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In the Coal Mines, Workers Are Dying to Make a Living: Mining companies increasingly rely on cheaper contractors who face longer hours and higher risk of accidents

By Kari Lydersen - In These Times, August 18, 2021

Trebr Lenich always called his mother before his drive home from overnight shifts at Mine No. 1, operated by Hamilton County Coal in Hamilton County, Ill. The call she answered the morning of Aug. 14, 2017, worried her. 

“He said, ​‘Mom, I am just so exhausted, so wore out,’ ” Teresa Lenich says. 

Her son routinely worked long hours on consecutive days. That day, he never made it home.

Coworkers following Trebr said his driving was erratic and suspected he was falling asleep, Teresa says. Heading back to the West Frankfort home he shared with his parents, girlfriend and baby daughter, Trebr drove into a ditch and hit an embankment. According to the sheriff’s report, his engine then caught fire. 

Like many young miners, Trebr was employed through a contracting company that provides temporary workers for mines with no promise that they’ll be hired on permanently.

This staffing structure — and the disappearance of labor unions from Illinois mines — has made work less safe and more grueling for miners, according to advocates and multiple studies. Without job security, temporary workers are reluctant to complain about potentially unsafe conditions (including long work hours) and to report accidents. And because temporary workers may have inadequate experience in a particular mine, they might not understand that mine’s specific risks.

A Just Transition Now or Climate Disaster is Inevitable

Where We Mine: Resource Politics in Latin America

Thea Riofrancos interviewed by Annabelle Dawson - Green European Journal, August 12, 2021

As the drive to expand renewable energy capacity speeds up, there is a rush for lithium and other materials around the world. What will the expansion of rare earth mining in Latin America mean for the indigenous communities and workers who have historically borne the harms of extractivism? Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals (Duke University Press, 2020), explains how the energy transition in the Global North risks being anything but just without structural changes to supply chains and the governance of extractive industries.

Annabelle Dawson: Your work explores the politics of resource extraction in Latin America, from oil in Ecuador to lithium in Chile. How do you define resource politics or extractivism?

Thea Riofrancos: Resource politics refers to any social or political activity – whether conflict, collaboration, political economy or social mobilisation – that’s attributed to the extraction of resources, and in some cases to stop resource extraction. Scholarship tends to see resource politics as primarily related to elites like state officials and corporate actors. This is pivotal, for example, to the concept of the resource curse, which holds that dependency on resource rents leads to authoritarianism. However, this focus overlooks a range of resource politics such as social movements that oppose extractive projects or demand better regulation and indigenous rights.

Extractivism is a little thornier to define. My research has explored how in Latin America social movements, activists and even some bureaucrats in the case of Ecuador began to use this term to diagnose the problems that they associated with resource extraction. This happened in the context of the 2000 to 2014 commodity boom – a period of intense investment in resource sectors driven by the industrialisation of emerging economies like China – and the Left’s return to power across Latin America during the “Pink Tide”. Activists, left-wing intellectuals and some government officials began to see extractivism as an interlocking system of social and environmental harm, political repression, and corporate and foreign capital domination. So, the concept originates from political activity rather than scholarship [read more about extractivism in Latin America].

We tend to associate resource extraction with notoriously dirty commodities like coal, oil, and certain metals. How are green technologies implicated in all of this?

The transition to renewable energies is often thought of as switching one energy source for another: fossil fuels for renewables. That’s part of it, but this transition fits into a much bigger energy and socio-economic system. You can’t just swap energy sources without rebuilding the infrastructures and technologies required to harness, generate, and transmit that energy. All this has a large material footprint and requires materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare earth metals [read more about the central role and impact of these rare metals]. More traditional extractive sectors like copper are also very important for decarbonisation.

One very bad outcome would be if the harms related to fossil fuel capitalism were reproduced in new renewable energy systems, subjecting particular communities to the harms of resource extraction in the name of fighting climate change. We need a new energy system quickly – especially in the Global North given the historic emissions of the US and Europe. But in this rush, there’s a real risk of reproducing inequalities and environmental damage. This is especially so with some mining sectors where a boom in the raw materials for green technologies like wind turbines, electric vehicles and solar panels is predicted.

Striking Alabama Coal Miners Want Their $1.1 Billion Back

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, August 10, 2021

History repeated itself as hundreds of miners spilled out of buses in June and July to leaflet the Manhattan offices of asset manager BlackRock, the largest shareholder in the mining company Warrior Met Coal.

Some had traveled from the pine woods of Brookwood, Alabama, where 1,100 coal miners have been on strike against Warrior Met since April 1. Others came in solidarity from the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania and the hollows of West Virginia and Ohio.


Ninety-year-old retired Ohio miner Jay Kolenc was retracing his own steps from 1974, when Kentucky miners came to fight Wall Street in the strike behind the film Harlan County USA. “Coal miners have always had to fight for everything they’ve ever had,” Kolenc said. Photo: Luis Feliz Leon.

Among them was 90-year-old retired Ohio miner Jay Kolenc, in a wheelchair at the picket line—retracing his own steps from five decades ago. It was 1974 when Kentucky miners and their supporters came to fight Wall Street in the strike behind the film Harlan County USA.

“Coal miners have always had to fight for everything they’ve ever had,” Kolenc said. “Since 1890, when we first started, nobody’s ever handed us anything. So we’re not about to lay our tools down now.”

The longest that miners ever went on strike was for 10 months in 1989 against the Pittston Coal Company in West Virginia, defending hard-won health care benefits and pension rights. Some 3,000 miners got arrested in that strike. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who passed away on August 5, was president of the Mine Workers (UMWA) at the time.

In Manhattan, mixed in the sea of camouflage T-shirts outside BlackRock was a smattering of red and blue shirts—retail, grocery, stage, and telecom workers. The miners and supporters circled the inner perimeter of four police barricades, chanting “Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul!” and whooping it up.

Postal and sanitation trucks honked in solidarity. “You’re in New York City,” Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts told the crowd. “When somebody comes by driving a trash truck, they’re in a union. Chances are, somebody comes along with a broom in their hand, they’re in a union.”

It states that every corner of the planet is already being affected and it could get far worse if the remaining slim chance to stop heating over 1.5C is not immediately grasped.

As well as making clear the damage that climate change is doing and will do to the planet, the report makes it clear that the climate crisis is unequivocally caused by human activities.

The 42 page summary of the report has been agreed, line-by-line, by every government on the planet.

1,100 Union Miners in Alabama Are Now in Their Fifth Month on Strike

By Nora De La Cour - Jacobin, August 6, 2021

Although coal-mining jobs comprise a rapidly shrinking share of the US economy, they became potent symbolic fodder during the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Candidates from both major parties devoted considerable airtime to the subject, with varying degrees of success. And yet, as 1,100 metallurgical coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, entered their fifth month on strike earlier this week, the political establishment remained conspicuously silent.

The miners, represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), first hit the picket lines on April 1 after contract talks broke down with their employer, Warrior Met Coal. Last week they took their protest to Wall Street, where they gathered outside the headquarters of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and Warrior Met’s most powerful shareholder.

The miners, who extract the coking coal used to make steel, contend that BlackRock is wresting profits from their community with little regard for workers’ well-being.

Warrior Met Coal, Inc., was formed to purchase the remains of Walter Energy after the company declared bankruptcy in 2016. Bankruptcy court proceedings, which tend to value company assets over workers’ well-being, established that Walter Energy’s holdings would be sold “free and clear,” meaning Warrior Met need not honor the commitments its predecessor had made to miners and their union. In a bid to keep the mines open and save the pensions and health coverage of retirees, UMWA members in Brookwood accepted a subpar contract mandating excruciating sacrifices.

Coal mining is one of the most physically hazardous professions in the United States, with high rates of life-altering injuries and diseases like silicosis and black lung. Unionized miners have fought hard for premium health insurance to alleviate the physical toll of their work. Under the contract with Warrior Met, miners saw their 100 percent coverage downgraded to an 80/20 system with massive out-of-pocket costs for members. Pay was slashed by between $6 and $8 dollars per hour, bringing it well below the industry standard for unionized miners. Hard-earned pensions were replaced with shabby 401Ks.

Warrior Met’s scheduling and firing practices became increasingly draconian even as workers’ ability to earn overtime pay was gutted. Miners were expected to work shifts as long as sixteen hours, for as many as seven days a week. “You could be scheduled seven, ten, twenty days straight,” says Haeden Wright, president of the auxiliary for two striking UMWA locals.

Read the entire article here.

Canary in the Mine: Striking Miners in Alabama

By Luis Feliz Leon - American Prospect, July 28, 2021

Miners at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama have been on strike for almost five months, struggling to reverse concessions in pay, health care, and safety. Strikers brought their picket lines from the piney woods of the South to the tony Manhattan offices of three hedge fund shareholders on June 22, and more than 1,000 mine workers and union allies return today to demonstrate outside the offices of the company’s largest shareholder, asset manager BlackRock.

Miners have chanted, “No Contract, No Coal!” and “Warrior Met Has No Soul” on picket lines from the worksite in Brookwood, Alabama, to New York City. “We’re here to let the whole world know that we will take it from the bottom of the United States to the top. Where we have to take this fight, we’re going to take it,” Dedrick Gardner, a first-generation miner from a union household of teachers and postmasters, said on the New York picket line in June.

It’s a well-trodden path for United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members. In 1974, coal miners from southeastern Kentucky’s Harlan County journeyed to Wall Street during the ninth month of their strike, leafleting outside a shareholder meeting of the company Duke Power.

Filmmaker Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA documented miners and their families as they rose up against gun-toting goons and the bosses who plundered their lungs and their labor to extract coal and soul. Kopple joined them on Wall Street too, capturing conversations between strikers and local cops discussing wages and benefits, a microcosm of shared class struggle from opposite sides of the fence. “They make some profit, but they keep it all to themselves, right?” the police officer asks the miner at one point. “Yeah, they don’t spread the wealth.”

That solidarity has been present at Warrior Met since miners walked off the job on April 1. When management put a contract offer on the table several days later, workers roundly rejected it by a vote of 1,006 to 45.

“The industry standard is 30 bucks an hour,” said Johnny Murphy, vice president of UMWA Local 2397. “We’re at $23. Corporate greed has taken over America.”

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.

DOE Quietly Backs Plan for Carbon Capture Network Larger Than Entire Oil Pipeline System

By Sharon Kelly - DeSmog, July 18, 2021

Obama Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and major labor group AFL-CIO are behind the “blueprint” for a multi-billion dollar system to transport captured CO2 — and offer a lifeline to fossil fuel plants.

An organization run by former Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, with the backing of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 56 labor unions, has created a policy “blueprint” to build a nationwide pipeline network capable of carrying a gigaton of captured carbon dioxide (CO2).

The “Building to Net-Zero” blueprint appears to be quietly gaining momentum within the Energy Department, where a top official has discussed ways to put elements into action using the agency’s existing powers.

The pipeline network would be twice the size of the current U.S. oil pipeline network by volume, according to the blueprint, released by a recently formed group calling itself the Labor Energy Partnership. Backers say the proposed pipeline network — including CO2 “hubs” in the Gulf Coast, the Ohio River Valley, and Wyoming — would help reduce climate-changing pollution by transporting captured carbon dioxide to either the oil industry, which would undo some of the climate benefits by using the CO2 to revive aging oilfields, or to as-yet unbuilt facilities for underground storage.

The blueprint, however, leaves open many questions about how the carbon would be captured at the source — a process that so far has proved difficult and expensive — and where it would be sent, focusing instead on suggesting policies the federal government can adopt to boost CO2 pipeline construction. 

Climate advocates fear that building such a large CO2 pipeline network could backfire, causing more greenhouse gas pollution by enabling aging coal-fired power plants to remain in service longer, produce pipes that could wind up carrying fossil fuels if carbon capture efforts fall through, and represent an expensive waste of federal funds intended to encourage a meaningful energy transition.

In March, over 300 climate and environmental justice advocacy groups sent a letter to Congress, arguing that subsidizing carbon capture “could entrench the fossil economy for decades to come.”

The AFL-CIO and the Energy Futures Initiative, which jointly produced the blueprint, did not respond to questions about concerns over their proposals.

Proponents of carbon capture, usage, and sequestration (CCUS) often highlight ways that it could be used for sectors like steel and cement whose carbon pollution is generally considered “hard to abate.” Yet, the pipeline network envisioned by Moniz would be capable of carrying over 10 times as much carbon dioxide as the steel and cement industries emit in total nationwide, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data from 2019. In fact, it could transport more CO2 than the entire industrial sector emits in the U.S., leaving the rest of the pipeline network’s capacity available for carbon from fossil fuel-fired power plants or from “direct air capture” technologies that would remove ambient CO2 but don’t currently exist at a commercial level

“Even the advocates of direct air capture technology acknowledge that they don’t anticipate that it would be at a scale to make any meaningful reduction in atmospheric CO2 levels until 2060, 2070 and beyond,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the environmental law nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law. “When we’re dealing with a world where we need to cut emissions in the next decade, direct air capture just has no meaningful place in that conversation.”

Instead, the proposed CO2 pipeline network would be used to offer a lifeline to existing fossil fuel power plants. In Appalachia, for example, 90 percent of the carbon emissions the plan seeks to capture would come from existing coal-fired power plants in the Ohio River Valley. Those plants, none of which are currently outfitted with the costly upgrades needed for capture carbon, are already facing difficult questions about their ability to compete economically with wind and solar energy.

Nonetheless, momentum behind the project appears to have been gathering behind the scenes in Washington, D.C., particularly inside the Department of Energy (DOE).

“It’s a great pleasure to have our first kind of public interaction with our good friend, Dave Turk,” Moniz said of Biden’s Deputy Secretary of Energy at the blueprint’s online launch on July 1.

“It’s incredible the volume and quality of the thought-leadership that you all are behind,” Turk, who is second in command to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, told Moniz. “And I think the report that you all have put together is incredibly helpful to show that we need to do more from the DOE side, other agencies, and Congress,” he added, describing the blueprint as “actionable.”

Why Elon Musk Won't Save Us

Fighting fossil fascism for an eco-communist future

By The Zetkin Collective and Kai Heron - ROAR Mag, July 15, 2021

The West Coast of North America is, once again, on fire. Last month, Phoenix, Arizona, recorded temperatures of 46 degrees Celcius five days in a row. A new record. Every afternoon, the surface temperature of concrete and tarmac climbed to 82 degrees Celsius — hot enough to cause third-degree burns. In California and Texas, where temperatures were marginally lower, energy grid operators feared a prolonged heat wave would wreak havoc on energy infrastructure, forcing a repeat of last years’ rolling blackouts. For many dependent on air conditioning to stay cool in the sweltering heat, this would cause health complications or even death.

North America’s ongoing heatwave follows months of dry weather across the West Coast that have established the conditions for a summer of unprecedented water shortages, crop failures and wildfires. California and Arizona’s wildfire season started unusually early. One of Arizona’s first fires roared for four days, incinerating 27 square miles of countryside and forcing the evacuation of two townships. As this interview is prepared for publication, more than 60 wildfires are raging across the West Coast, some two times the size of Portland. As has become commonplace in the US, state officials are sending prisoners in to tackle the flames, paying them as little as $1.50 an hour.

Already this year Pakistan and Northern India have been wracked by temperatures reaching 52 degrees Celsius. While the small town of Lytton, 124 miles outside Vancouver, hit 49.6 degrees Celsius, the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. Meanwhile, Brazil has suffered under its worst drought in 100 years, sending food prices spiraling upwards. At these extremes, life as normal is suspended. People die. Ecosystems collapse. And out of the disarray, reactionary social forces make their move.

Through a toxic combination of long-established anti-immigrant and racializing tropes and a regressive denialist climate agenda, far-right parties and social movements are exercising increased influence across Europe and the Americas. The Zetkin Collective’s White Skin, Black Fuel: The Danger of Fossil Fascism charts the rise of these movements and ideas and, with an eye to the horizon, forecasts the emergence of “fossil fascism.”

Zetkin Collective member Andreas Malm’s most recent individually authored works How to Blow up a Pipeline and Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, were rapidly-written conjunctural analyses of our intersecting ecological, epidemiological and political predicaments. Both books sought to drive a red-and-green wedge into conversations about capitalism’s breathless trajectory towards ecological collapse and the limits of prevailing strategies among elements of the capitalist core’s climate movements.

While none of the urgency of these works is lost in White Skin, Black Fuel, it drops into the background as a richly detailed analysis of the interrelations of racial capitalism, fossil fuel extraction, nationalism and climate breakdown takes precedence. The book is an example of engaged scholarly research at its best. A clarion call to movements and a forceful reminder of the reactionary forces that are stacked against us as we fight to realize an eco-communist future.

In this interview Kai Heron speaks to Zetkin Collective members Andreas Malm, Laudy van den Heuvel and Ståle Holgersen about the Collective’s writing process, climate denial and resistance to fossil fascism.

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