By Joe Uehlein with Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith

Workers have often felt threatened by measures to protect the environment. Today such fears are likely to be augmented, especially in a time of soaring unemployment, by the large changes necessary to protect the climate from global warming.

Environmentalists have often addressed this challenge by pointing out that a transition to green energy would create far more jobs than it would eliminate. While that may be true, it entirely misses the point. The fact that some people get new jobs provides little solace for the individuals and communities who have lost theirs.

As Carl Wood of the Utility Workers put it at the 2009 Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference, “Workers are used to being ground up and spat out by any change in society. In the U.S. there is no safety net for the victims.” He cited mechanics in a Southeastern Ohio coal-fired power plant represented by his union whose jobs would be eliminated by the phasing out of coal as a very real example of how climate protection could threaten specific workers even if it produced more jobs in general.

The current campaign to reduce the use of coal could easily become a poster child for the threat posed to workers by climate protection. But for that very reason it also provides an opportunity for climate protection advocates to paint a new picture of themselves as the advocates and protectors of miners, railroad workers, utility workers, and others whose jobs and communities may be threatened by climate protection measures.

This question is urgent because there is a burgeoning campaign against coal that could easily be seized on by the coal interests and their allies as a direct attack on workers and their communities. Al Gore has endorsed the use of direct action at coal-fired power plants. On January 20, 2009, the group PowerPastCoal initiated a 100-day anti-coal campaign. It is likely to involve demonstrations and direct action in the coal-producing regions. The result could be head-on collisions ““ media or physical — with those who purport to represent the interests of miners and coal mining communities.

The environmental movement has at times given lip service to the idea of a “just transition” that would provide protection for those who will lose from climate and other forms of environmental protection. But it is striking that the website of PowerPastCoal, while eloquent about the problems coal communities suffer from mining, does not even mention the loss of jobs and revenue such communities will face if coal production is further curtailed.

Such impacts are not far from the minds of miners and their union, however. UMW president Cecil Roberts recently cited studies showing that the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 would have reduced coal production by 78 percent by 2025, which would have “just about wiped out the coal industry in southern West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia.” He added that the more recent Lieberman-McCain bill would cut Appalachian coal production by thirty percent.

But there are also initiatives in the coal mining regions to develop alternatives to the declining and often destructive industry. For example, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth have created the “Canary Project“ which advocates “a new economy to sustain, instead of exploit, our communities” and “supporting new energy sources that will replace the burning of coal.”

It has also developed, in collaboration with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a “High Road Initiative“ that lays out an economic development program for the coalfield regions.

Coal is a particularly divisive issue within the burgeoning labor-environmental alliance. The 2009 Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference, for example, featured two completely separate workshops on coal, one touting the possibilities of “clean coal,” the other arguing that it is a fruitless pursuit. There appeared to be no venue for dialogue between the two orientations.

Coal is also a divisive issue within the labor movement. American labor has a strong traditional identification with miners. The Steelworkers, Auto Workers, and many other industrial unions owe their very existence to support from the Mineworkers union. Miners have walked the picket lines in support of virtually every union in America. They embody labor’s culture of solidarity, and other trade unionists are loathe to abandon them when they are threatened with extinction. Despite declining numbers, the UMW is still in a position of power, especially on energy policy, within the labor movement and in the political arena.

Coal-related jobs

According to one estimate, there are about 340,000 coal-related jobs in the American economy.1

Nationwide, 83,000 people are employed by coal mining companies. U.S. coal mining is concentrated in Appalachia and the West. Most production is in the West; Wyoming produces nearly three times as much coal as West Virginia. But the underground mining techniques used in Appalachia are far more labor intensive. West Virginia and Kentucky employed 38,000 workers in 2006 ““ 46 percent of the national total. Wyoming employed fewer than 6000 coal miners. Coal is the source of more than half of American electricity, and more than 90 percent of coal is used to generate electricity.

Major occupations in the mining industry include construction, extraction, transportation, material-moving, installation, maintenance, and repair. Many of these jobs have counterparts in the renewable energy industry, facilitating lateral transfer.

The United Mine Workers has 86,000 members, but only part of the membership works in mining. It also represents workers in the public sector, health care, and manufacturing, many of whom are qualified for jobs in the “green” economy.

Over 60 percent of coal is transported by railroad, and coal represents about 40 percent of all railroad freight. Coal railroad jobs tend to be concentrated in and around the coalfields.

Power plant operators constitute about 24,000 jobs nationwide, not all of whom operate coal-fired plants. They tend to be college educated and highly skilled.

Possible elements of a program

1. Stimulus bill

The 2009 stimulus package includes an estimated eighty billion dollars for programs that will create “green jobs.” These funds can be used to make Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and the rest of the Appalachian coalfield a model of job-positive transition from coal to renewable energy and conservation. Green jobs can be specifically targeted to the communities that will be affected by coal production to preemptively create local jobs that will provide an alternative source of employment.

2. Individual transition assistance

A basic principle of fairness is that the cost of policies that benefit society shouldn’t be borne by those who are hurt by them. This principle was recognized in the Trade Act of 1974 and subsequent programs for trade adjustment assistance, which provide compensatory benefits to workers who lose their jobs as a result of U.S. trade policies.

While the benefits provided by trade adjustment programs are widely recognized as grossly inadequate, a more adequate model comes from John McCain’s 1988 Universal Tobacco Settlement bill, which passed out of committee 19 to 1 but was defeated on the Senate floor. It applied the principle that of protecting those victimized by a socially beneficial program to a specific industry. It created an industry-funded trust fund that provided more than $28 billion to help U.S. tobacco growers and cigarette factory workers, their families, and communities adjust to the ongoing decline of U.S. cigarette manufacturing and the reduced purchase of American tobacco.

The bill provided transition assistance if “the implementation of the national tobacco settlement contributed importantly to such workers’ separation” from their jobs. It also provided education benefits to members of “a tobacco farm family.” A similar program can be proposed for workers who lose their jobs due to climate protection policies, notably coal miners, railroad workers, and coal-fired generator workers.

3. A green TVA

During the Great Depression, a regional economic development program, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), transformed one of America’s poorest regions by means of massive energy development. While 75 years later the TVA itself has become a serious environmental problem, the principle of regional economic development through development of a new energy source is highly applicable to the Appalachian coalfields today.

A small scale version of such a post-coal energy-based economic development program is poised to begin in Arizona. The closing of a highly-polluting generating station has provided the owner, Southern California Edison, $30 million annually in pollution allowances which can be sold under the U.S. Acid Rain Program. A Just Transition Coalition, composed primarily of Hopi and Navajo and environmentalist allies, developed a plan to use the funds for a transition to renewable energy. They proposed to direct 30 percent of the pollution credits to local villages and tribal governments to invest in solar, wind, and ecotourism; 10 percent to job retraining; 40 percent to alternative energy development and production; and 20 percent to tribal government programs previously supported by coal royalties. Southern California Edison is regulated by California Public Utilities Commission, which has taken the groundbreaking step of ordering that all proceeds from pollution allowance sales be put in a special account to fund renewable energy investment. It thereupon requested proposals from the Just Transition Coalition for how the funds should be spent.

The McCain tobacco bill provides a model for legislation to support communities facing policy-caused economic change. It would have established a Tobacco Community Revitalization Trust Fund which would have provided economic development grants up to four hundred million dollars a year from 1999 to 2023. The grants would fund business development, employment-creating activities “to provide a more viable economic base and enhance opportunities for improved incomes, living standards and contributions by rural individuals to the economic and social development communities” and “activities that expand existing infrastructure, facilities, and services to capitalize on opportunities to diversify economies in tobacco communities that support the development of new industries or commercial ventures,” initiatives designed to “create or expand locally owned value-added processing and marketing operations in tobacco communities,” and technical assistance. Preference in employment under the program could be given to former tobacco workers and members of tobacco worker communities.

The Hunter coal region in Australia is also being proposed as a model for a transition from coal to renewable energy. A Greenpeace-funded study of “A Just Transition to a Renewable Energy Economy in the Hunter Region, Australia“ details two possible economic development strategies for the region.

Greenpeace and other environmental organizations have made “just transition“ a central part of their program for transforming the region. According to a Greenpeace pamphlet on Hunter,

“A just transition from coal to renewables requires that the federal government support and protect coal industry workers as coal-fired power stations are phased out. Government support should include providing investment in new industries and infrastructure, guaranteeing jobs and retraining workers so that they can find employment in new green industries. With the right government action, an energy revolution can provide a way forward for coal communities.

4. A role for the union

Although only about a quarter of coal miners are union members, the United Mine Workers remains a significant force in the coalfields, in Washington, and within organized labor. It has the potential to play a major role both in administering individual assistance and in developing a “Green TVA.” Such a role can give the union a stake in promoting a just transition in the coalfields.