Rich Trumka, the president of the country’s largest union federation, the AFL-CIO, was in Montana for the state’s convention in Missoula last week. The federation represents many workers in Montana’s troubled coal industry.
Trumka is a third-generation miner. The Pennsylvania native can’t accept that workers, like those in Colstrip, are getting squeezed out of their jobs.
“We sent a person to the moon and brought them back. We can’t figure out how to burn a lump of coal, cleanly? I just refuse to believe that," he says.
It was just announced that half of the units at Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant will switch offline by January. About 3,500 people rely on Colstrip for work.
Washington and Oregon, which use much of the plant’s energy, have also approved coal bans in coming years, putting local workers at risk.
Despite that, Trumka thinks technological improvements can keep coal viable in a more competitive and green world.
“I know we can," Trumka says. "When the American public decides to do something, nothing can stop us. But it’s been too much sloganing. Too much political football. I’m for a clean environment, you’re against it. That’s nonsense.”
The coal industry also has a powerful advocate in the White House. President Trump threw it a lifeline last week, making good on a long-held promise to repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which pushed states to reduce coal use and cut carbon dioxide emissions. Trump’s new replacement rule allows states to determine how, or if, coal-fired plants should receive efficiency upgrades.
Still, Trumka says the AFL-CIO is investing in a future with a greater share of power from different energy sources.
A federation committee tracks where the economy is going, and how unions can keep pace. The union is also working with MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Stanford universities to find out how technology may influence the future of work.
“We’re looking at ourselves and saying, 'Where are these jobs going? What skills will we need in the future? How can we be flexible enough to know when an industry is evolving so that we can evolve with that industry?'”
That evolution actually may have been a little easier if the EPA hadn’t gotten rid of the Clean Power Plan last week. The policy included a section about providing resources to transition coal workers toward new employment.
“It at least gave them a fair shake to get trained for a new job and a new career," Trumka says. "And the process, the new one doesn't do that so much, and as a result workers will get left behind.”
Although the the Trump administration’s replacement rule doesn’t offer retraining for coal industry workers, at least one utility is looking to ease Colstrip’s transition.
Washington state-based Puget Sound Energy owns part of the two plant units being shut down this year. The company has pledged $10 million toward community transition planning in Colstrip. Another of the plant’s owners has expressed interest in contributing to the fund as well.
Trumka says they have an obligation to contribute.
“We bear the burden, and again, that’s totally unfair," he says. "Those workers deserve better because they’ve done better. For years, no one questioned their skill. Now, when it’s time to get something back, people say ‘Oh it’s just a number.’ We’re not going to let them lose the faces of every one of those workers, and those families and those communities. Because it’s not just about the workers, it’s about the entire community.”
Trumka says it will take utilities, but also local, county, state and federal collaboration to keep workers afloat. Ultimately, he says it requires electing people actually interested in spreading equity throughout the country.
“The economy is nothing but a set of rules. Those rules are made by the men and women that we elect. And those rules decide the winners and the losers," Trumka says.
"For a long, long, long time, workers in this country have been the losers, not the winners. So I would ask those representatives, I would look them in the eye and say, ‘What do you plan to do to make my life better? How are you going to change the rules so that we have shared prosperity, and so that everything doesn’t continue to go to those people at the top? And if they can’t give you an answer, you probably should look at different candidates," Trumka says.
There is an election next year, after all.