As of 2016, there were only 50,000 coal miners in the United States, and yet they occupy so much of our political imagination and conversation around jobs, unions and climate change. During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump ran on bringing coal jobs back to the United States, and Joe Biden said on December 30 that miners should learn to code, as those are the “jobs of the future.” His comments, made to a crowd in Derry, New Hampshire, were reportedly met with silence.
While coal miners aren’t the only workers in our society, coal miners’ voices do matter, and we can’t leave anyone behind. And it’s clear that they are hurting, a point illustrated by the coal miners currently blocking a train carrying coal in eastern Kentucky, demanding back pay from Quest Energy.
The coal industry is in decline, and mining jobs are disappearing. And the science shows that the vast majority of coal needs to stay in the ground if we want to have a shot at stemming climate change. But does that mean miners need to learn to code in order to earn a living? Coding isn’t necessarily bad or unimportant, and it could potentially be one of many retraining opportunities. But coal miners are skilled workers who do much more than just hit rocks all day: Many of them are trained electricians, engineers and builders. There’s no reason they necessarily need to learn new skills when their skills are easily transferable to other industries.
The Green New Deal, popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), puts forward a bold program for a just transition to a low carbon economy. Of course, this includes moving away from coal. This transition would include a federal jobs guarantee to both clean up the damage inflicted by extractive industries and to provide jobs for workers in those industries in lower carbon work. The training, expertise and experience that coal miners and other workers from these sectors have would be an invaluable contribution towards harnessing new sources of energy and repairing damage caused by climate change. Whatever skilled coal miners do next, they should have a say in it.
In These Times spoke with Terry Steele, a retired member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in West Virginia, about Joe Biden’s comments and the future of coal mining in the United States.
Mindy Isser: Can you share your work and union history?
Terry Steele: My name is Terry Steele. I have worked in the coal industry for 26 years. All that time was union: United Mine Workers. I’ve worked over 50,000 hours underground, and I belong to UMWA Local 1440 as a retired member.
Mindy: Can you describe the work you did in the mines? Feel free to be as detailed as possible.
Terry: I’ve done about everything there is to do in the mines—from running shuttle cars to roof bolting to running scoops. A lot of my mining career was on a move crew: We moved belts, we moved power, we also ran coal when the sections were down, we built stoppings. About anything there was to do in the mines, I have done it. I haven’t done any electrical or maintenance work or anything like that, but as far as running equipment and stuff I can run about anything in the mines.
Mindy: When did you become union?
Terry: I went in the mines on my 19th birthday: May 27th, 1971. I’m a fourth generation coal miner. My dad worked in the mines, my grandfather and my great grandfather all worked in the mines. At that time, if you wanted to make good money and have healthcare, that’s what you did in the area that we lived, you went into the mines.
Mindy: Why did you leave the mines?
Terry: I got laid off and had a hard time getting back on at a union mine. There were jobs in the non-union mines, but I didn’t want to do that, so I just went and started doing carpenter work and things like that. I also had to leave the area for awhile, and when I came back I took my pension at age 55, which the UMWA allowed me to do with 20 years of vested time in. I could take my pension and also get my healthcare. So I’ve done that.
Mindy: Why didn’t you want to go to a non-union mine?
Terry: Well, one reason I worked in union mines, besides the pay and healthcare and benefits, there’s another thing you can do in a union mine: You can speak your mind. And I always liked being able to do that, because when you’re underground between two rocks, there’s no one who’s going to take care of you but yourself. And in a union mine you can speak up with no fear of being retaliated against.
Mindy: Do you feel like you’re skilled as a mine worker, a skilled laborer?
Terry: I thought I was then. Some of the work that we’ve done—especially on the move crews—when you’re moving belts and power, people have been at it on these crews for years and they know every move to make. No boss has to tell them what to do, they already know what to do. Some of that work was very skilled. But the thing about it is working underground is a whole lot harder simply because you’re in close quarters, and things are not as simple underground as they are outside.
Mindy: I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but a couple of weeks ago, Joe Biden said, “Anybody who can go down 300 to 3,000 feet in a mine, sure in hell can learn to program as well, but we don’t think of it that way.” He was encouraging miners to learn to code as a transition away from mining. What do you think miners should be learning to do or transitioning towards with work? Do you think coding makes sense?
Terry: Just to be honest with you, I had to go look up what the hell coding was. I had no idea. Coding and programming is something I don’t have a clue about. And I don’t really know whether I could learn it or not. A lot of miners probably could. But the thing about this is, even if you could learn it, where in these areas are these jobs available at? Especially here in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, where these miners have lived their whole lives and want to live the rest of their lives. And where are these jobs that pay money like these miners were making in the mines and that also have health care? And especially if you worked for a union mine, a pension.
Biden, in a way, makes me mad for the same reason Obama and a lot of the Democrats make me mad—and I’m a liberal. I’m a progressive Democrat. I just think this is another one of these stupid remarks that the Democratic party makes at times.
The Democratic Party has become a bunch of pussy-footers. We have become a person that takes blue collar work and labor for granted. And that’s why they lost the damn election, that’s why we have an idiot in the White House now. So I want to know where those coding jobs are at, and what they pay, and if they’re gonna last for years to come, and if a person could actually stay in an area and buy a home, and live where he wants to live with something like this.
Mindy: Everyone deserves to live where they want to live.
Terry: I think they do. My family all worked in the mines. My dad worked 45 years in the mine. He died with silicosis (lung disease) after he’d been on a respirator for two months at Cabell Huntington Hospital. I’ve seen what mining does to people. It kills people. We live in an area here where they wanted us to be miners, and in a way they forced us to be miners. This is not as simple as what Biden makes it out to be—“just go ahead and do this if you can’t do that.”
We’ve put up with this for years in our area where we live. For many years, West Virginia was as blue as a state could be. But we ended up being first in the things that were bad, and last in the things that were good. So, I can see why the people in this state are mad. But I think we jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Now we have an idiot in there that tells us what we like to hear, but he definitely don’t do what we know needs to be done.
Mindy: And what do you think needs to be done?
Terry: For one thing, coal is not going to be around forever. And I’ll tell everybody that, I’ll even tell my union officials that. I’m a union miner, I’m not a coal miner. We understand it good in our local because we’re all retired. Retired people look at things differently than what the active coal miner would. We’ve already put our time in. We’ve already worked all we’re gonna work. So we’re looking to get what was promised, and coal companies certainly haven’t lived up to their responsibilities. So it’s kind of passed over to the taxpayers, and then the taxpayers are saying, “Why should I take care of something like your pension or your healthcare or stuff like that?”
And I would tell them, simply, that we’re in this shape mostly because these coal companies filed bankruptcy under laws that allow corporations to pass the responsibilities to the taxpayers. So if you’re angry because the coal companies’ responsibilities were passed on to you and you voted for these sons of bitches, don’t quarrel at me, honey, you’re quarrelling at the wrong man. Because we put our time in, we’ve done what was required of us. We worked a dangerous occupation.
Mindy: Do you have any ideas of jobs miners could do that are similar to the jobs they’ve already been doing?
Terry: We’ve been in the energy industry. We have provided our electric, we’ve provided the coal to make steel from, we’ve provided the things that the country needed to have during the time of war. And here in the southern part of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia, after they mined most of the coal underground, they started blowing the tops of the mountains off: mountain-top removal. And they blew them off under the pretense of creating jobs, when actually what it did was put underground miners out of work. It was a cheap way of making more money for coal corporations before they took their last shit on people and moved out of the area.
In our area right now, people think coal is coming back. I am under no impression at all that coal is ever going to be coming back. The county where I was raised in—Mingo—most of the coal there has already been mined. About all that’s left is coal that’s hard to get to and that they have to cut a lot of rock to even mine, which will cause more cases of Black Lung. And Black Lung is on the increase again, and that’s one reason why.
You asked me what could these areas do and what kind of jobs could these areas have. One thing I’ve always been hollering about is I’m sitting here—I’m in Nicholas County right now—we own a home in Nicholas County. We also own our home in Mingo County. The union allowed me to do that. Because of the union, because I’m union. My wife belongs to the union too, she was a school teacher. These jobs allow you to do things you couldn’t do.
But my whole point is, I’m looking right now as I’m talking to you, at dozens of wind turbines in Greenbrier County. And they’re building more. These things have to be built somewhere. Solar panels have to be built somewhere. Batteries and the technology that goes along with storing electricity has to be built somewhere. What other, better place to build them then these areas that have no jobs, that have sacrificed everything for this country already, than areas like this right here?
I know for wind turbines, there’s probably a lot of pipe fitting and welding and things along those lines, which miners are good at. As far as solar jobs, I don’t know what it entails exactly, but miners are smart enough to do those things if they’re trained. That’s the only thing I think that Biden was right on in that sense, that they’re smart enough to do some of these jobs with the right training. But to get people to get behind something like the Green New Deal, it’s difficult until you give them something to go on. Build one of these things and hire them, and you’d see them flood to your site. You’d see them flood to these jobs.
Mindy: If you could wave a magic wand in your area, what kind of jobs would you hope for? Would it be rebuilding coal towns, creating public gardens, cleaning coal ash? Anything you could think of in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, what would you want those jobs to be?
Terry: From what I do know of the Green New Deal, the transition off of dirty fuels onto newer energy sources, like solar jobs and building wind turbines and battery and storage power. It should be in areas that have had the coal mining, areas that are in a depressed state right now. We’re the ones that need those jobs, and it could create thousands of new jobs. It could create a different type of mindset. And we could do them, our miners could do those jobs. Miners can weld, they can build stuff, they’re great with their hands, and they’re great with their minds, too. We could do these things, but right now we have a country that seems like they want to shoot these jobs off to some other place where they can get them done cheaper instead of bringing them back here. And I think the Democratic Party is guilty of these things.
The North American Free Trade Agreement was a total screwup on Bill Clinton. It’s like what they said, that Bill Clinton got things done for Republicans that they could have never get done for themselves. He is what has happened to the Democratic Party, people like Clinton, and Obama to a certain extent. And that’s why Hilary got beat. People were tired of hearing the same old same old bullshit as they kept on going downhill.
Mindy: Who do you like for president right now?
Terry: There’s two I really like. I’ve been a Bernie man, and I could vote for Elizabeth Warren. I do not like Joe Biden, and I do not like Pete Buttigeg, because I think he’s a middle-of-the-road guy too. And I have to tell people the only thing that happens to middle of the road people is like a dog that sits in the middle of the road—most of the time they get run over. And that’s how I feel about Biden and several of the others too, including the senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar.
Mindy: I’m curious about your thoughts, and maybe some of the other retirees’ thoughts, around climate change. Does everyone believe in climate change? Are people resistant to it because they want coal jobs to come back?
Terry: I know that man is affecting climate, I know that. I think several of our members in our local know that, especially ones that are in positions of control know that. We have a very progressive local, and I do think we’ve had pretty good leadership higher up in the union. I think they’ve done a good job, especially on our healthcare and our pensions. But you know, they’re in a tough boat to tow right now, because they’re the leader of a dying industry. So when you’re the leader of a dying industry, you have to find other ways to grow union membership. And the union is not just coal miners, we have other workers who are members. And I think we need to be more worried about finding union people than we should be about finding coal people.
I’m an oddball: I’m a coal miner who’s an environmentalist. But I can see the mistakes in both the coal industry and in the environmental industry. Every time you take somebody’s job, there’s a face behind that, there’s a family behind that. There’s somebody that’s looking to have something for Christmas that don’t have shit, after you take their job and you don’t give them no hope for a future or anything.
That’s what some of the environmental people have done to this area, even though they were right—mountaintop removal should have been stopped. But they could have come in here and brought 500 good green jobs by building a solar plant, or something that people could have worked at. And instead of creating 500 miners or workers who are screaming at you, you could have created 500 environmentalists. Because they just need work. They don’t care if it’s coal mining. I’ve never met a miner who wanted his son or his daughter to go into the coal industry, to go underground between two rocks, because of how dangerous it is. But we kept electing people who decided that’s the only thing we could do.
Mindy: I know you said you’re an oddball because you’re an environmentalist coal miner, and I am wondering what you think UMWA and other miners think about the Green New Deal and climate change? Do they believe it’s real?
Terry: It’s hard to get somebody to believe in something if your job depends on not believing in it. So, we have that group. But we have other people, especially in locals like ours, that actually do believe that we’re going to have to do something else to make a living in our area if we’re going to live here and our children are going to live here. We’re going to have to get our people to look at the facts. And train our people, and train our union people to be smarter than these idiots that are friends of coal people. And I think we can do that, I think we have good leadership in the UMWA. I think getting 100,000 miners pensions and healthcare secured is a pretty big hurdle.
The one thing I think that would probably help to unionize this whole country is if we would take the healthcare issue off of the table to start with, and just give everybody government healthcare like they should have. You know, when you start bargaining, that’s the first thing now that comes up. So take that off the table and we’ll bargain for what we need to be bargaining for: wages and pensions and days off and safety and things.
Mindy: What do you think the union could do to lead on climate change? It feels like we’re trying to hold on to these industries that are dying, and like we are banging on this door that’s closed. What do you think union leadership could do to embrace the Green New Deal, and accept the fact that climate change is real and move forward from there?
Terry: As far as transitioning to something else, they need to be looking at other industries. Take Walmart for one thing. If Walmart was unionized, it would be the biggest union in the world. That probably won’t happen because people don’t believe that it could happen.
We keep telling people about how good the economy is and everything, but yet, if you look at it—I read something today that about 40% of people, if they miss their next payday, they couldn’t pay their bills. And the primary reason for that is low wages, no healthcare, and no pension system. Something that unions brought us.
Mindy: How do you think the labor movement and the climate movement can link their struggles together more? Like with mountaintop removal—the environmentalists were right, but it didn’t mean that union members were on board or on their side. So what do you think can be done to get those two sides united for good green jobs?
Terry: People who are really pushing the green jobs need to push for are for jobs to go into these areas that are struggling right now, and to let them be union. I know that would break some of their hearts—to come in here and give something in these areas and let them be union. But you’ll see what that does about switching some of the coal miners’ mindsets in these areas.
We need to go into these areas where the fight needs to take place and build these plants. Build them in these areas that have supplied the energy and the needs for this country for the last hundred years, and build them in these areas where people have suffered—both environmentally and physically, in the sense that the land has suffered and also the people have suffered. I think if you do that, and have them to be union, then you’ll get the union in on it. Because the UMWA is, I believe, a union that will be open to any industry that wants to become a member of the UMWA. It’s like I said, are we coal miners or are we union miners? I’m a union miner.
This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.