Coal Miners’ Union Sits Out Presidential Race

Amy Harder

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Mike Caputo, a member of the UMWA and a Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, stands near the house where he grew up in Rivesville, W.V. The coal plant in the background, one of the oldest in the nation, is shutting down

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FAIRMONT, W.Va.—After giving then-Sen. Barack Obama a full-throttled endorsement in the 2008 presidential election, the United Mine Workers of America has decided not to endorse either Obama or the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in 2012.

“As of right now, we’ve elected to stay out of this election,” said Mike Caputo, a UMWA official and a Democratic member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. “Our members right now have indicated to stay out of this race, and that’s why we’ve done that.... I don’t think quite frankly that coalfield folks are crazy about either candidate.”

Both candidates are trying to prove otherwise to voters in coal-intensive swing states. Earlier this week the Obama campaign released in Ohio the first coal-issue ad of this cycle, claiming that Romney has flip-flopped his position on coal. The ad includes comments that Romney made as Massachusetts governor in 2003 standing in front of a coal plant, saying that he wouldn’t support jobs that kill people.

For his part, Romney is claiming Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is waging a war on coal with a slew of regulations.

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The 54-year-old Caputo, who grew up across the street from a coal plant near Fairmont in central West Virginia and has been in the coal industry virtually his whole life, said he couldn’t remember a time UMWA did not endorse a presidential candidate. Caputo is a vice president on the UMWA’s International Executive Board.

“It’s unusual,” he said during an interview at UMWA’s Fairmont office. Caputo, who describes himself as a “hard-core Democrat,” intends to vote for Obama. “I’m loyal to my party,” he said.

David Kameras, a UMWA spokesman based at the union’s headquarters in Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C., said UMWA has not officially completed its endorsement selection decisions for the 2012 election and expects to do so by about mid-September. In 2008, UMWA endorsed Obama in May of that year.

"Our members count on coal-fired power plants and burning of coal to keep jobs,” Caputo said. “We’re a very Democratic union and we try to listen to the rank and file. They’ve sent a clear message that they’re not supportive of the environmental rules that are being put in place.”

Caputo pointed out that many of the biggest EPA rules, including one finalized last December to control mercury and other air toxic pollution from coal plants, were first enacted under Republican administrations, including President George H.W. Bush.

“A lot of our members don’t realize that,” Caputo said. “But whoever is in charge is going to get blamed.”

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Caputo also noted that newly discovered resources of shale natural gas found all over the country, including the coal-intensive states of West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, have contributed to coal’s decline as low natural gas prices compel utilities to shift from coal to gas as a power generator.

But politically, the EPA is the culprit for the coal industry’s woes. Throughout Appalachia where Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia converge, the coal industry’s disgruntlement with Obama is plastered on yard signs and billboards.

One billboard alongside a freeway near the Pennsylvania and West Virginia border said drivers were entering “The Obama administration’s no jobs zone.” The billboard was sponsored by a coal-industry group, the Federation for American Coal, Energy, and Security (FACES of Coal). Yard signs seen along back roads and throughout towns juxtapose the word “coal” with “fire Obama.”

Labor groups almost always align with Democratic candidates, and Caputo said the UMWA would be very unlikely to endorse Romney given his record with the coal industry and his positions on labor issues.

“Governor Romney’s record on coal isn’t any better,” Caputo said, referring to the comments Romney made in 2003 that were featured in the Obama ad—and the fact that Romney’s former air chief in Massachusetts, Gina McCarthy, now holds a similar position at Obama’s EPA. “Mitt Romney has never been a friend of our industry," Caputo said. "Now he’s out preaching he’s all for coal, but his history sure doesn’t show that.”

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But the union has been ranting more about Obama for much of 2012. UMWA President Cecil Roberts made headlines earlier this year when he invoked terrorism references to describe the actions of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and said that the agency’s rules could prevent UMWA from endorsing Obama. “The Navy SEALs shot Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington,” Roberts said on a West Virginia radio show in April.

Roberts’s comments illustrate how much has changed in just four years. In his ringing endorsement of Obama in 2008, Roberts said that Obama “understands that coal will remain a primary source for electricity generation in this country for many decades to come.”

He went on: “Obama will work to ensure the future of American coal and the jobs that go with it by moving aggressively to develop and implement carbon capture and sequestration technology.”

Obama did make a push for carbon capture and sequestration by providing about $5 billion in the 2009 stimulus package for CCS, dubbed “clean coal” technology, but that money has dried up and the technology, while technically proven, is far too expensive to be commercially available.

Some experts have said that UMWA could endorse Obama, citing stronger mine-safety laws the administration has implemented and the 2009 nomination of Joseph Main, a UMWA member, as the assistant Labor secretary for mine safety and health.

“Never did we have a president, Democrat or Republican, who wanted someone from this union to head up that agency,” Caputo said. “So I’m very appreciative.”

But with one EPA rule after another coming down the pike, that wasn’t enough.

In 2008, UMWA said it had more than 100,000 members, including coal miners and other workers in coal mining communities ranging from nursing home workers to manufacturers. Kameras said that the union hadn't updated its membership numbers and didn't have any more recent numbers to offer, but experts say that its membership could be seeing a steep drop given the decline in the coal industry.