Bobby Stevens’s backup plan for his backup plan encountered an obstacle a few months ago. In March the coronavirus pandemic closed the Kentucky government building where he was set to take his commercial driver’s license test, which he started studying for after he got dismissed by his second coal company in a year, where he’d started working after the first one went bankrupt.
The bankruptcy of coal giant Blackjewel LLC, which terminated Stevens and about 1,700 other workers in four states, made international news last summer when some of them blocked railroad tracks in Harlan County, Kentucky, over unpaid wages. It didn’t take long for Stevens’s next employer, Perry County Coal LLC, to start making its own cuts. "I guess we’re going to be like a dying breed,” says Stevens. The son of a coal worker, he got his first mining job when he was 18 years old. Now, at 30, he’s leaving the industry.
Mining has always been physically risky, and right now the job is more insecure than ever. The industry is collapsing. Last year, U.S. coal consumption declined by 13 percent from the previous year, plunging at the fastest rate in 65 years. Wind and solar are becoming cheap and widespread, boosting hopes for a healthier, lower-emissions future — and fueling a slew of bankruptcies. For the first time on record, the world’s coal-fired power capacity decreased in the first half of this year, as plant closures outpaced the activation of new ones.
For years, economists have said that coal’s cost to the environment more than cancels out its benefit to the economy (a 2011 study in the American Economic Review found coal creates more than twice as much damage as value). But with little government action to protect the workers, the industry’s decline has left them in the lurch.
While many miners may see the end of coal coming, the axed Blackjewel workers had to grapple with an uncertain future more abruptly than most because of the sudden closure of their workplace. Some who were working in Harlan County have left in hopes of staying in the coal business. Others are giving up on coal and holding on to Harlan — for now. The Blackjewel bankruptcy, which united the miners in protest, has now dispersed them.
"It was a scary thing to think about starting over,” says former Blackjewel employee Collin Cornette, who’s been studying to become a machinist, "because for so many years I was defined as a miner. That’s who I was.”
Stevens passed his driving test after the local office reopened in May. But with in-state job openings still scarce, he’s awaiting word on whether the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will grant a waiver letting him work despite an eye issue from his childhood. He was able to take his driving course for free thanks to a program run by a local government-funded nonprofit.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged to spend $2 trillion leading a "clean energy revolution” that would include "an unprecedented investment” to help coal communities diversify their economies as the industry fades, with a new task force established to assist them in leveraging a mix of public and private money to create quality jobs. The Green New Deal framework popularized by activists and lawmakers such as New York’s Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which Biden hasn’t fully embraced, makes some more specific commitments, including "wage and benefit parity” for former miners.
Recently, Congress has been moving in the opposite direction, with the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate refusing to extend the $600 boost to weekly unemployment benefits approved earlier this year to address the surge in pandemic layoffs.
But some in Kentucky see a need for drastic steps. "Unless there’s some radical restructuring of the global economy, U.S. economy, and particularly our economy here,” the region’s future "doesn’t look very promising,” says Roy Silver, a sociology professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.
"If they would just bring something to replace coal,” Stevens says, "everybody wouldn’t be fighting about coal.”
One afternoon in July 2019, a few weeks after Blackjewel had terminated him and his fellow miners, Jeff Willig received a call from a former co-worker with some aggravating news. After failing to pay employees for their last few weeks of work, Blackjewel was gearing up to ship out coal by rail that workers had unknowingly mined for free.
"Honey, I’m going to go stop a train,” Willig told his wife. Then he did.
Willig and four other former employees planted themselves on the tracks to halt the train, which was loaded up with about $1 million of coal (less than two-thirds what it would’ve been worth 40 years ago). They stared down the train as it rolled forward, stopping within 20 feet of them. Police arrived but didn’t make the men budge.
"I showed up and asked the state police, who were eating pizza with my clients, ‘Are you going to ask them to move?’” recalls attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who represented the miners in their case against the company. "They said, ‘No.’”
Within a few days, the train company, CSX Corp., concluded its engines could be put to better use elsewhere and brokered a deal with the activists to let the vehicle through, leaving Blackjewel’s coal behind. The miners camped out nearby, determined to keep their cause visible and their coal stationary for as long as they went unpaid.
Over the weeks that followed, out-of-state activists showed up to help. ("They said they were anarchists,” says Willig of one group, "but they were very nice.”) The Trump administration went to court to support what had originally seemed a fanciful idea: preventing the coal from shipping out until the miners got paid.
Blackjewel agreed in October to pay $5 million to its former workers, and a comprehensive settlement with undisclosed terms followed in March. By then the miners had moved on, or were trying to.
Willig found work on the production line at a Smithfield Foods plant. "I think the future of the coal mining industry is done,” he said last year, looking out at the tracks where he’d stopped a train. He went back to school after the blockade was over, hoping to start a career in fiber optics, but left after six months because he couldn’t afford to go any longer without a paycheck. After Blackjewel, he says, "I’m not going to rely on, ‘Who’s the next person that’s going to come in here and do the same thing?’”
Harlan is iconic U.S. coal country. It’s the site of 1930s strikes and sometimes-violent showdowns that earned it the title "Bloody Harlan.” Today, with coal squeezed by rising renewable energy sources and stung by growing concern over climate change, Harlan may be the place hit hardest by the coal industry’s decline.
Some say that wasn’t the only thing that plagued Blackjewel’s miners. Workers alleged in their lawsuit that Blackjewel was part of a larger group of coal companies controlled by former Chief Executive Officer Jeff Hoops and "not in fact bankrupt,” despite its claims to the contrary. In a January bankruptcy court filing, Blackjewel itself accused Hoops of shifting tens of millions of dollars out of the company for his family’s benefit. Hoops and Blackjewel have both denied the allegations against them; Stephen Lerner, Blackjewel’s attorney, says the company is "pleased to have reached a settlement” with the workers.
Dan Mosley, a miner’s son and former banker who’s now the county’s judge-executive (its top elected official), has been trying to woo outside companies. Harlan County conducted a survey showing former miners are willing to accept jobs that pay as little as $17 an hour-around $35,000 a year. With overtime pay, a veteran miner at Blackjewel could earn $100,000 in a year.
"We know that we’re never going to land a company that’s going to create 2,000 jobs, like an Amazon,” says Mosley. But he’d like to attract employers in aerospace or auto parts. He wears an armband reading "ThereIsAFuture.org,” the website for a nonprofit trying to boost the Appalachian economy. Harlan’s poverty and unemployment rates in recent years have been more than twice the country’s, according to Appalachian Regional Commission data.
Four companies have so far come to visit a "build-ready” site, formerly part of a golf course, the county is pitching for construction projects. None has reached a deal. One wanted to pay former miners so poorly that Mosley decided it would be counterproductive. "We don’t have a lot of flat land,” he says, "and we don’t need to be tying up a property that is very valuable with $8-an-hour jobs.”
Pavlina Tcherneva, an economics professor at Bard College, says the coal industry’s decline doesn’t have to drive a drastic rise in unemployment. "We tend to think of it as this natural thing,” she says, "and there’s almost this kind of acceptance that there’s nothing we can do about that.”
One way the federal government can ensure former miners aren’t left unemployed is by directly employing them. The U.S. could hire miners at a living wage to do tasks such as elder and child care, solar panel installation, and remediating the environmental damage caused by coal, says Tcherneva, author of a recent book, "The Case for a Job Guarantee." She says direct government spending on job creation has a bigger bang for the buck than indirectly coaxing employment out of big corporations through tax breaks. Those positions wouldn’t match the pay of mining jobs, Tcherneva says, but the government jobs would be a backstop against unemployment and complement direct payments and job training for displaced workers.
In June, U.S. House Democrats put forward a proposal of their own, suggesting the creation of a National Economic Transition Office that would support former miners and other displaced workers through a mix of wage replacement, paid retraining, health care help, and job placement assistance.
Others would go further. In March, a week after the coronavirus was officially deemed a pandemic, a group of academics and advocates released a proposal to tackle economic and climate change crises with a "green stimulus” of at least $2 trillion now and almost $1 trillion more each year. The program, they wrote, should last "until the economy is fully decarbonized and the unemployment rate is below 3.5%.” That proposal would fund projects including expanded electric-vehicle manufacturing, retrofitting buildings to be energy efficient, and urban farming, as well as offering displaced fossil fuel workers job training and housing assistance and covering their lost wages for five years.
The federal government could make Harlan a hub for producing wind turbines or electric buses, says Mark Paul, who coauthored the proposal and is an assistant economics professor at the New College of Florida. One way to ensure this succeeds is to have the government promise to buy from companies that build buses or turbines in Harlan.
Federal investment in green jobs yields three to four times as many jobs per dollar as in fossil fuels, says Paul, and job creation in regions with steep unemployment has a particularly high multiplier effect: Putting people to work in government-backed manufacturing also benefits the service workers who depend on local spending. "The economy desperately needs somebody to step in and spend trillions of dollars,” says Paul. "The only entity powerful enough to do that is the federal government.”
Bring up the Green New Deal with some former Blackjewel employees, and you’ll get skepticism. "The government comes in, and they put all these restrictions, and they starved this town to death by running these mining jobs out,” says John Swanson, who worked as a surface miner for Blackjewel, "and they just walk out.” He worries Harlan will become a ghost town.
But ask if the government should be doing more to create options for out-of-work miners, and many of those same people will tell you they’d gladly take good-paying jobs in renewable energy. "You think if they brought a well-paying solar panel plant here that people wouldn’t take that job?” says Willig. "People would take that job. I mean, I myself would.”
Swanson had planned last year to look for a mining job in Virginia. But then his fifth child was born, and during the baby’s few weeks in an intensive care unit, he got to know some of the male nurses. He started imagining himself doing the same work. The "machismo” factor had made it hard to see himself shifting from mining to care work, he says, "but it would be a good way to just provide.” Now he’s back in school, in a nursing program. "If I maybe want to jump, now is the time that I need to do it.”
Signs of change abound. Harlan’s Kentucky Coal Museum, a building with artifacts including old mining picks, helmets, and a dress worn by Coal Miner’s Daughter Loretta Lynn, last year hosted a TV interview with some of the Blackjewel activists who’d blocked the train. On the roof of the museum, there are solar panels.
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