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June 2012
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Right-to-work could help replace lost coalfield jobs

By JIM WATERS The Bluegrass Institute

As a result of increased pressure achieved by a perfect storm of increasing competition from other energy sources along with the Environmental Protection Agency's mandate that Kentucky reduce its CO2 emissions by 18 percent within the next 15 years, thousands of Kentucky coal miners - and myriads more who supply and serve them - have lost their jobs, many of which were well-compensated positions.

What to do?

Earlier this summer, the federal Department of Labor awarded a $7.5 million National Emergency Grant to Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program's "Hiring Our Miners Everyday (HOME)" program to help now-unemployed coal miners and their spouses get the training, licensing and job-seeking help they need to re-enter the workforce.

But considering the commonwealth's lack of correlating economic growth and development needed to meet this demand, could this wind up being a case of being all dressed up and nowhere to go?

While the HOME program funding may be a well-intentioned investment of taxpayer dollars, where will HOME's beneficiaries find the kind of job that will replace the living wage of a high-paying mining job that allows miners to maintain a comfortable lifestyle without being forced to move halfway across the country?

Government can certainly play some important role in terms of providing some resources for training and placement. However, it cannot create the jobs where this training will pay off. At best, it fosters the environment that encourages such growth. At worst, it can unleash its ideologically possessed EPA regulators on an already ailing state economy.

State lawmakers could, for example, demonstrate the ability of government to overcome political strife and deadlock and actually do something that would help unemployed workers by passing a right-to-work law, which would remove a huge obstacle toward attracting manufacturers to Kentucky.

While a right-to-work law will not fix all of our state's economic woes, I'm confident that some of those manufacturers would be willing to seriously consider Appalachia. After all, one of their priorities is locating in areas with a sufficient workforce; with the job losses during the past few years, there certainly is an abundance of hard-working Kentuckians in that region.

"By being non-right-to-work, Kentucky misses up to at least 25 percent of all heavy employment economic-development projects looking in the region," James Medbery of Binswanger company, who serves as a site selection consultant in several states, including Kentucky, said. "Companies cross the state off the list without giving it another thought."

Many companies - especially manufacturers - simply don't want to go where their workers are forced to join a labor union or pay dues.

But they will go to a right-to-work state. And not only will they go, they will hire dedicated, hardworking and loyal employees - a perfect dictionary definition of "unemployed Kentucky coal miner" or any other hardworking job-hunting Kentuckian, for that matter.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, real manufacturing GDP grew between 2003 and 2013 by more than 26 percent in states with a right-to-work policy, which is nearly double the growth in states where workers at companies with unions are forced to join or risk losing their jobs.

One of the great characteristics of our free market economic system is that - despite the nonsense being sent our way by Washington's regulators who know nothing about Kentucky, its people or its coal mines - proven, innovative approaches will still come forth that mitigate at least some of the damage senselessly done to our employment picture.

Passing a right-to-work law will attract all sizes and types of companies.

But most important, they would be the catalyst that gives our unemployed coal miners and out-of-work manufacturing employees what they want most: a hand up in the form of a good job rather than a handout via some costly government program.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky's free market think tank.

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