News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 4, 2008

United Mine Workers chief wins Debs award

Union offials urge voters to elect Obama

By Howard Greninger

TERRE HAUTE — With nearly 300 union supporters on hand, national union officials urged the support of Democrat presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama “to move forward by hope” and not “backward by fear.”

The past eight years has “been a time of privatizing profits, yet socializing debt,” said Michael Sullivan, president of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation and president of Sheet Metal Workers.

Sullivan and Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO and former president UMWA, spoke to introduce Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, as this year’s recipient of the Eugene V. Debs Award during a Saturday banquet at Hulman Center on the campus of Indiana State University.

Trumka said the U.S. needs the ideals of Debs that supports working people “and we need them now.”

“We are one month away from working people having a chance to replace the most reactionary president of our generation with someone who could be the most progressive president in our lifetime,” he said, referring to Obama.

Trumka said there is no reason not to vote for Obama, other than “someone bringing up the color of his skin. We can put a real dent in racism in this country,” Trumka said, of electing Obama. He said racism has been used in the past to separate workers, as big business pits one group of workers against another.

“Trade unionists like Cecil Roberts have never been more important to the future of the labor movement and to the future of this country than they are right now,” Trumka said.

Roberts grew up in West Virginia and was a sixth generation coal miner. Both of his grandfathers were killed in mines. He graduated from West Virginia Technical College and in 1997, received an honorary doctorate of humanities from West Virginia University of Technology.

After college and military service in Vietnam, he started to work in the mines. In 1977, he was elected vice president of District 17 and re-elected in 1981. He was elected vice president of the UMWA in 1982, running on a slate headed by Richard Trumka and John Banovic as secretary/treasurer.

In 1995, Roberts became WMWA president and in 2004, became the first president in UMWA history to be elected by acclamation for three consecutive terms.

“I think Debs would be amazed that it takes millions and millions of dollars to run for even governor of a state or Congress, much less president of the United States,” he said.

Roberts added to Trumka’s comment about electing a black person as president.

“Why not? Eight years ago we were ready for a stupid man. He [President Bush] happens to be the worse president in the history of the United States of America,” Roberts said.

“You think about this, for eight years, the very rich and very powerful have had a party. We watched 3 million jobs just shipped out of this country to communist China, and to Mexico and all around the world. They had regulations tore down and coal miners got killed in coal mines in record numbers,” he said.

“Two million more people became in poverty, but they partied on. I say let those who had this damn party pay for this party,” in reference to a $700 billion economic bailout plan signed by Bush.

The Debs Award has been awarded annually since 1965.