When I first began in the news business in the 1970’s, there was always some trouble in the coal fields–long strikes when a contract expired and wildcat walkouts when a local issue flared.
I remember interviewing Consolidation Coal Company head Bobby Brown once about the company’s volatile relationship with the United Mine Workers Union. Brown said something like, "They don’t like us and we don’t like them, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing."
Then there was Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. He hated the UMWA and the union hated him. Blankenship and UMWA President Cecil Roberts were about as compatible as a badger and a bear.
But Blankenship is gone now and Massey has a new owner.
Now, even though the coal fields are quieter than they used to be, there is still considerable tension between the union and the industry. Take, for example, Governor Tomblin’s proposed coal mine safety bill.
The legislation was inspired by the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 that killed 29 miners. Advocates say provisions in the bill will make mines safer, and there’s general agreement between the industry and the UMWA on most elements.
But one late hang-up revealed the long-standing mistrust the two sides have for each other.
After the Sago mine disaster in 2006 that killed 12 miners, a federal court ruled that families of the victims could have UMWA members represent their interests during the investigations, even though Sago was a non-union mine.
Now the coal industry wants to use the mine safety bill being debated at the
Capitol to create a specific legal exclusion, blocking union representation at investigative hearings if the accident happened at a non-union mine.
The UMWA says it has particular expertise that can be useful to family members anxious to get to the bottom of an accident. They want the bill to say that a family member can choose whomever they want to represent them.
The coal industry, however, suspects that the union rushes in after a coal mine accident at a non-union mine and tries to use the tragedy to generate support for a union at the mine… an allegation the union denies.
The version of the mine safety bill that passed the House Judiciary Committee Thursday favors the union side, but the bill still has a long way to go.
At a base level, the UMWA and the coal industry just don’t trust each other, but still they have to find ways to coexist. This mine safety bill that’s now in the legislature shows how the two sides can work together when they have to.
But that doesn’t mean they have to like it.