See if this story seems familiar.
A dozen workers from the mine fill a tiny room … They're big, brawny men, and working in their hometown mine is the only job they've ever known. …
Another worker ... doesn't know where he's going to find work now. His grandfather worked at this mine in the 1930s, … and his father worked here… . Mining coal is all he knows.
There are a few more gaps in this story than usual, because when that first part is filled in, it reads like this.
A dozen workers from the mine fill a tiny room decorated only with a portrait of Chairman Mao.
The closing coal mines and out of work miners in this story are in China. But their story is the same one we’ve heard so many times in the United States.
It wasn't always this way. Thousands used to work inside this mine on the northern fringe of China's rust belt. It was established in 1960 at the height of Mao's China, when the Communist Party considered this region a worker's paradise. Coal mines and steel mills here employed millions.
Now it's littered with deserted fossils of a bygone era. The 21st century's Communist leaders are transforming China's economy into a paradise for consumers, and have ordered inefficient, state-run mines like this one to close.
The story of the miners in China, and their attitude toward the mines, is remarkably like those we hear in the United States, but what’s happening in China is not what’s happening here and now—it’s what happened here decades ago.
The peak of US coal mining actually happened almost a century ago when nearly 800,000 men were employed as coal miners. The drastic decline in the number of miners in the United States up until 2000 didn’t happen because coal was dying—it happened even though coal production was sharply increasing.
Coal mining peaked when almost all mining was underground, and when underground mining meant with pick axes. Multiple technological innovations underground, leading to modern “continuous miner” and “longwall” units drastically increased production and reduced staffing. By the 1950s, ANFO explosives made widespread surface mining possible, and by the 1980s the shift was on to move much of America’s production to the enormous surface mines of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.
Even though coal production is expected to be slightly higher in 2017 and 2018 than it was in 2016, as stockpiles at power plants are depleted, that production will go to high volume mines in the west, while Midwest and Appalachian mines continue to decline.
Long before the market began the task of squeezing out the last coal miners, coal mining itself had already killed those coal communities. When people talk about coal mining jobs coming back, they’re mainly longing for positions that vanished decades ago.
For China, it’s all hitting at once. China is seeing a sudden influx of other energy sources into the market, new coal plants are being cancelled in enormous swaths, and the government is shifting away from areas and techniques that generate jobs toward those that generate production at minimum cost.
According to information brochures Longhua distributed to workers, the company is offering severance equivalent to $500 times the number of years they've worked. No more pension, no health insurance; just a lump sum of money.
That’s more than workers in some US mines filing for bankruptcy are getting—even as executives in those US companies are awarded bonus pay by bankruptcy courts.
It’s not just the United States. It’s not just coal mining.