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Coal miner retirees demand pension and health coverage

By Marg Ogolini - Socialist Action, September 10, 2016

Thousands of retired miners and supporters converged on Washington, D.C., on Sept. 8 to demand government action to shore up retiree pension and health care benefits. These benefits have been under a constant barrage of attacks from coal companies, which are determined to shed themselves of responsibility for the health and security of both union and non-union miners and retirees.

Retirees and their dependents also want assurance that existing health benefits and pensions will remain in place. The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) says the health and future of 120,000 retired miners and their families are at stake.

UMWA reports that their members traveled in more than 120 buses to the protest—from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Under the impact of the coal company assault over many years, gains in retiree health care and pensions that were won in past union battles have been eroding. Current laws under attack by coal companies provide some guarantees for lifetime care for mine workers. These were largely won in 1946 from militant strikes that involved over 400,000 union miners.

During 1945 and 1946, a strike wave that spread throughout the country also involved other industries—including railroad, auto, and steel. President Truman assisted the coal companies’ strike-breaking strategy by attempting to force arbitration, and eventually by threatening the UMWA with a $3.5 million fine. However, the eventual settlement included some gains for the miners, including safer working conditions and a “promise” of health benefits and retirement pension “from cradle to grave.”

One D.C. protester was Bill Musgrave, a retired miner from Boonville, Ind., and UMWA Local 1196. Musgrave, who has been diagnosed with cancer, told the Evansville Courier: “It took me a while to [find out you have to] fight as hard to keep something as you did to get it initially. … Unfortunately the government has decided to back out of the obligation they made to the mineworkers in 1946. … Seems like the government, they have the money to bail out the bankers and the corporations, and we’re not even asking for a bailout.”

A married couple attending the protest described the need for additional medical coverage given out of pocket family medical costs of over $13,000 per month. Cindy Scherzinger told the Courier: “You go to union meetings, and it looks like a retirement home. Everyone there has their own set of problems.”

Coal companies, especially those with union-organized mines, have been declaring bankruptcies, and pressing courts to allow them to evade pension and health-care obligations to their workers. One of most recent examples was Patriot Coal, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy that closed down via bankruptcy last year.

The attack on retirees is part of a broader attack against all union miners. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 2014 nearly 191,000 coal-mining jobs have been lost. Many mines that have not closed down suffer large-scale layoffs and dismissals. Workers are being thrown out on the street, and those who remain face ever increasing forced overtime hours, and steadily degrading and unsafe working conditions.

This trend will likely continue as capitalist owners are always finding new ways to expand their profits, and as they have demonstrated, will close mines in a heartbeat as they see new and greater opportunities for profit elsewhere.

Coal companies are also under pressure as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels, an absolute necessity to address the urgent problem of global warming. And it has long been well known that generating energy with fossil fuels is also devastating to the health of mine workers, who for years have been victims of black lung disease, and other chronic illnesses specific to work in mines.

Capital Blight News #108

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, June 14, 2016

A supplement to Eco Unionist News:

Lead Stories:

The Man Behind the Curtain:

Green is the New Red:

Greenwashers:

Disaster Capitalism:

Other News:

For more green news, please visit our news feeds section on ecology.iww.org; Twitter #IWWEUC; Hashtags: #greenunionism #greensyndicalism #IWW. Please send suggested news items to include in this series to euc [at] iww.org.

Carbon Bubble News #100

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 19, 2016

A supplement to Eco Unionist News:

Lead Stories:

Capital Blight: The Two Bums

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 15, 2016

It may seem like King Coal has suffered a couple of bad weeks in a row.  Consider the following:

Six years and a day after Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch Mine exploded, killing 29 men, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger issued former Massey CEO, Don Blankenship, the maximum allowable sentence for for willfully conspiring to violate mine safety standards: one year in prison, one year of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

However, when broken down, this only roughly figures out to $8621 and 12½ days per dead miner. Perhaps that's why Tommy Davis, who lost his brother, son, and nephew in the explosion (while he was working in another section of the mine that day) shouted at Blankenship as he left the courthouse,

"You don’t have a heart; you don’t miss your kids like we miss ours...I hold a picture, I hold a tombstone; you hold nothing."

He further elaborated, in response to Blankenship's (no doubt well scripted) "apology" spoken in response to the sentencing

"It didn’t mean nothing, and it still won’t mean nothing...He never come to me in six years, never come to me, never come to my mom, my dad who’re gone now. They grieved themselves to death. He never come to apologize to us. He never said nothing."

This also likely explains why Annette Workman, who lost her husband, Ricky, in the incident angrily shouted, “Did you ever go down in that mine?” at the soon-to-be imprisoned (though not for long) erstwhile CEO.

Clearly this sorry affair reveals just how unfair the capitalist system really is. Any working class individual who'd caused the equivalent amount of death and mayhem would have been given the death sentence, but as long as such activity is done in the persuit of profit, it falls under the presumed innocence of capitalism and is thusly rarely charged more than a slap on the hand. One should not blame Judge Berger for not meting out harsher judgement. By law, she can only slap so hard. 

More Background

Capital Blight: Pop go the Weasels

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 7, 2016

On March, 29, 2016, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and CoalSwarm released Boom and Bust 2016: Tracking The Global Coal Plant Pipeline, the second annual report examining the precarious global coal plant pipeline. New investigations detailed in the report revealed that while the coal industry continues to push for the construction of more coal-fired power plants, in reality, coal plants are increasingly sitting idle in all of the world’s four largest markets, and global coal consumption is declining drastically. This is particularly evident in China where the government recently took the first step to curb runaway coal plant investment, after the country’s coal use plunged by nearly 6.4 percent in two years.

The report’s unprecedentedly detailed mapping of new coal-fired power plants indicates the reported suspension of new permits and new construction starting in half of China’s provinces could affect 60 percent of the 460 new coal-fired units that have been permitted or are in the permitting process.

With coal use on the decline worldwide, the estimated $981 billion needed to construct the proposed coal plant pipeline represents a massive investment in potentially stranded assets — resulting in an even further downward spiral for the global coal industry. In fact, this number is more than one-and-a-half times the amount that the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates is needed to end energy poverty for the 1.2 billion people currently living without reliable energy access. On top of this staggering revelation, the report found that the additional new proposed coal capacity would result in over 130,000 more premature deaths worldwide each year from air pollution and finds that existing coal-fired power plants are responsible for a total of nearly one million premature deaths annually from coal-fired power generation.

In spite of the coal barons' continued insistence on beating a dead horse, hundreds of thousands of coal mine workers have lost their jobs anyway, (for which the capitalists have shed not a single tear--and yet the instant environmental activists oppose even the most insignificant coal facility or propose the meekest upgrade to a clean air regulation, these same capitalists screech and howl about how these "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" are "threatening jobs!" (meaning profits). Meanwhile, in the wake of the continuing decline in oil prices (from a high of $114 US on the Brent index in October 2014 to as low as $27 US in the early months of 2016), more than 250,000 oil workers have also lost their jobs. Likewise, many railroad workers have been furloughed as the carriers' insistance on putting all of their eggs in the fossil fuel basket has broken far more than warranted by any omlette. Across the supply chain, steel workers, pipefitters, office workers, and just about any craft related to fossil fuel extractivism are experiencing increasingly precarious job status.

Clearly the carbon bubble has burst. It's long past time to organize a workers' led movement to seize control of the means of production and initiate a rapid and just transition to a post carbon economy that puts an end to wage slavery and brings humanity back into harmony with the Earth!

The Report

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Beating Climate Change by Retooling the Economy—The Story Begins in Navajo Country

A proposed community-owned solar project on an abandoned coal mine in Arizona illustrates how cooperative economics make it possible to stop extracting fossil fuels—without leaving workers behind.

By Mary Hansen - Yes Magazine, October 17, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

“I grew up without running water,” Nichole Alex, a young woman from Dilkon, Ariz., says in a video released by the activist group Black Mesa Water Coalition. Alex grew up on the Navajo reservation in the rural Black Mesa region of Arizona, where for decades a controversial coal mine emptied the region’s aquifer, leaving local wells dry.

“I grew up traveling 20 miles to gather water,” Alex continues. “That’s not fair, that my community is being sacrificed to power the valley here.”

In 1970, the Peabody Coal Company began mining on the reservation. Although tribal members were initially enthusiastic about the jobs the mine would provide, over time the relationship grew rocky. The company built a coal slurry pipeline that cut straight through the reservation and pumped billions of gallons of water from the Navajo Aquifer. Peabody mixed the water with coal and pumped the fluid mixture to a power plant in Nevada where the coal was burned to generate electricity for the nearby cities of Phoenix and Tucson, as well as other parts of the Southwest. But local people like Alex were left without access to water.

It’s a story echoed around the country: From the East Bay in California to the mountains of Appalachia, fossil fuel companies have drilled, burned, and mined their way into towns, cities, and rural areas—especially communities of color, as well as indigenous and low-income ones—disrupting the lives of people and damaging the environment.

But local residents have fought back. In 2001, Navajo and Hopi youth created the Black Mesa Water Coalition to stop the depletion of the Navajo Aquifer. They educated their peers and neighbors about the problem, and eventually persuaded the Navajo Tribal Council to cut off Peabody Coal’s access to the aquifer. That work, combined with a lawsuit that charged Peabody with violation of the Clean Air Act, helped to force the shutdown of the Black Mesa coal mine in 2005.

The problem with that outcome was that it left many residents of the reservation without jobs. About 300 Navajo and Hopi people had worked for Peabody, according to the advocacy group Cultural Survival . Efforts by the Black Mesa Water Coalition and its allies to create green jobs through traditional livelihoods, like wool-making and farming, have made only a small dent in the unemployment rate, which hovers around 50 percent. Furthermore, the land where the coal mine had been is not suitable for living or farming.

The story of Black Mesa illustrates a realization that is sweeping through the network of organizations, individuals, and coalitions working to fight global warming: While the burning of fossil fuels causes climate change, simply shutting down these industries leaves workers and their families behind, and often result in a familiar conflict over “jobs versus the environment.” That in turn prevents many workers and low-income groups from joining the fight against climate change—something movement leaders say they cannot afford.

Open Letter: Laborer Challenges Union Support of Fossil Fuel Export Projects

By Tim Norgren  - Portland Rising Tide, October 5, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The following is an open letter from  union member Tim Norgren to Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). Read on as Tim explains why union support of fossil fuel export projects is short-sighted and generally not in the best interest of workers. 

Dear LIUNA and Fellow Workers,

In joining forces with avowed union enemies to lobby for export projects like coal and bitumen/oil terminals and pipelines, which would create some short term, but VERY FEW long term local jobs, I strongly feel we’re selling ourselves out, along with every worker in America!

The propositions stand to benefit billionaires like the Koch brothers and other members of ALEC, which as you know are behind state by state attacks on worker’s rights via campaigns like the “right to work” bill recently pushed in OR (see www.alecexposed.org for more).

Export proponents Arch and Peabody coal (ALEC members) were featured in the Labor Press last summer for shifting pensions worth over $1.3 BILLION (owed to some 20,000 beneficiaries) to a shell company- then bankrupting it, leaving retirees destitute. This “success” opened the door for Detroit to become the first city to declare bankruptcy and default on pensions. Scrutiny showed this to be an ALEC “model” scheme. Supporting companies which commit such crimes against dedicated workers is UNACCEPTABLE for anyone who purports to be part of a labor movement!

According to Greg Palast (investigative reporter for the BBC), the Koch brothers stand to save about $26 a barrel bringing in the oil from the Keystone XL instead of from H. Chavez in Venezuela. The Koch’s Houston refineries are designed to refine only the high carbon tar sands oil available from those sources and cannot even process the lighter Texas crude. $26 a barrel would add up to a lot more ammo in their union-busting arsenal.

Should proposals succeed, then when our job’s over, coal will continue being extracted from public lands, with mainly non-union miners and huge federal subsidies (taxpayer expense) in obscenely higher quantities than now, then carted though our neighborhoods alongside explosive fracked oil tankers. Tar sands oil will keep flowing into Koch Industries refineries. And while NOT keeping us working, it WILL continue to profit enemies of labor (fueling their next campaigns) as it’s shipped to Asia, providing cheap fuel for deathtrap factories where subsistence workers slave at jobs outsourced from living wage employment in America!

Indeed as industrial and other jobs are replaced with government subsidized resource extraction and privatization schemes, across the board from fossil fuels and lumber to such basic staples as water and social services, we can see in our mirror a third world nation.

In my humble opinion as a member of LIUNA, pursuing these proposals rather than insisting on cleaner, more labor-friendly energy and transmission projects IS SUICIDE! Are we truly willing to follow the short-term carrot on a stick, like an ass to the slaughter? To feed ourselves willingly to those who would destroy us? Or do enough of us still have the conscience, guts and faith to stand up with those who’ve struggled at such cost to give us rights as workers?

Sincerely,

Tim Norgren, Laborers Local 320

Climate Reckoning: My Family’s Coal Story

By Jeff Biggers - EcoWatch, September 24, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Four years after the publication of my memoir/history, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, I found myself sitting in the front row of an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hearing in southern Illinois. It was a historic evening in Harrisburg, only a few miles from where Peabody Energy sank its first coal mine in 1895, and a few blocks from where I had sat on the front porch as a kid and listened to the stories of my grandfather and other coal miners about union battles for justice. For the first time in decades, residents in coal country were shining the spotlight on issues of civil rights, environmental ruin and a spiraling health crisis from a poorly regulated coal mining rush.

The total destruction of my family’s nearby Eagle Creek community from strip-mining was held up as their cautionary tale. The takeaway: Strip-mining more than stripped the land; it stripped the traces of any human contact.

“We have lost population, we have lost homes and we have lost roads,” testified Judy Kellen, a resident facing an expanded strip mine in Rocky Branch. “We have lost history. We have to endure dust, noise levels to the pitch you wanted to scream because you couldn’t get any rest or sleep, earth tremors, home damages, complete isolation of any type of view to the north, health issues, a sadness in your heart that puts a dread on your face every day, and an unrest in the spirit that we knew nothing of.”

A lot has changed in these four years—much of it troubling, and much of it inspiring.

After traveling to coal mining communities around the U.S. and the world, I have learned that my own private reckoning with coal in the great Shawnee forests surrounding Eagle Creek was only a prologue to our greater climate reckoning for my children.But first, the inspiring part: Faced with losing their homes, farms, health—and sheer sanity—from the blasting and non-stop war-zone traffic of coal operators within 300 feet of their living rooms—southern Illinois residents with deep coal mining roots in Harrisburg were taking a courageous stand for climate and coalfield justice. Meanwhile, former coal mining areas from central Appalachia to Germany to Scotland have begun the process of transitioning to clean energy economies.

Here’s the troubling part: Four years after the publication of Reckoning at Eagle Creek, Illinois is in the throes of a coal-mining rush not seen in nearly a century, recognized as the fastest-growing coal region in the nation. Since 2009, the state’s mining production has increased by more than 60 percent.

California’s Pension, 55th Largest Fossil Fuel Company in the World

By Brett Fleishman, Senior Analyst at 350.org, with later edits by Jay Carmona, Community Divestment Campaign Manager - Fossil Free, September 3, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

California is the 8th Largest Economy in the World, And California’s pension fund is the 55th Largest Fossil Fuel Company in the World.

Today, Fossil Free Indexes’ research team published a deep dive analysis on CalPERS’ holdings of the Top 200 coal, oil and gas companies by CO2 emissions potential.

California’s pension fund isn’t really a fossil fuel company, or a company at all; but they currently finance enough coal, oil, and gas reserves to put them well within the top 100 oil and gas reserve holders and also the top 100 coal reserve holders.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) is the nation’s largest pension fund, with a $300 billion portfolio. CalPERS is a leader in the investment world and has a huge impact on the global economy. When it comes to framing the climate crisis and finding solutions through an investment perspective, everyone, including the United Nations, looks to CalPERS for leadership.

On August 16th, Anne Stausboll, CalPERS CEO, published this article describing CalPERS response to climate and carbon risk within their portfolio. Essentially, the CalPERS team is focused on requesting transparency with companies on carbon risk issues (e.g. emissions and stranded assets), it’s called “disclosure.” They have done some fairly significant and progressive work changing the rules so that companies will have to disclose climate risk or carbon output with the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) – which is a good thing. With that being said, Ms. Stausboll noted in her article that their efforts have fallen short of the issues, “…the breadth and quality of the disclosures with the SEC are still lacking.”

While CalPERS claims that “Climate change is an important issue for [the pension] System,” it’s useful to ask: what statements are they making with their money?

Fossil Free Indexes found, shockingly, that over the last 10 years, CalPERS has roughly doubled the potential emissions it finances. In 2004, CalPERS held 90 coal, oil, and gas companies on the Top 200 list; today they hold 149. If CalPERS directly held the fossil fuel reserves allocated to its 2013 portfolio it would rank #55 on the top oil and gas reserve holders list and #88 on the top coal reserve holders list.