It was a normal Friday in 1971 when a young man returning home from the Vietnam War decided to become a coal miner.
Unaware that he would later become the longest serving president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), Cecil Roberts stepped foot in his first coal mine as a sixth generation miner, ready to work.
Both of Roberts’ grandfathers were killed in the mines, and his great-uncle, Bill Blizzard, was a well-known organizer during the West Virginia Mine Wars in the 1920s. Blizzard was also a UMWA district president.
Despite his deep, familial ties to the mines, nepotism was never a factor for Roberts. Like every other hardworking coal miner, he paid his dues by starting at the bottom as a red hat.
The average height of a coal mine is 42 inches. Roberts’ first coal mining job was in a small, West Virginia drift mine with ceilings as low as 36 inches.
“The first day of work all you know is what you heard,” Roberts said. “I was scared to death.”
In those days, someone had to sign for each red hat coming to work. An experienced miner has to be responsible for you, Roberts explained.
A miner named Joe Prett was assigned to supervise him. Prett and Roberts loaded into an underground personnel carrier, commonly called a mantrip, on the mine railway.
“They (cars) didn’t have canopies on them because it was so low you had to lay flat in the car,” Roberts remembered.
Prett instructed Roberts to lie beside him.“He said, ‘Boy, don’t raise up or you’ll get your head took off,’” Roberts said. “I was like, ‘Do what?’”
He was terrified, but he took the cold, dark, 1.5-mile ride inside the drift mine like a champ, refusing to let the men he would later spend his career fighting for know he was scared.
The entire ride, Roberts thought, “What in the world did I get myself into?”
In the endless sea of underground darkness, the men could easily touch the ceiling of the small hole bored into the mountain. When the ride came to a stop, Roberts was once again astonished.
It was a good one-fourth of a mile walk to the location they had been assigned. He couldn’t stand, let alone walk. To his amazement, the older coal miners jumped out and got right to work.
“I kept hitting my head on the roof and thought, ‘This is absolutely impossible,’” Roberts said.
The experienced miners handed him a shovel and told him to get to work. After several hours, Roberts was hungry and thought he missed lunch.
“I actually thought they forgot about me.”
What felt like eight hours of work was only two. He was glad his first day was a Friday, with the rest of the weekend off.
“I couldn’t get out of bed on Saturday,” he said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if I am going to survive this or not.’”
For two months, Roberts persevered. He learned to get around underground and the experienced miners helped him.
“Within three months, I loved it. I would’ve been happy to be a miner for the rest of my life.”
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Roberts grew up in a remote area 15 miles up Cabin Creek Road in Kanawha County, locally referred to as “Shamrock Holler.”
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966. After leaving Vietnam and becoming a coal miner, he became active in his local union No. 2236.
Roberts’ first elected role was vice president of his local union, District 17, in West Virginia. He served for five years. He was then elected vice president of the UMWA International in 1982 and served in that role for 13 years.
The time spent in Washington, D.C., for this position was a culture shock. For a kid who grew up in Shamrock Holler, the idea that a mortgage payment could be $1,000 was inconceivable. His family’s house payment was $176.
Roberts became UMWA president in 1995 at age 49. He acclimated to his new life in D.C., expecting to be there five to 10 years. Although he says he’ll always consider West Virginia home, he’s been in D.C. since 1982.
“I was fortunate. I was elected at a very young age,” Roberts said. In 41 years, he has only faced opposition in three elections, none of which have been hotly contested.
Throughout conversations with The Register-Herald, it became apparent that John Lewis, who served as UMWA president for 40 years, was appointed, not elected to the position, making Roberts the longest serving elected official in the history of the UMWA.
“That means I’m old,” Roberts remarked glibly.
He doesn’t take sole credit for his success though — “I couldn’t do anything here without others helping. Never think you get somewhere all by yourself because that’s a lie. You have to have other people help you along the way or you can’t be successful.”
When asked if this is the last term he will serve, Roberts says he plans on working if the people want him and he’s physically able. At age 71, he still proudly makes it to the gym daily.
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As he reflects, he realizes how far he’s come from where he started.
“For someone to be born up a holler 15 miles up Cabin Creek Road... I’ve been blessed in a mighty way.”
He’s spent his life fighting for coal miners’ jobs, pensions and safety. He’s also witnessed the coal industry evolve and change — not always for the better.
When he first started working in the mines, anyone could become a miner. Coal companies were hiring everywhere in Appalachia.
“Look at the number of people that work in the industry now,” Roberts said. “It’s very, very sad. We went through the oil embargo in 1973.
“Many people don’t remember this, but Jimmy Carter was one of the most pro-coal presidents we’ve ever had,” Roberts said, referring to the coal council President Carter set up with hopes of the U.S. becoming energy independent.
Things began to change in the 1980s as America began to shift away from its industrial roots. Many mines closed that had once supplied the steel industry, resulting in a loss of work for many West Virginia miners.
In 1990, the requirements of the Clean Air Act forced operators to favor low sulfur mines to traditional coal, resulting in the closure of many local mines. As the debate on climate change progressed, there was a “drastic, drastic reduction in coal used in the United States,” Roberts recalled.
“All of those things transformed the coal industry over my career.”
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Roberts laments that over 40 years he has witnessed the coal industry decline.
The most heartbreaking result, Roberts said, is the large number of union jobs lost in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. To him, these union jobs were some of the best jobs, allowing people to live a great middle-class life with great benefits and health care.
“I think the nation has handled this poorly. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, if you’re for reducing emissions in the atmosphere, there should’ve been a conversation with rules being implicated.”
Referring to a plan for education and retraining to replace the careers taken by these new laws, Roberts said he feels there was a lack of forethought to the unintended consequences of closing the mines that subsidized an entire economy.
In response to changes made by the current presidential administration, Roberts said he believes they have made it possible for currently operating mines to stay open.
However, he said the atmosphere has not been conducive to new opportunities for new or laid off miners. He realizes West Virginia has seen some increase in employment, but this isn’t the case nationwide.
He ascertains that the central issue for mines today is the closure of coal-fired plants.
“There is no investment on behalf of utilities to open new power plants which would create a sustainable market here domestically. The market overseas has been able to sustain. Every time there’s a closure of another coal-fired power plant, there’s a reality of miners losing their jobs.”
He explained that UMWA advocacy has centered on research for clean burning coal for years. Unions have supported this initiative because the utilities will not invest in coal-fired plants without assurances the plants will not be closed for carbon emissions violations in the next 30 years.
With the recent discovery of abundant natural gas, utility companies have an option for clean-burning, low-emission gas plants with indefinite resources.
To Roberts, the long-term solution is heavy economic investment in the coal mining industry.