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Dan Taylor: UMWA needs to stop fighting, innovate

By By Dan Taylor

I was very disheartened to read Cecil Robert’s commentary in the Sunday Gazette-Mail recently, which parroted right-wing talking points blaming Obama and the EPA for the decline of coal mining.

In a state that has always had such a proud, strong and beneficial labor movement, I cannot understand the lack of vision that would lead someone in his position to attack his own, instead of the corporate malfeasance of the very companies that his union fights against for their members. Is the UMWA really now closer to the captains of industry than the citizens and workers of West Virginia? If you want to see why coal is declining, look north and see the huge natural gas boom that is happening and then look south and see the dwindling supplies, mined with fewer and fewer men due to mechanization through processes that are destroying communities and driving people from our state through environmental pollution.

Why is Cecil Roberts not focusing on worker safety at West Virginia coal mines? Why not disappearing wages and benefits, through bad actors like Patriot Coal? Why not helping to get paid sick days for his workers and all workers in West Virginia? We don’t need the politics of rich CEO types like Mitt Romney, always bashing the Obama/EPA straw man instead of looking to move us forward.

Why can we not have a labor movement in West Virginia with forward vision, driven from the grassroots, looking to diversify our economy and create living wage jobs for our state?

Look at the United Steelworkers, for instance. When the U.S. steel industry declined years ago, partially due to bad trade laws that sent those jobs overseas, did their union give up and instead of organizing new workers just turn to bashing potential allies in a reactionary fashion? No, the Steelworkers union began to expand and organize all kinds of new industries, growing to help their workers and create bold, new innovative initiatives, like the partnership with the large worker-owned cooperative network, Mondragon, to build worker-owned coops in places like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. This model is helping to create new, living wage jobs with benefits that keep money in communities, instead of sending it out of state to multi-million dollar companies, like the coal bosses have done for years.

I would love to see the UWMA work on initiatives like this to help West Virginia workers, and work with economic developers, local communities and yes, even environmentalists, to create something new, instead of tearing people down.

Organized labor, as it was crucial in the past to building the middle class in America, is crucial now to moving our economy in Appalachia in a way that is just to all. Cecil Roberts cannot like the current state of our economy here and now, because it is and has been failing West Virginia for a long time, far longer than Obama has been in office. So, let’s stop the infighting and move forward together as a state and get something done to create new economic opportunity.

Dan Taylor is an organizer for OVEC, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, working on issues related to creating a more just economy in West Virginia.

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