WASHINGTON — The United Mine Workers of America, the union representing mineworkers for nearly 130 years, has for the first time invited every Democratic presidential hopeful to tour a coal mine and to discuss their thoughts on finding a place for coal workers in their vision for the nation's energy future.
In letters sent Monday to 23 Democratic presidential candidates and obtained by NBC News, the union's president, Cecil E. Roberts, said many miners who have felt estranged from the Democratic Party for years are now interested in starting a dialogue.
"They want to talk to you, and they have a right to be heard," Roberts said, inviting candidates to "demonstrate that Democrats are still the strong voice for working families that has long been the party's tradition."
The last Democratic presidential candidate to tour a mine with coal workers was John Kerry in 2004.
Mine workers were often the face of the "forgotten man" Trump vowed to prioritize in his 2016 insurgent campaign. As president, Trump has taken credit for what he has called a coal comeback after easing rules governing greenhouse gas emissions and the storage of toxic coal ash over the past two years.
But the reality is far different. Coal production is expected to hit a record low in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a nonpartisan agency. And today, there are fewer people employed by mine operators and contractors than there were under President Obama, according to the Department of Labor.
"Coal-fired power plants have continued to close notwithstanding those rules," UMWA spokesman Phil Smith told NBC News.
While the steepest decline in coal jobs came between 2012 and 2016, 2018 was a record year in terms of coal plant retirements in critical coal states including Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio.
Just this past week, 600 miners in Gillette, Wyoming lost their jobs when Blackjewel LLC suddenly shuttered two mines.
In the meantime, miners and a landowners' group are raising health, safety and environmental concerns due to huge open pit mines that aren't being managed by trained experts, including spontaneous coal fires, explosives and abandoned clean-up operations.
Yet it's unclear how miners and Democrats will agree on a plan to transform the nation's energy future. Many Democrats have made addressing climate change a pillar of their campaigns amid historic flooding, hurricanes, heat waves and wildfires.
While they are rolling out plans to invest in clean energy technology in coal communities, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's experience is a cautionary tale. In her book, "What Happened," Clinton said her biggest regret from the campaign was stating that her plan would put a lot coal miners out of business.
The miners have not sent a letter to Trump with a similar offer, said Smith.
"The miners kind of already know where President Trump is on their issues," he said.