Will There Be Justice?

Bankruptcy Court hearings begin Monday on Patriot Coal’s plan to effectively eliminate health care for retirees and impose severe cutbacks on pay, working conditions and benefits for active miners. Outside the courthouse in St. Louis, thousands of Mine Workers (UMWA) and their labor and community allies will call for justice.

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They will bear witness to a scam by Peabody Energy and Arch Coal to dump long-term benefit obligations on a company, Patriot, created specifically to absorb those obligations and eventually to fail. That case is being heard in another federal courthouse, in Charleston, W.Va., but it’s an essential underlying factor in this bankruptcy.

Consumer, environmental and civil rights leaders will join labor and religious leaders in demanding justice for those men and women who gave their entire working lives to the success of rich companies like Peabody and Arch, only to be dumped, and for the mining communities that are being abandoned in the process.

Joining UMWA President Cecil Roberts onstage will be Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America; Sally Greenberg, director of the National Consumers League; Van Jones, president of Rebuild the Dream; St. Louis NAACP President Adolthus Pruitt; and UNITE HERE Vice President Bob Proto. And Steve Smyth, president of the Australian mine workers, is coming halfway around the world to pledge support from down under.

Prayers will open and close the gathering, and the congregation comes together again in the evening for a candlelight prayer vigil across from the Federal Building.

It will be the Mine Workers “largest rally yet in St. Louis,” Roberts said, after four previous excursions that drew thousands of miners and supporters. Two weeks ago, the miners planted 1,000 white crosses to signify the number of miners who have died working for the coal companies, or who stand to lose their lives if their health care is taken from them.

The union is running a new 30-second TV spot in the St. Louis metropolitan area that dramatizes the importance of the fight. If the bankruptcy court can allow contractual obligations to miners and their families to be offloaded and then discarded, then no worker’s benefit is safe from corporate thievery.

The Peabody and Arch bigwigs, after listening to the crowd chants during previous demonstrations, got far out of town as the bankruptcy hearings begin, both holding annual meetings in Wyoming. But they can’t get away from the Mine Workers. A delegation was in Wright, Wyo., April 25 to demonstrate at the Arch meeting, and plan to yell even louder outside the Peabody meeting April 29.

“These companies can run, but they can’t hide,” said Jody Hogge, a retiree from Peabody Energy who traveled to Wyoming. She is president of UMWA Local 9819, and retired from Peabody Mine #10 in Pawnee, Ill., with 13 years of service as a miner when the mine closed in 1994. “They moved their meetings more than 1,000 miles from St. Louis because they don’t want people to see what they’re doing to us. They prefer to operate behind closed doors; we’re here to keep those doors open and let everyone see exactly how these corporations behave.”

You can follow the live blog from the rally at http://fairnessatpatriotnow.blogspot.com/. The event also will be live streamed, beginning at 10 a.m. Central Time at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/mineworkers. For more information, check out http://www.fairnessatpatriot.org, and show your support by “liking” the Fairness at Patriot on Facebook.

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We Need Robin Hood

A new report underlines the basic problem with the post-Great Recession American economy: the rich are getting richer while everyone else is falling further behind.

The study by the Pew Research Center finds that the average net worth of the top 7 percent of the U.S. population increased 28 percent in the first two years of the recovery.  The wealth of the other 93 percent declined.

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From 2009 to 2011, the average net worth of the richest 8 million households jumped from an estimated $2.7 million to $3.2 million, according to The Washington Post report on the Pew study. For the 111 million households that make up the bottom 93 percent, average net worth fell 4 percent, from $140,000 to an estimated $134,000.

Sadly, this is not a recent phenomenon. The divide between the rich and the poor has been yawning progressively – or should we say, regressively – since the early 1970s.  A study last September by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington noted that the median annual earnings of a full-time, male worker in the United States in 2011, at $48,202, were smaller than in 1973.

Between 1983 and 2010, 74 percent of the gains in wealth in the United States went to the richest 5 percent, while the bottom 60 percent suffered a decline, the EPI calculated. Any way you figure it, the middle class is getting screwed.

Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, offers a concise six-point plan to reverse the slide of the middle class and to build shared prosperity for the entire nation. It is not a soft scrub, by any means:

  • Award tax cuts to companies that link the pay of their hourly workers to profits and productivity, and that keep the total pay of their top 5 executives within 20 times the pay of their median worker. And impose higher taxes on companies that don’t.
  • Raise the minimum wage to half the average wage.
  • Increase public investment in education, including early-childhood — especially in the poor and middle-class communities that now lack decent schools.
  • Eliminate college loans and allow all students to repay the cost of their higher education with a 10 percent surcharge on the first 10 years of income from full-time employment.
  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • Add tax brackets at the top of the income tax scale, increasing the top marginal tax rate to what it was before 1981 – at least 70 percent.

The first and last of these proposals are key. We must use the progressive income tax system to level the playing field, to give the 93 percent a chance to get back in the game. The rich must pay more. But the rich have means, so we must beware. We must recognize the vicious nature of the reactionary campaign by corporate forces already underway. Consider this fractured fairy tale:

It should be simple math: the 99 percent should prevail against the 1 percent in a democracy, right? But our democracy is skewed by big money; corporations have bought politicians for years, with few fingerprints. Not just the inside-game glad-handing and lobbying, but also with well-funded public relations campaigns, trying to shape the message to hide the greedy corporate agenda.

The Koch brothers, authors of much of the disinformation during the last election cycles, reportedly now may buy the Tribune Company to help push their right-wing agenda – adding to the noise of Rupert Murdoch’s Faux News and Wall Street Journal editorial page.

While we fight this uphill battle against the anti-democratic forces that grease the palms of too many political leaders in the United States today, we can be cheered by an ongoing global campaign to rectify the inequality through a “Robin Hood Tax,” a levy on transactions of stocks, bonds and derivatives first proposed by the National Nurses Union and their international allies.

ImageWith 1,000 demonstrators calling for reform in the streets outside the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington last weekend, finance ministers from the EU were reporting on their negotiations to impose a financial transaction tax. The proposal: a tiny 0.1 percent tax on stock and bond trades and 0.01 percent tax on derivatives trades. The return would be  an estimated $750 million to $1 billion over 10 years to plow back into their economies and create jobs through public works and other stimulus programs.

A Robin Hood Tax on transactions would be a small price to pay by the global financial giants that created the Great Recession in the first place with their risky speculation schemes. But it’s just a beginning.

Perhaps we cannot resurrect Robin and his merry men to shake up the power brokers in Washington, where money rules most ignominiously. But we can recreate the spirit of appropriating from the greedy, of which there are many nowadays. Let’s insist on policies and reforms that close the great divide between the rich and the rest of us.

Keep Weapons Off Planes

Slipping under the radar Monday, the same day the FAA laid off 1,500 air traffic controllers causing flight delays nationwide, the TSA announced it is delaying a decision to allow small pocketknives back on planes.

A federal game of chicken is responsible for the layoffs, with the Republican-controlled Congress forcing deep across-the-board government cutbacks through a timid and ill-advised act of non-governing, called a “sequester.” Keeping knives off airplanes, on the other hand, is the result of an aggressive and courageous campaign by the nation’s flight attendants to demonstrate dangers the TSA has been quick to dismiss.

Technically, the policy to allow the knives back on planes, announced by TSA chief John Pistole, is being delayed for a report from a committee representing the airline industry, passenger advocates and law-enforcement experts, but the reality is TSA blinked because of the unrelenting opposition from flight attendants and air marshals, who would be forced to deal with any knife-wielding assailant in a cabin.

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The Coalition of Flight Attendant Unions, representing nearly 100,000 flight attendants at most airlines, “remains resolute: No Knives on Planes Ever Again,” Flight Attendants stated in a bulletin to members Monday night. The delay will allow them to continue making their very dramatic case for air passenger safety.

As flight attendants have pointed out, small knives and box-cutters were the weapons of choice by terrorists who hijacked four flights on September 11, 2001, turned first on flight attendants. While airlines have fortified cockpits to ensure that they cannot be broken into, the safety of passengers and crew in the cabin cannot be assured if knives are allowed back on planes.

Flight attendants have made this case in testimony before Congress and in numerous TV and newspaper interviews over the past six weeks. They’ve enlisted the help of survivors from the 9/11 attack, which killed 25 flight attendants among the air crews, to visit Washington and personally lobby their members of Congress.

“In the wake of the terrorist bombing in Boston last week … now is not the time to weaken transportation security,” said Sara Nelson, international vice president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “Flight attendants are breathing a sigh of relief that the weapons that led to the deadliest attack on U.S. soil in our nation’s history will not be allowed in the aircraft cabin this week.”

Nelson, a Boston-based flight attendant who lost friends in the 9/11 terrorist attack, says the TSA is making a mistake by focusing exclusively on international terrorism. In fact, as she points out in a New York Times op-ed, flight attendants all-too-often are terrorized by aggressive and out-of-control passengers, and allowing knives on planes will exacerbate the problem.

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Even TSA agents are opposed to the proposal to allow knives back on planes, explains David Borer, representing the 25,000 employees for the American Federation of Government Employees at a Capitol Hill press conference.

While TSA chief Pistole says lifting the ban would allow the agency to concentrate on explosive devices that could take down an airplane, TSA agents themselves have formally opposed the policy change through their union, the American Federation of Government Employees. It’s not as if the screening for pocketknives takes any time away from the screening for explosive material.

Yes, the public interest demands that TSA thwart plans by terrorists to hijack and bring down aircraft. But it also demands that passengers not bring dangerous weapons on board planes, no matter what the knife lobby says. For the safety of passengers and crew, we should keep knives off planes.

It goes beyond terrorism to day-to-day propriety and order. Why arm passengers who may be unruly, or in altered states. Pistole has certainly not made the case that greater air security demands that we expose flight attendants and passengers to potentially dangerous knife-wielding passengers. As Veda Shook, president of AFA said in her testimony to Congress, “Why introduce risks into the air security system?” TSA should not allow knives on planes.

Getting to the Point

In St. Louis on Tuesday, Mine Workers and their supporters will plant 1,000 white crosses to commemorate miners who have died in Peabody, Arch and Patriot mines, or who stand to lose their lives if Patriot is successful in using bankruptcy court to dump its retiree health care obligations.

The event, across from Peabody’s headquarters, comes as the bankruptcy court prepares for an April 29 hearing on Patriot’s revised proposal to alter existing labor contracts – and drastically reduce retiree health benefits. It also comes just two weeks after more than 10,000 miners and their supporters rallied in Charleston outside Patriot’s headquarters in West Virginia, where mining families and communities stand to lose the most.

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The rally by the United Mine Workers of America drew strong statements of support from both of the state’s U.S. senators, several U.S. congressmen, the governor, secretary of state, and other state and local officials. Teachers showed up on their spring break, part of a solid union showing that even included the Police, who politely handcuffed and hauled off 16 demonstrators who chose to be arrested.

There’s no question public sentiment in West Virginia is running strongly in favor of the union fighting for retired and active miners and against coal operators and corporate kingpins who are using the power of the purse to punish workers.

At the heart of this dispute is the willful and possibly illegal abandonment of contract obligations to retirees by Peabody Energy. Most of the miners who stand to lose their health care never worked for Patriot, which the union says was “created to fail,” strapped with obligations that would inevitably force it out of business.

The UMWA is suing Peabody in a separate federal suit, being heard in Charleston, charging that the company violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by creating a shell company, Patriot, to offload its health care obligations to retirees. And Patriot agrees, and could take its own legal action to force Peabody to the table, according to Patriot CEO Ben Hatfield during a series of public relations forays over the past week.

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Ben Hatfield

Hatfield’s public relations efforts included a newspaper editorial and several interviews, including with the influential “Decision Makers” host Bray Cary. Hatfield said he agrees with Roberts that Peabody appears to have created Patriot to fail, and that Peabody bears responsibility as the “manufacturer of this outcome.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Roberts and Hatfield may both be thinking about now, but the road is long and difficult. They’re a long way from agreement on a fair deal for Patriot retirees, but there is movement – a proposal by Patriot last week to give the UMWA a 35 percent stake in the restructured company after bankruptcy, which the union could leverage to help maintain a level of retiree health care above the $15 million the company offers to finance a health care trust fund (VEBA), not nearly enough.

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Cecil Roberts

In a statement last week, Roberts characterized the proposal as “a step forward.” But the liability for the retiree health care is estimated at $1.7 billion, and a 35 percent stake in a company worth, say, $1 billion, would only amount to $350 million, a fraction of what is needed.

Meanwhile, the Mine Workers are not sitting back and waiting for the next step. They’re massing in St. Louis on April 16 to make a point: miners have died for the success of Peabody Energy, and Peabody owes them what they promised.

Stay tuned. You can check out live blogging of the event at http://fairnessatpatriotnow.blogspot.com/. It will also be livestreamed, beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 16. Check it out here: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/mineworkers,

Last Line of Defense

Denny Pickens saw a good job at the Shoemaker mine outside Wheeling, W.Va., nearly slip through his fingers before he was able to reel it back with the help of his union, the United Mine Workers of America, which convinced Consol Energy that it should invest in revitalizing the mine.

Pickens, the president of the local UMWA union at the mine, was a key player in organizing a cooperative program that demonstrated to Consol that the mine could be profitable, saving hundreds of jobs and boosting a community that depends on mining families for its survival.

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As the head of the march neared Patriot Coal headquarters in Charleston, demonstrators were still leaving the Civic Center 11 blocks behind. More than 10,000 miners and their supporters rallied for fairness.

That battle for the economic health of coalfield communities has boiled over as Patriot Coal and its sponsors, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, are using the bankruptcy courts in an effort to dump their obligations to retirees and their families. That’s why Pickens joined more than 10,000 Mine Workers and their supporters April 1 as they marched to the Charleston headquarters of Patriot Coal, demanding a fair deal for the workers who built the companies’ fortunes.

After 45 years in the mine, Pickens would like to retire but he can’t afford to do it when retiree health care is hanging in the balance of this struggle. “If it could happen to our brothers down here, it could happen to us,” he said. “And if it goes past us, it could happen to anyone in this country.”

That is the considered view of a man who has spent nearly half a century in pitched battles with coal companies that have had little compunction about tossing workers and retirees under the bus if it helps to maximize their profits – and a man who understands the power that a union gives him when he goes to the table.

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Denny Pickens

“It’s got to stop, and it’s got to stop now,” Pickens said. “If we’ve got to be the shock troops to do it, then I guess we’ll do it.”

It was easy to see the United Mine Workers as the leading edge of a defensive stand as they marched through the streets of Charleston, outfitted in their trademark camouflage garb. Many were veterans of wars, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, recognized from the podium by UMWA President Cecil Roberts.

“Every time this country has called on us … the Appalachian coal miners have been the first ones to answer that call,” Roberts said. “Now I say, these people stood with their country and it’s time for our country to stand with them.”

Among the nearly 11,000 marchers was a young family all in camouflage – Tim and Melissa Morris with their infant Hayley, asleep in Tim’s arms. They had come from southwestern Pennsylvania because “what they’re doing is not fair,” Tim said. “We’re sticking together and fighting back.”

That’s a spirit lauded by public officials who addressed the crowd, from senior U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (via video) to Rep. Nick Rahall and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. All sang the praises of the Mine Workers and their leadership.

Perhaps no one was as effusive in praising the miners as West Virginia’s junior senator, Joe Manchin, also a former governor. He said he enjoys telling people outside Appalachia just how important coal miners have been to American history, to the economy and to the defense of the nation.

“People don’t defend this country without you,” Manchin said. “I tell other people: These are the most patriotic people in the country. They’ve shed more blood and made more sacrifices than any other group of people I know.”

The irony of these patriotic Americans fighting for fairness from a company that calls itself “Patriot” was not lost on the congregation.

Here’s Sen. Manchin’s full remarks: