On November 12, President Joe Biden nominated Christopher Williamson to serve as the next assistant secretary of labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Williamson secured the support of Sen. Joe Manchin and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). It is safe to assume the U.S. Senate will vote to confirm Williamson by the end of the year or early next. So, who is he?
The White House described Williamson as a “proud Appalachian and a native of the coalfields of southern West Virginia.” According to UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts, Williamson “is the most knowledgeable expert on mine safety and health in Washington today. His in-depth understanding of what it takes to keep miners safer and healthier at work is unmatched… Chris comes from a mining background in West Virginia… America’s miners need a tough watchdog and they need him now.”
How did Williamson become, as Roberts describes, the “most knowledgeable expert on mine safety and health in Washington today?” He has no mining experience.
Is he a certified mine safety professional? If he holds a certification in safety or health, he doesn’t advertise it.
Does he have a degree in a mining-related field of study like geology or mining engineering? Well, he does have a couple of degrees from West Virginia University (WVU), and WVU has an excellent mining engineering program. I’ve even heard WVU mining engineers claim their program rivals the mining programs at Virginia Tech and Penn State. To keep this friendly and apolitical, I’ll not comment here on the relative merits of those august institutions.
What I can tell you is that Williamson didn’t study engineering, mining or otherwise during his first stint in Morgantown. Instead, he studied political science and economics. He then spent a couple of years at American University in Washington, D.C., earning a degree in public policy before returning to West Virginia for law school.
With a law degree in hand, Williamson’s career in Washington began in August 2007. His first job out of law school was with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission where he clerked for Judge Bulluck. He also worked on the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee as Sen. Harkin’s labor counsel and as a legislative assistant for Sen. Manchin, serving as the senator’s “primary policy advisor” on labor, mine safety and health and other matters.
After his stint at the commission and some time on the Hill, Williamson spent a little more than a year at MSHA as a special assistant to Assistant Secretary Joe Main, followed by eight months as a special assistant in the Office of the Solicitor. After the White House changed hands in 2016, he went to work at the National Labor Relations Board.
In short, Williamson has a fine Washington resume. He’s well educated. He’s young, but he has almost 15 years of government service. It’s safe to assume he understands both mine safety and health law and labor law. He should know how the Hill works, given his positions with Sens. Harkin and Manchin. From his time at the commission, at MSHA and at the NLRB, I’m sure he learned a good bit about how those administrative agencies function.
That said, a Washington resume is not a mining resume. Miners tend to respect mining experience over much else. What you’ve actually done and where you did it matters a great deal in mining. For its part, MSHA is an agency that has historically prized mining experience. It was built on experience. MSHA doesn’t require its inspectors to hold degrees or professional certifications. Rather, MSHA has traditionally focused on hiring experienced miners.
Almost every assistant secretary that I can recall actually worked as a miner at some point, they have all had decades of mining experience. David Zatezalo is a mining engineer with more than 40 years of coal mining experience. Main worked as a miner and then spent more than three decades at UMWA. David Lauriski is a miner’s miner. He started his mining career as a roustabout and worked his way to the top. He had more than 30 years of mining experience before he was tapped to lead MSHA. Richard Stickler also had decades of mining experience.
Perhaps the closest analog to Williamson that I can recall is Davitt McAteer. Before his time as assistant secretary in the Clinton administration, McAteer was one of the original Nader’s Raiders, a public interest attorney and labor activist. He worked in government and for the UMWA. I don’t know if McAteer ever worked as a miner, but he devoted himself to mine safety and health for many years before he came to Washington. In other words, he was a known quantity.
How does Williamson intend to advance and improve mine safety and health? Will his focus be on MSHA or on MSHA’s mission? What are his priorities? What does he hope to accomplish? Did his time in Washington prepare him to lead an agency with almost 2,000 employees? His resume doesn’t answer those questions.
Brian Hendrix is a partner with Husch Blackwell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.