You are here

mine workers

Fighting for Coal Country

By Staff - United Mine Workers of America, June 1, 2021

Clearly, the UMWA's positions on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and so-called "clean coal" stand in contrast (and, for the most part, opposition) with the entirety of the climate justice movement, ecosocialists, green syndicalists, and a good deal of rank-and-file union members not involved in resource extraction (including the more than 60-70% who support something like the Green New Deal). That said, at least the UMWA finally accepts that coal is a dying industry and a just transition is needed. Therefore, this is presented to show where the UMWA stands, not as an endorsement of their positions.

At the end of 2011, there were nearly 92,000 people working in the American coal industry, the most since 1997. Coal production in the United State topped a billion tons for the 21st consecutive year. Both thermal and metallurgical coal were selling at premium prices and companies were making large profits.

Then the bottom fell out. Over the next 4 years, coal prices cratered, especially in metallurgical coal but also in thermal coal. The global economy slowed, putting pressure on steelmaking and metallurgical coal production. Foreign competition from China, Australia, India and elsewhere cut into met coal production.

Domestically, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of shale formations opened up previously untapped natural gas fields, caused the price of gas to drop below that of coal for the first time in years. Utilities began switching the fuel they used to generate electricity from coal to gas. Environmental regulations coming from the Obama administration also impacted coal employment. By 2016, just 51,800 people were working in the coal industry. 41,000 jobs had been lost.

Companies went bankrupt. Retirees’ hard-won retiree health care and pensions were threatened. Active miners saw their contracts, including provisions that had been negotiated over decades, thrown out by federal bankruptcy courts. From 2012 to today, more than 60 coal companies have filed for either Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy or Chapter 7 liquidation. Almost no company has been immune.

“Just since 2015 we have had companies like Peabody, Arch, Alpha Natural Resources, Walter Energy, Westmoreland and Murray Energy all go bankrupt,” President Roberts said. “Patriot Coal went bankrupt twice. Retirees’ health care was on the brink, but we were successful in preserving that in 2017. The 1974 Pension Fund was on the path to insolvency, but we were able to save that in 2019.

“Even though our contracts were thrown out by bankruptcy judges at company after company, we were successful in preserving union recognition, our members’ jobs and reasonable levels of pay and benefits at every company as they emerged from bankruptcy,” Roberts said. “But in no case has the contract that came out of bankruptcy been the same as the one our members enjoyed when a company went into bankruptcy. This has been extremely painful all the way around.”

Can Carbon Capture Save Our Climate— and Our Jobs?

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, June 2021

As storms, heat waves, fires, floods, and other devastating effects of global warming have grown, more and more people have become convinced of the need to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted into the atmosphere. The Paris Agreement defined the goal of limiting global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. At the April Climate Summit President Joe Biden announced the U.S. will target reducing emissions by 50-52 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050. These goals indicate what the consensus of climate scientists says is necessary to ward off the most destructive possible effects of climate change. The question remains how to realize them.

There are two well established and proven means to reduce GHG emissions. The first is to replace the burning of fossil fuels with renewable energy from solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal sources. The other is to reduce the amount of energy we need through a myriad proven means ranging from switching from gasoline to electric vehicles to insulating houses. Numerous studies and thousands of implementations lay out the scientific and economic effectiveness of protecting the climate by reducing fossil fuel emissions.

There is a third means that is being promoted: continue burning fossil fuels but capture carbon–the principal greenhouse gas–either in the smokestack or by sucking it out of the air after it has been released. Various techniques for doing this have been developed with various names–carbon capture and storage (CCS), carbon capture and utilization (CCU), bioenergy with CCS (BECCS), and direct air capture with CCS (DACCS). We will refer to them together as “carbon capture.”

There is a debate in the climate and labor movements about the use of carbon capture as a climate solution. Some maintain that carbon capture is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They argue as well that it can be a way to save the jobs of coal miners and fossil-fuel power plant workers and provide power needed for industry while still protecting the climate and that it will create large numbers of jobs. Others say that carbon capture is unproven, costly, problematic for health and the environment, more productive of jobs, and ineffective for climate protection. They argue that renewable energy and energy efficiency are superior both for climate and for workers and communities. They maintain that a transition to fossil-free energy is already underway and that organized labor and the climate movement should take the lead in ensuring that transition benefits rather than harms workers.

Read the text (PDF).

The plan to turn coal country into a rare earth powerhouse

By Maddie Stone - Grist, May 26, 2021

At an abandoned coal mine just outside the city of Gillette, Wyoming, construction crews are getting ready to break ground on a 10,000-square-foot building that will house state-of-the-art laboratories and manufacturing plants. Among the projects at the facility, known as the Wyoming Innovation Center, will be a pilot plant that aims to takes coal ash — the sooty, toxic waste left behind after coal is burned for energy — and use it to extract rare earths, elements that play an essential role in everything from cell phones and LED screens to wind turbines and electric cars. 

The pilot plant in Wyoming is a critical pillar of an emerging effort led by the Department of Energy, or DOE, to convert the toxic legacy of coal mining in the United States into something of value. Similar pilot plants and research projects are also underway in states including West Virginia, North Dakota, Utah, and Kentucky. If these projects are successful, the Biden administration hopes that places like Gillette will go from being the powerhouses of the fossil fuel era to the foundation of a new domestic supply chain that will build tomorrow’s energy systems.

In an April report on revitalizing fossil fuel communities, administration officials wrote that coal country is “well-positioned” to become a leader in harvesting critical materials from the waste left behind by coal mining and coal power generation. Several days later, the DOE awarded a total of $19 million to 13 different research groups that plan to assess exactly how much rare earth material is contained in coal and coal waste, as well as explore ways to extract it. 

“We have these resources that are otherwise a problem,” said Sarma Pisupati, the director of the Center for Critical Minerals at Penn State University and one of the grant recipients. “We can use those resources to extract valuable minerals for our independence.”

Those minerals would come at a critical moment. The rare earth elements neodymium and dysprosium, in particular, are essential to the powerful magnets used in offshore wind turbines and electric vehicle motors. A recent report by the International Energy Agency projected that by 2040, the clean energy sector’s demand for these minerals could be three to seven times greater than it is today. 

Jobs and equitable transition: Bridging the chasm between rhetoric and action

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 26, 2021

There was a time when the sight of rows of office workers hammering away at their Friden adding machines would have sent me into paroxysms of delight because I, the Victor Comptometer salesman, had a new and better “programmable calculator” that could kick the Friden’s ass.

I was a young 1970s college graduate entering the workforce at the tail end of the era of mechanical business automation. Typewriters, adding machines, and mechanical cash registers were still the workhorses of stores and offices.

Behind all that machinery were companies – Burroughs, Monroe, Friden, Victor – whose names were as familiar then as Cisco, Oracle, and SAP are today. And those companies supported factories, sales offices, and repair facilities that provided living wage jobs to hundreds of thousands of workers and their families.

Then, within a little more than a decade, it was all gone. A year after I fizzled as a Victor salesman, I was playing at home with my new Radio Shack TRS-80 home computer and five years later, instead of an adding machine and typewriter on my desk at work, there sat an Apple II desktop computer, precursor to the Mac.

Gone too were those hundreds of thousands of jobs plunging not only workers and families, but entire communities, into financial crisis. One could argue that Dayton, Ohio, once home to National Cash Register and the business forms giant, Standard Register, never recovered.

The knock-out blow suffered by the office automation industry was as ferocious and sudden as the one that hit the American steel industry a few years earlier, the textile industry a few decades before that, and also as the one that possibly faces workers in the fossil fuel economy today.

So how did we as a society help displaced workers and communities manage the economic consequences of the transition from the mechanical workplace to a digital one? We didn’t. Thanks to the New Deal, we had unemployment insurance and Medicare and Medicaid were brand spanking new. But that was about it – a little help for individuals and families and none whatsoever for communities.

“What’s the alternative?”: Answering the hardest question asked by workers and communities that feel threatened by energy transition

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 18, 2021

At ORVI, we’ve documented the inability of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries to serve as engines for job growth and prosperity in Appalachia. Although these findings may be greeted with doubt, disbelief, and sometimes anger, we find that, once the numbers sink in and people in the mining and fracking regions of Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley look around at their communities — the struggling downtowns, declining populations, and the departures of their sons and daughters to places far away in search of opportunity — reality usually takes hold.

It can be a profoundly sad moment. But, for local leaders who may have invested years promoting these industries as economic saviors, the realization can be bitter and give rise to a question that is equal parts a challenge and a plea — What’s the alternative?

When you’re on the receiving end of that question, you feel its weight. And, if you don’t have an answer, you can feel that you’re stealing someone’s — maybe an entire community’s — hope and you’re leaving them with nothing.

Conservative Talking Heads Love Coal Miners—Until They Go on Strike

By Jacob Morrison - Jacobin and Labor Notes[1], May 17, 2021

A supposed defense of coal miners, their families, their way of life, and their culture has been front and center of the Republican agenda ever since the push for decarbonization began. It was a key part of the Right’s pushback against Obama and his “war on coal.” Hillary Clinton faced tremendous pushback for her awful statement on the 2016 campaign trail that she was going to “put a lot of coal miners out of business.”[1] In contrast, Trump said, “we’re going to put these coal miners back to work,” even bizarrely donning a hard hat in coal country at one point.

Many leftists have long argued that this faux-populist rhetoric was empty. Of course this advocacy ostensibly on behalf of coal miners was really only ever meant to help coal bosses.

Miners Walk Out

The last seven weeks confirms it: Republicans’ rhetoric is all a ruse. Why? Because since April 1, eleven hundred coal miners at Warrior Met coal mine have been on strike — first over unfair labor practices, then for a fair contract.

These miners have sacrificed for the company to bring it into solvency following a bankruptcy in 2015, when they accepted a contract with major concessions including a $6/hour pay cut, frequent seven-day workweeks, a loss of their guaranteed paid lunch break, and overtime compensation. They did their part, and now the company is solvent. In fact, two of the last five years saw record-breaking coal production, and the company’s CEO now has a record-breaking annual compensation of $4 million. But Warrior Met Coal did not hold up their end of the bargain.

First, they negotiated in such bad faith without any concrete proposals that workers were forced to go on an unfair labor practices strike. This forced the company to the table, but with an offer that workers found insulting, including up to $1.50/hour raise over five years.

The workers rejected this offer overwhelmingly, with an overwhelming majority of the miners voting against its ratification and opting to continue the strike.

To add insult to injury, while they were on strike, the company filed a complaint against the workers in an attempt to suppress their speech by limiting their ability to picket. The courts, as they have so often throughout American labor history, gladly cooperated, first limiting picket lines to six people per entrance, and then allowing the union a whole ten people per entrance. All the while, the miners have faced intimidation from the cops, who falsely tell them they are not allowed to walk on their picket lines. Meanwhile, the company buses in scabs to undercut them.

Utility Workers Union and UCS estimate costs to transition U.S. coal miners and power plant workers in joint report

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 12, 2021

Hard on the heels of the April statement by the United Mine Workers Union, Preserving Coal Country: Keeping America’s coal miners, families and communities whole in an era of global energy transition, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) jointly released a report with the Union of Concerned Scientists on May 4: Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape. This report is described as “a call to action for thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support for coal-dependent workers and communities across the nation.” The report estimates that in 2019, there were 52,804 workers in coal mining and 37,071 people employed at coal-fired power plants – and that eventually all will lose their jobs as coal gives way to cleaner energy sources. Like the United Mine Workers, the report acknowledges that the energy shift is already underway, and “rather than offer false hope for reinvigorated coal markets, we must acknowledge that thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support are critical to honoring the workers and communities that have sacrificed so much to build this country.”

Specifically, the report calls for a minimum level of support for workers of five years of wage replacement, health coverage, continued employer contributions to retirement funds or pension plans, and tuition and job placement assistance. The cost estimates of such supports are pegged at $33 billion over 25 years and $83 billion over 15 years —and do not factor in additional costs such as health benefits for workers suffering black lung disease, or mine clean-up costs. The report states: “we must ensure that coal companies and utilities are held liable for the costs to the greatest extent possible before saddling taxpayers with the bill.” Neither do the cost estimates include the recognized needs for community supports such as programs to diversify the economies, or support to ensure that essential services such as fire, police and education are supported, despite the diminished tax base. 

The report points to the precedents set by Canada’s Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities ( 2018), the German Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment (2019), as well as the New Mexico Energy Transition Act 2019 and the Colorado Just Transition Action Plan in 2020. The 12-page report, Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape was accompanied by a Technical Report, and summarized in a UCS Blog which highlights the situation in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. A 2018 report from UCS Soot to Solar also examined Illinois.

Suds and Socialism Forum: Workers and the Environment

Calls for sustainable and responsible mining for the clean energy transition

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 6, 2021

An important Special Report by the International Energy Association was released in May: The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. Reflecting a mainstream view of the importance of the raw materials for clean technologies such as electric vehicles and energy storage, the IEA provides “ a wealth of detail on mineral demand prospects under different technology and policy assumptions” , and discusses the various countries which offer supply – including Canada. The main discussion is of policies regarding supply chains, especially concerning responsible and sustainable mining, concluding with six key recommendations, including co-ordination of the many international frameworks and initiatives in the area. The report briefly recognizes the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) protocols as internationally significant, and as one of the first to require on-site verification of its standards. The Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative was established in 2004, requiring member companies to “demonstrate leadership by reporting and independently verifying their performance in key environmental and social areas such as aboriginal and community engagement, biodiversity conservation, climate change, tailings management.”

On May 5, the Mining Association of Canada updated one of its TSM protocols with the release a new Climate Change Protocol, a major update to its 2013 Energy Use and GHG Emissions Management Protocol. It is designed “to minimize the mining sector’s carbon footprint, while enhancing climate change disclosure and strengthening the sector’s ability to adapt to climate change.” The Protocol is accompanied by a new Guide on Climate Change Adaptation for the Mining Sector, intended for mine owners in Canada, but with global application. The Guide includes case studies of such mines as the Glencore Nickel mine in Sudbury, the notorious Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories, and the Suncor Millennium tailings pond remediation at its oil sands mine in Alberta. The membership of MAC is a who’s who of Canadian mining and oil sands companies / – including well-known companies such as ArcelorMittal, Barrick Gold, Glencore, Kinross, Rio Tinto, Suncor, and Syncrude. Other documentation, including other Frameworks and progress reports, are compiled at a dedicated Climate Change Initiatives and Innovations in the Mining Industry website.

The demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and the other rare earth minerals needed for technological innovation has been embraced, not only by the mining industry, but in policy discussions – recently, by Clean Energy Canada in its March 2021 report, The Next Frontier. The federal ministry of Natural Resources Canada is also supportive, maintaining a Green Mining Innovation Initiative through CanmetMINING , and the government joined the U.S.-led Energy Resource Governance Initiative (ERGI) in 2019 to promote “secure and resilient supply chains for critical energy minerals.”

Alternative points of view have been pointing out the dangers inherent in the new “gold rush” mentality, since at least 2016 when Amnesty International released its 2016 expose of the use of child labour in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most recently, in February 2021, Amnesty released Powering Change: Principles for Businesses and Governments in the Battery Value Chain, which sets out specific principles that governments and businesses should follow to avoid human rights abuses and environmental harm. Other examples: MiningWatch Canada has posted their April 2021 webinar Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?, which states: “The mining sector is working hard to take advantage of the climate crisis, painting mining as “green” because it supplies materials needed to support the “green” energy transition. But unless demand for both energy and materials are curtailed, environmental destruction and social conflicts will also continue to grow.” MiningWatch Canada published Turning Down the Heat: Can We Mine Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis? in 2020, reporting on a 2019 international conference which focused on the experience of frontline communities. Internationally, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre maintains a Transition Minerals tracker, with ongoing data and reports concerning human and labour rights in the mining of “transition minerals”, and also compiles links to recent reports and articles. Two recent reports in 2021: Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries (March 2021, Earthworks) and A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals from the U.K. organization War on Want.

Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape

By Staff - Utility Workers of America (UWUA) and Union of Concerned Scientists, May 4, 2021

The shift to a low-carbon economy has proceeded largely without thoughtful plans or preparation for the workers and communities that have sustained the US economy for more than a century. The economic upheaval resulting from the dramatic job losses in the coal industry over the last decade has uprooted families, deepened economic anxiety, and left community leaders scrambling to keep schools open and social services in place. And the trend is set to continue: many more coal workers and communities are facing the same fate without intentional policies to address these changes.

As part of this shift, the nation must support coal workers in finding new career paths and help coal communities recover from the economic losses stemming from coal’s decline (see box). This will require long-term individual supports and benefits, long-term investments in community infrastructure, empowering local leadership to drive place-based solutions, and ensuring that the legacy of coal mines and coal-fired power plants is fully remediated. These elements are critical to a fair, just, and equitable move to low-carbon energy; are urgently needed; and must be sustained over time.

Ultimately, broader changes to our energy systems will impact a larger swath of fossil fuel–dependent workers and communities as we drive toward decarbonizing the economy by 2050. This policy brief focuses on coal-dependent workers because they have faced economic disruption over the past decade and are imminently threatened by the shift to lowcarbon energy in the near term.

But fortunately, there are solutions. New analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Utility Workers Union of America finds both that it is possible to support coal workers in the transition and that these comprehensive policies are affordable. Indeed, relative to the federal response to the Great Recession in 2008–2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–2021, as well as the scale of investments needed to decarbonize our economy by 2050, investing in the nation’s coal workers comes with a relatively small price tag. Approximately 89,875 coal workers were employed in the United States in 2019. The cost of providing a comprehensive set of supports to the portion of these workers who will face job losses before reaching retirement age represents a tiny fraction of the estimated $2.5 trillion in additional capital investments in all energy sectors by 2030 that would be needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 (Larson et al. 2020). We estimate that the cost of these supports will range from $33 billion over 25 years to $83 billion over 15 years.

Read the text (Link).

Pages

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.