Joe Biden Thinks Coal Miners Should Learn to Code. A Real Just Transition Demands Far More.

Mindy Isser January 15, 2020

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign Town Hall on December 30, 2019 in Derry, New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

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.

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
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