Here’s a Christmas Card

My friend Kieran recently sent me a single from his acapella band, Cartoon Johnny, offered free for the holidays, “What Christmas Means to Me.” It’s an old Motown song, sung years ago by Stevie Wonder, and Kieran has the Stevie voice, a soaring tenor with soul, of the blue-eyed variety. He’s got the lead here. You can download the song from the Cartoon Johnny site here:

http://www.cartoonjohnny.com/fr_home.cfm

The song conjures up the sights and sounds of the holiday, and the feelings of good times now and the coming year: “candles burning low, kissing under the mistletoe, snow and ice, choirs singing carols …” all the ambient goodies that make Christmas a romantic season for young and old.

I’ve had mixed emotions about the holiday over the years, I confess, and not all good emotions. The best memories were of the songs, from the choir lofts of our church or caroling with the boys and girls in the crisp December air, stealing kisses whether there was mistletoe or not. There was always excitement in the air.

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The first five Byrnes and their meager Christmas, one toy each. I got the wrong-shaped ball, David got the six-shooter.

But that’s a boy’s memory, unsullied by the marketplace, the bubbly, toil-y cauldron of the season. I’ve always resented the crass commercialization of Christmas, with the steady drumbeat to buy, buy, buy … step right up, get your Furby here, tickle me Elmo, little Cabbage Patch doll. Fit your Barbie to the nines. Last-chance coupons for the jewelry that will make your soul mate tingle, the hard-sell merchandising.

And then, years later as a newsman, reporting on how the American economy would rise or fall at the end of the year on those holiday sales. Be patriotic, get out there and buy, buy buy!

At some point the season passed from the joy of youth to the burden of adulthood, and it was not an easy passage for me. Nothing puts me more on edge than a crowded mall, jostling with frenzied shoppers trying to get to the bottom of that shopping list, going through the motions of holiday cheer. Even the Cyber Monday online blitz is a costly chore.

Now some would say that we suffer from having taken Christ out of Christmas, but that’s not the problem with the season for me. I’ve long since lost my faith in the little baby Jesus and his unlikely crusade to die for my sins. It’s a nice story tweaked through the ages, part of the great myth of the collective consciousness of the human experience.

We bring a lot of our gods to bear during the winter solstice season, Hannukah for the Jews, Bodhi Day for the Buddhists, Pancha Ganapati for the Hindu Lord Ganesha, Kwanzaa for the Pan-African celebrants, the Epiphany celebration for the Greek Orthodox and the Puerto Rican revelers. I’m happy to celebrate Yule, the shortest day so hurry let’s dance and make merry. And, of course, there’s Festivus, “for the rest of us.”

But there is another part of Christmas that warms the cockles of my heart, eggnog or no, and that’s the gathering of families, the displays of genuine affection – through not only gift-giving but also simple expressions of love and cheer. Over the years, as the eldest of nine kids, the father of five, the grandfather of four, I’ve found plenty of good reasons to celebrate the season. These were on my mind when I sent these lyrics to my brother, David, in Kentucky, from my outpost on the beach in Hollywood, Fla., back in 1984:

Here’s a Christmas card, brother,

The gift of our song

May the words strike a chord

May we find our best reward

In knowing we belong.

Christmas across the mountains

Makes me think of you

Of partying out by the goal

The nights of rock ‘n’ roll

The songs so true.

Here’s to crisp autumn days, of hot rod heaven craves,

To those young girls who won our hearts

To the jokes and the tokes, to the lovin’ live-in folks

It’s been a celebration from the start.

Here’s to our life, brother

One we’ll always share

Meet me at the buck-buck lot

Teach you what I’ve been taught

I’ll always be there.

We’ll find our absolution

In living this good life

Taking stock of all that’s past

Yielding songs that are sure to last

Well beyond our time.

Here’s to crisp autumn days, repeat CHORUS

Here’s to all those Christmases

Under the family tree

To the gathering of our gang

To the boys and girls who sang

In five-part harmony

And here’s to life

That goes on and on and on

To the memories we’re making

To the new ground we’re breaking

All started here in our home.

Here’s to crisp autumn days, CHORUS

Five years later those words came back to me in a video, probably the best Christmas present I ever received. There was David and his guitar, along with my daughters Celeste and Jessica, lip synching and “playing” along. David had changed a few words, to protect the innocents. My son Chris made a cameo at the end. The kids were all living in Kentucky then, along with their mother.

Here it is, recently digitized and uploaded to YouTube, thanks to my sweet Terry, the love of my life:

This week I make that trek across the mountains to spend quality holiday time with the Byrnes – Celeste and her husband Glenn have two energetic boys, one already a teenager; Jessica and Jeremy have two young’uns, as well. I stop to visit Chris and his girlfriend Rachel near Pittsburgh, along the way. David and Melissa will be there, along with my mom and her husband Claud, plus most of my sisters and, hopefully, my big little brother Tim, who lives not too far away.

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All the Byrnes, at a Christmas gathering, with mom and stepdad Claud, from left: Tina, Tonya, me, Tim, Paulette, David, Sandra, Teresa and Jeannette.

Terry has to work, so she won’t join us this year. But after New Year’s, we get a chance to drive south to visit with her mom and dad, sister Patti and brother Andy and his wife Beth. We’ll miss daughters Miki and Cassy this year, but there will be some sharing via Skype, plus it won’t be long into 2013 before we visit them in Chicago. The family bond really knows no season, although we make time to celebrate it at the end of the year.

There is nothing more precious than family, and Christmas brings out the opportunity to share the love. So celebrate! Best wishes to everyone (and their families) for a joyous holiday season.

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A Time to Grieve. A Time to Act.

We must act. We must change. We must try to prevent more tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. That was the gist of President Obama’s powerful sermon before the grieving community of Newtown Sunday night. It was the fourth deadly rampage during his four years as president, horrifying experiences for towns across the nation, and for him.

Visibly moved by the tragic loss of young lives, he declared, “We must be willing to try to stop it. … In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.”

We can expect much discussion over the next few months about guns, about curbing assault weapons and improving background checks and gun sale authorizations. Let’s hope that the new Congress has the impetus and the guts to get it done. But beyond the guns, we also should look closely at mental health issues – not just the monsters who lash out and kill innocents, but also the culture that spawns the violence and hate.

ImageWhat do we need to do – as a society and as a nation – to protect ourselves from the “Abby Normals”? And I don’t mean to make light by using the “Young Frankenstein” reference, but to make a point that Adam Lanza was an extreme case, the aberration. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School just before Christmas – a cowardly and dastardly act – was the act of a mentally deranged individual who slipped through the cracks of our society.

How else can we explain it? A young man, not yet 21, kills his mother and assaults an elementary school, blasting away at the lives of 20 children and 6 teachers and supervisors – as if he is reveling in the horror of this moment, his complete control and mastery of this “game.” Perhaps it was also a cry of anguish and desperation from an individual adrift in American society, but it was crazy. Abby Normal.

Mental health experts don’t like us to use words like “crazy,” but someone who becomes unhinged and strikes indiscriminately at innocents is not sane.  Even if he were acting in the name of some God of vengeance – committing an act of political terrorism – he would still be mentally unbalanced, in my view. The pieties and spiritual allusions in President Obama’s speech, so necessary to soothe the wounded community at church, cannot obscure the fact that the fervor of religion is the basis for most wars and terror throughout history.

It would help, obviously, if Adam Lanza – or his mother – had sought professional help, and a psychiatrist could come forward with an educated diagnosis and opinion about his state of mind. We do know, based on every report I’ve seen, that there is no link between Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and violence. And there’s no confirmation that Lanza was even diagnosed with Asperger’s.

As we look to find a solution to this outbreak of violence against innocents, I think it is worthwhile to look beyond this murderer to see his unspeakable crime through the prism of the society in which we live – this violent, dangerous world that is also projected through our arts and culture. Yes, guns are a big part of this miasma, and so also may be the games we play. I think it’s fair to ask if this commando-style assault was modeled on violent video games, as they were with the boys at Columbine.

And there is the chicken and egg question. Who is modeling whom exactly in this boy marketing game? How does a young man tune out the real world, numb himself to the brutality and humanity of actions that kill and maim? Amanda Palmer reflects on this sad phenomenon through the eyes of a Columbine killer:

Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and chairman of the Forensic Panel, who works on more than 20 homicide cases a year, told The Washington Post, “I point the finger unreservedly at the entertainment industry, which has spawned and cultivated gaming that by design is increasingly real, geared to action as the shooter’s point of view, increasingly dehumanizes victims, and increasingly rewards players by how many they kill.”

Violent video games are just one of the sources of disturbing images we are exposed to daily in our society – in movies, TV, the daily news. But they are expressions of the world we live in. Kids are routinely assaulted at school and, sadly, in their homes. Young women are physically and verbally assaulted just simply walking down the street. We are all exposed to images, and individuals, at the edge of culture and propriety in modern society.

Most of us handle it just fine and move on. We live in a free society and we are not going to restrict speech, but we can limit the exposure to the young and impressionable – including those who have mental health issues. But we need help in our communities to reach out and touch the vulnerable ones. This is where Obama’s call for our society to take responsibility “for others’ kids, for each other” should be answered. The social safety net is genuinely frayed and needs serious repair. How do we begin?

Let’s heed the president’s call to act. In case you missed the president’s moving presentation in Newtown, here it is:

Is Change Gonna Come?

As discussed in this blog a few weeks ago, Gerald Marks was a musical genius who applied his art to the service of a cause – his love Edna Berger, first of all, but also to Edna’s mission to give creative people in the news business a seat at the table to negotiate with the boss. She was the first woman to lead The Newspaper Guild’s organizing, as the senior field representative. She was relentless, and he loved that about her.

Gerald bequeathed much of his estate, literally “All of Me” and other pop royalties from Tin Pan Alley on, to broaden a scholarship fund for young women created by Edna’s close friends and acolytes, which has grown into the Berger-Marks Foundation. In November, the foundation awarded, in Edna’s name, cash grants to young women of distinction, who are leading the movement for social and economic justice.

It was the second Edna award, and a credit to Gerald’s generosity and Edna’s passion. He put his money where his heart was, creating a fund to do good deeds, to help encourage a new generation of women who care about social justice, and to lead others to care. Like Veronica Avila, who won the 2012 Edna because of her work organizing restaurant workers in Chicago, helping them rise out of poverty.

I was reminded of the power of music again this week on a couple of accounts, including the “Robin Hood” concert for Hurricane Sandy victims in New York City, an amazing outpouring of love and affection for a city and a region, including the Jersey Shore, that has nourished a generation of artists.

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Bruce Springsteen and Jon BonJovi celebrate “La Causa,” to revive the Jersey Shore.

Jersey boys Bruce Springsteen and Jon BonJovi kicked off the concert, followed by legend after legend: Billy Joel conjuring up the “New York State of Mind,” Roger Watters invoking Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” with Eddy Vedder, Paul McCartney reviving Nirvana, Alicia Keyes and Kanye West, Chris Martin of Coldplay backing up Michael Stitt of REM, the Who rocking the house, Daltry shirtless again, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones prancing around a “crossfire hurricane” like they weren’t really 69, going on 70.

As someone said, it was like my iPod was playing the concert. Here were many of my favorite artists playing their hearts out, with this perpetual offer of the gift of music, this act of love for New Yorkers who are suffering. Here, take out music, please. Please donate. We’re giving our music back to you.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: the other experience. I’m dealing with a corporation that controls the assets of the estate of a musical artist, and the agents of this corporation have made clear to me that generosity and love do not rule the music business, Gerald Marks notwithstanding. To have our music embrace you and your cause, you must deal with a breed of mendacious executors of musical legacy who insert their own values into the process.

This is ABKCO, the keepers of the flame of “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke’s remarkable paean to the spirit of a people rising, which has been adopted as an anthem for the civil rights movement and other campaigns to set people free. Few hymns lay bare the human struggle more than this:

ABKCO kept the song bottled up for three decades in a legal fight with RCA Records, which also had a claim based on its earlier recordings. Even the producers of Malcolm X were prohibited from including the song on the 1992 movie sound track, although it still played during the movie.

ABKCO is a musical publishing company founded by Allen Klein, the former manager of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones who proved to be a litigious suitor of their musical legacy. The company has demonstrated that it will go to court at the drop of a hat, and apparently there is no lack of hats at ABKCO.

Thus, I should not have been surprised when ABKCO rejected our request to use “A Change is Gonna Come” as a rally point for agents at American Airlines, who finally have a chance to vote for representation by the Communications Workers of America after the company tied them up for nearly a year with administrative foot-dragging and a frivolous suit pushed all the way to the Supreme Court.

Some people in this Internet age of “free stuff” would not ask, of course, but unions have always defended intellectual property – many great musicians, writers and dramatic artists have defended the rights to their work through their unions, from the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) to Actors Equity to the Screen Actors Guild to the American Guild of Musical Artists, and many others. The National Writers Union, and its formative president Jonathan Tasini, sued the New York Times to ensure that freelance writers were paid for their work that the Times posted on the Internet.

Gerald Marks secured his legacy not only with his songbook, but also as a longtime board member for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which licenses the use of music for members. I had hoped that I could go through ASCAP to inspire our agents with “A Change is Gonna Come,” but ABKCO has secured the rights through many years of litigation.

I wonder what Sam Cooke would think about how a song he wrote to inspire – there were few such gospel-tinged songs in pop music when he wrote it in 1963 – has been bottled up by a publishing company whose main mission is apparently to keep a stable of lawyers in alligator shoes.

Sam Cooke’s daughter, Linda Cooke, now known as Zeriiya Zekkariyas, has sued the company to receive more than what the company says is the $650,000 she has gotten over the past 48 years since her father’s death. In her suit, she states, the company has showed “no consideration, for Sam Cooke’s background, as a spiritual singer, and that his Master Recordings should be available, to those asking to use his works, to support statements, of progress, for people of his own nature, and purpose.”

I think Sam Cooke would have looked favorably on the struggle of American Airlines agents to gain a voice at work, at a time when they are being laid off and outsourced, and their jobs diminished by a company that is shredding their rights under cover of bankruptcy.  But the number crunchers are in control, and “people of his own nature, and purpose” can be pushed aside.

Reminder: Martin Luther King was in Memphis to support the right of sanitation workers to join a union when he was gunned down – surely the act that galvanized the civil rights movement and the sentiment expressed so well in Sam Cooke’s song. The right to be represented at work should be a basic civil right, as it is in many countries around the world.

Few promoters or record company executives were as reviled as Klein, who died in 2009. He was clearly a shrewd businessman who managed to gain the rights to a lot of music he did not create. And I’m sure those millions of dollars he hoarded from buying and selling the rights to music probably helped to muffle the sharp words of John Lennon in his kiss-off to Klein in “Steel and Glass” in 1974:

That’s an indictment of Klein and the class of entrepreneur who would exploit the power of music for personal gain. The Robin Hood concert for Hurricane Sandy victims confirms what we know is true in our hearts – music is for us all. What these artists give to us is really invaluable. It transcends the petty deal-making and profit-taking.

Can we get an app for that?

Playing the ‘Freedom’ Card

The effort by the lame-duck Republican legislature in Michigan to ram through a so-called “right-to-work’ law is a subversion of democracy, pure and simple. What they could not accomplish through the electoral process, these Republicans intend to do with a blatant power play. It should not stand.

We should cheer the arrival Tuesday morning of hundreds of thousands of workers in the streets of Lansing to protest this dirty deed. They can help peel back the layers of deceit to show this legislative attack for what it is – payback to unions for helping Obama and other progressives win in November, and a defiant call to arms on behalf of their corporate underwriters, the sponsors of their lost election.

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Protestors rally Dec. 6 at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mi., before police turned them back with pepper spray. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio).

Thus far, however, the lesson in Michigan for those who disagree is “Duck!” Tens of thousands of protesters mustered force on Dec. 6, the same day the bill was introduced. They were pepper-sprayed by the police as the state senate held its voting session behind locked doors. No hearing. No discussion. No justice.

There have been other modern-day subversions of democracy by state legislatures, such as Pennsylvania’s 1996 lame-duck passage of electric utility deregulation, pushed through by future energy czar Tom Ridge. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s single-minded assault on public service unions in 2010 certainly qualifies as a major political attack on the public interest.

But Michigan’s “right-to-work” scam really takes the cake. Even a superficial look shows the “underhand” behind this attack on unions – the powerful Koch brothers and their moneyed consort, the corporate-sponsored National Right to Work Foundation, and the right-wing ALEC legislative lobby, doing the dirty work on the assembly floors.

And this is occurring only a month after Obama soundly defeated Mitt Romney and the same corporate ideal – by 8 points in Michigan, led by an overwhelming 15-point majority among union households.

It is comforting to hear, just last week, that Obama opposes “right to work for less.” But we need more of this drumbeat on behalf of simple economic justice. One presidential pronouncement is not enough.

“Right to Work” is a Big Lie that sounds good until you examine it closely. There is real economic mischief hiding behind an abstract and fractured concept of “freedom.”  Here’s what Michigan Gov. Rich Snyder said: “This is all about taking care of the hard-working workers in Michigan, being pro-worker and giving them freedom to make choices.”

It is this kind of fractured logic and double-speak that politicians use when they intend to operate against the interest of the people they should be representing. And because of this easy-to-swallow fabrication a majority of Michiganders – 55 percent – say they are in favor of “right to work.” It’s about freedom, right?

No, it’s not. It’s about restricting your rights to organize – your freedom to make something better of your life.

As the Detroit Free Press stated in an editorial Dec. 9, “Snyder’s right-to-work legislation is an attempt to institutionalize Republicans’ current political advantage. Everything else is window dressing, and most of these diversionary talking points are demonstrably false.

“The argument that right-to-work status makes states more competitive or prosperous is refuted by a mountain of evidence that shows right-to-work states trailing their union-friendly counterparts in key metrics like per capita wealth, poverty rates and health insurance coverage,” the Free Press pointed out.

The United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2011 Occupational Employment and Wages Estimates[25], shows median hourly wages of all 22 Right to Work States (RTW) and all 28 Collective-Bargaining States (CBS) as follows:

Occupation Median wages in Right-to-work states Median wages in Collective-bargaining states Difference
All occupations $15.31/hour $16.89/hour -$1.58/hour (-9.4%)
Middle school teacher $49,306/year $55,863/year -$6557/year (-11.7%)
Computer support specialist $46,306/year $50,641/year -$4335/year (-8.6%)

So-called “right-to-work” laws make it illegal for employees and employers to negotiate a contract that requires all employees who benefit to pay their fair share of the costs of negotiating it. These laws are designed to undermine unions’ bargaining strength. If workers are allowed to opt out, collective bargaining doesn’t work so well.

Currently, 23 states have such laws, including Indiana, which succumbed to the same one-party ALEC rule earlier this year.

According to research from the Economic Policy Institute, right to work produces “lower wages for union and non-union workers by an average of $1,500 a year and decrease the likelihood employees will get health insurance or pensions through their jobs. By lowering compensation, they have the indirect effect of undermining consumer spending, which threatens economic growth. For every $1 million in wage cuts to workers, $850,000 less is spent in the economy, which translates into a loss of six jobs.”

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That’s the problem with the right-wing “freedom” recipe. It does not give power to the individual. You are free to what? Get along? To be truly free, you must have the right to organize. We don’t have that today, despite the best efforts of FDR to create a National Labor Relations Act in 1935. We do not have this basic freedom of association, to choose a representative in the workplace, because legislators have continually eroded those rights, palms greased with corporate largesse.

The NLRA was first sullied in 1947 by the anti-union Taft Hartley Act, which was forced through by another Republican Congress, over the veto of President Harry S Truman. The Taft-Harley Act specifically authorized states to prohibit unions from negotiating “closed shops,” where everyone paid their fair share. Many southern states rushed to outlaw “fair share,” and for years those states have suffered the consequences – lower wages, lower income, more poverty.

President Obama may never have to exercise a veto over a National Right to Work Law, which was one of the corporate planks embraced by Mitt Romney in his 2012 campaign, but he will get a chance to weigh in on the subject Monday, Dec. 11, when he visits an auto plant in Michigan.

Let’s listen to what he says. I’m hoping for a strong statement against “right to work” and for the right to organize. Perhaps even a call for national card-check legislation, where a majority can rule in the workplace before the company mounts the inevitable anti-union broadside, protected by our weak labor laws.

It’s long overdue to swing the ball the other way, to balance the playing field for workers against the powerful corporations that run their lives. That would be the mark of real freedom, the freedom to organize.

Scene of the Crime

Traveling south from Charleston, W.Va., through Boone County is a visual treat, a land weathered by time and fortune. You can see it on the truck-cracked roads that roll past narrow streambeds, on the little coal towns sunk into the hollers or nestled up against the mountains, abandoned coal tipple conveyers rising along the mountain peak, and on the mountains themselves.

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An abandoned church, once used as a Mine Workers union hall in coal-rich Boone County, is being swallowed by weeds and coal sludge from a nearby mountaintop-mining operation. (Courtesy of OVAC)

Time had certainly worked over Big Mountain before Patriot Coal Co. shut down its coalmine there earlier this year. When I visited in 2011, it was down to Big Mountain #16, and miners were busy working the remaining veins. At the time, Patriot seemed determined to work it until the coal was exhausted, producing nearly 2 million tons of coal from Big Mountain that year.

That was fine with the miners, members of the United Mine Workers of America. In fact, management and labor were in the process of putting aside years of bitter fighting to talk about cooperation, safety and prosperity. The supervisor at Big Mountain #16, Dave Belcher, was a former rank-and-file union miner who allowed that he liked and respected the local union president, John Alderson, and Alderson said the feeling was mutual.

Alderson wasn’t always so easy to get along with. Before he lost a few steps working the mines, “Big John” Alderson was a heavyweight boxer who was able to go a few rounds with “Iron Mike” Tyson, the eventual heavyweight champion. Alderson was game:

When I met him in 2011, Alderson certainly commanded the respect of the miners, as a relatively new local union president. And he also had Belcher’s respect. “I can always go to Dave Belcher and work out any problems,” Alderson said. “He takes a lot of pride in the work we do in the mines up here.”

That open communication between management and labor didn’t necessarily guarantee safe and profitable operations – the mine was cited for failure to report safety violations in May of that year and had consistent safety problems because of the bad roof conditions endemic to the Appalachian geology, and Patriot shut it down in February 2012, citing reduced demand for coal. The company declared for bankruptcy five months later.

Alderson, Belcher and the rest of the Big Mountain crew were transferred to Patriot’s Black Oak mine, up the road toward Charleston, as the company consolidates as it works through restructuring. Big Mountain could be opened again, but there are no promises.

“If we don’t work together we’re in trouble, because everybody is against coal,” says Carl Egnor, the local union president at Black Oak. “If we work together we can prove them wrong and all these young miners will have an opportunity to make a good living for their families.”

As Egnor suggests, miners in West Virginia and other states in the coalfields believe that coal will continue to fuel the economic engine of their communities. That was clearly the consensus I found in conversations with miners and operators not only at Big Mountain and Black Oak, but also at Shoemaker and Blacksburg, in northern West Virginia.

But the bankruptcy filing by Patriot may herald a steep downward slope for the industry – or a further erosion of our reliance on fossil fuels in general. Even the most dubious of the climate change doubters are coming around to the realization that extreme weather patterns, such as Hurricane Sandy this year, are the result of global warming trends that are increasingly influenced by human activity.

Still, the rise in “clean” natural gas production give us new turns at fossil fuel production, and there are a few jobs in those pipelines. Some power producers, including FirstEnergy Corp, American Electric Power and Duke Energy, are shutting down many of their coal-fired plants in response to stricter environmental rules, switching to natural gas.

While natural gas may be emerging as a replacement for coal in power generation, it is not without environmental risk. Many experts believe that we are headed into a period of “mix-and-match” energy generation, as coal continues to give way to natural gas, as well as additional nuclear production while such renewable clean energy technologies as solar, wind, wave and geothermal are developed.

What becomes of mining communities as coal becomes less and less attractive as an energy source? In November, Patriot announced that it has agreed to phase out mountaintop removal and other forms of strip mining, which may be good news for Appalachian communities fighting environmental degradation but which will pose new challenges for their economies. Patriot didn’t suddenly get environmental religion, of course. It was facing a costly suit from environmentalists, plus the company wouldn’t mind shedding two of the stronger local unions in the coalfields.

“Coal mining has always been an occupation of continuous change, whether it’s technological change, changes in mining methods, changes in markets, or changes in regulations,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said. “Companies have always made strategic decisions based on those changes and workers are left to live with the consequences. That is what has happened here.”

For Roberts and his union, Patriot’s withdrawal from strip mining could mean fewer coal mining jobs in the long run, but also more difficulty in ensuring that Patriot lives up to its obligations. Since declaring bankruptcy in July, Patriot is trying to jettison its responsibilities for health care and pensions for miners and their families, including retirees and widows.  The UMWA is fighting for the miners in bankruptcy court in St. Louis.

The union is also fighting the real villain here, Peabody Coal Co., the original guarantor of worker benefits that offloaded those jobs and the benefit obligations onto Patriot, a subsidiary it created just for the purpose of shedding the liabilities.  The UMWA has filed suit against Peabody claiming violation of the Employment Retirement and Income Security Act, which prohibits defrauding workers out of earned benefits. That case is being heard in Charleston.

Peabody’s double-breasted scam on workers, using shell companies like Patriot to offload pension obligations, then using the bankruptcy courts to cash in while dumping workers, is a scenario playing out in a lot of industries, including the airlines. But Big Coal has managed to set some record low standards.

In 2004 Horizon Energy dumped more than 5,000 miners and their families, unloading the company through bankruptcy to Massey Energy, operator of the Upper Big Branch mine that collapsed and one of the most disreputable employers in the coalfields. The Patriot fiasco is the latest in a long line of treachery by the nation’s coal barons.

A lot of families in the coalfields are depending on the UMWA to once again carry the day against Big Coal, in the courts of law and in the courts of public opinion. But they will also have to contend with the changing dynamics that makes coal less important to the nation than it has been throughout our history.

When you think about how much coal has played a role in the culture and arts of the communities of Appalachia, it’s not too far-fetched to think that one day they’ll be gathering in school auditoriums and community theaters to celebrate Coal: The Musical. Don’t laugh! The production is already underway: