Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
October 19, 2009

Speaking Frankly
A headline in a story we posted from the New York Times read,
Raucous Pro-Coal Crowds Pack Mining Hearings. It begins,

“Thousands of coal miners fearing the loss of jobs if mountaintop removal mining is curtailed or outlawed shouted down a handful of environmentalists at crowded public hearings Tuesday on the much-debated practice.”

It describes how the tone was set in West Virginia,

“Truman Chafin, the Democratic majority leader in the West Virginia Senate, kicked off the raucous atmosphere.

“‘'The lord didn't create very many things without a purpose, but mosquitoes and the EPA come close I think,’ Chafin said to huge applause. ‘What happens to the coal and the entire nation? Who keeps these lights on for the country if you take away 40 percent of the coal that's mined in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky?’”

The miners wearing hard hats were, of course, paid to attend and disrupt the proceedings. Many are unorganized. But the United Mine Workers also issued a statement,

“We are extremely concerned that the decision to further delay 79 permits for Appalachian surface mining operations will result in layoffs of our members who work at these operations in southern West Virginia.”

Jobs have been lost in the mining industry–but not because of environmental laws. In 1960 there were 335,000 working miners in the USA. Today more coal is being dug with 104,000–the majority not unionized. Technology, less stringent work rules–and destructive practices such as mountain top removal (MTR)–have been the big job killers. Those miners were protesting job loss at the wrong address.

The mine operators are pushing to unearth more coal than ever. In Appalachia MTR begins by clear cutting the forest, selling or burying the timber. Then explosives are used to blast away the top thousand feet or so of the mountain, dumping the “overburden” in to streams and valleys. With coal veins exposed, mammoth equipment, operated by relatively few miners, simply scoop and haul it out. When the coal is gone they “restore” the now somewhat shorter mountain by packing overburden left in the area back in the remaining giant hole. Level it off and lay some sod and all legal obligations have been met.

MTR has already churned up an area about the size of the state of Delaware. The legendary scenic beauty of this area is gone for good. But that’s not all. By 2001, when the Bush administration directed the EPA to stop tracking, over 700 miles of streams had been buried by dumped overburden. It’s anybody’s guess what that number is today. Streams still flowing show greatly increased mineral content and much less aquatic biodiversity. There is all kinds of collateral environmental damage from the super-sized trucks hauling the coal out. And a lot of coal dust is spread for miles around during the explosive demolition.

For these reasons there is growing opposition to the practice not only by environmentalists but many “ordinary” Appalachian residents as well. They have forced the EPA to hold new hearings even on permits already granted by the compliant Army Corps of Engineers. That’s what led the coal bosses, and their political minions, to silence discussion by trashing the hearings.

Physical courage is found in abundance among miners. But fear of job loss is pushing many to choose the wrong side in the most important struggle yet.

Coal miners don’t need to be told that the stuff they work with is dirty and dangerous. You don’t have to go far in coal country to find widows and orphans of miners killed in accidents on the job, or by Black Lung disease at an early age. Sink holes caused by undermining are common and in places underground fires in abandoned mines smolder for years.

It is only within the last couple of decades that science–and growing numbers of the general public–have come to understand just how dangerous coal is, not merely for the front line victims in mining country, but for our entire planet. Besides spewing heavy metals and other nasty things, it is the number one culprit in releasing carbon dioxide in to our atmosphere. Along with its only marginally cleaner competitors, oil and natural gas, coal emissions are creating the greenhouse effect that threatens to heat the globe to far higher temperatures than humans have ever had to endure. It’s destroying the biosphere of our children and grandchildren.

“Carbon capture” to make coal “clean” is a fraud. Scrubbers at power plants, while lessening coal burning induced acid rain, have dumped countless gallons of water filled with trapped pollutants into rivers and streams-- poisoning water instead of air. Piles of fly ash slag dot the country threatening more environmental disasters such as hit the Tennessee Valley not long ago.

Those of us who have been inspired by the heroic legacy of coal field unionism have to speak frankly to those we respect and admire: There’s no ifs, ands, or buts–we’ve got to stop burning coal, we’ve got to leave it in the ground. And that does mean lost mining jobs.

But climate and class justice dictates we leave no one behind. The labor and environmental movements need to collaborate to give us acceptable options. At the same time we fight to replace coal with solar and wind we have to guarantee new decent jobs for those engaged in mining and transporting coal (and oil and natural gas as well.) We need to nationalize the energy, transportation, auto, and finance industries to plan a new sustainable economy that can both provide jobs and stop the threat of climate catastrophe. Once such lines are clearly drawn it will become apparent which side all working people should be on.

This coming Saturday, October 24, is an International Day of Climate Action. Blue and white collar workers should be standing alongside the “tree huggers” at these events, working to build an alliance for climate justice. In Kansas City the gathering will be in Mill Creek Park, 47 & Main, 2-3:30PM. You can find me there by the KC Labor Party banner.

Good and Chilly
Apparently Ford workers don’t know a good deal when they see one. The headline about the new UAW give-back deal at Ford in last Wednesday’s Detroit Free Press read, “Gettelfinger: We got a good deal for workers.” This morning the same paper’s lead auto story was entitled, “Workers chilly to Ford contract.”

Ford, of course, avoided the stigma of bankruptcy and bailout embraced by GM and Chrysler. While that was probably a sound long term business strategy it meant they missed out on the ruthless gutting of jobs, wages, and benefits imposed on UAW workers at their competitors by President Obama. Ford has been applying pressure on their UAW “partners” to give them more relief to keep them “competitive” among the companies once known as the Big Three.

The “good deal” now before Ford workers includes:

• Removing the cap on the ratio of bottom tier (14 dollars an hour) workers in the plants and freezing their wages until at least 2015.

• Establishes new Mechanical Skilled Trades Teams as a way to improve “efficiency.”

• Renounces the union’s right to strike for wage or benefit improvements until 2015.

In return, Ford made new promises of additional work in UAW plants and agreed to pay all current union employees a thousand dollar bonus.

Many Ford workers think the company, doing much better than GM and Chrysler, doesn’t deserve this level of give-backs. They’ve seen plenty of reneging on past promised product lines. And those who haven’t had their flame of solidarity completely extinguished by Solidarity House know that fourteen bucks an hour for new hires was rotten when first agreed to in 2007 and will certainly not be a living wage eight years down the road.

We shall see.

Not Yet A Window of Opportunity
The most inspiring labor victory in the USA in recent times was the UE occupation of Republic Windows in Chicago. It looked like a happy ending. Their old crooked boss is on trial for his illegal shenanigans. A new company took over, enthusiastic about ramping up the plant to take advantage of a market for energy efficient windows fueled by stimulus money. Vice-President Joe “Lunch Box” Biden made an appearance to bless this green shoot of recovery.

But the stimulus has been a bust when it comes to residential windows. There’s a great deal of paperwork involved for a project that tight-fisted consumers may not yet be sold on. To take advantage homeowners first have to be prepared to pay up-front for an energy audit. The windows must be installed by qualified workers who, in Chicago, get paid 22 dollars an hour. With few orders in the pipeline only about twenty UE members are back to work building windows.

Unemployment benefits are beginning to run out for the others. Armando Robles, president of UE Local 1110, told the Washington Post, “There aren't other jobs for them in this economy. ”The Post also talked to Jared Bernstein, Biden's chief economic policy adviser, who was philosophical about the matter, “Some will succeed, some will not; that's capitalism at work.”

Capitalism at work can’t even get us energy efficient windows. How could we possibly entrust either the future of our environment or the future of our jobs to them?

There’s a lot more to be said but I don’t want to be mistaken for Joe Biden. We’ll save some for next time.

That’s all for this week.

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