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United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)

The Coal Industry is a Job Killer

By Basav Sen - CounterPunch, April 28, 2017

When Donald Trump announced he was rolling back the Obama administration’s signature climate rules this spring, he invited coal miners to share the limelight with him. He promised this would end the so-called “war on coal” and bring mining jobs back to coal country.

He was dead wrong on both counts.

Trump has blamed the prior administration’s Clean Power Plan for the loss of coal jobs. But there’s an obvious problem with this claim: The plan hasn’t even gone into effect! Repealing it will do nothing to reverse the worldwide economic and technological forces driving the decline of the coal industry.

And the problem is global. As concern rises over carbon dioxide, more and more countries are turning away from coal. U.S. coal exports are down, and coal plant construction is slowing the world over — even as renewables become cheaper and more widespread.

To really bring back coal jobs, Trump would have to wish these trends away — along with technological automation and natural gas, which have taken a much bigger bite out of coal jobs than any regulation.

Could domestic regulation have played some role in the decline of coal? Sure, some. Rules limiting emissions of mercury and other pollutants from burning coal, and limiting the ability of coal-burning utilities to dump toxic coal ash in rivers and streams, likely put some financial pressure on coal power plants.

However, those costs should be weighed against the profound health benefits of cleaner air and water.

Cleaning up coal power plants (and reducing their number) leads to fewer children with asthma, fewer costly emergency room visits, and fewer costly disaster responses when massive amounts of toxic coal ash leach into drinking water sources, to name just a few benefits. Most reasonable people would agree those aren’t small things.

There’s also the fact that the decline in coal jobs, while painful for those who rely on them, tells only a small part of the story. In fact, there are alternatives that could put hundreds of thousands of people back to work.

Here are a few little-known facts: Coal accounts for about 26 percent of the electricity generating capacity in our country — and about 160,000 jobs. Solar energy accounts for just 2 percent of our power generation — and 374,000 jobs.

In other words, solar has created more than twice as many jobs as coal, with only a sliver of the electric grid. So if the intent truly is to create more jobs, where would a rational government focus its efforts?

It’s not just solar, either. The fastest growing occupation in the U.S. is wind turbine technician. And a typical wind turbine technician makes $25.50 an hour, more than many fossil fuel workers.

By rolling back commonsense environmental restraints on the coal industry, Trump is allowing the industry to externalize its terrible social and environmental costs on all of us, giving the industry a hidden subsidy. He’s also reopening federal lands to new coal leases, at rates that typically run well below actual market value.

By subsidizing a less-job intensive and more established industry, Trump’s misguided policy changes will thwart the growth of the emerging solar and wind industries, which could create many, many more jobs than coal. In fact, hurting these industries by helping coal might even result in a net job loss for everyone.

Then again, maybe this was never about jobs. Maybe the administration’s intent all along was to reward well-connected coal (and oil and gas) oligarchs who make hefty campaign contributions. If so, that was a good investment for them.

For ordinary working people — and for our planet — the cost could be too much to bear.

Coal Miners Deserve Better

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, April 24, 2017

In 1989, Pittston Coal (present day Alpha Natural Resources), eliminated the healthcare benefits of all it’s pensioners. This included retirees, disabled miners, and widows. It led to the last major UMWA strike centered in southwestern Virginia, just across the mountain from Eastern Kentucky. 1,400 miners walked off the job, sacrificing their paychecks to restore those benefits to men and women whose lives were given to coal mining.

The old cliche “As much as things change, they stay the same” couldn’t be truer this day in time.

Not only has the coal industry taken away the health benefits for pensioners again, thousands of miners who retired from union mines are facing the possibility of losing their health benefits and pensions. The reasons are many, and there are a lot of fingers being pointed right now. Some want to blame the United Mine Workers for poor fund management, others want to blame the coal companies for busting the unions and eliminating future income into those plans, and a few (including myself) are casting some blame towards the for-profit healthcare industry that’s gone overboard with unnecessary tests and hospital stays to increase their financial gain. In my opinion, it’s all of it, but in the end it doesn’t matter who is to blame. Everyone who has screwed this up has more money than any coal miner will ever see in their lifetime. Why should the coal miners be the ones to suffer the results?

The burden of fixing these problems now falls on the nation who has benefited from the cheap energy and steel that Appalachia has produced. It rests with people waking up to the facts and realizing that coal companies will continually work through corrupt politics to get out of their obligations to their workers.

People deserve better than what the coal companies will ever give them, they deserve some comfort and rest after pulling their time in the mines. Every coal miner should walk off the job tomorrow and not let another ounce of coal make it to market until our fathers and grandfathers are taken care of, until every miner from here on out has guaranteed healthcare, pensions, the right to stop work if things become unsafe, and the guarantee of a healthy severance package the next time a coal company pulls up stakes to save their own wealthy hind-ends.

Actually, everyone in this nation should be raising hell with their politicians. This latest chapter of screwing some of America’s hardest working people should send shock waves through the national consciousness and have everyone up in arms, or at least looking at the voting records of their politicians and jerking the ones out who don’t actually support the working people. Last I checked, there’s way more working people suffering than rich folks. People should be standing up for what’s right and just when it comes to labor and worker safety. Politicians are supposed to serve all the people, not just the ones who line their pockets.

Can Coal Make a Comeback?

By Trevor Houser, Jason Bordoff, and Peter Marsters - Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, School of International and Public Affairs, and the Rhodium Group, April 2017

From the introduction: Six years ago, the US coal industry was thriving, with demand recovering from the Great Recession, and global coal prices at record highs along with the stock prices of US coal companies. By the end of 2015, however, the industry had collapsed, with three of the four largest US miners filing for bankruptcy along with many other smaller companies. While coal mining employment has been on the decline for decades – from a peak of more than 800,000 in the 1920s to 130,000 in 2011 – the pace of job loss over the past six years has been particularly dramatic. After campaigning on a promise to end what he called his predecessor’s “War on Coal,” President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order in March 2017 ordering agencies to review or rescind a raft of Obama-era environmental regulations, telling coal miners they would be “going back to work.”

This paper offers an empirical diagnosis of what caused the coal collapse, and then examines the prospects for a recovery of US coal production and employment by modeling the impact of President Trump’s executive order and assessing the global coal market outlook. In short, the paper finds:

  • US electricity demand contracted in the wake of the Great Recession, and has yet to recover due to energy efficiency improvements in buildings, lighting and appliances. A surge in US natural gas production due to the shale revolution has driven down prices and made coal increasingly uncompetitive in US electricity markets. Coal has also faced growing competition from renewable energy, with solar costs falling 85 percent between 2008 and 2016 and wind costs falling 36 percent.
  • Increased competition from cheap natural gas is responsible for 49 percent of the decline in domestic US coal consumption. Lower-than-expected demand is responsible for 26 percent, and the growth in renewable energy is responsible for 18 percent. Environmental regulations have played a role in the switch from coal to natural gas and renewables in US electricity supply by accelerating coal plant retirements, but were a significantly smaller factor than recent natural gas and renewable energy cost reductions.
  • Changes in the global coal market have played a far greater role in the collapse of the US coal industry than is generally understood. A slow-down in Chinese coal demand, especially for metallurgical coal, depressed coal prices around the world and reduced the market for US exports. More than half of the decline in US coal company revenue between 2011 and 2015 was due to international factors.
  • Implementing all the actions in President Trump’s executive order to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations could stem the recent decline in US coal consumption, but only if natural gas prices increase going forward. If natural gas prices remain at or near current levels or renewable costs fall more quickly than expected, US coal consumption will continue its decline despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama-era regulations.
  • While global coal markets have recovered slightly over the past few months due to supply restrictions in China and flooding in Australia, we expect this rally to be short-lived. Slower economic growth and structural adjustment in China will continue to put downward pressure on global coal prices and limit the market opportunities for US exports. Indian coal demand will likely grow in the years ahead, but not enough to make up for the slow-down in China. The same is true for other emerging economies, many of whom are negatively impacted by decelerating Chinese commodities demand themselves.
  • Under the best case scenario for US coal producers, our modeling projects a modest recovery to 2013 levels of just under 1 billion tons a year. Under the worst case scenario, output falls to 600 million tons a year. A plausible range of US coal mining employment in these scenarios ranges from 70,000 to 90,000 in 2020, and 64,000 to 94,000 in 2025 and 2030 -- lower than anything the US experienced before 2015.

These findings indicate that President Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations will not materially improve economic conditions in America’s coal communities. As such, the paper concludes with recommendations for steps that the federal government can take to safeguard the pension and health security of current and retired miners and dependents and support economic diversification. Attracting new sources of economic activity and job creation will not be easy, and even at its most successful will not return coal country to peak levels of past prosperity.

But responsible policymakers should be honest about what’s going on in the US coal sector—including the causes of coal’s decline and unlikeliness of its resurgence—rather than offer false hope that the glory days can be revived. And then support those in America’s coal communities working hard to build a new economic future.

Read the text (PDF).

Coal miner retirees demand pension and health coverage

By Marg Ogolini - Socialist Action, September 10, 2016

Thousands of retired miners and supporters converged on Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8 to demand government action to shore up retiree pension and health care benefits. These benefits have been under a constant barrage of attacks from coal companies, which are determined to shed themselves of responsibility for the health and security of both union and non-union miners and retirees.

Retirees and their dependents also want assurance that existing health benefits and pensions will remain in place. The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) says the health and future of 120,000 retired miners and their families are at stake.

UMWA reports that their members traveled in more than 120 buses to the protest—from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Under the impact of the coal company assault over many years, gains in retiree health care and pensions that were won in past union battles have been eroding. Current laws under attack by coal companies provide some guarantees for lifetime care for mine workers. These were largely won in 1946 from militant strikes that involved over 400,000 union miners.

During 1945 and 1946, a strike wave that spread throughout the country also involved other industries—including railroad, auto, and steel. President Truman assisted the coal companies’ strike-breaking strategy by attempting to force arbitration, and eventually by threatening the UMWA with a $3.5 million fine. However, the eventual settlement included some gains for the miners, including safer working conditions and a “promise” of health benefits and retirement pension “from cradle to grave.”

One D.C. protester was Bill Musgrave, a retired miner from Boonville, Ind., and UMWA Local 1196. Musgrave, who has been diagnosed with cancer, told the Evansville Courier: “It took me a while to [find out you have to] fight as hard to keep something as you did to get it initially. … Unfortunately the government has decided to back out of the obligation they made to the mineworkers in 1946. … Seems like the government, they have the money to bail out the bankers and the corporations, and we’re not even asking for a bailout.”

A married couple attending the protest described the need for additional medical coverage given out of pocket family medical costs of over $13,000 per month. Cindy Scherzinger told the Courier: “You go to union meetings, and it looks like a retirement home. Everyone there has their own set of problems.”

Coal companies, especially those with union-organized mines, have been declaring bankruptcies, and pressing courts to allow them to evade pension and health-care obligations to their workers. One of most recent examples was Patriot Coal, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy that closed down via bankruptcy last year.

The attack on retirees is part of a broader attack against all union miners. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 2014 nearly 191,000 coal-mining jobs have been lost. Many mines that have not closed down suffer large-scale layoffs and dismissals. Workers are being thrown out on the street, and those who remain face ever increasing forced overtime hours, and steadily degrading and unsafe working conditions.

This trend will likely continue as capitalist owners are always finding new ways to expand their profits, and as they have demonstrated, will close mines in a heartbeat as they see new and greater opportunities for profit elsewhere.

Coal companies are also under pressure as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels, an absolute necessity to address the urgent problem of global warming. And it has long been well known that generating energy with fossil fuels is also devastating to the health of mine workers, who for years have been victims of black lung disease, and other chronic illnesses specific to work in mines.

Power Failure: Appalachia Plans for Life Beyond Coal

By Keith Griffith - Equal Voice News, May 3, 2016

Harlan County, Kentucky -- On his first shift in the coal mine, Brandon Farley closed his eyes to steady his nerves as the powered cart he was riding disappeared into the mountainside. A third-generation coal miner in this Appalachian corner of Eastern Kentucky, Farley began working in the mines right out of high school and kept at it for 15 years, until he was laid off in late February.

Farley, now 32 and a married father of two, worked his way up in the Appalachian coal mines to a job as an underground electrician, running the high voltage cables that power heavy, specialized equipment at the mining face. Mining is the only work he knows.

In 2010, Farley was working at the Abner Branch mine when the roof collapsed, killing his friend Travis Brock, who was 29. Farley escaped serious injury in his own years as a miner, but his hands bear a miscellany of scars from minor accidents. 

"The juice is worth the squeeze," he says, glancing at his palms with a chuckle. "I never did look at the dangers as much as I did the money."

The money, for a while, was very good. Farley was making $25 an hour in the mines. With plenty of overtime -- Farley often worked 60-hour weeks -- experienced miners like him routinely made $80,000 to $100,000 a year. In Harlan County, which has about 28,000 residents, the median household income is $25,000.

Over 50 years ago, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson toured Appalachia to kick off his "War on Poverty." Harlan County's poverty rate, which tracks roughly with the region's, was then 55 percent. It remains more than double the national average, at 32 percent, although those numbers typically don't account for government transfer payments, such as Social Security, safety net and veterans' benefits. (In 2014, Eastern Kentucky received $13.4 billion in government entitlements, making up more than a third of the region's income.)

Though it's long been a region of economic hardship, Appalachian Kentucky now faces a crisis of alarming proportions. Since the end of 2008, the region has lost more than 10,000 coal mining jobs, a decline of more than two-thirds. Kentucky's coal production is now at its lowest level since 1954, according to the state government. Other coal mining regions have been hit by the national decline in coal production, but none as hard as this one.

Locally, the collapse of coal is often blamed on President Barack Obama and environmental safeguards, which some residents say are needed to protect water, air and families. "This all began when Obama started his 'war on coal' -- and he did," says Farley, the laid-off miner. "If they are gonna do away with coal, why not put

Experts believe that the coal industry's decline in Kentucky has more to do with the abundance of cheap natural gas and drastically cheaper coal from surface mines in Wyoming. Regardless, there is a growing sense in Harlan County that coal isn't coming back.

After his latest layoff, Farley is now reluctantly looking for other kinds of work. "That's all we ever done is mine coal, though," he says. "It's the best job I ever had."

Farley finds the prospect of taking a significantly lower-paying job unpalatable, though even finding one is a challenge. After getting career counseling from the Harlan County Community Action Agency, Farley applied for work with railroad shipper CSX. But coal makes up the bulk of CSX's shipping business, and the company announced new rounds of layoffs the week that Farley applied.

"It's strange to hear the lonesome horn of a train anymore," says HCCAA Executive Director Donna Pace. "Used to be, that's all you heard."

EcoUnionist News #79: Don Blankenship found guilty! ... sort of ... well, not really...

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, December 8, 2015

On December 3, 2015, the New York Times Reported:

Donald L. Blankenship, whose leadership of the Massey Energy Company was widely criticized after 29 workers were killed in the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010, was convicted Thursday of conspiring to violate federal safety standards, becoming the most prominent American coal executive ever convicted of a crime related to mining deaths.

But in a substantial defeat for the Justice Department, the verdict, announced in Federal District Court here, exonerated Mr. Blankenship, Massey’s former chief executive, of three felony charges that could have led to a prison term of 30 years. Instead, after a long and complex trial that began on Oct. 1, jurors convicted Mr. Blankenship only of a single misdemeanor charge that carried a maximum of a year in prison.

Far from a victory, this case, once again, represents an example of the "presumed innocence of capitalism". The death of these 29 workers and the destruction to the environment of Appalachia (and elsewhere) is considered "part of the cost of doing business" in which private capitalists appropriate the wealth extracted from the Earth by the working class. The costs of that appropriation are outsourced to the Earth and the working classes, and if workers die in the process and communities have to suffer the consequences, such things are dismissed as "externalities". That Blankenship was convicted of minor charges at all is simply a result of him being just a bit too arrogant in the process (the capitalist class knows full well that if a few of the more roguish elements among their class push the envelope it could stoke the fires of resistance among the non-capitalist class, and so token laws are passed to provide the illusion of law and order and to pacify those that are exploited).  

The reaction among workers, their families, and environmentalists who haven't given into the typical "hopium" of inside-the-beltway NGO compromise is one of anger and frustration, but the results are what they more-or-less expected.

A measure of justice has been served through the conviction of Don Blankenship on federal charges of conspiring to violate mine safety standards. The truth that was common knowledge in the coalfields – that Don Blankenship cared little for the safety and health of miners working for his company and even less for the laws enforcing their rights – has finally been proven in court.

This decision will not bring back the 52 people killed on Massey Energy property during Blankenship’s reign as the head of that company, including the 29 killed at the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010. Their families still must live without their loved ones, holding their grief in their hearts the rest of their lives.

But a message has gone out today to every coal operator in America who is willing to skirt mine safety and health laws: you do so at your own personal risk. I thank the jury for having the courage to send this message and establish a clear deterrent to this kind of activity. Hopefully that deterrent will keep more miners alive and intact in the years to come.”

--Official UMWA statement on the verdict, December 3, 2015

No, justice was not served today. I don't care how many press releases I see...Unfortunately, this was about 29 people who are dead because the law was not followed. MTR has killed many more, but never came up in the trial. Blankenship has pocketed billions of dollars by breaking unions, violating environmental and health laws, buying judges and punching reporters. He will serve at most 12 months, probably less. He is tough and can do his time standing on his head, and fly to Monaco with his girlfriend when he gets out. Calling this justice is a disservice to the families of those who are in their graves because of this man...The problem is that the punishment for evading safety laws should be more severe than the punishment for lying to your shareholders. I fully expect that a wrongful death civil lawsuit will follow this. I do expect that he will serve some time. But I am very disappointed in how this is playing out, and how some groups are spinning this as justice. Would they come here to the Coal River and say that to the families?

--Earth First! co-founder Mike Roselle on the "conviction" of Don Blankenship, December 3, 2015

Media Coverage

Sept. 4, 1921: Battle of Blair Mountain Ends

By Brandon Nida - Zinn Education Project, September 4, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

September 4 marks the end of fighting at the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the largest example of class war in U.S. history. It was fought over the course of five days in 1921 by 10,000 coalminers. The coalminers were rebelling against inhumane conditions in the West Virginia coalfields. The region led the nation in mine fatalities and the coal companies controlled almost every aspect of mining families’ lives.

The miners had attempted to unionize for decades, but were constantly blocked by a corrupt political system, brutal intimidation for organizers, and other forms of harassment such as blacklisting where union sympathizers were barred from working in the region.

These struggles all came to a head when the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) went on a national strike in 1919. The southern coalfields of West Virginia at this time were the only major coal-producing region that was non-union. The continued production in the region during the strike seriously undercut the UMWA’s position. After the national strike was resolved, the UMWA set their sights on the problematic region.

This began two years of determined efforts on the miners’ part to unionize these fields. The first efforts were focused on Logan County. The union organizers met stiff resistance from the county sheriff, Don Chafin, who was in the employment of coal operators. Chafin used intimidation, beatings, and even murder to keep the union out.

How to Support Clean Energy and Not Be a Jerk; As the nation turns away from coal, what do we owe coal workers?

By Jonathan Tasini - Sierra, July-August 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Michael Phillippi makes $28.50 per hour working as a mechanic at Murray Energy's Monongalia County coal mine in West Virginia. That's almost double what he made as a crane operator before snagging this coveted job four years ago. With healthcare and pension, that figure is close to $60 per hour, all because he's a member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW). That's a hefty paycheck in a state where the minimum wage is $8 per hour and the poverty rate is one of the highest in the nation.

The amiable, broad-shouldered Phillippi brings home more than twice what his wife makes as a teacher's assistant. He puts 10 percent of his paycheck into a 401(k) and invests another chunk in education savings for his three kids. He pays the bills and still has enough left over for a boat and a little camp where his family spends time in the summer. "I know guys making eighteen, twenty thousand," he says. "We had a banker start a few months ago—he was in charge of loans at a bank. He makes more money and has better benefits as a coal miner."

If the mine closed, Phillippi says, he'd have to learn to live off $15 an hour or less. To find a salary comparable to his current job's, he'd have to drive 75 miles north to Pittsburgh. But he probably wouldn't. "I won't move," he says. "I am from here. My family is from here. My grandparents are from here. My wife and her family. This is our community. I want to raise my children here. I plan on dying here. It's the sad truth that the good jobs aren't here."

Phillippi's paycheck also matters to the small businesses he sprinkles money on, like the mom-and-pops he stops at on his 35-minute drive from his home in Morgantown to the mine. Sitting in a small conference room in the UMW regional office in Fairmont, Phillippi points across the table to Mark Dorsey, who worked underground for 34 years before retiring in 2010: "For every hour I work, I'm helping to pay his pension." 

There are hundreds of thousands of Michael Phillippis spread out across the nation, from the coalfields of West Virginia and Kentucky to the more than 500 coal-generating power stations located in virtually every state. These workers now face the loss of their good-paying jobs due to the declining competitiveness of coal compared to other energy sources and new Environmental Protection Agency regulations intended to address air pollution and climate change. 

Those regulations, of course, have clear benefits for Phillippi, Dorsey, and everyone who breathes. Stronger soot standards alone would prevent 35,700 premature deaths per year and 1.4 million cases of aggravated asthma. Shifting to renewable energy, says the Union of Concerned Scientists, would create three times as many jobs—although likely not as well paid—as an equivalent investment in fossil fuels. And the value of avoiding catastrophic climate change is incalculable. 

But it won't pay the mortgage. As the coal industry withers, what will happen to Phillippi, Dorsey, and the communities they live in? The classic free market answer: That's life. Economies change, so suck it up. When the car replaced the horse and cart, buggy manufacturers moved on. 

That is not the only answer. Slowly, tentatively, unions and environmentalists are beginning to talk about an entirely different option called Just Transition, a guarantee that the cost of bringing down the curtain on the coal industry will not be paid by coal workers alone, but will be spread across society. It would be a huge undertaking, ideally encompassing the tens of thousands of workers directly employed in coal, from mining to electric-power generation, plus the communities that depend on their spending and taxes.

Chapter 11 - The United Mine Workers of America

THE COMPROMISE effected between the National Progressive Union and Trades Assembly No. 135 of the Knights of Labor at Indianapolis on January 25, 1890, when the United Mine Workers of America was formed, did not awaken the American coal-miners to a sense of national unity. The intelligence of the world's workers had not yet been sufficiently leavened by socialist and syndicalist agitation and education.

Wave of layoffs sweeps North American coal industry

By Clement Daily - World Socialist Website, August 22, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources—the second-largest US coal producer—announced last month that it intended to lay off approximately 1,100 coal miners and support staff at 11 affiliated coal mining operations in southern West Virginia by mid-October. These job cuts are only the most drastic in a wave of layoffs sweeping through the coal industry this year.

In a press release, Alpha President Paul Vining noted that in the last three years the company has idled about 35 million tons of coal production in an effort to cut costs. These moves underlay the closing of eight mines and a similar mass layoff of 1,200 coal miners in 2012. Moreover, these layoffs come on the heels of the company’s announcement in late June that it was permanently closing its Cherokee Mine in Dickenson County, Virginia, cutting about 120 jobs.

Similarly, Coal River Mining announced last week it planned to eliminate 280 mining positions at its operations in Kanawha, Boone and Lincoln counties in West Virginia. This comes on top of more than 150 layoffs by the company last year.

In July, Cumberland River Coal—a subsidiary of US mining giant Arch Coal—announced it was idling two mines at its complex on the Virginia-Kentucky border, eliminating 213 positions.

In June, St. Louis-based Patriot Coal confirmed it was laying off 75 of the nearly 850 workers to whom the company had issued layoff notices at its Corridor G and Wells mining complexes in Boone County, West Virginia. Back in May, after posting $116 million in first-quarter profits, CONSOL Energy cut production at its Buchanan Mine near Oakwood, Virginia, eliminating 188 jobs.

All these layoffs and production cuts occur in Appalachia, where the coal industry remains in a protracted structural decline driven by thinning seams and higher production costs. According to statistics compiled by Sean O’Leary of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, Central Appalachian productivity stood at just 2 short tons per labor hour in 2012, compared to more than 4 short tons in the Illinois Basin and nearly 30 short tons in the Powder River Basin (Wyoming-Montana).

The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) forecasts that coal production in Central Appalachia—comprised mainly of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky—will decline to half its 2010 level by the end of the present decade.

However, the decline of Central Appalachian coal production takes place within a broader crisis facing the US coal industry. Thermal coal used in electricity generation faces increasing competition for domestic energy production as the list of aging coal-fired power plant retirements grows under the pressure of cheap and abundant natural gas. The EIA projects natural gas will surpass coal in its share of domestic energy production by 2035.


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