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Striking Alabama Coal Miners Want Their $1.1 Billion Back

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) | Twitter

History repeated itself as hundreds of miners spilled out of buses in June and July to leaflet the Manhattan offices of asset manager BlackRock, the largest shareholder in the mining company Warrior Met Coal.

Some had traveled from the pine woods of Brookwood, Alabama, where 1,100 coal miners have been on strike against Warrior Met since April 1. Others came in solidarity from the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania and the hollows of West Virginia and Ohio.

Among them was 90-year-old retired Ohio miner Jay Kolenc, in a wheelchair at the picket line—retracing his own steps from five decades ago. It was 1974 when Kentucky miners and their supporters came to fight Wall Street in the strike behind the film Harlan County USA.

“Coal miners have always had to fight for everything they’ve ever had,” Kolenc said. “Since 1890, when we first started, nobody’s ever handed us anything. So we’re not about to lay our tools down now.”

The longest that miners ever went on strike was for 10 months in 1989 against the Pittston Coal Company in West Virginia, defending hard-won health care benefits and pension rights. Some 3,000 miners got arrested in that strike. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who passed away on August 5, was president of the Mine Workers (UMWA) at the time.

In Manhattan, mixed in the sea of camouflage T-shirts outside BlackRock was a smattering of red and blue shirts—retail, grocery, stage, and telecom workers. The miners and supporters circled the inner perimeter of four police barricades, chanting “Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul!” and whooping it up.

Postal and sanitation trucks honked in solidarity. “You’re in New York City,” Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts told the crowd. “When somebody comes by driving a trash truck, they’re in a union. Chances are, somebody comes along with a broom in their hand, they’re in a union.”

‘WHERE’S OUR MONEY?’

The strikers are fighting to reverse concessions that were foisted on them in 2016 when newly formed Warrior Met Coal bought two mines and one preparation plant from Jim Walter Resources during bankruptcy proceedings. BlackRock became one of the three majority shareholders in the new company.

Since then, the union calculates that workers have forked over $1.1 billion in pay, overtime, vacation, safety, health care, and other benefits to help the company regain solvency. Today 26 hedge funds have investments in Warrior Met stock, signaling their confidence in its profitability.

“We want everything back. And then some. That’s the message we’re trying to send to BlackRock,” said Michael Wright, a miner for 16 years.

Warrior Met produces coal used in steel production in Asia, Europe, and South America. In response to the strike it has scaled back production, left one mine idle, and stopped stock buybacks, Bloomberg reported. The strike has cost the company $17.9 million, according to its second-quarter earnings report.

Shortly after the miners walked out, management returned to the table with an offer that would have recouped just $1.50 of the $6 cut in wages from the 2016 contract and left intact punitive disciplinary policies and benefits concessions. The miners voted it down, 1,006 to 45.

“We come back to the table and they’re offering less what we were making originally,” said Brian Seabolt, another 16-year coal miner.

“We go underground to sacrifice our lives for our families,” said Wright. “They’re making billions of dollars. Where’s our money?”

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has burnished his public image as a benevolent capitalist concerned about climate change and social justice. The strikers hope to gain leverage by tarnishing that image.

BlackRock has a shield that makes that harder: two-thirds of its investments are in index funds, passively managed portfolios that bundle together investments regardless of social impact.

But it’s even harder to hit it hard enough in the pocketbook to have an impact: Warrior Met makes up just a tiny fraction of BlackRock’s portfolio. The asset manager had a record $9.5 trillion in assets under management at the end of June.

Nonetheless, to hurt profits, strikers were blocking scabs from entering the mines—until the company obtained an injunction to stop them. Despite that, the mines produced only 1.2 million tons of coal during the second quarter—a million less than the same period last year.

A GRUELING JOB

Another striker on the Manhattan picket line was Tammy Owens, a former steelworker. She switched to mining because it had better pay and benefits, though the job was grueling. “And then a few years later, I ended up with worse benefits than what I had at the steel plant,” she said.

Since the strike, she has picked up a side job to provide for her family. The union has also distributed $4.3 million to miners to cover health care.

Besides pay and benefits, the 2016 concessions included a punitive attendance policy that one miner’s wife described to journalist Kim Kelly as “four strikes and you’re out.”

“If I had a heart attack, they can give me a strike,” Owens said. “They don’t accept a doctor’s excuse. Even if I have something contagious that I can give to other people—pneumonia, the flu, strep throat, you name it—you have to come to work.”

Excessive overtime is another flashpoint (shades of Frito-Lay and Amazon). Miners have been forced into 12-hour shifts stretching into weekends—without the double pay on Saturday and triple pay on Sunday that they used to get.

And health care looms large. Costs shot up; the company now covers only 80 percent of the premium. “We need 100 percent,” said miner Dedrick Gardner. “Considering the work conditions in a coal mine, health care is vital. You’re dealing with silicosis, black lung, diesel, smoke.”

Black lung is caused by breathing in coal dust. The dust silts up the lungs, scarring and destroying them.

“Health insurance went from $12 for seeing any doctor in the world to $1,500 family deductible and co-pays up to $250,” said Local 2245 President Brian Michael Kelly.

TOXIC AND DANGEROUS

Safety is a perennial concern. “I work 2,200 feet underground in one of the most gaseous mines in the world,” Owens said. “If something goes wrong, it could blow the top off the ground.”

In 2001, 13 workers died at one of the mines now owned by Warrior Met after a slab of rock fell and set off a methane gas explosion, burning and pounding miners to death with chunks of rock.

Despite that tragedy, the 2016 contract eroded safety standards. And the situation is presumably even worse for the scabs inside now.

“Nonunion mines are continuously known for cutting corners and creating unsafe working environments in order to increase production,” said union spokesperson Erin E. Bates via email. “Warrior Met Coal is currently mining and processing coal with unskilled workers. We are concerned it is only a matter of time until someone gets seriously hurt.”

Without the union watchdog, apparently the company’s environmental practices slipped too. Shortly after the strike began, wastewater from one of the mines suddenly turned local creeks black with pollution.

This post originally appeared at Labor Notes on August 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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At a Massive Union Rally, the Promise of a Better South

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A Year in the Life of Safeway 1048 | Today's Workplace

Striking mine workers in Alabama bring together the whole wide world.

To get to the big ballpark in Brookwood, Alabama, you drive down the Miners Memorial Parkway The road goes by the local headquarters of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and close to the Miners Memorial monument, which remembers 13 miners killed in a 2001 explosion. A lot of coal miners work in Brookwood, and a lot have died here. Right now, more than a thousand are on strike there, at the Warrior Met Coal. It sits just off the same road. 

On Wednesday morning, a line of buses lumbered down the winding road through the woods, and a line of pickup trucks piled up behind them. All passed the ?“We Are One” UMWA signs lining the road for miles before turning into the ballpark, where the sprawling open grass was dotted with tents and a stage. Entire families, most of them in camouflage UMWA t?shirts, lugged their folding camping chairs and shade umbrellas out past the low white tornado shelters and down to the grass. The strike at Warrior Met has been going on for four months. But on this day, the rally was on. 

Several thousand people showed up for what was billed as the ?“Biggest labor rally in Alabama history,” a claim too good to check. What was certain was that this was not a single rally for a single local of a single union. This was the entire labor movement, showing up to say that they have not forgotten a long and grinding struggle. 

After the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, and a reverend’s prayer to ?“change the mindset” of scabs and coal mining company owners?—?something even God might find difficult?—?the rally commenced. For hours, a procession of UMWA officials and leaders of other unions cycled across the stage, giving speeches that varied in inspirational quality. Attendees sought to maneuver their seats into the small patches of shadow that moved slowly across the scorching grass. Enormous quantities of bottled water, Krispy Kreme donuts, and popsicles were handed out from supply tents. People chatted, and prayed, and listened to various singers, and were together. 

Many unions had sent buses full of supporters from all across the South. There were more than a dozen CWA members from Atlanta who worked for AT&T, decked out in red shirts. There was a gaggle of UAW members. There were Teamsters, and teachers, and government workers, all proudly in their union t?shirts. There were union officials from Georgia and Kentucky and Tennessee and South Carolina. There were presidents of locals from other states, climbing the stage to present $500 checks to the strike fund. There was an entire tent full of longshoremen wearing custom-made white t?shirts that said ?“Port workers in solidarity with mine workers.” They had come from Charleston, Jacksonville, and Mobile, Alabama, on a single bus that stopped in each city, collecting the comrades. 

In addition to all the union member guests, at least half of the crowd was made up of retired UMWA members and their families, as if to demonstrate the ?“We Are Everywhere” slogan on all the camo shirts. These people also came from all across the country. One 76-year-old former coal miner nicknamed ?“Mouse” had taken a bus the week before from his West Virginia home up to New York City for a protest that the strikers held in front of the Blackrock headquarters in Manhattan; this week, he had taken another bus 18 hours to Brookwood for this rally. Asked why, he jabbed his finger forward and said, with force, ?“It helps my union brothers.” 

Brookwood, Alabama is not a convenient place to get to, even if you live in Birmingham. The fact that thousands of people from across the country had clambered into buses for interminable trips to sit at this rally under the sweltering sun, for people they did not know, was remarkable. I spoke to many of these attendees and, to a person, the question of why they had gone to all the trouble to show up was answered as if it didn’t require any explanation at all. ?“Solidarity,” they said. ?“They supported us, so we’re supporting them.” ?“This is what the union’s about.” To take a 30-hour round trip on a bus was, for them, a no-brainer. This is what the union’s about. For one day, this was just common sense. But in the context of the United States of America in 2021, this was a rare sight to behold. 

The crowd at the Brookwood rally was multiracial. Not multiracial like a fashion ad, or a painstakingly assembled corporate board, but a large group of Black and white people united for a common purpose. The UMWA miners who are on strike at Warrior Met now are an integrated group, and so their supporters in the community are integrated as well. There were both Black and white people serving as Marshals at the rally, and helping to run it, and speaking from the stage, and sitting in the crowd. The majority of the people from other unions who had shown up in support were Black. The longshoremen were almost all Black, the CWA workers from Atlanta were almost all Black, and on and on.

Many of the UMWA members in attendance, and certainly most of the older retirees, were white, religious, and Republican. The entertainment at the rally was almost all gospel and religious music. Singer after singer appeared between speeches to proclaim the glory of the Blood of Jesus. One retired miner made it a point to tell me, at the end of an interview, ?“I’m a Trump guy.” Across the grass, some of the Black CWA members from Atlanta toted ?“Strike for lack Lives” signs. At no point during the long, hot day did I see a bit of animosity?—?or, indeed, even a mention of political differences?—?between the members of the crowd. (The one exception was a single angry interloper who began pushing people and trying to start a fight before being hustled away by a large crowd of miners. I was told that he was a scab worker sent in to try to disrupt the rally. The fact that he walked out in one piece is a testament to the professionalism of the union.)

I am from the South. I was born in the South, I grew up in the South, and my entire family lives in the South. I have never in my life seen a racially and politically integrated crowd of people in the deep South, utterly united for a cause, as I did at this rally. The only things that come close are church events or football games, which I would argue lack the socially redeeming qualities of yesterday’s event. It is possible, down South, to get a racially integrated crowd where everyone agrees politically, but to get thousands of Black and white people whose politics range from strongly pro-Trump to strongly pro-Black Lives Matter together in a single place, in total unity of purpose, with virtually no conflict, and without being the explicit result of trying to assemble such a crowd to satisfy some sort of demographic diversity goals?—?well, that just doesn’t happen that much, ever.

This is the promise of unions. Not just better wages, or better working conditions, but a better society. Unions offer a frame for human interaction that does not otherwise exist. Our everyday experience in a society that is racially segregated, unequal, and politically polarized tells us that getting young and old and Black and white and left and right all together for something should be extraordinary or impossible; but at a union rally, where everyone’s common interest is plain to see, it becomes natural. It is only because the strength of unions within southern communities has become so rare that the sight of yesterday’s rally was so abnormal. Were there more strong unions, the South could be a very different place.

What the UMWA offers to the people of Brookwood is a vision of the world in which your enemy does not have to be someone of a different race or different political party. For those who believe in the union, there is a much more compelling enemy. It is an enemy they can see every day that they sit out on the picket line, watching cars drive by them, towards the mine. The back of the stage at the rally held a large banner with a picture of working people on it, and a header that read ?“Which Side Are You On?” One side of the banner said ?“UMWA,” and the other side said ?“Scabs.”

As the rally neared its end, a folk singer got up to perform a song he’d written to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s ?“All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose.”

“I’m gonna tell you scabs, we’re gonna win this strike,” he crooned. ?“And I’ll die a union miner, but you’ll be a scab for life.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. 


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Striking Alabama Miners Call Out NYC Hedge Funds for Bringing in Scabs

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Interview by Adam Johnson | Authors | The Indypendent

You take a six-dollar pay cut and what do you get? Five years older and no respect for the sacrifices you made to get your employer out of bankruptcy, say the striking Alabama coal miners who protested outside the Manhattan offices of three hedge funds on June 22.

“They told us, since we bailed them out, they would take care of us,” says Brian Kelly, president of United Mine Workers of America Local 2245, one of more than 1,000 miners who’ve been on strike at two mines in Brookwood, Alabama, since April 1. But instead, he says, “they’re bringing in scabs to work and trying to get rid of the older workforce.”

Warrior Met Coal, which operates the two mines, about 15 miles east of Tuscaloosa, was bought out by a consortium of 20 to 30 hedge funds in 2016 after its previous owner, Jim Walter Resources, filed for bankruptcy, says UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith.

Local 2245 then agreed to major concessions to help the company regain solvency: Along with the $6-per-hour pay cut, their health care costs were increased from a $12 co-pay to a $1,500 deductible; the union had to negotiate a $25 million Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association plan to continue retirees’ health care; and extra overtime pay for Sundays and holidays was eliminated.

“They’re making us work seven days a week, up to 16 hours,” says Kelly, who has worked in the Brookwood mine for 25 years, following his father, uncles, and grandfather. “Now we’re forced to work every holiday except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.”

The company’s current contract offer, instead of restoring the $6 pay cut, is a five-year deal with a $1-an-hour increase, with another 50 cents coming in its fourth year, says Kelly.

“This company has prospered,” says Dedrick Gardner, who’s worked in the mine for 13 years. “We worked a whole year during the pandemic. The mine didn’t shut.”

ONE-SIDED SACRIFICE

That brought the miners to the offices of three of the hedge funds that own Warrior Met: In the morning, they protested outside BlackRock Fund Advisors, the largest stockholder, holding 13 percent of the company, according to Smith. In the afternoon, they split into two groups, one at State Street Global Advisors, which owns 11 percent, and the other at Renaissance Technologies, which owns 4 percent.

Outside State Street’s Sixth Avenue offices, about 25 miners and supporters from other unions—the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Local 338—marched in an oval, chanting “No Contract, No Coal” and “Warrior Met Has No Soul.” Rain cut it short an hour early.

“These hedge funds are among several entities that invested in Warrior Met five years ago when the company emerged from bankruptcy,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement. “But they insisted on dramatic sacrifices from the workers, to the tune of $1.1 billion. The company has enjoyed revenues amounting to another $3.4 billion since then, much of which flowed into these funds’ accounts. It’s time to share that wealth with the people who created it—the workers.”

Company executives got bonuses of up to $35,000 early this year, according to the UMWA. The Brookwood miners now average about $22 an hour, the union says. Kelly says he makes about $60,000 a year.

Contract talks have made little progress since early April, when the miners rejected a proposed agreement drawn up a few days into the strike, 1,006 to 45. Smith says he doesn’t expect them to resume until after July 4.

“They really haven’t moved very far from the contract that got voted down,” says Smith. “I don’t think they got the message.”

EXPLOSIVE DANGER

Aside from pay, union officials say, a main dispute is that management is demanding the power to fire strikers and to give strikebreakers and new hires seniority. Earlier this month, there were at least two incidents where drivers entering the mine site in pickup trucks hit picketers. Warrior Met management responded that it has an injunction that “specifically prohibits picketers from interfering, hindering or obstructing ingress and egress.”

“They want to put the new hires and scab miners to the front of the seniority line,” says Kelly. “I’ve been there 25 years. That’s not going to happen.”

Safety has become a major concern. The foremen the new management brought in, Kelly says, came from West Virginia and Kentucky, and don’t understand the kind of mining they do at Brookwood.

The Alabama mine, which extracts a specialized variety of coal used in making steel, is much deeper than a typical Appalachian “drift mine,” he explains. Its shaft goes down 2,000 feet, and the miners have to travel as much as 10 miles to reach the coal face.

“You can’t walk out if something happens,” he says.

Mining coal at those depths also releases a lot of methane gas, which is toxic, inflammable, and explosive. In the last two years, Kelly says, there have been more “ignitions”—small fires starting from pockets of methane igniting—than he’s seen in his previous 20 years on the job.

“They are building a big potential to have something blow up,” he says.

It’s a peril he knows too well. On September 23, 2001, 13 miners at Brookwood were killed in a methane explosion.

“If you don’t run safe, you won’t run more coal,” Kelly says. “You’ve got to have air to push the dangerous gases out.”

This article first appeared at LaborPress. Steven Wishnia is a LaborPress reporter.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steve Wishnia is a New York-based journalist, now a reporter for LaborPress and editor of Tenant/Inquilino


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On the Picket Line With Striking Miners

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Last Thursday, around 1,100 coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, went on strike. According to the union, the United Mine Workers of America, a tentative bargaining agreement has now been reached with the company, but workers must still vote on whether or not to ratify it. 

In order to cover this important strike and spread these workers’ stories, we’ve teamed up with our brothers-in-arms Jacob Morrison, a union organizer and cohost of the outstanding Valley Labor Report, Alabama’s only weekly labor radio talk show, and the incredible musician Lee Bains III of The Glory Fires. Jacob and Lee went down to the Warrior Met Coal picket line this weekend to talk with striking miners, play some music, and show solidarity. In this special episode, we’ve compiled clips from Lee’s live performance as well as Jacob’s interviews on the picket line and at the local UMWA union hall.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Lessons From Essen: What the U.S. Rust Belt Can Learn From Germany

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ESSEN, GERMANY—Stephan Haas has probably given this spiel hundreds of times, but he still sparkles with enthusiasm and mischievous wit as he tells the tale of the notorious Krupp family, the German magnates who helped make this area the heart of German industry. Speaking English for the benefit of French and Finnish visitors, Haas describes how Friedrich Krupp caused a scandal by reportedly seducing boys in Italy and how his wife Margaret was committed to a “madhouse” when her complaints about her husband became inconvenient. He shows visitors around the imposing Krupp mansion, slyly critiquing the architecture, and explains the company town known as Margarethenhöhe, which houses Krupp managerial workers.

Krupp’s company, now the multinational ThyssenKrupp, is still based in Essen in the Ruhr region in northwestern Germany, where the smokestacks of steel mills, coal-fired power plants and factories still rise above the otherwise lush green fields and hills. But over the past decades, much of the steel and coal industries once located here have closed up, along with the underground coal mines that in the 1950s employed 470,000 and now employ only about 30,000. Of more than 200 underground mines that once supplied 125 million tons of coal a year, only a handful remain open and they are all scheduled for closure by 2018. Because of the offshoring of industry and the import of cheaper coal from Colombia, Poland and South Africa, the Ruhr region now has among the country’s highest levels of unemployment and economic distress. (Though it is still noticeably more prosperous than much of western Europe and the United States; Germany has weathered the economic crisis better than most.)

“It used to be that miners were the underground kings, everyone respected them, this whole region was built by coal,” says Haas. “But now if you say you are a miner, you wouldn’t get the same response you used to. The memory is fading, and the miners are disappearing like dinosaurs.”

(A significant mining industry still remains southwest of the Ruhr region around the town of Duren, near Cologne, but that is the strip-mining of soft, dirty “brown coal” burned in nearby power plants run by the company RWE. Activists and local legislators who oppose the industry note that it employs relatively few people, because the massive strip mines are largely automated, and causes huge amounts of pollution that endanger public health and contribute to climate change.)

Like some former industrial and mining areas in the United States, civic leaders in the Ruhr region have tried to rebrand the area as a mecca for arts, culture and tourism, celebrating the rich industrial history (and now-lower levels of pollution). Their plan got a major boost in 2010 when the European Commission named the area a “European Capital of Culture,” a designation created in 1985 as a means to promote European cohesiveness and boost an area’s tourism and economic vitality. Since then, millions of visitors from the rest of Germany, Europe and beyond have toured new modern art museums and historical sites in towns and cities like Essen, Mulheim, Dortmund and Duisburg. The idea was that the region’s new identity could create tourism-related and other service-economy jobs and attract new high tech and other businesses to locate while maintaining a role for the heavy industry that does still exist. The region has also gained tens of thousands of jobs related to renewable energy, according to regional Green Party elected officials, since solar power installation and manufacturing (and to a lesser degree wind power) has boomed in Germany in the past few years. It helps that the Ruhr region, in part because of its industrial heritage, is home to 20 universities, including top technical institutes.

A massive former mine and coking plant called Zollverein is a prime example of the region’s transformation. Zollverein once consisted of almost 100 miles of underground tunnels and railroads that descended almost a mile deep, where tens of thousands of miners working in often horrifying conditions extracted many millions of tons of coal from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Much of the mine infrastructure and the central coking plant sprawling across the surface of the mine have been preserved. They now appear sculptural and surreal: soaring towers capped with wheels that pulled coal out of the earth; maze-like networks of conveyor belts and rail tracks; shining boilers, cylinders and cooling towers that are beautiful in abstract and geometric ways; even a carnivalesque contraption reminiscent of a Ferris wheel rising above the coking ovens, which were closed in 1993.

The Ruhr Museum, depicting the region’s history from prehistoric times to the present, is housed in the old coal wash house, and events from alternative energy conferences to weddings are held in countless converted conference rooms and reception halls onsite. Another former mining structure houses the highly regarded Red Dot Design Museum, while old coal buildings are also home to smaller art galleries and studios and a revolving schedule of concerts and performances.

Also tapping the Ruhr’s regional heritage is the Bergbau Mining Museum in nearby Bochum, which was founded in 1930 and got a major boost thanks to the Capital of Culture. More than a million people annually peruse a vast and eclectic mix of mining paraphernalia, artifacts and art. The collection, hard to see in a single day, includes hundreds of different miners’ lanterns from over the decades, a plethora of quirky dioramas and several rooms packed with mineral samples from around the world.

The high quality, efficiently run museums and tourism services in the Ruhr region provide an inspiration for U.S. Rust Belt towns trying to stimulate tourism and culture to replace the mining and manufacturing jobs that have disappeared. But the Ruhr region also shows that even a thriving tourism and culture industry provides a relatively small amount of direct employment, with the jobs directly created across a whole region unlikely to ever match the jobs lost at even one mass employer like acoal mine or steel mill. Jobs may be created in restaurants, shops and the like, but most tourists still move through the region in a matter of several days, so the economic ripple effects of popular museums and cultural institutions do not appear to be wide. Various people working in the area said that the European Capital of Culture designation brought a wave of attention and economic stimulus, but didn’t create significant lasting changes in the area’s identity or economics.

And this is all in a place like western Germany where tourists from other relatively well-off countries can regularly and easily travel. Luring visitors to a remote former mining village in Colorado or a notorious post-industrial city like Gary, Indiana, is an entirely different story.

A more realistic replacement for the lost jobs might revolve around clean energy. The German Green Party claims that in little more than a decade renewable energy has created 380,000 jobs, thanks to government policies like the feed-in tariff that promotes it. A significant portion of these jobs are located in the Ruhr region. For former U.S. industrial areas that still have infrastructure and skilled workers, such green jobs could be a better bet than tourism and culture in terms of employment, although, as in the Ruhr region, the two approaches can complement each other.

But the well-being of a region or a city has to do with more than its employment statistics and economic indicators. Pride in place and history and the cultural, artistic and social resources that are available to local residents and draw visitors surely have benefits beyond the economic bottom-line. The Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago had tried to turn a former coking plant on the city’s far south side into a museum before the structure was ultimately demolished. The group had failed to get the adequate funds or political and institutional support for their project. Wandering the grounds of Zollverein, I couldn’t help but think of the shame that a similar (if smaller scale) opportunity in an economically struggling community in Chicago was squandered. But countless opportunities still exist; hopefully U.S. leaders and regular residents can take inspiration from places like Zollverein to create monuments that provide some economic stimulation and pay tribute to U.S. workers and industries of years past.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.


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Sickened South African Mine Workers Seek Justice in Courts

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South Africa’s mining industry has been plastered across international headlines in recent days following the massacre of 34 protesting platinum mine workers in Marikana. This week, thousands of striking workers marched to protest the assault on labor rights and economic security by both the police and corporations.

But while the media’s gaze has fixed on roiling unrest at Lonmin, the more insidious crisis of safety conditions in the mines remains mostly buried below the surface. Over the years, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workers have been gradually sickened or killed by an epidemic that has largely gone ignored by the industry and the post-Apartheid government.

But now, some workers are resisting injustice in the mines by going to court, with a group of lawsuits alleging that three gold mining companies sickened many employees with toxic exposures that are tied to “varying degrees of silicosis”–a disease that causes chronic breathing problems–as well as tuberculosis and lung cancer.

The legal claims, which target AngloGold Ashanti (formerly Anglo American), Harmony Gold Mining Company, and Gold Fields, have been advanced by a recent landmark ruling by the South African Constitutional Court. The decision affirms that injured workers have the right to sue employers for occupational health-related damages.

The principle behind the litigation, according to Richard Lewis, an attorney with Hausfield LLP who is assisting the South African counsel, is that that the country’s mining regulations, some stretching back decades, as well as common law and the constitution, “impose a duty on the employer to provide safe and healthy working conditions.”

Lewis notes the decision is “uniquely” progressive, even compared to the legal framework in richer industrialized countries like the United States, because the recent court decision effectively offers an alternative to the traditional workers’ compensation system, which is known for woefully inadequate payments to sick workers–and for discrimination against black claimants.

“Usually one’s claim against an employer is limited to the workers’ compensation system,” Lewis says. “You can’t go to court in the civil common law system and sue for damages. But here… in South Africa the miners do have that right, to go beyond the compensation system and into the common law courts.” (In the United States, injured workers often face dysfunctional state workers’ compensation bureaucracies that tend to get ensnared by severe budget pressures.)

Even when workers aren’t being mowed down by police, death is never far from South Africa’s mines; workers have been routinely exposed to toxins with appallingly minimal physical protection. In a Reuters investigation published in March, a mine worker interviewed in Lesotho, who had worked for Gold Fields for more than three decades before being laid off in 2008, explained the do-it-yourself safety protocol:

“The only safety gear they gave us was gloves,” said 55-year-old Tele Nchaka… “We didn’t have masks. To stop the dust, we just had old T-shirts that we used to make wet.”

The impact of the gold miner litigation could be massive: According to Hausfeld, “between 320,000 and 500,000 black southern African gold miners have contracted silicosis and other occupational lung diseases in prior decades. The highest recorded rates of TB in the world have been found in the gold mines of South Africa and the disease figures have remained unconscionably high for decades.”

The next step for the current plaintiffs is to press forward with certification as a legal “class” and move toward a trial. The structure of the litigation leaves the door open for more workers to join the suit down the line, and some experts anticipate an explosion of claims due to the size of the workforce, the widespread presence of migrant workers from countries like Botswana and Malawi, and the prevalence of silicosis.

As with many other countries, including the United States, the health threats plaguing mine workers aren’t so much a product of lax laws; regulatory conditions have somewhat improved in recent years. The problem, says Lewis, is systemic failure of enforcement:

There is no lack of knowledge on how to prevent occupational lung disease. [It’s] not so much that the laws are weak, but that they’re not enforced. And so in reality they become weak and the workers don’t get the protection they deserve and that they need. And I think that’s true around the world.

This is the tragic subtext to many of these mine safety crises–from the chokehold of black lung in Appalachia to the Chinese mine explosions that regularly bury workers alive. The laws on the books aren’t applied on the ground, and workers are generally left at the mercy of the regulatory bodies that lack the staff and institutional capacity to hold employers accountable or prevent future hazards.

The claimant at the head of the compensation lawsuit that led to the breakthrough ruling, Thembekile Mankayi, died just before the court issued its decision in March 2011, as a result of respiratory illness attributed to his work at an underground mine near Johannesburg. Mankayi had toiled for Anglogold from 1979 to 1995, but although his career spanned through the fall of Apartheid, his body ultimately expired before he could see justice served in a democratic South Africa.

But some redemption may be on the horizon for many others sickened by the mines if the legal system finally provides them fair compensation. Under a neoliberal economic regime, South Africa’s mines remain haunted by the ghosts of Apartheid. But at least for some of the workers whose bodies bear the scars of that history, justice is no longer so far out of reach.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.


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Shafted: Reflecting on Miners, Media and Margaret Thatcher

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kari-lydersenMany coal-fired power plants in the United States are closing because of cheap natural gas prices, and while the closings are cheered for environmental and health reasons, some unions lament the loss of jobs. Many who are happy to see coal plants close are also frustrated that the change is driven by a rush for gas that could curb investment in clean wind power and the “green jobs” mass wind farm construction could create. Others mourn waning interest in the development of “clean coal” technology that arguably could let the United States tap its vast domestic coal reserves more responsibly.

Three decades ago, Great Britain had its own “Dash for Gas,” during which coal power plants and coal mines were closed as the country turned to natural gas to generate electricity. But the primary motive then was neither cheap and abundant natural gas nor environmental concern. Rather, it was then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s determined campaign to smash the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the labor movement in general, and to privatize public industries.

Given current conversations about our energy futures in the United States and worldwide —not to mention scandals in British media and U.S. battles over public union rights—I think it is worth revisiting the 2009 book, Shafted: The Media, The Miners Strike and the Aftermath.

Edited by Granville Williams, this compilation explores the role of spin, solidarity and strategy in the bitter 1984-1985 strike by miners and sympathetic union members as the Thatcher government and police acting on its behalf moved to gut the miners union and close many coal mines. Chapters written by prominent journalists and others detail the seedy ethics of many mainstream media outlets; the role of alternative media; early examples of community and “citizen journalism;” and the power of propaganda and popular organizing wielded by various parties to the conflict.

There are juicy and shameful examples of media outlets’ questionable ethics and bald partisanship, juxtaposed with the solidarity stands of union journalists and printers who refused to publish slanderous propaganda or who invoked equal-time policies to demand the miners be given a chance to tell their side.

The book notes The Sun’s plans to publish a photo of union leader Arthur Scargill cropped to make it appear he was doing a Nazi salute, The Daily Mirror’s claims that union leaders paid their mortgages with Libyan cash when they didn’t even have mortgages, and the BBC’s manipulation of camera footage to make it appear miners rather than police were the first to become violent in the seminal clash at Orgreaves.
Regarding the Libyan story, which was supplied by a union staffer who approached the tabloid, author Robin Ramsay notes wryly, “Ah, the logic of the tabloid journalist: he didn’t ask for money, so he must be telling the truth.”

Shafted, published with a grant from the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, criticizes journalistic laziness and the lack of context that plagued even the less-abhorrent coverage. For example, the Tory government’s statements about the “uneconomic” nature of certain union mines and the wisdom of burning up limited North Sea gas reserves in lieu of coal went unquestioned, according to Shafted, and the conflict was too often portrayed as a battle between colorful adversaries (namely Thatcher and Scargill) than a showdown that would determine the well-being of working people for many years to come.

As a counter to most of the mainstream media’s performance, Shafted celebrates the role of the grassroots alternative media, the NUM’s own journal, and documentaries and articles by miners and community members, produced with the help of grassroots media organizations and the public Channel 4.

The book notes that journalists at alternative outlets with names like Leeds Other Paper, Islington Gutter Press and Sheep Worrying could personally relate to the DIY mentality and sense of mission and passion of the union miners and their supporters. Along with print media, the book also examines music, poetry and major movies like Billy Elliott and The Full Monty. It catalogues the use of music to raise funds and awareness, from local punk shows to benefits by the likes of Chumbawumba and Billy Bragg.

One chapter about movies and plays in decades after the strike describes how popular pieces like Billy Elliott furthered the Thatcherite idea of individualism triumphing over collectivism, and the glossing over of the impacts on depressed “pit villages” where to paraphrase sources, now heroin instead of coal runs in the veins of youth.

Perhaps the most insightful chapter is a soul-searching essay by former BBC journalist Nicholas Jones, who looks back with dismay at how he and other journalists unquestioningly bought into the Thatcher narrative of militant trade unions as the “enemy within.” He takes a more nuanced view than other contributors of mainstream media’s performance, and notes that union leader Scargill’s portrayal of the media as the enemy was counter-productive since it meant journalists were often received with scorn or violence in pit villages, and thus understandably less likely to tell the people’s stories. (Other chapters also describe how police brutally attacked and arrested journalists trying to report objectively on the conflict.)

Jones also describes how the birth of the 24-hour highly competitive news cycle contributed to flawed coverage of the strike, and dissects why media coverage of mass protests against more pit closures in the early 1990s was by contrast highly sympathetic to the miners. Jones writes:

With the benefit of hindsight, and subsequent evidence of a vindictive pit closure programme which continued during the decade which followed the strike, perhaps the news media should own up to a collective failure of judgment comparative to that during the buildup to the Iraq war.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.


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MSHA Says Massey Blast Shows Need for Tougher Safety Laws

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Image: Mike HallAs we approach Tuesday, April 5, the first anniversary of the deadly blast at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine that killed 29 coal miners, the nation’s top mine safety official today called for tougher laws and bigger penalties for safety violators.

Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) chief Joe Main today told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee:

No mine operator should be risking the lives of its miners by cutting corners on health and safety. For those operators who do knowingly engage in such practices, we need to send a message that their actions will not be tolerated.

Main also called for stronger protections for miners who speak out about unsafe practices and conditions.

Miners know best the conditions in their mine. But miners are afraid to speak out because they fear they’ll lose their jobs.

He also said a full report on the blast is several months away, but MSHA will hold a public briefing in June. After the Upper Big Branch explosion, MSHA has increased its enforcement efforts, created new mine safety screening procedures and conduced 228 “impact” inspections at mines with poor safety records or other warning signs of problems.

He said the new screening procedures were put in place after officials discovered that a computer error had allowed Upper Big Branch to evade heightened scrutiny despite the pattern of violations system that is supposed to identify mines with continuing safety violations. Main urged Congress give MSHA more authority to shut down problem mines.

Legislation is still needed to fully protect our nation’s miners. This committee has never subscribed to the myth that mining fatalities are an inevitable aspect of the business. I am asking you to again stand up for miners and pass new and needed mine safety legislation.

Click here for his full testimony and a video of the entire hearing.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

This blog originally appeared in blog.aflcio.org on March 31, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.


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