FAIRMONT — United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts reacted with humility Thursday to the naming of the new District 31 office in his honor.
“Remember, this building’s got my name on it, but it’s not my building, it’s our building,” he told the crowd at the official dedication of the building.
To accommodate the crowd, the dedication of the new Cecil E. Roberts Building took place in the gymnasium of the Jayenne Elementary School, located next door to the new office, which is at 1414 Country Club Rd. in Fairmont.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who said the dedication of the building in Roberts’ name was a fitting tribute to his legacy, presented Roberts with a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol. Manchin said leaders have to be sincere and true to themselves, among other qualities and Roberts, he said, has those traits “in spades.”
Manchin said Roberts’ purpose is “about every working man and woman and everyone associated with the UMWA” as well as other labor movements.
UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Levi Allen said he was honored and excited to be part of the dedication of the office in Roberts’ name.
And UMWA International District 31 Vice President Rick Altman also expressed his pride in the new office.
“That building next door is our home,” Altman said.
West Virginia House of Delegates member Mike Caputo (D-50) recalled how he made the motion to name the new office in honor of Roberts. Caputo made the motion while formerly serving as the union’s International District 31 Vice President at an International UMWA Board meeting in Triangle, W.Va. late last year.
It was his final board meeting.
“Don Barnett seconded that motion, and I’m here to tell you it passed unanimously by the executive board,” Caputo said.
He said it was the first time he ever saw Roberts struggling for words. Like others, Caputo commended Roberts for his work in passionately and tirelessly fighting for workers’ rights.
“You can’t count how many times that man has been put behind bars standing up for a cause that he truly believed in, that he knew was right,” Caputo said. “And that’s why I thought it was so appropriate to name that building after Cecil.”
He said Roberts has been “a defender of workers’ rights his entire life” and is a proud Vietnam veteran. Caputo continued his lavish praise as he introduced Roberts on the stage.
“And I’ve seen him do things that no one ever thought could be done, and that’s why it’s an honor for me to introduce the man we named this building after, the greatest labor leader on the planet today…” he said.
Roberts recalled his reaction to Caputo’s motion to name the building in his honor.
“He pretty much took my breath away when he did that,” he said. “And I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart for having the original thought to do this.”
Roberts, who acknowledged and thanked others during his speech, including veterans, stood vigilant for the rights of workers during his remarks, noting the importance of standing and fighting together.
“I got to tell you something brothers and sisters, there’s forces out there trying to destroy everything we’ve ever had in our lives, and I don’t want that to happen,” he said.
Indeed, there was much concern by not only Roberts, but the other speakers, about such crucial issues as miners’ pensions.
Sen. Manchin, for one, has been urging his Senate colleagues to pass the American Miners Act so that miners across the United States would have secure pensions and health care, two programs they were promised when they powered America with coal, according to a news release from the senator.
According to the news release, the UMWA pension plans are currently on the brink of failure, and if nothing is done to shore up the plans, they will fail and retirees will face massive cuts to the benefits they earned over decades of work.
“We are not going to give up,” Manchin said.
According to Altman, the new office is about 2,000 square feet in size.
In addition to Altman, it houses Dennis “Adam” Frye and Michael Phillippi, who are UMWA field representatives for the Fairmont office. He said the American Federation of Teachers, the Communication Workers of America, an assistance office for Vietnam veterans, political action representatives and the Health and Retirement Fund Office are also located there.
It replaces the union’s former Gaston Avenue office.
Eric Hrin can be reached at (304) 367-2549.