By Dean Baker
The New York Times told readers that the United Mine Workers are a major force in opposing Biden’s measures on climate change. While it noted that there are less than 50,000 unionized mine workers in the country: “miners have long punched above their weight thanks to their concentration in election battleground states like Pennsylvania or states with powerful senators, like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.”
While the importance of Senator Manchin to Biden’s plans is undeniable, the rest of the story makes no sense.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, there were less than 5,100 coal miners in Pennsylvania in 2019. (It doesn’t have data for 2020 or 2021.) Pennsylvania has a population of more than 12.8 million.
In an incredibly optimistic scenario Biden, or any other Democrat, might lose these mineworkers by a margin of 60-40, meaning that he is down by roughly 1,000 votes among these workers. In a very bad scenario, they may lose this group by a 90-10 margin, meaning that the margin is 4,000 votes.
The difference between the very optimistic and very pessimistic scenario is 3,000 votes. This is less than 0.05 percent of 6.8 million votes cast in the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania. (Yeah, they have friends and family, but let’s be serious.) Rather than being located in battleground states, the vast majority of the country’s 42,000 coal miners are located in solidly Republican states like Wyoming, West Virginia, and Alabama.
It is also worth noting how few unionized coal miners are left in the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 37,000 union members employed in all forms of mining in 2020. This includes unionized miners in industries like copper, silver, and gold mining. Coal miners account for less than 7.0 percent of this larger category. Even if coal miners are unionized at twice the rate as the sector as a whole, it would still mean there are less than 10,000 unionized miners in the country.
It is also striking that the concern over job loss only seems to come up with reference to environmental issues. The coal industry lost tens of thousands of jobs in the last two decades as natural gas from fracking operations displaced coal as the preferred fuel for power plants across the country. For some reason, losing jobs to fracked natural gas apparently was not an issue for the coal miners’ union. The industry also lost more than 100,000 jobs in the 1980s and 1990s as strip mining replaced underground mining.
The piece also makes an absurd comparison of the potential loss of coal mining jobs to the loss of manufacturing jobs due to trade. We lost almost 4 million manufacturing jobs due to the explosion of the trade deficit between 1997 and 2007 (before the Great Recession).
While it is stylish in elite circles to blame this job loss on technology, the geniuses who make this claim have yet to explain why technology seemed to cost so many manufacturing jobs in a decade where the trade deficit exploded, but not in the prior quarter-century or in the years since the trade deficit stabilized. (We have added back more than 1.2 million manufacturing jobs between the trough of the Great Recession and the pre-pandemic peak.)
The number of jobs at risk in coal mining due to climate measures is less than 1.0 percent of the number of manufacturing jobs actually lost due to trade. The impact of these risks to jobs does not deserve to be put in the same category.
The fact is the jobs impact in the coal industry from climate measures is relatively small in a national context and even in pretty much every state, except West Virginia. It is understandable that the mining industry would like to highlight the jobs issue because the public is likely to have far more sympathy with mine workers than mine owners. The NYT should not be assisting the industry in its efforts to inflate jobs concerns in order to block action on global warming.
This first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.