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.

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.

Roll Away the Stone

Over the past several months, Mine Workers have marched in the streets of St. Louis to protest Peabody Energy abandoning its former employees. On three occasions, miners have locked hands in the streets in a boisterous nonviolent protest, singing “Amazing Grace” as they waited to be arrested.

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United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts greets the thousands of supporters rallying in St. Louis March 19. Expect a moving speech in Charleston April 1.

Invoking the words of Jesus and passages of scripture, they have asked why courts would allow workers to be persecuted, denying them the benefits they were promised. They are asking for fairness. They ask: If we allow corporations to use the bankruptcy courts to dump retiree pensions and health care, what kind of society are we?

The question will be raised again on Monday, April 1 in the streets of Charleston, W.Va., with more than 5,000 miners and their supporters rallying outside the downtown headquarters of Patriot Coal, the shell company that was created by Peabody and Arch Coal to take over their obligations to employees, and then fail.

I’ll be there and blogging live via http://fairnessatpatriotnow.blogspot.com/, and posting here about the rally later in the week. You can get more details at http://www.fairnessatpatriot.org, and at Fairness at Patriot on Facebook.

So much is at stake, not only for retirees and their families, and for active miners and their communities, but also for every retiree depending on company-provided health care and pensions. Too often in recent years, companies have sought to dump these obligations through the bankruptcy courts. It’s in everyone’s interest that we stop it here.

The Mine Workers are taking a valiant stand, invoking not only history but also a Christian spirit that they argue should infuse the court’s deliberations. This is about fairness, about human dignity, about respect for family and hard work. This is about faith, perhaps even resurrection for struggling mining families.

The Mine Workers have come home to Charleston, seat of the bustling coal mining industry for nearly a hundred years, to state this case clearly. West Virginians understand the sacrifices that coalmine families have made to support mining in Appalachia, to build prosperous and promising lives.

Listen to these stories, sung so well by Tom Breiding of Pittsburgh, about the fight for fairness against Peabody and its agents: