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Abstract

Coal mining in an economic activity that is carried out in several countries in the world. Coal provides a cheaper source of fuel due to its relative abundance. The mining activity is also a source of living for several peoples in these countries. However some poor working conditions and the environmental impacts of the activity, shifts the attention of the laborers to other sectors of the economy. There is thus a need for devising ways of overcoming the shortfalls. This paper examines how workers union has been successful in addressing these issues among the coal miners in the United States. It also examines how the principles of the union can be adopted by other countries

Coal mining in the in the US

Introduction

Coal is a mineral with high-energy content that is extracted from the ground. It is an organic sedimentary rock comprising carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. It is developed from a chemical decay of organic matter over long periods due to the physical and chemical processes taking place in the earth crust (Bonisch & Frieberg, p1). The difference in time taken in decomposition, the pressure at a particular level, as well as the temperature will result into different kinds of coal. It is used as fuel in the extraction of metal ores and has been of great use in the generation of electricity for various commercial and industrial usages. It has the advantage of its relative abundance compared to other sources of fuel. This also makes it a cheaper source of fuel compared to other sources like petroleum products. Besides, it has a higher energy content compared to wood fuel of an equal mass, and can be readily available in some woodless regions. It is thus a sufficient source of energy in the arid and semi arid regions of the world. The rock-changed-mineral is the source of about 20 percent of energy that is currently consumed in the world. It is also used to produce bout 40 percent of the world's electricity (Environmental Literacy Council (ELC), para.1).

Coal mining and revolutions

The scientific, agrarian, and industrial revolution that were witnessed in the world industrial powers in the 18th century were due to the availability of coal that could be used to drive engines for various mechanized systems. The challenges that were met by the coal miners during these olden days were lack of proper scientific mechanisms for mining. The coal mining process was manually performed forcing the miners to work for several hours a day under strict conditions. Some of the jobs at the coalmines were threatening and would easily cause death to the miners (Montagna, para17). Better mining methods were therefore necessary to ensure the well-being of the laborers. Environmental effects of such mineral extraction were also a factor to be considered. The need to change the working conditions to suit the laborers as well as the need to check on the environmental impacts of the economic activity drove the activity into the political arena. The activity may be harmful not only to the environment but also to the workers as well. Explosions in the mineral ores, the collapsing of the roofs of the deep mining caves and the difficulties encountered in rescuing the victims of such incidences have been seen in the recent past. Several coal-mining unions were formed to check on the trade on coal and the welfare the coal miners.

Coal mining is currently an economic activity in several countries in the world. Approximately 6000 million tones (Mt) and 900 million tones of hard coal and brown coal are produced in the world respectively every year (World Coal Association, para.1). The use modern technology has improved the mining process by reducing the total workforce in the recent years. It has reduced the dangers that were encountered during the mining process as well as the amount of coal that can be extracted at a given period. China, the United States, India, Australia, and Indonesia are the top coal producers in the world. A substantial amount of coal produced by these countries is used for domestic consumption (WCA, para.1).

Background of coal mining in the US

Coal has been stated to be 'the most abundant fossil fuel in the United States' (Bonisch & Frieberg, p1). All the four kinds of coal namely lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous, and anthracite are found in the United States. The United States is the second largest producers of coal products in the world after China. A report drawn from the International Energy Agency 2010 showed that United States produced 919 million tones of hard coal in the year 2009 economic year. This was second after PR China's 2971 Mt of hard coal (WCA, Para.2).

Coal and its product are used to generate more than 50 percent of the electricity that is consumed in the United States (ELC, para.1). It is also used to manufacture some organic products that are further used in the production of wooden and plastic products.

The United States can be grouped into six coal-producing areas. Due the chronological and temperature/pressure differences experienced in the regions, these regions have varying quantities of the different kinds of coal. The major uses of coal also vary from region to region.

Appalachian/Eastern province

This region contains the coal producing states like Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The region produces about 40% of the total amount of coal produced in the United States (Bonisch & Frieberg, p3). The region has the most developed coal in the US. These coals mainly consist of bituminous and anthracite kinds. The coal produced here is mainly for energy production.

The Northern Great Plains Province

This contains regions like Wyoming and southern Montana. Its coal is mainly sub bituminous and lignite (Bonisch & Frieberg, p4). The coal that is extracted from a variety of mines is used to provide energy to drive power plants

Rocky Mountains province

The region produces bituminous, sub bituminous, and lignite coals of varying percentages across the region. Its coal also sells due to its low sulphur content. Some of the coal produced in this region can also be used for domestic purposes (Bonisch & Frieberg, p7).

Pacific coast province

This region stretches from along the coastal basin from California to Washington D.C. It has developed coal of sub bituminous and bituminous types. 

Interior province

The region has a range oh bituminous coal that spread across the region from the central to the western regions. There are also traces of anthracites in some regions. These are used of domestic energy production.

Gulf coastal plain province

The coal produced in this region is mainly oh lignite type. Its main usage is fro the production of electricity of domestic and industrial consumption.

Coal union in the United States

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) is trade union that began in 1890 Columbus, Ohio. It developed from the union of Knights of Labor Trade Assembly no. 135 and the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers. The union was established to advocate for good working conditions for the miners and mineworkers, handsome salaries and benefits for the workers and equal employment opportunities to the mining activity for all Americans. It was a reaction to the poor working conditions that the mine laborers were being subjected to, the on proportional salaries and wages they received without benefits, and the kinds of racial and tribal discrimination that were witnessed in the labor market for the mining activity. It has had some challenges occasionally falling and being revived by the leaders (Woodrum, 2).

Collective bargaining power of the coal union

A key to success by any union that fights for the rights of its members is the ability of the members to come together and speak out as a single entity. The coal union in the United States fought to establish a collective bargaining power as a tool towards the achievement of the union's objective. In practice, the policies and principles that were adopted, their unity and strength, and the kind of leaders that have served the union, are some of factors that have contributed to the success of the union. Having drawn members across different fields of the mining sector and from different employers, there was a need to develop strategies that would help in establishing standard industry-wide labor policies. There was a need to have standardized rate of wages across the coal mining industry (Poulsen, 3). A number of factors had to be incorporated to ensure that this collective bargaining power was maintained.

Policies and principles

During the first convention of the union, a constitution was adopted that racial or ethnic discrimination. The founders of the union had noticed that such kinds of discrimination were being practiced in some parts of America and were keen to notice how destructive the discrimination was in the economic sector. The delegates of the union developed strategies that would be helpful in cultivating a spirit of peaceful cohesion between the workers and their employers. They discouraged the use of strike as a tool for solving the differences between the employers and the members of the union.

Unity and strength

The union draws its members from different fields of coal mining. Coal miners, truck drivers, health care providers, public employees, and manufacturing workers are among the members of this union. Drawing different firms together is a way of improving the bargaining power and can help in promoting interdependence among the diverse groups (Poulsen, 8). The unity that exists in the union with this diverse membership is what helped develop the collective bargaining power of the union (Peetz, 3).  

Good leadership

A period in history when the success of the UMWA can be traced properly is 1919 to 1960 when John Lewis was the president of the union. This is one of the outstanding leaders that have been witnessed in the history of UMWA. John was a leader who devoted much of his life to serving the interest of the union. The emergence of the American labor movement could be seen as the result of his ability to defend the workers union (Barkan, 202). Under his tenure (in 1934), the unity and strength of the miners saw about 90 percent of the mine operators sign a contract with the union (Woodrum, 7).

He had close association with the presidents of the United States during this period, and would advise the sitting president on various matters pertaining to the labor force and its implications (Barkan, 202). He was a fearless leader who would confront and challenge various organizational leaders.

Legislative interventions

Due to its environmental impacts, the activity of coal mining has been under tense regulations by various local and international agencies in the coal producing countries. Various forms of legislation have been enacted to provide for the safety and health of the miners. In the United States, the 1977 adoption of the Federal Mine Safety & Health Act was a move to ensure the safety of the mine operators (ELC, para.1). The act provides for the safety procedures to be adopted as well as the subsequent penalties for non-compliance with given regulations.

The two methods of mining that has been adopted for a long period have certain challenges associated with them. Underground mining involves the digging of shafts to reach the rock deposits. It has the dangers that the roof of the coal mines often collapse and the process of rescuing such victims is never easy. An alternative method is the surface mining. This involves the removal of the soil on top of the mineral deposit to get access to the seams. It has adverse environmental impacts like 'erosion, loss of habitats [for man and animals], and air pollution' (ELC, para.5). Through this, various poisonous chemicals can find their ways into the water bodies posing problems to the aquatic life. Due to these adverse environmental impacts of mining, the United States adopted the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act in 1977 (ELC, para.7). In particular, the act provided for the re-leveling of the mining sites after a site has been abandoned to restore the original land topography that was in a given area.

A type of surface mining called mountain removal that is common in states like Virginia and Kentucky involves the blasting of entire mountaintop to expose the coal deposits. Such a method had various court challenges in the late twentieth century in the United States. Various agencies like the US Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency were forced to unite and develop a strategy that would reduce this environmental impact of mountaintop removal.

Lessons learned from the union

The principles and policies that were developed and adopted by the founders of the United Mine Workers of America can help in developing a trade union that survives in any tense environment. The determination and solidarity that has been seen in the union has seen it survive at a time when instituting and maintaining such organizations is hard due to the political waves in the United States and other countries in the world. Such kinds of determination and unity among workers are essential for the success of any union of workers.

The leaders of such unions should also be determined to defend the members of the union even if it means a confrontation with the political leaders in the countries. Issues of discrimination based on gender, race, religion, culture or ethnic community should not be allowed to prevail in any work place. In fact, the members of such union should also be drawn from different levels of workers as was witnessed in UMWA.

The workers' unions to be instituted should be those that advocate for the rights and needs of the workers using a diplomatic approach. They should strive to develop cohesion between the employees and their employers and ensure that strikes are only used after all the other measures of dialogue have failed.

Coal mining in Australia

Just as in the United States, coal mining in Australia is an economic activity that serves both the nation and its citizens. A substantial proportion of the coal that is produced in Australia is exported to other countries. A greater percentage of the electricity that is produced in the country comes from combustion of coal. The coal produced in this region is a mixture of both the brown and black coal of the tertiary age.

Just like in other countries where coal mining is carried out, there is various adverse environmental and social impact of the activity in the towns of Australia. The impacts of the mining activity on the lives of women in the remote mining towns of Australia have attracted the attention of the critics. Some of the factors that contributed to the adverse effects of mining on the women were 'harsh climatic and structural conditions of the towns, physical separation from friends and relatives, limited resources and opportunities available in remote localities and atypical work schedules for the mining jobs' (Sharma, 2). There were reported cases of psychological problems among the residents of such remote town that evolved due to the activity in the regions. It was later observed that a substantial proportion of such cases were reported for women whose husbands and other relatives were mineworkers. The strict working conditions at the mines did not favor regular reunion of the mineworker with their family members. The activity had posed environmental degradation in the mining sites leading to poor climatic conditions in the regions. Gender discrimination was also evident in these mining sites as there were limited employment opportunities for the women to work in the sites. The workforce in the mining sites in this region consisted entirely of male employees with females constituting only 0.4% of the total labor force (Sharma, 3). Besides, women were not considered even in the leadership of political organizations that would help in fighting against gender, ethnic or racial discriminations. The cultural diversity that existed and the language difference that existed for some minority groups were a major barrier to social interaction and networking (Sharma, 3). Women are reduced and restricted to the domestic chores that are not payable. There are forced to adopt the traditional positions of women in the society. The long working hours for the males in the mining activity is the major contributor of this shift of burden to the females (Sharma, 9).

How they can succeed following the US model

The problems that are encountered by the Australian mine workers and their dependants are the similar issues that led to the formation of the workers union in the United States. The working conditions are unfavorable and some employers opt to give individual contracts in which case they locally determine the wage rates (Peetz, 2). The workers union in the mines of the United States advocated for good working conditions for the mineworkers. It fought for the equitable distribution of opportunities and resources among the majority and the minority groups. The union also advocated for salaries and wages that are proportional to the work done. Policies that protected the environment were also a point of concern. It has been suggested that to manage the difficulties encountered in the mining sector, there is need for 'holistic understandings, coordination, integration, and cooperation across the industry, government, and community sector' (Franks, Brereton, & Moran, 1). A collective responsibility requires the working together by governmental and nongovernmental agencies, mine operators and their workers. In deed, numerous civil society groups fight for better conditions for the miners (Connor, Freeman & Higginbotham). These groups should come together to form a single union that can now speak with united voice as a single entity. A workers union in Australia should thus be instituted that addresses these issues. In executing its duties, the union should adopt the policies like solidarity that led to the success of UMWA in the United States.

Conclusions

Coal remains one of the cheap sources of energy that can be used to supplement other sources like electricity and wood fuel. Coal mining is an economic activity that benefits a country in various dimensions. It provides an alternative source of energy to the nation, creates employment opportunity to the members of the nation, and can be a means of foreign exchange earner to the nation.

Poor working conditions, salary that is not proportional to the amount of work done, and the kinds of discriminations that are witnessed during the recruitment and selection of employees in the mining or any other sector. This calls for the establishment a trade union for the workers. In order to survive, the members of the union must show a sign of unity and solidarity. They must pay due respect to their elected representatives and abide by the provisions of the union's constitution. The union leaders, on the other hand, need to devote themselves to serving the union. They should be outspoken and ready to defend the rights of the workers irrespective of the kind of self-sacrifice such a stance may need.

The environmental impacts of coal mining are factors to be considered in managing the economic activity. The dangers that are faced by the workers in the mining sites also need to be addressed. The intervention of government through legislation can help regulate the mine operations in order to reduce its adverse impacts on the environment. Government policies can also be adopted that advocate for the rights and privileges of the employees in this sector.

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