Biggest Coal Mine Workers Union In the US Supports Switch to Renewables

On Monday, the largest mine workers union in the US announced that it would support climate legislation from the Biden administration in exchange for certain guarantees protecting coal mine workers jobs today and ensuring financial assistance for workers as coal industry employment continues to shrink in the switch to renewables. 

In a National Press Club interview with Senator Joe Manchin, the president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) signaled support for a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy that would ensure financial support for miners who lose jobs due to the changes as well as new jobs in the renewable energy sector.

“We’re very much interested in protecting existing coal field jobs,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said in the call. “I would say to our friends in government and high places that we’ve just about had all we can take of layoffs and people losing their jobs in the coal fields. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

The union also released a plan titled “Preserving Coal Country” on Monday that aims to preserve the livelihoods of coal workers as the coal industry continues to wind down. Coal production peaked in 2011 before dropping thanks to a combination of factors including the growth of alternative energy sources that became cheaper, a global economic slowdown that suppressed demand, foreign competitors, and domestic environmental regulations. While this has reduced coal’s share of carbon emissions, it has also come at the cost of tens of thousands of union jobs in the past decades.

“Retirees’ hard-won retiree health care and pensions were threatened. Active union miners saw their collective bargaining agreements–including provisions that had been negotiated over decades–thrown out by federal bankruptcy courts,” the UMWA plan reads. “Nonunion miners had no recourse in bankruptcy courts and were forced to accept whatever scraps their employers chose to throw their way.”

The union wants lawmakers to pursue “action to enable workers, families and communities to make a true transition” to renewable energy at the same time as policies are enacted to transition the country away from using coal as an energy source. To that end, they would like to see tax credits that subsidize renewable energy production, developing and expanding carbon capture sequestration so that some existing coal workers jobs’ can be preserved, but also federal support in the form of job training, social insurance programs, comprehensive benefits plans, and wage replacement in the event they lose their jobs and the security provided by collective bargaining agreements.

Most of these policies are present in Biden’s infrastructure plan, including money set aside for carbon capture. Excitement has grown around the possibility of capturing carbon, specifically in the fossil fuel industry, as climate reporter Kate Arnoff noted in The New Republic, because the technology is “a potential fix for the fundamental unsustainability of its business model.” 

Some technologies may capture carbon directly from the air, others as coal is being processed, but all are “largely unproven, prohibitively expensive new technologies” that will coincidentally extend the fossil fuel industry’s core business model “indefinitely.”

Workers, on the other hand, are demanding a full transition to renewables from fossil fuels as well as a place at the table when that happens. 

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