How To Win Power by Selling Out Your Own Union

From an historian's point of view, one could do worse than studying the United Mine Workers of America.  It is a microcosm of the American Labor Movement.   It is a startling picture of the role of individuals in the making of American history.  It is the story of how a once powerful institution's leaders repeatedly sold out its members as the nation drifted from large  scale industrial production of power and goods to being a producer of private and public services . Finally, not least, it is a story of breathtaking betrayal of working men by a man who used them as a stepping stone to greater personal power and to influence with an administration which time will prove the epitome of crony capitalism in the U.S.

I have some intimate personal experience with the UMWA having represented  Joseph A. Yablonski ("Jock Yablonski") in his bid for the presidency of the Union in the late 1960's  and his successor Miners for Democracy, the reform group which took over after he, his wife and daughter were murdered by thugs in the pay of then Union President Tony Boyle.  

The stage for that fight was set by the dictatorial control of the union by its most famous leader, John L. Lewis, whose physical and mental decline left no suitably compelling successor, but only the levers to unhampered power over the union's resources to whomever grabbed the reins.  My records of that fight are available to scholars at the Wayne State University Labor Archives.  They provide an interesting snapshot of the labor movement, the union, the coal industry and labor law in that period.

Since then, the number of unionized coal miners has dramatically decreased and miners in at least West Virginia are increasingly turning from their traditional Democratic party allegiance.

62% of a nation's 174,880 coal miners were union member[s] in 1983. By 2009, that ration dropped to 20% in an industry that had contracted to 96,881 workers.

And among West Virginians who vote, a decline in union power at a ballot box has been dramatic. While Bill Clinton easily carried the state in 1992 and 1996, in 2000 George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 52% to 46%.  In 2004, when 17% of voters were union members and a third had a union member in their household, Bush expanded his margin to 56% to 43%.  Despite a national Bush backlash in 2008, John McCain easily beat Barack Obama by a same 56% to 43% tally. But by [then], only 13% of West Virginia voters were still union members, while union families dropped to only a quarter of households

I thought about the UMWA and its shifting fortunes when just before the 2008 election Cecil Roberts, its president, endorsed Obama.

This struck me at the time as odd, since it was overwhelmingly clear that despite his song and dance routine about support for clean coal technologies, Obama had every intention of killing the traditional coal extraction industry in which Roberts' members earned their living.  His actions since his election have proven my supposition correct:

In January 2008 Barack Obama told the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Under my plan of a cap and trade system electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket. Businesses would have to retrofit their operations. That will cost money. They will pass that cost onto consumers."

He promised that his plan would cause electricity rates to skyrocket. He wasn't kidding.

In January, 2011 the Obama Administration, for the first time ever, blocked an already approved bid to build one of the largest mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachian history.

And, today it was reported that Obama's energy plans will cause electricity rates to necessarily skyrocket Just as he promised.

Via US News and World Reports:

Two new EPA pollution regulations will slam the coal industry so hard that hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost, and electric rates will skyrocket 11 percent to over 23 percent, according to a new study based on government data.

Overall, the rules aimed at making the air cleaner could cost the coal-fired power plant industry $180 billion, warns a trade group.

"Many of these severe impacts would hit families living in states already facing serious economic challenges," said Steve Miller, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. "Because of these impacts, EPA should make major changes to the proposed regulations before they are finalized," he said.

The EPA, however, tells Whispers that the hit the industry will suffer is worth the health benefits .[/quote]

While there are things John L Lewis did I find fault with, I believe every act he took was based on his view of what was best for the miners.  It's hard to see that could possibly be true of Cecil Roberts' endorsement of Obama.  That seems very obviously to have been pushed by the former UMWA president Rich Trumka, who was then actively involved in the Obama campaign  which, proved a stepping stone to his own ascendency to the AFL-CIO presidency.

During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Trumka said: "There's not a single good reason for any worker, especially any union member, to vote against Barack Obama." By Trumka's telling, whatever anti-Obama sentiment existed among American voters could be attributed largely to the racism of "right-wing race-haters" who "just can't get past the idea that there's something wrong with voting for a black man."

In February 2009, President Obama named Trumka to his Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

On September 16, 2009, Trumka was elected president of the AFL-CIO, replacing the retiring John Sweeney.

On November 3, 2010 -- the day after mid-term elections in which Democrats lost 6 Senate seats, more than 60 House seats, and 7 governorships -- Communist Party USA Labor Commission chairman Scott Marshall emphasized that his organization had worked collaboratively on political campaigns with Trumka.

On February 18, 2011, Trumka revealed the extent of his involvement with the Obama administration: "I'm at the white House a couple times a week -- two, three times a week. I have conversations every day with someone in the White House or in the administration. Every day."[/quote]

The record fairly suggests to me that Trumka and Roberts sold out the members of the UMWA, a traditional industrial union, for Trumka's personal benefit and , ultimately , for the benefit of  those employees in the government and private sector dependent on increased government spending and willing to contribute to candidates who would press for greater spending and programs to maximize their power and income.

I asked Don Surber of the Charleston (W. Va. DailyMail) if my assessment was fair. In private correspondence which he permits me to share he agreed it is a fair judgment and also explained why the Democrats will not win a national election in West Virginia:

Rich Trumka sold out the miners on his way to the top of the AFL-CIO, which is ironic given John L. Lewis's history of being independent, putting the miners first. Lewis switched party registration to Republican over a falling out with FDR.

The UMW is a shell of what it was for a variety of reasons. The current president Cecil Roberts has been unable to expand unionization ever after Sago (2006) and Upper Big Branch (2010).

UMW mines are very very safe.

If you cannot sell safety after 12 and then 29 men die, you have a problem with your product.

Unions overall sold out their private-industry workers in the 1970s going full-bore lefty.  Their growth is in government and industries dominated by minorities -- UFCW and SEIU.

Trumka is just catching up.

The rank and file began parting company in national elections [with the Democrats]in 1980 with Reagan.

In West Virginia, the combination of the decline in unions and UMW membership (mine employment is way down thanks to mechanization and about half are non-union), and liberal causes, West Virginia flipped Republican in national races in 2000 -- and it is not going back.

Al Gore's environmentalism cost him the election.

Kerry hunting pheasant in Ohio cost him the state. He looked like a doofus who did not know which end of the gun to point.

In state races, Democrats rule because they are not crazy. They are fiscal conservatives who ignore the social agenda. A part-time legislature makes them focus on important issues -- workers comp, medical reform -- and leave the silly stuff (gay marriage) to states with more time on their hands.

Have industrial workers who remain in Ohio and Pennsylvania learned the same lesson as those in West Virginia?  How long will they choose to remain in the AFL-CIO now that it's clear the president of the organization cares more for government and service workers than he does for them and their interests? The UMWA's motto is  "United We Stand, Divided We Fall." What does that mean when the former head of the organization works hand in glove with an administration determined to throw you out of work?

If you experience technical problems, please write to