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Striking Alabama coal miners protest corporate greed at NYC BlackRock headquarters

By Jaisal Noor - The Real News Network, July 28, 2021

Striking Alabama coal miner Mike Wright says workers at Warrior Met Coal are taking their calls for fair pay and benefits to the NYC headquarters of their company's biggest investor: BlackRock.

US Energy Transition Presents Organized Labor With New Opportunities, But Also Some Old Challenges

By Delger Erdenesanaa - Inside Climate News, July 27, 2021

President Biden’s push for “good, union jobs” in clean energy has increased hope that organizing solar and wind workers can close the pay gap between them and fossil fuel workers.

President Biden’s push for “good, union jobs” in clean energy has increased hope that organizing solar and wind workers can close the pay gap between them and fossil fuel workers.

Two years ago, Skip Bailey noticed a lot of trucks from a company called Solar Holler driving around Huntington, West Virginia. A union organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Bailey saw an opportunity.

“We want to get in on the solar business,” he said, predicting the industry will grow in his home region, which includes historic coal communities in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

Bailey talked to Solar Holler about unionizing its employees who install photovoltaic panels on homes. IBEW showed the company its local training facility for electricians, and explained the health insurance and pension plans it offers. 

“It wasn’t a hard sell in either direction,” said the company’s founder and CEO, Dan Conant. He was already interested in securing union protections for his employees when Bailey contacted him, he said. The move fit with Solar Holler’s dedication to West Virginia’s legacy of energy production and strong union membership.

“It was not just good business, but it just really spoke to our history as a state,” he said.

Conant and Bailey’s efforts paid off in March 2020, when IBEW Local 317 and Solar Holler signed a contract. It’s just a start—Solar Holler only has about 20 unionized employees—but the agreement is an early example of the future Joe Biden is promising. The president frequently pledges to create millions of jobs while transitioning the U.S. to clean energy. Every time he does, he’s quick to add that these will be “good, union jobs that expand the middle class.”

“It’s a great talking point,” said Joe Uehlein, president of the Maryland-based Labor Network for Sustainability, an advocacy group pushing to unionize green jobs. But he added that Biden faces a difficult balancing act to achieve his pledge. 

A Lifeline for a Coal Plant Gives Hope to a North Dakota Town. Others See It as a Boondoggle

By Dan Gearino - Inside Climate News, July 17, 2021

The politics and economics of the clean energy transition are playing out in a place desperate to retain fossil fuel jobs.

In a town with fewer than 1,000 people, losing an employer tied to about 700 jobs is a kind of death, and that’s what Underwood, North Dakota, was facing until two weeks ago.

Great River Energy, the owner of the giant Coal Creek Station power plant south of the city, said last year that it was going to close the plant in 2022 following years of financial losses. Local and state leaders vowed to find a way to keep it open.

Now those leaders are celebrating. On June 30, after months of rumors, Rainbow Energy Marketing revealed that it had agreed to buy the plant, with plans to retrofit it using carbon capture systems and also help to develop a wind farm. The company, based in Bismarck, North Dakota, said the project might help to write a playbook for how to save other coal-fired power plants.

But what feels like a godsend to people in Underwood looks like a financial and environmental fiasco to energy analysts and clean energy advocates, who view the plan to use carbon capture technology to keep the plant running as an expensive distraction from the urgent need to embrace cleaner options to help address climate change. The differing views underscore the challenge of building a consensus on clean energy in a place where many people blame wind and solar power for killing coal jobs.

“For the people I deal with, it was sort of like a weight was lifted,” said Steve Cottingham of Underwood, chairman of the McLean County Board of Commissioners, about the announcement of the sale.

Coal Creek Station is the largest power plant in North Dakota, with capacity of about 1,150 megawatts. The plant has about 240 employees and the Falkirk Mine has about 450 employees. The mine, located a few miles from the plant, sells nearly all of its output to the plant.

Underwood is a city with no stop lights. An antique store is called The Coal Bin. The economy is built on agriculture and coal.

The Days of Opencast Coal Mining are Numbered, but the UK Remains a Backer of ‘Black Gold’

By Isobel Tarr - DeSmog, July 16, 2021

Last December, a cross-party council planning committee unanimously rejected what could very well be the last opencast coal application in the UK, proposed at Dewley Hill, an area of greenbelt outside Newcastle.

The developer has just declared it will not be appealing the decision, while its latest financial statement indicates the company, Banks Group, does not expect to get permission for any new mines, because of a lack of “political will”. So after 80 years, we cautiously celebrate an end to the ecologically ruinous method of opencast coal extraction.

The mining technique was originally introduced in the 1940s as an extreme wartime measure, with minimal labour needed and maximum pace. It involves ripping up huge areas of land, replacing diverse ecology and vital habitats with a vast pit, and industrialising the countryside. It expanded under Margaret Thatcher, and some of the first people to contest new opencasts were coal miners, since it was seen to hasten job losses at traditional pit mines and ruined the places miners lived in.

Over the past 20 years, as awareness of climate change has grown and word of the local injustices from opencast coal mining spread, thousands of people across the country and beyond have travelled to support the battles to stop opencast coal.

These campaigns had been quietly fought for decades, in isolated pockets in the Welsh Valleys, the Pennines, the Scottish Highlands, by people who don’t identify as activists.

Since 2008, at least 23 applications to stop opencast coal in the UK have been stopped by grassroots campaigns, with many more going unrecorded. Currently, only two opencast mines operate in the UK thanks to the resistance of ordinary people standing up for their local environment and climate justice.

The people behind these victories are not NIMBYs (Not-In-My-Back-Yard). The campaigns have succeeded because coalfield communities supported each other to take down an entire industry, rather than shift the problem from place to place. The planning system deliberately assists planners and is inaccessible to most people who have no experience of navigating it. So knowledge-sharing and solidarity between communities have been vital.

A Plan for Coal Workers as the Industry Declines

Coal Miners Strike in Alabama: 'Warrior Met Coal Ain't Got No Soul!'

By Nora De La Cour - Common Dreams, June 28, 2021

On June 22, Alabama coal miners represented by the United Mine Workers of America picketed BlackRock, State Street Global Advisors, and Renaissance Technologies—the investment firms who finance and reap the profits from their employer, Warrior Met Coal.

Just as Amazon workers were concluding their disastrous union election in Bessemer, about 1,100 metallurgical coal miners were voting to strike Warrior Met Coal in nearby Brookwood, Alabama. The miners say Warrior Met and the New York hedge funds backing it have failed to follow through on their end of an agreement made five years ago.

Warrior Met Coal, Inc, was formed to purchase the assets of Walter Energy after that company was declared bankrupt in 2016. The sale terms stipulated that Walter Energy's remains would be purchased "free and clear," meaning Warrior Met was not obligated to employ Walter Energy's miners or recognize their union. Warrior Met agreed to retain the miners and honor their representation if they signed a subpar contract mandating excruciating sacrifices. These included hefty cuts to pay and benefits paired with inhumane scheduling and firing policies. "You could be scheduled 7, 10, 20 days straight," says Haeden Wright, president of the auxiliary for two striking UMWA locals.

Workers saw their hard-earned pensions swapped out for threadbare 401Ks. They lost much of their ability to earn overtime pay, all but three holidays off with their families, and 30 minutes of paid lunch time (lunch is eaten deep underground near dangerous methane gas and coal and silica dust). They could take three days off if a loved one died, but under Warrior Met's "four strike" policy a fourth day off would result in termination. Pay was slashed by between $6-$8 an hour, bringing it well below the industry standard for unionized miners. Health insurance was cut from 100% coverage to an 80/20 system with massive out-of-pocket costs—no small concern in one of the most physically hazardous professions, with high rates of life-altering injuries and 10% of workers suffering from black lung

Warrior Met assured the miners that if they accepted these losses, they would be taken care of in the next contract. So they endured the squeeze and delivered Warrior Met from its financial hardship, producing "ungodly amounts of coal" and billions in profit for the company and its investors. When contract negotiations began this spring, however, Warrior Met reneged on its promise, refusing to bargain in good faith. 

How laid-off coal miners are reclaiming their own economy

By Trevor Decker Cohen - Sharable, June 28, 2021

For generations, hundreds of thousands of West Virginia coal miners earned a good living. The money they made supported local economies in towns across Appalachia. And their labor down in deep mines brought light to the rest of the world.

But this prosperity came at a high price. Mountains were blown to pieces, rivers ran orange with mine tailings, and generations of miners suffered from black-lung disease. For over a century, the coal industry dominated the region’s economy and psyche, preventing much else from taking root. Now, it’s crumbling. Three of the four largest coal companies that mine half the coal in the US have gone bankrupt. There’s a gaping hole in parts of Appalachia where an economy used to be.

The transition away from extractive energy, dependent on a few commodities, is not as simple as retraining miners. “You can have training programs until you’re purple, but if you don’t have a place to work, it’s just kind of mean,” said Marilyn Wrenn, the development director at Coalfield Development. “It’s not like you can move out of coal mining and go work for the big data firm that opened up down the street.” Recovery from the legacy of coal’s decline requires a thorough regeneration of local economies from the ground up.

On one abandoned surface mine, a new story has emerged. A tractor dragged a piece of machinery, scraping its way along the scattered remains of a former mountain. A crew member pushed the accelerator, and a stone crusher chewed through the rubble. “It’s eating these rocks and turning it into garden soil—and it’s awesome,” said Eva Jones, who drove the tractor.

The machine was capable of crushing stones up to 16 inches in diameter, and in one day, could make up to three acres of soil. In the new dirt, another crew planted an orchard. It was a mix of blackberries, hazelnuts, lavender, and pawpaws. Sustainably managed chickens, hogs, goats, and honeybees grazed and pollinated the half-farm, half-forest. Over time, these practices will capture carbon in the soil and generate income for the local West Virginians who farm the former minelands.

These efforts were the work of two enterprises founded by nonprofit Coalfield Development—an organization that seeks to restore economic diversity in a region long beholden to the wealth of just one commodity. “Whether you think coal is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s not wise to have all your eggs in one basket,” said Coalfield’s founder, Brandon Dennison.

As the US Pursues Clean Energy and the Climate Goals of the Paris Agreement, Communities Dependent on the Fossil Fuel Economy Look for a Just Transition

By Judy Fahys - Inside Climate News, June 28, 2021

Perhaps the proudest achievement of Michael Kourianos’ first term as mayor of Price, Utah was helping to make the local university hub the state’s first to run entirely on clean energy. It’s a curious position for the son, brother and grandchild of coal miners who’s worked in local coal-fired power plants for 42 years.

Kourianos sees big changes on the horizon brought by shifts in world energy markets and customer demands, as well as in politics. The mines and plants that powered a bustling economy here in Carbon County and neighboring Emery County for generations are gone or winding down, and Kourianos is hoping to win reelection so he can keep stoking the entrepreneurial energy and partnerships that are moving his community forward.

“That freight train is coming at us,” he said. “You look at all the other communities that were around during the early times of coal, they’re not around.

“That’s my fear,” he said. “That’s my driving force.”

New research from Resources for the Future points out that hundreds of areas like central Utah are facing painful hardships because of the clean-energy transformation that will be necessary if the United States hopes to reach the Paris agreement’s goals to slow climate change. Lost jobs and wages, a shrinking population and an erosion of the tax base that supports roads, schools and community services—they’re all costs of the economic shift that will be paid by those whose hard work fueled American prosperity for so long. 

“If we can address those challenges by helping communities diversify, helping people find new economic growth drivers and new economic opportunities, that might lessen some of the opposition to moving forward with the ambitious climate policy that we need,” said the report’s author, Daniel Raimi, who is also a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Meeting the Paris agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees C” by the end of the century means Americans must burn 90 percent less coal over the next two decades and half as much oil and natural gas, Raimi said.

And less fossil fuel use will also affect employment, public finances and economic development region-by-region, according to Raimi. In 50 of the nation’s 3,006 counties, 25 percent or more of all wages are tied to fossil fuel energy, he notes. In 16 counties, 25 percent or more of their total jobs are related to fossil energy.

From Black Lung to BlackRock: Striking Alabama Coal Miners Protest Wall St. Financiers of Warrior Met

Kim Kelly interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan González - Democracy Now, June 22, 2021

More than a thousand coal miners at Warrior Met Coal are now in the third month of their strike in the right-to-work state of Alabama. The miners walked off the job on April 1 after their union, the United Mine Workers of America, called the first strike to hit the state’s coal mining industry in four decades. Workers are fighting for improvements to wages and benefits after they agreed to drastic cutbacks in 2016, when Warrior Met Coal took control of the mines after the previous company went bankrupt. Today a group of striking mine workers traveled from Alabama to Wall Street to protest the investment firms backing Warrior Met. “These are the companies that fund Warrior Met and allow Warrior Met to pay their executives millions of dollars a year, while the miners, the workers themselves who are creating that value, are struggling to get by on sometimes as little as $22 an hour,” says labor journalist and organizer Kim Kelly.

Just Transition Strategies: Workers and the Green Revolution

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