A Plan for Coal Workers as the Industry Declines

Published Jul 6, 2021

Coal miners like Dr. Jeremy Richardson’s family members helped power the country for generations—now he and Lee Anderson of the Utility Workers Union of America are working on how best to support them in a clean-energy economy.

In this episode

Colleen chats with Jeremy and Lee about:

  • a specific plan to support that coal workers will need as they transition away from coal
  • what the cost of this plan is and how it compares to other industries that will need to transition away from fossil fuels
  • the role of the Union in providing living wages and benefits for coal workers
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:33)
Intro (0:33-2:29)
Interview part 1 (2:29-14:17)
Break (14:17-15:10)
Interview part 2 (15:10-24:28)
Throw (24:28-24:46)
Ending segment (24:46-28:05)
Outro (28:05-29:00)

Related content

Sidelining Science: Shreya Durvasula
Editing : Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: As my vaccinated life resumes some degree of normalcy… I still find myself unsettled by the assumption that we’ll pick up where we left off pre-COVID-19.

I can’t stop thinking about the essential workers who staffed grocery stores and hospitals and restaurant kitchens… the people harvesting and processing our food… delivery drivers, bus drivers, and the teachers. Many of these jobs already included some level of risk. But the pandemic made all essential positions extremely high-risk.

I don’t think we’ve reckoned yet with the huge burden we placed on our essential workers. I don’t think we’ve faced up to how our country failed the people we depended on to keep our lives as normal as possible. And I don’t think I’ll be able to feel good about moving on until I know essential workers have been recognized for their sacrifices… and until there are actual labor protections in place that will help keep them safe in risky situations.

My colleague Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, has also been thinking about workers in high-risk jobs, and what we owe them. As a clean-energy advocate from a third-generation coal mining family, he’s adamant that the people who risked their lives to keep our lights on… not be forgotten or left behind in a clean energy economy.

This spring, Jeremy reached out to Lee Anderson of the Utility Workers Union of America to collaborate on a report that details how to support coal and power plant workers through this transition. Their analysis provides a clear vision for how we can do better by these workers.

Jeremy and Lee joined me to chat about the scale of job losses in coal… what workers really need… and why retraining miners to work in clean energy isn’t actually practical.

Colleen: Jeremy, Lee, welcome to the podcast.

Jeremy: Thanks for having us.

Lee: Glad to be here.

Colleen: So, with the new administration, we have an opportunity to tackle the climate crisis on all fronts. And one of those areas is the coal mining industry. You co-authored the report "Supporting The Nation's Coal Workers," and before we dig into the specifics of that, let's talk about the people. Who is the report focused on? Jeremy, why don’t you start us off.

Jeremy: The report really focuses on both coal miners and coal-fired power plant workers. And so we looked at how many of those workers are currently employed in the United States as of 2019.

Lee: I would add to that just a little bit to say that our union, the UWUA represents folks who work in the coal-fired power plants who are affected by this issue. We don't have any miners in our union.

Colleen: So, where are the majority of coal mines and power plant workers? I'm assuming the coal mines and the power plant workers are not in the same place.

Jeremy: Well, they can be. There are places where there's a mine next to a power plant. But in general, if you look at the map of where the facilities are, you see that the coal mines are concentrated geographically in particularly in Appalachia, the Powder River Basin and out West, and in tribal communities also in the Southwest. But the power plants tend to be more geographically dispersed around the country. Although I will say there are many in the Midwest.

Colleen: So, who would you say is being hardest hit?

Lee: Well, that's the big question, and it is a big one. Our paper focused on the miners and the power plant workers, although there are quite a few other folks who work for instance, in transportation and in the supply chain of these industries. But in general, the coal industry comprises a pretty broad range of skillsets and trades. They're the working class in the best sense of the word. These are the folks who have really done the work that has underpinned the rest of the economy. The economy is really founded on cheap, abundant energy. And these are the folks who made that possible by digging the resource out of the ground, moving it across the country, burning it in the power plants, and providing all of the support services necessary to make that work. It's really a marvel of modern science and engineering. In many ways, it's one of the greatest engineering accomplishments ever devised. The fact that it had unintended consequences in terms of pollution, etc., really doesn't take away from that. But these are the folks who we owe a lot, frankly, in terms of making our whole economy and civilization function.

Colleen: You discuss in the report the multiple overlapping economic crises. Can you lay that out for us? I think it gives a little bit of the history of coal mining and how it's been declining over the past several decades.

Jeremy: So, we have mined coal in this country for generations, and really coal mining employment reached its peak in the middle of the last century, the 1940s, 1950s. And it has declined steadily since then. And that's for a variety of reasons. The first one was mechanization. So, people have this idea in their head of a miner with a hard hat, with a light on it and going underground with a pickaxe. And they still do have the helmets with the lights, but all of the extraction of the coal pretty much is done by machines now. And so, as machines were able to extract coal more efficiently, what you saw was an increase in production of coal, but a decrease in employment because you didn't need as many people to extract the coal. Then what happened towards the early '80s was that a lot of the mining activity shifted from Appalachia to the Powder River Basin, where it was much easier to extract the coal because you can do it in these large pit mines.

And then the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 actually spurred even more mining out West because it was an unintended consequence of the Clean Air Act Amendments, which were aimed at reducing sulfur, pollution from SO2. Well, the coal out West generally has much lower sulfur content. And so, you've seen a shift over the last few decades of the previous century that you see mining activities moving from Appalachia to the West.

Lee: There are any number of economic challenges that have faced just the economy as a whole over the last several decades. Some of these things could be traced to things like deregulation, deregulation of the power sector, but also deregulation of the banking sector and the recessions that followed that in the early 21st century. Anytime we've had these events that have cut across the entire economy, we have to consider the fact that a lot of these places, the mines, and the power plants are in parts of the country that are less able to bounce back from those things, are less economically resilient than other parts of the country that might be more urban or have more economic activity, more opportunity in them. And when things go bad in that part of the country where these things are done, it's harder to come back, even if the challenge arises due to something that has nothing to do with coal or even the power sector. So, that's another layer on top of the challenges that these workers and communities have faced.

Colleen: Well, Lee, I'd like to ask you a little bit about the union and what role the union has played in the life of a coal worker or a power plant worker?

Lee: Well, perhaps I have a biased opinion, but obviously, my opinion is that the organized labor movement has raised working standards for working people of all descriptions for 150 years if you want to go all the way back, but certainly, since the 1930s, when labor law was formalized and particularly up to the end of the Second World War. In this sector, you know, collective bargaining and organizing over the last 80 years has raised wages and benefits across the industry. These are some of the best blue-collar jobs in the economy. Obviously, safety is a huge issue if you're working in a coal mine, but also in the power plants.

Colleen: Are there opportunities for coal miners and coal-fired power plant workers to transition to other fields in the energy industry?

Lee: Well, that's a common narrative that we hear a lot and I don't want to overstate it, but I will say that on the whole, the answer is generally no. By which I mostly mean, I think a lot of people imagine that if you lose your job at a coal-fired power plant, that you could go work at some other, usually people think at some other cleaner energy technology. You're going to go get a job on a wind farm or on our solar array. That almost never happens. I know one person who has done that because of the circumstances of his life were such that he was able to do that, but that's not really what happens. When you lose your job at the power plant, the energy sector can be just one more possible avenue if it lines up with what you need in terms of skill match, geography, where is it, what is the job quality, etc. In that sense, these workers are just looking across the whole economy as to see where they might find the next opportunity. There's nothing particularly unique about the energy sector as being the next opportunity just because they happen to have just come out of the energy sector.

Jeremy: Yeah, that's right, Lee. And I think you're absolutely right to name it. There's been this narrative over the last decade around green jobs. And it is true that most of the analyses say that, you know, that as we transition to clean energy economy, we're probably going to create more new jobs than jobs we lose. And the problem with that narrative is that it completely ignores the geography of that. So, if you look at the states that have led in terms of deployment of clean energy, places like California, those places don't line up with the map that we have of where the coal mines are or the coal-fired power plants anymore. California, for example, has no coal. They import some electricity that's coal-based, but they don't have any coal-fired power plants anymore. So, it's just really important to think about the distributional impacts of the policy that we're trying to pass, which means how do you make sure that we're creating jobs in the places that are hurting the most? It's just unfair to think about, oh, okay, well, this particular set of people, which by the way, we estimate about 90,000 coal miners and coal-fired power plant workers, why should they have to bear the brunt of the hurt and the pain that comes from the shift towards clean energy? They ought to have a fighting chance to be part of that.

Colleen: So, what are some of the opportunities?

Lee: I mean, it does depend on what your trade is. If you are a trained, licensed electrician, for instance, you might have a better array of possibilities closer to home than if you are say a boiler mechanic, right? If what you know how to do is repair coal-fired boilers, well, where's the next coal-fired boiler? It might be a long ways, right? So, as Jeremy says, there's a geography problem.

Colleen: So, I understand the two of you joined a delegation of U.S. labor representatives who visited Germany to learn about how they achieved their coal exit. So, what was their approach, and what did you learn from that visit?

Lee: First of all, the Germans have a bit of a headstart on us because, for instance, healthcare, that's an easy, obvious example. No German worker has ever worried about whether they're going to lose access to healthcare. That's not a part of German society, and absolutely is a problem here. But even allowing for that, they still saw a need to robustly support these workers so that they could reinvent themselves say professionally, right? You want to get a whole new set of skills, a whole new education, that takes time. And so, what they sought to do was to support people economically over time so that people aren't jammed up and rushing just to whatever they can get to so that they can meaningfully transition into another career. So, again, they have a bit of a headstart because education is largely free in Germany. They don't have to worry about healthcare, but you do have to make sure that people aren't losing wages. You know, you do have to keep them whole. People still have to pay their bills. And the net effect of all that is if I don't have to worry about all of those things, I can stay right where I am in my community, get the education that I choose as being most beneficial to my particular situation, and then start that new career, hopefully, making that as possible as I can for me to stay in my community and keep that intact.

Jeremy: And I would say in thinking about what we learned from Germany, what I learned was that first, you need time to plan. What Lee and I are fond of saying is that in the past decade, in particular, the transition is already happening. It's just happening in kind of a haphazard way without any foresight. So, time to plan and second, a national commitment. So, Germany actually recognizes that they need to do something about climate change. And we're having trouble having that conversation in the United States. And third, really focusing on local leadership. So, even if you have a strong national commitment to action, but also to providing the resources that workers are going to need to make the shift, success on the ground really does depend on empowering those local leaders to implement solutions that work in their community. So, what works in McDowell County, West Virginia is not going to work in Gillette, Wyoming. They're very, very different community. And so, whatever policies we come up with, we need to make sure that they're flexible enough to work in as many places as possible.

Colleen: What I find really interesting about the report is that it's a collaboration between a science advocacy group focused on climate change and a union that is directly affected by these policies. So, what set of recommendations did you come up with?

Lee: It was really just a collaboration between two people who have a very personal interest in this topic. When we speak about this issue, we don't think about it in those institutional terms, like what's the green point of view, what's the blue point of view. We think about it from what's the human point of view. Meaning the point of view of those individual workers as human beings. If I try to think about how do I parse this from an institutional point of view, then I just get into top bound in social engineering that is not going to work because people have to make their own decisions as humans. And so, to answer your question, the way that fed into our paper, I think, is that we set out a set of supports for those people as individuals and not an approach where we say, "These are the kinds of jobs that we're going to bring to you." Or, "This is the industry we're going to attract your area." Or, "This is the economic development that's going to help you." Those are all important things, of course, in terms of regional and community redevelopment. I mean, I'm not knocking that that is a part of the solution here, but that's not the bit that Jeremy and I were really getting at. So, we laid out a set of benefits that were geared towards what I'll call basic human needs.

Jeremy: Right. And those are the benefits, the resources that we quantified in the report. But we also named the other pieces that Lee was alluding to. I mean, you don't want to train a person for a job that doesn't exist in their community. So, you really need to connect the resources that we're talking about to policies and programs that help communities recover from the loss of a major facility. And so, there is a role for government here in the sense of, you know, making sure that different agencies coordinate with one another. So, I'm thinking about, you know, training programs with the Department of Labor and connecting that with economic development programs in the Department of Commerce. And thinking about how the Department of Energy might be creating programs and ways to support manufacturing facilities. So, all of those things are connected and the federal government needs to do a better job of coordinating and getting on the same page.

Colleen: It needs to be flexible so that people can interface with it where they are and make their own decisions about what they need for their lives. Run through the major planks of your policy recommendations.

Lee: Sure. I'm thinking about what do you have to offer a person in order to meaningfully support them over time? And when you're talking about five years, you have to really offer robust support. You can't just throw some weak tea at them. So, that's basically full-wage replacement for the five years, whatever they were making when they lost their job. And you have to have healthcare replacement. So, that's the second thing. The third thing on retirement, making sure that people are made whole on their retirement benefits because if they go through a period of training where they're not working or working at a lower level and you know, then get back to another job, well, there's a period of time there where the money that was going into their 401(k) plans, their social security accounting, and their defined benefit plans, which a lot of these folks have because these are, you know, old 20th century collectively bargained agreements, you can lose a lot of benefits in that span of time.

The fourth thing is education. And it brings me back around to being as robust as possible because everybody's going to have to make their own decision. For some people that's going to be, say, they want to go get a welding certificate that takes a few months because they have the skills for it or the interest and aptitude in it, and there's employment in that field around the area. And that's what they want to do. That's great. Other people might be in a different position in their life or their skills or whatever. And they say, "You know what? I'm going to go back to the state university. I'm going to get a full four-year degree and I'm going to be something else entirely." That's great too if that's what they need to do. But what you don't want them to do is to take on a mountain of student loan debt in their mid-life, right? And we can have a whole other podcast about that, but the point is you don't want to put those people into a hole trying to reinvent themselves professionally. So, that's the fourth thing, education.

The last thing that Jeremy and I did include in the paper, though, again, it's not something that we emphasized, it's more of a plan B or even a last resort if you want to say it that way is for those people where the best choice is going to be relocation, covering that. And that can mean a lot of things. There's other things that we didn't price out at quite such a granular level in terms of wraparound support services to, you know, childcare and, you know, mental health services and things like that. But those are the main things, wages, healthcare, retirement, education, and relocation benefits.

Colleen: It sounds like a really smart and comprehensive plan. What's the price tag on it?

Jeremy: We calculated a range because a lot of the calculations depend on assumptions. And so, the range is between $33 billion over 25 years to $83 billion over 15 years. And that sounds counterintuitive until you think about the fact that the longer the transition takes, the more workers will actually reach age 65 and therefore, not need the supports that we're talking about.

Colleen: Well, you know, that sounds like an enormously huge amount of money, but can you put that price tag into context for us?

Jeremy: Sure. I mean, it does sound like a lot of money until you consider the reality that if we're gonna reach net-zero emissions by mid-century and you think about the level of investments that are needed to get there, we're talking about trillions of dollars. And so, we really believe that this is a small piece of the puzzle, but it's a really critical one and we should just do it because it's not going to cost that much money in the grand scheme of things.

Colleen: So, how do we get this through Congress?

Jeremy: That would be $24,000 or is it "The $64,000 Question?" Well, I often joke to Lee that I'm trying to figure out a way to conjure the ghost of Robert C. Byrd to go pay a visit to Senator Manchin from West Virginia and help us explain to him why this is so critical. But, yeah, I think, I mean, I guess I would say that we don't have a particular opinion about how it gets done, we just want to make sure that it gets included. So, there's a lot of inside the beltway, inside baseball that's going on about how to do this and lots of discussions about how we get across the finish line. And I think that the reality is we just want to make sure this piece gets included in whatever gets across the finish line.

Lee: And in many ways, we have reached a political moment in our history where as difficult as all of this is that it might actually be possible. And I think that there are quite a few folks in D.C. and around the country, both elected and just activist folks like us who say, "Look, if we're going to do anything at all on climate and energy policy, this is a non-optional piece of it."

Colleen: Thank you both for joining me today. Any final thoughts?

Jeremy: You know, this is sort of a first of its kind report in the sense that it's an environmental/science-based organization co-authoring a report with a union that is directly affected as Lee has described, you know, by this shift towards clean energy. And, you know, we felt that that was pretty significant.

Lee: We can do this if we all just recognize that it's not this issue and that issue, that it's all one issue. It's all of a piece. That sounds a little, I don't know what, kumbaya maybe. But it's true, it's true. It's not as easy as just turn this off and turn that on. It's all connected. It's all of a piece. And we have to think through the environmental implications, the labor implications, the community implications. We have to sit down as adults and do that work to make this happen. And we can't just say, "It's too hard and I don't want to." People around the world are doing this responsibly and it's our turn. We have to step up and take this on for real.

Colleen: Well, Lee and Jeremy, thank you so much for joining me. This is a really exciting plan that you've cooked up and I hope we can meet again on the podcast when we start to see some change.

Jeremy: Yeah. Well, thanks for having me, and it's great to talk about this stuff. I always say to Lee, I think we could talk about this in our sleep at this point because we've been having so many conversations really over the last decade. Right, Lee?

Lee: Yeah. Yes, literally. And I'm appreciative too for this opportunity. Jeremy and I have spoken about it a lot, of course, to a lot of different people in a lot of different forums. It's the first time we've done a podcast. Really appreciate the chance to get our message out there in a whole different way.

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