The Officers and staff are well prepared for the challenges ahead. Finally, I think we also need to look at the current political climate in this country. More and more politicians and people either talk past one another, or worse yet, simply want to yell at each other. This inability of politicians to work together has a very detrimental impact on all working people. As we sit here and discuss the Union’s 2019 agenda, there are over 800,000 federal workers who were willing to work, but were either laidoff or were working and not getting paid. Shutting down nearly onequarter of the federal government is really ridiculous. It demonstrates how dysfunctional our political system has become. To have a budget impasse that holds hundreds of thousands of workers hostage is unacceptable. For our part, the UMWA assisted the Union’s that represent these workers by pressuring elected officials to pass measures to reopen the government and by attending rallies to support these workers. The International Executive Board unanimously adopted a resolution in support of our Union Brothers and Sisters who work for the government.
Journal: Is there anything else you would like to say as we conclude this interview?
President Roberts: There are many challenges facing the Union that we are all fully aware of at this time. There will also be issues that arise during the year that we will need to respond to and deal with. That is simply the way things work. However, no matter what we encounter there is no doubt in my mind the Members of this Union, their families and our supporters will meet those challenges. We will persevere because of the dedication and hard work of the Members of the United Mine Workers of America. I am planning to hold coalfield conferences during the first half of 2019 to discuss the pension issue and other pressing matters. In conclusion, let me say that we all know the UMWA has a very rich history. While we do not seek to dwell on the past, it is important to remember those events that shaped the values and chartered the course of our great Union. In 2019, we will mark the 35th Anniversary of the Wilberg Disaster that claimed the lives of 27 miners. We will also celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Pittston strike. A strike that lasted 10 ½ months and resulted in the greatest labor victory in nearly half a century. Finally, on May 19, 2019, we will commemorate the 99th Anniversary of the Matewan Massacre. The gun battle that ensued after Baldwin-Felts thugs evicted striking miners from their homes resulted in the death of two miners, seven thugs and the town’s mayor Cabell Testerman.