My heart went out to the coal miners who were the backdrop for President Trump as he signed executive orders gutting various Obama administration energy policies, including the moratorium on coal mining on federal lands.
As anyone who understands economics knows (including the University of Pennsylvania undergraduate economics major now occupying the Oval Office), coal mining jobs were disappearing in response to market forces for decades before former President Barack Obama took office. Moreover, the cost advantages of natural gas, wind, and solar energy all but ensure that Trump’s energy policies will not reverse that trend.
As I surveyed those sincere, hopeful faces ringing the president, I realized I had experienced the same feelings in another context more than 30 years ago.
In 1985, I was director of economics at First Bank (now U.S. Bancorp) during the protracted labor dispute at Hormel Co. in Austin, Minn. Meatpackers union members were picketing First Bank because we were the primary lender to Hormel and our companies had interlocking boards of directors.
A high-priced consultant had convinced the union that pressuring companies that did business with Hormel would help their cause. (For those too young to remember the strike, I recommend an excellent book, “No Surrender, No Retreat: Labor’s War at Hormel” by Star Tribune staffers Dave Hage and Paul Klauda.)
One December day, after walking through that earnest, shivering picket line when the temperature was pushing 20 below zero, I called First Bank’s chief loan officer on the Hormel account. “Brant,” I asked him, ”how much do we have outstanding on the credit line to Hormel?” After a moment to check, he answered. The number $70 million sticks in my head.
Then I asked: “If we agreed with the picketers and found some excuse to pull in our loan, how long would it take Hormel to replace the money?”
He answered: “Forty-five minutes, tops — if the guy at Manufacturers Hanover who is trying to get the account is at lunch.”
Those picketers had been given false hope. They were freezing their behinds off when the greatest effect they could have would be to force Hormel’s chief financial officer to make one more long-distance phone call. My heart went out to them.
If the true beneficiaries of the president’s action had been present at his photo-op, he would have been surrounded by fossil fuel executives whose companies will earn higher profits, and by Chinese businessmen whose emerging leadership in the huge global clean energy industry will be solidified.
And those sincere, hopeful coal miners? Just like the Hormel picketers, they were given false hope and were being cynically used, in this case by an administration eager to portray its pro-corporate policies as pro-worker.
As I surveyed those faces in pictures and videos, my heart went out to them. At least, they weren’t freezing.
Paul Anton, of Edina, is a retired economist.