Tai Chi Revelations

I’ve practiced tai chi for 25 years, religiously pursuing an almost daily exercise to improve health, balance and mindfulness. It seems to be working within those parameters, but it may be too early to tell. Eventually, I will fall down and lose my mind. It’s just a matter of time, no matter how hard I work to prolong it.

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(C) The Kwoon, Port Orange, FL. Art by Warren Cain.

More recently, I’ve begun to understand how this 200-year-old Chinese martial art form can take you further than simple health and vitality, both physically and mentally. Those ideas began to crystalize during a recent weekend seminar conducted by Sifu Mark Rasmus, a martial artist and former clairvoyant who brings that mysticism to the teaching of tai chi, as I’ll explain later.

Tai chi chuan translates to “extreme, ultimate boxing (or fist).” This form of Chinese boxing (yes, these guys were flexing their muscles during the “Boxer Rebellion” in China at the turn of the 20th century) evolved from the martial arts form and practice of the Yang and other families in the 1800s. The Yang form was refined to 37 basic postures and popularized in the United States by Cheng Man-Ch’ing, a renaissance man renowned as the “Master of the Five Excellences” – poetry, calligraphy, painting, Chinese medicine and tai chi.

My teachers descended from the group of Americans, particularly Robert E. Smith, who were schooled by Cheng, a man of small stature who easily dispatched them in his New York studio. My teachers have explained that the power of tai chi comes from inside the body and is guided by a mind (yi) that is sensing the “center” and “root” of opponents, and then purposefully directing energy (chi) to neutralize and then dispatch them.

Anyone can develop these martial arts skills, as witness Cheng, a sickly young man who healed himself through tai chi. When you look at him on video, with his wispy sideburns and goatee, you think he could not possibly be a fighter. But using tai chi principles, he would outmaneuver and defeat larger men in America.  Check out Cheng displaying his martial abilities through push-hands exercises:

When Cheng is at his best, he doesn’t extend his arms in propelling his opponents – or “bouncing” them, as modern tai chi practitioners describe the process the Chinese refer to as “fajin,” or issuing explosive power. He is able to absorb the energy of his attackers and to send it back at them. To understand this process, you really must feel it. Now, after 12 hours of training with Sifu Mark Rasmus, I have a new appreciation for this internal power.

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Sifu Mark Rasmus in Chengdu, Sichuan, China.

Mark Rasmus (sifu is the traditional Chinese honorific for “teacher”)  came to tai chi after extensive experience as a wing chun fighter. He also studied Hermetics, an occult pursuit of magic and mysticism by training the mind and body, as popularized in Europe by Franz Bardon’s “Initiation into Hermetics.” Mark fondly recalls his work as a clairvoyant, with and without Tarot cards, and today still practices psychic healing through chi kung, literally “life energy cultivation.”

“Usually when I touch them, I can separate and remove the energy that is causing the sickness,” Rasmus says, “as long as they are receptive to the touch and the idea of healing through transmission of chi. The mind controls this energy.”

In tai chi, the concepts of chi, as the “life force” you can cultivate with breathing and meditation, and yi, the purposeful mind that allows you to direct this life force, suggest a power that at least borders on the metaphysical. The workshop title, “The Science of Elastic Force” could not disguise the mystical and magical tenor of the teaching of Sifu Mark Rasmus.

Tai chi has long had the allure of the mystical, the “secret” behind the underlying power of the internal martial arts. In the Chinese culture, however, these are hardly secrets, just the expression of Taoist and even Confucian belief systems. The concepts of Yin and Yang, for example, are essential Chinese identities, opposite forces that are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world. Understanding this duality in nature and humanity is an ancient road to knowledge in China.

Rasmus teaches a western perspective on this duality, drawing from Hermetics, referring to the yin quality as magnetic, the yang quality as electrical. These polarities serve as the springboard for his practice, and his training. As we learned, they intersect neatly with tai chi principles, and they work in the real world.

Next: Into the Mystic.

Getting It Together

What does it take to get Democrats and Republicans to work together? Apparently all that’s needed is a recognition that they must act – because people are hurting and they’re yelling and screaming about it. Better to work out a deal than be tossed out on your ear on Election Day.

ImageThat’s a cynical view, and I still applaud the 19 members of the House that agreed to sponsor or co-sponsor HR 2918, the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protections Act of 2013. That’s a good piece of legislation that should become the basis for law, helping Mine Workers and their families stay alive, essentially. And the United Mine Workers of America have made sure that Congress gets the message with a vigorous public education campaign over the past eight months.

The bill’s supporters are eight Democrats and 11 Republicans, most from the coalfields of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Democrat George Miller of California also signed on to the bill because he is a labor champion who would not pass up the opportunity to support families in dire need of health care benefits promised for a lifetime of work underground, at risk of life and limb.

Most of these miners worked for Peabody Energy or Arch Coal, but those companies managed to dump their health care obligations onto a spin-off company, Patriot Coal, that may have been created by Peabody to fail. Thousands of Mine Workers and supporters rallied in Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield’s front yard, the Henderson County Courthouse, back in June to assail a bankruptcy judge’s decision that would give Patriot carte blanche to dump benefits and abrogate current contracts.

Congressman Whitfield was attending to the funeral of his father that day, but he sent an aide to pledge his commitment to introduce legislation to protect those benefits. His promise served as an opening to craft this bipartisan bill, which resembles a bill sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, (D-W.Va.). This one, however, is bipartisan, a rare commodity in Washington politics, giving Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, good reason to sponsor both bills.

“This effort is about standing up for coal miners, their widows, and our coalfield communities,” Rahall said.  “After a lifetime of labor, they have earned the right to retire and live in dignity and I refuse to stand idly by as our miners see the benefits they earned over a lifetime eroded by forces beyond their control.”

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Some 5,000 Mine Workers and their families gathered in heavy rain in Fairmont, W.Va., last month to urge Peabody Energy and their elected representatives to do the right thing.

West Virginia Republicans David McKinley and Shelley Moore Capito are co-sponsors of the bill, as are Kentucky Republicans Whitfield and Andy Barr. Five Republicans from Ohio also signed on.

The eight Democrats are spread across seven states, including Missouri, where William Lacy Clay Jr. is upholding the fine Missouri Clay tradition of his father, the great Rep. Bill Clay, who championed workers as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.

For the most part, however, all these legislators have a single common interest. Mine Workers and their families and friends and allies in the labor and religious communities are a core constituency, a single-minded and committed group of voters who do not forget.  They are a powerful political force.

The Mine Workers have mobilized thousands of members, dressed in camouflage or militant T-shirts, virtually camping out in front of Peabody’s headquarters in St. Louis over the past six months, using billboards and TV and print ads to punctuate the frequent rallies. More than 10,000 miners and allies rallied outside Patriot’s West Virginia headquarters in Charleston, W.Va.

But that is in the coalfields, a natural audience for the UMWA message. Now the voices of miners and their struggle must be amplified to reach the population and financial centers of America, to make their case to an audience that doesn’t really get coal, or the human costs of mining. 

In a sea of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 19 hardly make a ripple.  But that’s how every movement begins. Eventually, with a little agitation, we can make a splash. For this Congress, it may take a full immersion.

Still Keeping Time

Since my last post, I’ve been packing up and preparing to move during another ferocious heat wave scorching the nation. That is the big story from Arizona to Massachusetts. Mother Nature’s frenzy. And that’s another story.

We’re not moving far, but the process of parting with a home and memories accumulated over 22-plus years can be discombobulating, to say the least. I console myself with the fact that this is a new chapter, and there is much to build on. Time marches on, and with it go the flickering vignettes of life, the universe and everything.

Some thoughts on the news of the day, and yesterday:

ImageWho are braver than the firefighters who rush into the flames to save lives and property? They are our most important warriors today in this heat, with wildfires out of control throughout California, Arizona, Colorado, Montana and other states. The 19 firefighters who died fighting a blaze in Arizona this year were the best trained, the most dedicated, the most fearless. My hat is off to the International Association of Fire Fighters and President Harold Schaitberger, who speaks proudly and powerfully about firefighters’ dedication and organization in the public interest.

“The men we lost in those hills lived and served for others, for all of us,” Schaitberger said in tribute during the memorial service for the Arizona “Hotshot” crew. “They chose saving lives and protecting the citizens and country they loved, as their profession.”

They are my heroes. As the Boss says, may their love bring us love:

Perhaps the most outrageous outcome of the Trayvon Martin case, besides a jury of white women actually upholding vigilante injustice against a black teenager under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, is the pronouncement of shooter George Zimmerman after his acquittal that he felt “that it was all God’s plan.” What kind of God plans for the stalking and killing of an unarmed teenager? I am disappointed by the verdict but also dismayed by the sanctimony of those who would judge Trayvon Martin but not the acts of a wannabe cop who clearly initiated the confrontation and set it off. It is sad to think that American justice holds that profiling and prejudice are extenuating circumstances, and the perpetrator can walk.

Edward Snowden, the young consultant who walked away from his contract job with a laptop computer full of information about how the National Security Agency has routinely, and with impunity, collected telephone and email communications from Americans, is now holed up in the Moscow airport, although a deal may be underway to grant him temporary asylum in Russia. I have mixed feelings about his actions, which I think fall short of espionage but certainly should be prosecuted, if he can be apprehended. I’m not sure I want him to be apprehended, however. His target audience is the American people, not some foreign government – although foreign governments, friend and foe, must look askance at the U.S. propensity and ability to track any and all communications. The most important question to resolve: Do we trust our own government enough to allow what clearly is invasive prying into our private lives. We will have to revisit this very important issue later.

The selling of “Obamacare” is a bow to the same ugly dealing that got us this flawed health care “reform” in the first place. Delaying for one year the requirement that employers with 50 or more employees provide health care may help the Democrats weather another election season of Obamacare curses, but it sets back the effort to provide health care for every American. Meanwhile, some provisions of Obamacare actually penalize – and may put out of business – good “multi-employer” health care plans, which pool resources to provide good and affordable care. Eventually, this Obamacare system must grow a “public option” if we are to control costs.

Three cheers for the Economic Policy Institute in creating a new instructional website at http://inequality.is// about the dangerous trend toward economic inequality. It is a telling reminder about what we must do as a nation to fix a broken economic system that is seriously out of kilter. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s avatar provides a professorial tour through the brambles of an economy that was created to be unfair and is hurting not only families, but also the future of our nation. Check it out here:

Malala Yousufzai, the young girl shot in the head by Taliban terrorists last year to prevent her from promoting education for girls in her native Pakistan, made a moving and inspirational speech to the UN Youth Assembly on her 16th birthday. The world is fortunate that such a courageous young woman, wise beyond her years, will dare to challenge ignorance, hypocrisy and violence. Ignore the al Jazeera news crawl and watch her speech to the end:

The fight for Fairness at Patriot goes on in the face of a bankruptcy court ruling that gave Patriot Coal carte blanche to drastically cut benefits for retired and active coal miners, most of whom worked at Peabody and Arch Coal and never worked a day at Patriot. I was on hand to witness the nearly 5,000 miners and supporters who gathered in a football field in Fairmont, W.Va. on July 9 to protest the ruling and the corporate swindle authored by Peabody and Arch, which dumped their retiree obligations into a company, Patriot, created to fail. Police arrested 30 miners and supporters during the peaceful protest. The next rally is outside Arch Coal headquarters in St. Louis on July 30. It won’t stop there.

A recent Washington Post article nonchalantly laid out the Koch brothers’ media War Room, KochFacts.org, a media attack machine that challenges every report, and spins every issue their way. With the Koch brothers reportedly planning to buy some of America’s great newspapers as part of a deal with the Chicago Tribune Co., this commentary by Robert Reich is worth repeating: “Suppose a small group of extremely wealthy people sought to systematically destroy the U.S. government by (1) finding and bankrolling new candidates pledged to shrinking and dismembering it; (2) intimidating or bribing many current senators and representatives to block all proposed legislation, prevent the appointment of presidential nominees, eliminate funds to implement and enforce laws, and threaten to default on the nation’s debt; (3) taking over state governments in order to redistrict, gerrymander, require voter IDs, purge voter rolls, and otherwise suppress the votes of the majority in federal elections; (4) running a vast PR campaign designed to convince the American public of certain big lies, such as climate change isn’t occurring, and (5) buying up the media so the public cannot know the truth. Would you call this treason?”

koch-bros-voodoo-dollYes, I would call it treason. Nothing is more destructive to our democracy than the ability of the mega-rich to buy candidates and laws – not only through the well-heeled lobbying firms on Washington’s K Street, but also with slick model legislation writing at the state legislative level through ALEC, an anti-democratic organization funded by Koch and their billionaire ilk to subvert local lawmaking. As long as we have a Supreme Court that rules that corporations are people, and can spend whatever they want to influence public policy, we are at the mercy of Big Money. They are leviathans in the political arena and we are armed with little more than a slingshot. We must create new laws to protect ourselves against corporate tyranny.

Those are some heavy issues weighing on my brow this month, and I’m sure many of these and more have crossed your mind. But we’re up against enormous personal challenges every day, and it’s not easy to focus on things that are once removed from our personal sphere, things we care about in principle, but not necessarily in action. That’s another issue for another day.

Today’s bon mot: Don’t overexert yourself. And drink plenty of water.

Lessons in Social Justice

The Fairness at Patriot rally in Henderson, Ky., on Tuesday sent me tripping back through time. Here we were at the County Courthouse at the edge of Henderson’s idyllic Central Park, where I worked and played for years, demanding justice for those who mine coal while celebrating the continued importance of that resource to the community.

In this blog, I have written about the history of King Coal and Henderson, and the Mine Workers struggle for justice, including the series of rallies in St. Louis that challenged the bankruptcy court to do the right thing, which, sadly, it did not.  But nothing hit home quite so dramatically as the rally on June 4.

Again there was the deep sense of the moral outrage – expressed by politicians as well as labor leaders – for the abandonment of mining families and retirees by Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, the villains in this story. They dumped all the legacy liabilities and conveyed few of their assets onto a company that seemed to be created to fail, Patriot Coal, now in bankruptcy.

As eloquent as the speakers were, none captured the spirit of the moment as well as an associate pastor at Henderson Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, where I once served as an altar boy and choirboy.  Opening the rally with a homily and a prayer, the Rev. Anthony Shonis set the mood and the story for the event:

Father Shonis, a native of Pennsylvania coal country who has ministered at the Henderson parish for the past decade, told the story not only of the rally but also of the union that has struggled for justice in the coalfields since 1890, when its founding President John Mitchell led the charge against the ruthless coal barons of the day.

He also invoked the memory of John L. Lewis, the legendary president of the Mine Workers who revolutionized the labor movement by leading the CIO to organize industrial unions — from auto and steel to utilities and furniture manufacturers. The history of American labor largely began and was transformed through the Mine Workers – although the Locomotive Engineers, Carpenters and other craft unions may claim earlier roots.

It was Mine Workers’ struggle that inspired so many to strive and succeed. And in the words of Father Shonis’s prayer, that ongoing struggle may also hold the keys to the future:

Today, the fight that UMWA President Cecil Roberts calls “the Mine Workers Traveling Salvation Show” is offering a warning and a prescription to workers of every stripe, in every industry. The signs waved across the park with the legend, “Are You Next?” carry special significance in an era when U.S. corporations are using bankruptcy courts to dump retirement obligations and seek unilateral changes in existing contracts.

ImageThe UMWA campaign already has generated legislation in the House and Senate to protect retirement benefits for the miners, as well as calls for changes in the nation’s bankruptcy laws to prevent the easy relief for U.S. corporations at the expense of employees, a process that Roberts likened to “curb service” – just drive in and get what you want, few questions asked.

“Let’s just move the bankruptcy court to the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Roberts said. “They have long lines. You’ve got to have your paperwork in order. At least they have to stand in line with their paperwork!”

Roberts decried that the nation has become “a nation of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations,” saying that the Fairness at Patriot campaign can help the nation get back on track. “I’ve got a message for Peabody and Patriot and the judicial system in this country,” he said. “This is a movement of the people, by the people and for the people.”

I felt a sense of great pride as I listened to his words, to be a part of this democratic movement that bubbles up from the people who work for a living. And even though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, I was also proud of Father Shonis and the Church’s longstanding campaign for social justice that he represented so well at the rally in my hometown.

The Church’s teachings about social and economic justice are lessons I will carry with me all my life. They underline the truth and the strength of the labor movement, a galvanizing influence on our people and our democracy. Thanks for the reminder, Father Shonis.

In the Court of Public Opinion

I am going home to cover a big story, just like old times. When 4,000 United Mine Workers and community supporters rally Tuesday, June 4, at the Henderson County (Ky.) Courthouse, I’ll be there to write about it, to blog live in my hometown, where I began my career as a newspaper reporter.

This is a story that Henderson should know well, the fight by coal miners to earn a decent living, to survive in a dangerous job. Coal was King in Henderson for many years, along with corn, soybean and tobacco, now overtaken by marijuana, as markets change, including energy. Coal has fallen on hard times, but not nearly so much as the miners who spent decades underground mining the coal. Many struggle for breath, many live out their lives in pain.

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A retiree rallies in St. Louis. The rigors of coal mining have taken their toll on miners, but they’re fighting back through the United Mine Workers of America.

These are men and women dependent on health care benefits that St. Louis-based Peabody Energy and Arch Coal promised to deliver but dodged artfully through a corporate swindle – I don’t know how else to describe it. They have offloaded their retirement obligations to these miners onto a little company that may have been “created to fail.” Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy last year and is getting a gentle hand from U.S. bankruptcy court, even as Peabody and Arch wash their hands, like Pontius Pilate.

And here’s the lead: Patriot Coal on Wednesday, May 28, was awarded a bankruptcy court ruling that essentially gave the company the green light to gut the contracts of 1,700 active Mine Workers and strip life-saving health care benefits from 23,000 retirees and their family members. The Mine Workers immediately announced they would appeal the ruling, and continue their fight in other courts, in Congress and in the court of public opinion.

Now the story is coming to Henderson, and I believe it is a place where miners can get a fair hearing – at least in the court of public opinion. Patriot operates the Highland mine in adjoining Union County, and until last summer operated the Freedom mine in Henderson. Patriot shut down Freedom and others in West Virginia, and many are operating well below capacity. It’s a bittersweet reminder for citizens of Henderson that coal has always held both promise and peril.

Every coalfield family has been affected by the rigors of coal mining.  They’ve all lost friends and relatives to pneumoconiosis (black lung) and other respiratory diseases, or to the dangerous life underground. Coal is part of the DNA of these communities, and UMWA health care is a lifeline to the next day. Sadly, every American is affected by the erosion of health benefits, and by courts that increasingly favor the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals.

That is where we are today, facing a judicial system that somehow gives corporations the rights of people, while diminishing the rights of real people. “As often happens under American bankruptcy law, the short-term interests of the company are valued more than the dedication and sacrifice of the workers, who actually produce the profits that make a company successful,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

Roberts has vowed to continue the fight in every forum, including in federal court in Charleston, where the UMWA has sued Peabody and Arch for violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), alleging the companies conspired to deny benefits to their longtime employees and their families.

“Peabody and Arch can decide to live up to their obligations and end this problem tomorrow,” Robert said. “But if they don’t, we will continue our litigation against them and are optimistic about our chances.”

The rally in Henderson next week continues an aggressive campaign by the Mine Workers to make the miners’ case for justice in the communities where they live, where they raised their kids and contributed to local economies often driven by coal. As a young reporter, I waded through records at the Henderson County Courthouse, tracking the trade in mineral rights, to Peabody, Reynolds and other industry heavyweights of the day.

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The Henderson County (Ky.) Courthouse, where 4,000 Mine Worker and their supporters will rally next Tuesday.

Now it’s come to this: Giant coal companies that extracted the mineral wealth of communities now discard the workers who made their fortunes on a gob pile, like they were merely the waste of the operation – a sad reflection on corporate America. But we also are witnessing the courage and the determination of the miners and their union.

While the UMWA train stops in Henderson as it searches for justice, inevitably it is on its way to Washington, D.C., where the voices of miners already are being heard.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), denouncing the bankruptcy court ruling as a “travesty,” declared, “It is wrong that Peabody can set up a company such as Patriot, fill that company with its liabilities and then spin that company off for the sole purpose of avoiding its contractual and moral obligations to its workers. I don’t think bankruptcy laws were ever designed to shield corporations from their promises and responsibilities. I will continue to fight for fairness in the bankruptcy system.”

This is a fight that affects us all. Stay tuned. You will be able to follow the action in Henderson via the live blog, or watch it via livestream video here, beginning at 10 a.m. CT Tuesday, June 4.

Faith and Justice

As Mine Workers and their supporters prepare to descend on St. Louis Tuesday to again raise their voices outside the federal courthouse, they are bolstered by a new report by religious leaders that finds the miners’ battle against Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and the bastard child Patriot Coal to be right and just.

And they are heartened by their own sense of faith and hope that justice will be served – if not by the ruling by the bankruptcy judge sometime before May 29, then in the federal court in Charleston, W.Va., where the United Mine Workers of America has sued the coal companies for violating federal law, or in the U.S. Congress, where relief legislation has been introduced in both the Senate and the House.

But there are huge mountains to climb to preserve the health care coverage for coal miners and their retirees, and nobody knows that better than the union that has been fighting for the rights of these energy pioneers since 1890. It’s no secret that corporations increasingly are using the bankruptcy courts to dump retiree benefits.

“This has happened to steelworkers, airline workers, bakery workers, glass workers and now mine workers,” said Mike Caputo, a UMWA vice president and majority whip in the West Virginia House of Delegates. “Enough is enough. It’s time to take a stand.”

The stand by the Mine Workers has galvanized support not only from the labor movement, but also from consumer, civil rights, environmental and religious organizations. On April 29, at the last rally in St. Louis, UMWA President Cecil Roberts was joined in civil disobedience, and arrest, by 15 supporters that included CWA President Larry Cohen, National Consumers League Director Sally Greenberg, and Van Jones, executive director of Rebuild the Dream and a former Obama aide.

The support from the religious community has been consistent throughout the campaign, reflecting the fact that churches are the bedrock institution of mining communities throughout Appalachia and along the Ohio Valley, where Peabody and Arch have hauled away their fortunes.

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Mine Workers and their supporters bow their heads in prayer during a candlelight vigil outside the federal courthouse in St. Louis April 29.

Two of the Mine Workers interviewed by the religious groups in their report, “Schemes From the Board Room,” released May 1, are also Free Will Baptist preachers, and they portrayed the dire straits faced by their coworkers in starkly religious terms.

“The Lord may have called me to open my big mouth,” said David McCloud, who retired from a Peabody mine. “Peabody defrauded workers at their mines. They made promises they didn’t mean to keep. They oppress the poor and working people. I know we are supposed to depend on the Lord to provide, but sometimes we need to speak out and do something ourselves.”

Another miner-preacher speaking up was Elbert Collins Jr., who noted, “Ninety-five percent of our church members are miners. Thank the Lord for life and health benefits. But now we’ve come to a time of crisis.” His wife is on the wait list for cancer treatment, Collins said. “If we didn’t have a health care, the bills would overwhelm us.”

The fact-finders heard from Shirley Inman, a diminutive woman who left a well-paying job in Chicago to return home to West Virginia to work in coalmines because of the guaranteed health care benefit. She worked for Arch for nearly 30 years as an equipment operator but was forced into retirement by injuries to her spine and neck. “A cancer survivor, she is now experiencing spinal deterioration and other health problems, and relies on multiple prescriptions,” the report stated.

The rigors of coal mining has been on display at the rallies in St. Louis and Charleston, as some marchers carried oxygen equipment and others were consigned to wheel chairs as they struggled to breathe through the ravages of black lung, the scourge of coal miners. “People know that coal dust is bad, but they tend to overlook it to keep bread on the table,” Dr. Dan Doyle of the Cabin Creek (W.Va.) Health System told the fact-finders.

It’s not just mining families but entire communities that stand to lose if the courts allow Patriot to walk away from some $1.5 billion in health care liabilities, benefits promised to the miners. Brian Sanson, the UMWA Health and Retirement Fund liaison and the union’s director of research, said coalfield communities could lose $1.3 billion a year in pension and health care dollars.

“In 2012, Patriot and the UMWA Health and Retirement Funds provided health care payments that totaled over $320 million to West Virginia, $107 million to Kentucky, $58 million to Illinois and $33 million to Indiana,” Sanson told the religious fact-finding mission. “The retirees, widows and dependents do not have the financial means to pay for these benefits.” Most would be forced into personal bankruptcy or forced onto welfare rolls, he said.

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Religious Leaders for Coalfield Justice and Interfaith Worker Justice held hearings at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Charleston, W.Va., back in March, producing this report.

Of the 10,633 families receiving retiree health benefits from Patriot, 90 percent never worked a day for Patriot or Magnum, which Patriot absorbed from Arch, Sanson said. “Clearly, the primary motivation behind the Arch/Magnum transaction and the Peabody/Patriot spinoff was to avoid the liabilities to its former employees.”

The report, produced by Interfaith Worker Justice and Religious Leaders for Coalfield Justice, accuses Arch and Peabody of abandoning coalfield communities and their own families — people who have built their companies — for the sake of misguided notions of economic freedom. Quoting Psalms, the religious leaders urge people of all faiths to “stand with mine workers, their families and communities as they seek a just solution to their plight. And we invite prayers for them, as well as for owners and managers of Arch, Peabody and Patriot.”

You can read the full report here.

Meanwhile, miners continue their demonstrations to dramatize the unfairness of the scheme by the giant coal companies to steal their benefits, maintaining their faith in the U.S. justice system. They also are working to make sure that Congress gets the message. The Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee (CARE) Act, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller in the Senate and by Rep. Nick Rahall in the House, would extend the federally guaranteed welfare and retirement system for coal miners and their dependents, in place since 1946.

The CARE Act would shore up the UMWA 1974 pension plan, undermined by the 2008 recession, and give union retirees who lose health care benefits because of company bankruptcy eligibility for the 1992 benefit plan and hold employers accountable for contributions.

For the time being, the campaign is playing out in the streets of St. Louis, but it will not stop there. Capitol Hill looms on the horizon. Federal Courts, the Congress, the President. The Mine Workers are prepared to leave no stone unturned in the search for justice. They say faith moves mountains.

If you can’t be in St. Louis tomorrow, you can follow the rally via live stream here.

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.

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,