The national shift away from coal as a primary source of electricity generation has accelerated over the last decade, too often leaving coal workers and their families behind while unraveling the social fabric of their communities. These workers, and the communities they call home, have powered the nation for generations; they deserve a fighting chance to be a part of a new national economy and to be honored for the service they have given the nation.
To date, the shift to a lower carbon economy has proceeded largely without thoughtful plans or preparation for the workers and communities that have sustained the U.S. economy for more than a century. And that is set to continue: many more coal workers and communities face the same fate without intentional policies to address these changes.
UWUA report details coal community investments
As a part of the UWUA’s ongoing work to advocate for these workers, the union recently released an analysis developed in alliance with the Union of Concerned Scientists making the case that it would be possible to support coal workers in the transition and that these comprehensive policies would be affordable.
This analysis estimates the cost of providing a range of transitional support for coal miners and workers at coal-fired power plants who are at risk of losing their jobs before they reach retirement. These supports would include the following:
- Five-year comprehensive wage and benefit replacement which would allow individuals time to plan and train for new career opportunities of their own choosing. This would include health care premiums, as well as employer retirement contributions.
- Educational benefits would allow dislocated workers to access vocational school, certification programs, apprenticeships, or degrees at two- or four-year institutions of higher education.
- College education for children of dislocated workers could help break cycles of generational poverty, similar to how GI bill educational benefits can be transferred to spouses and children in certain cases.
Using estimates of the number of dislocated workers and the reported national average salary for both coal miners and coal-fired power plants, the UWUA calculated that the costs for supporting these workers would range from $33 billion to $83 billion depending on the speed of change in the industry, with more rapid change requiring more robust support.
As Congress and the Biden administration continue to seek ways to assist workers and communities affected by a rapidly changing economy, the UWUA will continue the fight to ensure these people and places are heard, and to advocate for assistance on a national scale.
White House advocates for coal communities
During his first week in office, President Biden established the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities (IWG) to coordinate an integrated, whole-of-government approach to supporting energy communities. As its first action, the Interagency Working Group convened stakeholder roundtable sessions to hear from community and worker representatives as well as sector experts on the needs and most promising strategies for economic development and transition. The Working Group also identified existing federal resources that can be immediately deployed to support hard-hit energy communities.
Taking all that they learned, the IWG earlier this year released a report that was delivered to President Biden and included a broad set of initial recommendations to catalyze economic revitalization, create good-paying, union jobs, and support workers in energy communities across the country.
The report identified nearly $38 billion in existing federal funding that could be accessed by energy communities now for infrastructure, environmental remediation, union job creation, and community revitalization efforts. Further, this funding would be bolstered by the historic investment in energy communities proposed by President Biden’s American Jobs Plan.
As a first step, the report identifies priorities for investment and next steps for the IWG to deliver on the president’s long-term commitment to robust federal leadership in direct partnership with energy communities to foster investment and economic revitalization, ensure the creation of good-paying jobs that provide a choice to join a union, and secure the benefits workers have earned.
Senate bill advances UWUA policy asks
Working in close collaboration with the UWUA, one of the Senate’s foremost champions for responsibly managing change in the energy industry, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), wrote legislation that directly reflects the policy supports for coal workers and their families which the union has called for in its recent analysis.
Designed to create the most robust set of supports ever provided to a changing sector of the American economy, Sen. Whitehouse’s bill would share many of the same goals as the UWUA’s policy ask. Namely, by providing full wage replacement, paying premiums to maintain healthcare coverage, fully funding retirement accounts — whether 401(k)s, defined benefit plans, or Social Security, and providing full education benefits for workers and their children over a five year period, the bill seeks to make it possible for workers and their families to meaningfully adapt to change, and increase their ability to continue living in their current communities.
Such a comprehensive set of supports has never previously been attempted in America. Enactment of this plan would be more in line with those seen abroad in nations such as Germany and Canada that have developed robust national strategies to manage energy transition. The UWUA has been at the forefront of developing this policy and, should it be enacted, tens of thousands of families across America would stand to benefit.
House bill supports aid to coal communities
In response to a number of large powerplant closures occurring in the southeastern U.S. including, most prominently, the closure of the Navajo Generation Station, Representative Tom O’Halleran (AZ-1) introduced legislation focused on the impact to communities. It is an often overlooked issue that the closure of immensely valuable energy assets can create a hole in local budgets for towns, schools, police and fire services, libraries and other community services that can be nearly impossible to bridge, particularly in the short term.
In response, Rep. O’Halleran has introduced the NEW POWER Act, a bill aimed at closing the revenue gap for local governments. Similar to the Senate bill, the NEW POWER Act would replace for lost tax revenue to communities, gradually scaled down over a 7-year time period.
Mine Workers see need for coal workforce support
In a recent public event with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, the United Mine Workers union also called for robust support for coal country, acknowledging that lower carbon power generation is transforming the energy industry and the jobs it provides.
As they noted, the impact on families and communities that has resulted is hard to overstate. Divorce, substance abuse, bankruptcy, and suicide rates have all risen in the wake of this uncontrolled change. Poverty levels are climbing in Appalachia and other energy-dependent regions.
Calling for a robust effort to keep dislocated workers and their families whole, the miners urged a similar set of supports: full wage replacement, access to healthcare, retirement fund security, education benefits for displaced workers and their families, national training programs, and support for coal communities that have lost tax revenue due to shuttered mines and plants.
A call for an intentional vision
Although workers and communities have suffered and face an uncertain future as the coal industry declines, solutions are readily available with bold and visionary action from policymakers. Under the leadership of the Biden administration and leaders in both the House and Senate, there is now an unprecedented push to support coal communities and UWUA members.
The nation has reached a moment of reckoning. As the energy mix changes, it must be acknowledged that intentional planning and comprehensive support are critical to honoring the workers and communities that have built this country. The nation owes it to those who have given the country so much.