The United Mine Workers of America, one of the largest North American coal miners’ unions, expressed support last month for the move to clean energy supplementation of traditional fossil fuel sources in the wake of the new administration’s sustainable energy policies. Their support represents a proverbial olive branch between a faction that has conventionally opposed renewable energy replacements, and their endorsement comes with the hope that the administration will pave the way for jobs for displaced, unionized coal workers.
Coal miners’ unions are a longstanding backbone of the United States’ energy economy and traditionally have taken a hardline stance against new forms of energy, which divert investments, federally-supplied resources, and limit or eliminate job opportunities for miners.
Now though, the well-known energy union is embracing the rapid emergence of clean energy opportunities in the wake of declining coal-oriented jobs. The downward trend in coal processing and mining careers is not new; it is a trajectory that has transcended federal administrations and global conflicts.
While there are still an array of jobs in the coal industry (positions relating to, processing, or harvesting coal), the numbers have decreased year after year, according to federal job reports. Coal jobs are not slated to be abolished entirely, but the rising surge in clean energy production is clearly signaling where new job opportunities will be found.
“I think we need to provide a future for those people, a future for anybody that loses their job because of a transition in this country,” Cecil Roberts, President of United Mine Workers of America told the press, “regardless if it’s coal, oil, gas or any other industry for that matter.”
Roberts continued on to represent the frustration that many coal miners feel with the move away from coal, but as the workers on the front lines of the United States’ energy industry, he says it is only proper that they contribute to the dialogue of a new industry niche. “We’re trying to insert ourselves into the conversation as much as we can,” Roberts remarked.
With a whopping 7,000 coal miner jobs lost just in the past year, and the coal industry’s employment opportunities suffering a 52 percent decrease since 2011, UMWA’s new position shows the organization’s willingness to come to terms with a reality that is not ideal for them or the factions they represent. Although the union’s endorsement of clean energy options is a solid step forward, the coal mining community still holds a lot of the cards and the overwhelming support of their unionized workers is essential for any meaningful progress — a reality that has yet to actualize.
An Ohio-based climate think tank, The Ohio River Valley Institute, has looked at this issue extensively. One of their senior researchers, Ted Boettner, says it will have to be a full-court press. “We can’t move forward with a clean energy economy without coal miners and coal communities,” says Boettner, “their plan to preserve coal country is a huge step forward to ensuring that no worker is left behind and that smart federal investments and policies can provide a solid foundation for working families and coal impacted areas.”
Boettner’s analysis highlights the intricacies of those leading the coal worker union groups: embracing change that could prove lucrative while also honoring the people who have dedicated their lives to coal mining and energy processing. Nonetheless, the United Mine Workers of America seem to be taking the first of many strides towards modernized energy sources without losing sight of their advocacy responsibilities for workers. “Change is coming,” a recent report the UMWA released reads, “whether we seek it or not.”