Posts Tagged ‘miners’

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When I read about Scott Pruitt’s trip to Hazard, Kentucky to announce the gutting of Barack Obama’s signature policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, I immediately turned to Dwight Billings—a West Virginia native, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, and preeminent scholar of Appalachia—to provide some context. I am pleased to publish this guest post by him. (Interested readers might also want to take a look at Billings’s review of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.)

Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the currently misnamed Environmental Protection Agency, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) traveled to Hazard, Kentucky in the economically depressed coalfields of Appalachia on 10 October to proclaim that the Democrats’ purported “War on Coal” was over—even though it was a war that was barely ever fought.

They came to announce the rollback of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, his administration’s effort to reduce the 2030 CO2 emissions of electricity-generating plants by 32 percent compared to 2005 levels, a key plank in the United States’ agreement to the 2016 Paris Accord on Climate Change that Trump has since revoked. The Clean Power Plan was to be achieved by cutting back on coal burning, substituting natural gas and renewable power sources (wind and solar), and encouraging conservation. But the EPA plan was never implemented. since it continues to be held up for review in the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals. As Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt—climate change denier, advocate of fossil fuels, and now head of the EPA—led the charge by 27 fossil-fuel producing states to challenge the Obama EPA policy in court.

Despite Trump’s promise to Appalachian coal miners that they would be “going back to work” if he were elected, industry analysts suggest that annulling the Clean Coal Plan will actually do little or nothing to increase mining jobs in Central Appalachia, where the rollback was announced and where nearly 12 thousand mining jobs in eastern Kentucky (84 percent) have been lost since 2009. Aging coal-fired generating plants are being shuttered due largely to a combination of market factors—not regulation as Republicans and industry spokespersons claim—including the abundance of cheap natural gas (due to a hydraulic fracturing boom) and the rapidly declining costs of renewables. Domestic and international declines in coal demand since the 2008 depression and the longer-term effects of mechanization and surface mining also account for job loss. Further, as Appalachia’s richest coal seams are mostly depleted, Appalachian coal is becoming harder to recover. Surface mines in Kentucky produce on average only 3 short tons of coal per employee hour compared with the rate of 30 short tons per hour in the vast surface mines of Wyoming, Kentucky’s chief rival, which now account for more than 40 percent of the nation’s coal.

So why would Republicans announce their gutting of the Clean Power Plan in Hazard rather than, for instance, Wright, Wyoming? Several factors are at work.

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Black Thunder mine, in Wright, Wyoming

Trump has often proclaimed that he “loves” coal miners. Kentucky employs more miners than any other state except West Virginia. The iconic image of Appalachia’s hyper-masculine, hardworking, and self-sacrificing miners, ready to go back to work if only given the chance, better supports his administration’s public relations stunt in Hazard than would pictures of the monstrous earth-moving machines that dig massive amounts of coal with few employees in Wyoming or Appalachia. After all, the promise of jobs always trumps the environment, even when there aren’t any.

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Mountaintop removal near Hazard

And then there’s Hazard itself. (The irony of its name has not been lost on environmentalists who point out the hazards in the Trump/Pruitt plans to derail efforts to prevent climate change.) Located In the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian coalfields, Hazard is the county seat of Perry County, eastern Kentucky’s second largest coal producer and once its greatest. Thousands of acres across Perry County have been ravaged by decades of strip mining and mountaintop removal. One fourth of its people live in poverty. Far more of Hazard’s residents are employed in education and healthcare than coal mining, but coal has been the town’s historical lifeline and curse. One of Hazard’s favorite sons is billionaire coal baron Joe Craft, President and CEO of Alliance Resource Partners (ARP), the second largest coal producer in the eastern United States and one of the largest holders of coal reserves in the nation. Craft grew up in Hazard where his father was a coal lawyer and his grandfather, also a coal lawyer, was mayor in the 1920s. Like Pruitt (who also grew up in Kentucky and now lives in Tulsa), Craft is currently a Tulsa, Oklahoma resident (ARP is headquartered there with an office in Kentucky). But he maintains close ties to Hazard and is a major donor to Hazard’s Center of Excellence in Rural Health. Also like Pruitt, Craft is a Republican, a close associate of the Koch brothers, and, through his organizations, a million-dollar contributor to Trump’s presidential campaign. Craft’s hometown may not win any mining jobs from its renewed oath of fealty to King Coal, but its credentials as a foot soldier in Trump’s war on the climate have probably been secured.

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Finally, there is Mitch McConnell. Despite his vast war chest of campaign funds, McConnell is vulnerable. He is on the outs with Trump, and his aura as a Congressional wizard has been tarnished by his failure to bring a legislative end to Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Senators on the Republican right are calling for him to step down from his leadership position in the Senate. And, he is widely despised back home in Kentucky. With an approval rating of only 18 percent there, McConnell is the least popular of any U. S. Senator at home. Currently, only 37 percent of Kentuckians report they would reelect him. Small wonder then that McConnell would jump at the chance to remind Kentucky voters of his role in helping to end the fictive “War on Coal” he had helped to construct.* After all, he did much the same less than three weeks earlier when he toured Kentucky with new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch whose appointment he had helped to engineer—a trip the Associated Press described as a “home turf victory lap for McConnell.”

Victory laps and theatrical displays of symbolic politics, however, will not bring coal mining jobs back to eastern Kentucky, nor help the region move toward an economic future beyond coal. ** As a Lexington Herald-Leader staff writer asked the day after the Hazard ceremony, “How long will Kentuckians continue to be suckers?”***

 

*Earlier this year, McConnell pushed through Congressional repeal of the Obama Administration’s 2016 “Stream Protection Rule,” which had sought to protect water quality near mountaintop removal mine sites and was eight years in the making.

**Gone now, too, is the Obama Power Plus Plan that would have invested a billion dollars from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund in post-coal redevelopment. Trump has also proposed eliminating funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission which channels federal dollars toward economic diversification and job training in the region.

***Kentucky voters may have been suckered by Trump in the general election, but eastern Kentucky voters in the coal field counties and all West Virginia counties supported Sanders in the presidential primary election, an expression of frustration with politicians’ neglect of rural areas and an indicator of a desire for change.

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Chico Harlan [ht: ja] describes the arrival of the first robots at Tenere Inc. in Dresser, Wisconsin:

The workers of the first shift had just finished their morning cigarettes and settled into place when one last car pulled into the factory parking lot, driving past an American flag and a “now hiring” sign. Out came two men, who opened up the trunk, and then out came four cardboard boxes labeled “fragile.”

“We’ve got the robots,” one of the men said.

They watched as a forklift hoisted the boxes into the air and followed the forklift into a building where a row of old mechanical presses shook the concrete floor. The forklift honked and carried the boxes past workers in steel-toed boots and earplugs. It rounded a bend and arrived at the other corner of the building, at the end of an assembly line.

The line was intended for 12 workers, but two were no-shows. One had just been jailed for drug possession and violating probation. Three other spots were empty because the company hadn’t found anybody to do the work. That left six people on the line jumping from spot to spot, snapping parts into place and building metal containers by hand, too busy to look up as the forklift now came to a stop beside them.

Tenere is just one of many factories and offices in which employers, in the United States and around the world, are installing robots and other forms of automation in order to boost their profits.

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They’re not doing it because there’s any kind of labor shortage. If there were, wages would be rising—and they’re not. Real weekly earnings for full-time workers (the blue line in the chart) increased only 2.3 percent on an annual basis in the most recent quarter. Sure, they complain about a shortage of skilled workers but employers clearly aren’t being compelled to raise wages to attract new workers. As a result, the wage share in the United States (the red line) continues to decline on a long-term basis, falling from 51.5 percent in 1970 to 43 percent last year (only slightly higher than it was, at 42.2 percent, in 2013).

No, they’re using robots in order to compete with other businesses in their industry, by boosting the productivity of their own workers to undercut their competition and capture additional surplus-value.

And they can do so because robots have become much more affordable:

No longer did machines require six-figure investments; they could be purchased for $30,000, or even leased at an hourly rate. As a result, a new generation of robots was winding up on the floors of small- and medium-size companies that had previously depended only on the workers who lived just beyond their doors. Companies now could pick between two versions of the American worker — humans and robots. And at Tenere Inc., where 132 jobs were unfilled on the week the robots arrived, the balance was beginning to shift.

So, where does that leave us?

The prevalent response has been to worry about mass unemployment. However, as I explained a month ago, I don’t think that’s the issue, at least at the macro level.

If workers are displaced from their jobs in one plant or sector, they can’t just remain unemployed. They have to find jobs elsewhere, often at lower wages than their earned before. That’s how capitalism works.

Much the same holds for workers who don’t lose their jobs but who, as new technologies are adopted by their employers, are deskilled and otherwise become appendages of the new machines. They can’t just quit. They remain on the job, even as their working conditions deteriorate and the value of their ability to work falls—and their employers’ profits rise.

No, the real problem is how the gains from the introduction of robots and other new technologies are being unevenly distributed.

And that’s an old problem, which was confronted by forces as diverse as the Luddites and the John L. Lewis-led United Mineworkers of America, none of which was opposed to the use of new, labor-saving technologies.

In fact, Lewis’s argument was that machinery should replace hand work in the mines, which would serve to both ease the burden of miners’ work increase their wages—all under the watchful eye of their union. And mine-owners who attempted to pay workers less, without technological improvements, should be driven out of business.

Mr. Lewis called upon the miners to accept machinery, since they could not turn back the clock, but to demand a fair share of the benefits of mechanization in the form of shorter hours and increased compensation. He said that machines must be made the workingman’s ally, and that nothing was to be gained by fighting them.

The fact is, right now workers are not getting “a fair share of the benefits of mechanization,” whether in the form of shorter hours or increased compensation.

And if employers are not willing to provide those benefits, workers themselves should be given a say in what kinds of robots and other new technologies will be introduced, what their working hours will be, and how much they will be compensated.

Only then will workers be able to confidently say, “we’ve got the robots.”

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Don Blankenship, the chief executive of the Massey Energy Company in 2010 when a fire in the Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 miners—who should have been charged with murder but was earlier only convicted of a federal misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safety standards and was sentenced by U.S. district judge Irene Berge to one year in prison and fined the maximum of $250,000—has just issued a 67-page diatribe (pdf) in which he declares himself an “American political prisoner.”

In the booklet, Blankenship asserts, contrary to all evidence, that the explosion was triggered by natural gas, and not unsafe mining conditions; politicians imprisoned him for political, self-serving reasons; and he has a long history of working to advance the safety of coal miners.

In a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, former U.S. attorney Booth Goodwin called the booklet “more Blankenship propaganda.”

“Blankenship was convicted by a jury of his peers of willfully violating mine safety laws-laws designed to keep miners safe,” said Goodwin, who brought the case against Blankenship. “They are the same laws that if broken, cause deadly mine explosions like the one that tragically killed 29 miners at UBB. Blankenship is in prison because of his greed, his arrogance, and his criminal behavior. This most recent stunt shows that he still has not learned this lesson: if you gamble with miners lives, you deserve to go to prison.” . . .

Goodwin said a convicted criminal who denies his crimes from prison is still a convicted criminal – and still in prison.

“The only difference is that this one has the money to spend a fortune on postage for his denials,” he said.