The Media Uses Coal Miners To Attack the Green New Deal—Then Ignores Their Pension Fight

In 34 stories about coal miners, the New York Times, Washington Post and Politico did not once cover miners’ pension and healthcare demands.

Sarah Lazare

Both media and politicians love to use coal miners as anti-environmental props—as in Donald Trump's February 16, 2017, signing ceremony for a bill removing protections for streams. (AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM)

Anna Attie, Eleanor Col­bert and Daniel Fer­nan­dez con­tributed research to this report.

When coal miners speak against progressive policies, particularly environmental ones, they’re more likely to be given a platform. When they issue demands that affect their everyday survival, they’re on their own.

To stave off the worst effects of the cli­mate cri­sis, at least 80 per­cent of coal reserves must stay in the ground, accord­ing to a con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate in the jour­nal Nature. This means that coal min­ers would see their already declin­ing indus­try all but dis­ap­pear. The Green New Deal, the res­o­lu­tion put for­ward by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.) for an econ­o­my-wide mobi­liza­tion to address the cli­mate cri­sis, calls for a just tran­si­tion” that guar­an­tees good new jobs for coal min­ers. Some insist that the just tran­si­tion” start now, which is why they are sup­port­ing the Amer­i­can Min­ers Act.

Intro­duced in the Sen­ate on Jan­u­ary 3, the Act pro­tects the pen­sions of more than 100,000 coal min­ers whose retire­ment fund was deplet­ed by the 2008 crash. It also res­cues the health­care ben­e­fits of min­ers whose com­pa­nies went bank­rupt last year.

But you wouldn’t know about this bill, or its sis­ter leg­is­la­tion in the House, from read­ing the New York Times, the Wash­ing­ton Post or Politi­co, three influ­en­tial out­lets with­in the Belt­way. None have report­ed on — or men­tioned — the leg­is­la­tion since it was intro­duced in ear­ly Jan­u­ary, even though it has the sup­port of the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UMWA) and high-pro­file cospon­sors like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D‑Mass.) and Ocasio-Cortez.

Yet these out­lets have giv­en con­sid­er­able space to coal min­ers and unions to advance oth­er nar­ra­tives. In a four month peri­od this spring and sum­mer (Feb­ru­ary 25 to June 25), the New York Times, Wash­ing­ton Post and Politi­co have pub­lished 34 arti­cles and opin­ion pieces that touch on coal min­ers or their unions. Col­lec­tive­ly, they paint coal min­ers pri­mar­i­ly as a source of votes, and assume that the sole polit­i­cal moti­va­tion of that bloc is oppos­ing envi­ron­men­tal poli­cies that would close mines.

Sev­en sto­ries dis­cuss the decline of the coal indus­try or the new merg­ers, with­out men­tion­ing the Amer­i­can Min­ers Act. Sev­en describe Democ­rats’ attempts to reach out to coal min­ers. One men­tions ris­ing sui­cide rates among coal min­ers in the Mid­west. One includes brief men­tion of a coal min­ers’ strike more than a cen­tu­ry ago. Only one piece high­lights coal min­ers’ present-day con­cerns about work­place con­di­tions: an arti­cle about sil­i­ca dust caus­ing a resur­gence of black lung, that was pro­duced by Reuters and reprint­ed by the New York Times. And only one dis­cuss­es how the Gre­en New Deal could sup­port coal miners.

By far the most fre­quent ref­er­ence, in 16 sto­ries, was to depict coal work­ers as a con­ser­v­a­tive con­stituen­cy. These 16 sto­ries either pit coal min­ers’ liveli­hoods against robust cli­mate action, ref­er­ence min­ers’ sup­port for regres­sive poli­cies like envi­ron­men­tal dereg­u­la­tion, or dis­cuss min­ers who back Pres­i­dent Trump. When coal min­ers speak against pro­gres­sive poli­cies, par­tic­u­lar­ly envi­ron­men­tal ones, they’re more like­ly to be giv­en a plat­form. When they issue demands that affect their every­day sur­vival, they’re on their own.

Politi­co and the Wash­ing­ton Post gave con­sid­er­able space to the oppo­si­tion of coal min­ers and unions to the Green New Deal, with three arti­cles in this peri­od high­light­ing the top­ic. By con­trast, only one arti­cle, a 855-word opin­ion piece in the Wash­ing­ton Post, made the case for why coal min­ers should sup­port the Green New Deal.

Over­looked blue-green alliances

These Green New Deal arti­cles are worth exam­in­ing, because they estab­lish a nar­ra­tive that there is an insur­mount­able divide between elite cli­mate activists and work­ers just try­ing to get by. On March 12, the Wash­ing­ton Post ran the head­line, AFL-CIO crit­i­cizes Green New Deal, call­ing it not achiev­able or real­is­tic.’” The piece cen­tered on a let­ter of oppo­si­tion to the Green New Deal co-draft­ed by Cecil Roberts, the pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, and Lon­nie Stephen­son, pres­i­dent of the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers, on behalf of the AFL-CIO’s ener­gy committee.

Yet, on May 8, when Roberts ral­lied at Capi­tol Hill to call atten­tion to the exis­ten­tial threat posed to retired coal min­ers’ liveli­hoods, the Wash­ing­ton Post was mum. Along­side the Alliance of Retired Amer­i­cans, the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants (AFA) and mul­ti­ple mem­bers of Con­gress, Roberts made an impas­sioned case for the Amer­i­can Min­ers Act, the afore­men­tioned leg­is­la­tion that would trans­fer mon­ey to the UMWA pen­sion fund, a boon to work­ers whose ben­e­fits were threat­ened by the Great Reces­sion. We didn’t get any of the mon­ey you sent to Wall Street. You bailed them out,” Roberts shout­ed from a podi­um. What about the peo­ple who work for a liv­ing in Amer­i­ca? What about the peo­ple who’ve giv­en their health to America?”

The press con­fer­ence would have also offered an oppor­tu­ni­ty to report on alliance-build­ing between coal min­ers and Green New Deal pro­po­nents. And in fact, Sara Nel­son, pres­i­dent of AFA and vocal sup­port­er of the Green New Deal, spoke at the press con­fer­ence. Flight atten­dants are here, with our min­ers, to make sure that min­ers’ health­care and pen­sions are pre­served,” she said. They earned them.”

In a May inter­view with In These Times, Nel­son empha­sized the impor­tance of ral­ly­ing behind the bill. We need to push to adopt leg­is­la­tion that keeps America’s promise to coal min­ers of pen­sions and health­care,” she said, as well as address­es black lung— that’s the bare min­i­mum to show good faith that this process of tak­ing on cli­mate change will focus on mak­ing coal min­ers’ lives bet­ter, not worse.”

As labor and cli­mate activists grap­ple with dif­fi­cult ques­tions about how to tran­si­tion away from a fos­sil fuel econ­o­my with­out leav­ing work­ers behind, major media out­lets remain stuck in a reduc­tive elite vs. blue-col­lar” divide. In These Times con­trib­u­tor Michelle Chen not­ed that this false dichoto­my appears through­out a June 1 Politi­co arti­cle, Labor anger over Green New Deal greets 2020 con­tenders in Cal­i­for­nia.” The arti­cle quotes Jack Pit­ney, described as a vet­er­an Cal­i­for­nia polit­i­cal ana­lyst and polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Clare­mont McKen­na College.”

He says there’s a cau­tion­ary tale” for Democ­rats, who should remem­ber that West Vir­ginia, until 2000, was con­sid­ered solid­ly blue.” Repub­li­can strate­gist Karl Rove, work­ing for can­di­date George W. Bush, pushed the fact that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee was Al Gore, author of Earth in the Bal­ance,’’’ a fact that didn’t sit well with coal min­ers, Pit­ney recalls.

The piece cites unnamed coal min­ers as a warn­ing to Democ­rats: If you cam­paign on the Green New Deal, you will lose elec­tions. But real­i­ty is not so sim­ple. While it is true that labor lead­ers in the build­ing trades and extrac­tive indus­tries have expressed crit­i­cism or out­right oppo­si­tion to the Green New Deal, they don’t rep­re­sent all of labor, nor all of their own rank-and-file mem­ber­ship. As Stan­ley Sturgill, a retired coal min­er, told me at the People’s Cli­mate March in 2014, I worked under­ground for 41 years and I have black lung dis­ease. I’m actu­al­ly hav­ing a hard time breath­ing just to get to this stage. I am march­ing today because I want to build a bright future for my fam­i­ly, for Appalachia, and for this world. I have a vision where my chil­dren, grand­chil­dren, great-grand­chil­dren can have good jobs that sup­port our fam­i­lies with­out doing dam­age to our water, air, land and climate.”

And in fact, a sur­vey by the pro­gres­sive think tank Data for Progress in June found that union mem­ber­ship is one of the fac­tors most high­ly cor­re­lat­ed with sup­port for Green New Deal poli­cies, as well as the Green New Deal frame­work as a whole.”

Some unions, locals and labor fed­er­a­tions have come out in sup­port of the Green New Deal, includ­ing the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union, the San Diego and Impe­r­i­al Coun­ties Labor Coun­cil, the Maine AFL-CIO and the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Fed­er­a­tion of Labor. And labor and cli­mate groups worked togeth­er to pass land­mark cli­mate leg­is­la­tion through the New York leg­is­la­ture in June, thanks in part to the back­ing of the New York State Amal­ga­mat­ed Tran­sit Union, Team­sters Joint Coun­cil 16 and the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca Local 1108. Envi­ron­men­tal and work­ers’ groups have long tried to build cross-move­ment trust and sol­i­dar­i­ty, years before the Green New Deal was introduced.

The Black Mesa Water Coali­tion, for exam­ple, has long orga­nized in Ari­zona to build sup­port with­in coal min­ing com­mu­ni­ties for a just tran­si­tion from coal. And Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth orga­nizes coal min­ing com­mu­ni­ties, includ­ing coal min­ers with black lung, to push for a tran­si­tion away from fos­sil fuel extrac­tion, root­ed in oppo­si­tion to cli­mate change and the dev­as­tat­ing health effects of coal min­ing. The orga­ni­za­tion has been talk­ing about the need for a just tran­si­tion for at least a decade, mean­ing that coal min­ing com­mu­ni­ties deserve par­tial cred­it for advanc­ing this con­cept. In the for­mer coal camps of Lynch and Ben­ham, the orga­ni­za­tion is work­ing to help res­i­dents envi­sion and fight for a just tran­si­tion to renew­able ener­gy, from protest­ing moun­tain­top removal to retro­fitting homes.

The cli­mate stakes

But per­haps the most glar­ing omis­sion in Politi­cos June 1 arti­cle is its fail­ure to reck­on with the stakes. Whether to sup­port or not sup­port a Green New Deal is not a ques­tion of polit­i­cal strat­e­gy to win vot­ers or union sup­port, devoid of con­text. The UN’s IPCC report, released in Octo­ber, esti­mat­ed that we have 12 years to keep glob­al warm­ing under 1.5 degrees Cel­sius and save hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple from dev­as­tat­ing envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion, pover­ty and death. This is a cri­sis that hurts poor and work­ing-class peo­ple most, par­tic­u­lar­ly those in the Glob­al South, who are already see­ing their soci­eties uproot­ed by inten­si­fy­ing storms, draughts, and sea-lev­el rise. Min­ers, who are on the front lines of haz­ardous fos­sil-fuel extrac­tion, are not spared.

To be sure, a May 7 arti­cle in the Wash­ing­ton Post does empha­size the urgency of the cli­mate cri­sis before not­ing the con­cern that it would put coal min­ers out of work.” And it is worth not­ing the one Wash­ing­ton Post op-ed, pub­lished April 19, that defends the Green New Deal against crit­ics like Rep. Gar­land Andy” Barr (R‑Ky.), who dared Oca­sio-Cortez to come his district.

The Green New Deal specif­i­cal­ly address­es the need to help peo­ple in com­mu­ni­ties affect­ed by the tran­si­tion away from fos­sil fuels,” the arti­cle notes. It calls for direct­ing invest­ments [to] dein­dus­tri­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, that may oth­er­wise strug­gle with the tran­si­tion away from green­house gas inten­sive industries.”

Yet the 855-word opin­ion piece may do lit­tle to coun­ter­bal­ance the nar­ra­tive of con­ser­v­a­tive, anti-envi­ron­men­tal coal min­ers rein­forced across many sto­ries. This lop­sided focus con­tributes to the impres­sion that the gulf between coal min­ers and cli­mate jus­tice cam­paign­ers is impos­si­ble to bridge.

Mine work­ers are not the ene­my here, and I think the press does play them out to be,” says Joe Uehlein, the pres­i­dent of the Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, a coali­tion of labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups. But they’re not. They’re poten­tial allies if we can wrap our heads around real full-spec­trum just tran­si­tion’ poli­cies and fight for them.”

Accom­plish­ing this trans­for­ma­tion will require nuance and respect for the lives of coal min­ers who are hurt­ing from dried-up pen­sion funds, some­thing influ­en­tial media out­lets could use more of.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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