Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.
The anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is coming up.
A lot of us will go to Washington again to mark that occasion, and we’ll march for jobs again, as well we should, given the current climate. But can I admit something?
I wish we were marching for less work, not more of it.
I know, it’s cheeky to talk about time off. Unemployment is high and jobs are scarce. Americans are supposed to feel grateful to have paid work at all. A vacation too? We’re so busy tightening our belts and “leaning in” that even when we do get vacation days at work, we often skip them. Admit it—did you feel guilty taking every last day this summer, or (more likely) guilty that you didn’t?
A study by a workforce consulting firm in 2011 reported that 70 percent of employees said they were leaving vacation days on the table. The vast majority of workers, meanwhile, would love some time off, but ours is the last rich country in the world where offering paid time off to workers is optional.
Americans work almost five weeks more a year than our contemporaries in Europe. Family leave is still unpaid under federal law, and the big bosses’ lobbies are working like mad to scuttle paid sick days legislation coming out of states and cities.
So we’ll march. We’ll march for jobs but where do you line up for the march for leisure?
The last time US labor unions marched for that, it was for the eight-hour day, after the depression of 1884. Their banners called for “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we will.”
The “what we will” part seems to have fallen off the map in the 1930s—and we’ve had no reductions in work hours since, Duke Professor Kathi Weeks told GRITtv in an interview this week.
The American labor force is the smallest it’s been in twenty years and that’s not changing. Globalization and computerization are shrinking the demand for US labor. Job sharing and a shorter work-week make sense economically and socially.
Even by raising the topic, Kathi Weeks hopes that we might begin to think more critically and imaginatively about “the possibilities about a life that’s not so relentlessly subordinated to work.”
If we weren’t working so hard, what would we do? If weren’t willing to concede to every outrageous demand that we work longer and harder, what would we demand, then?
You can find my conversation with Weeks, the author of The Problem with Work, at GRITtv.org.
A child sits on the shoulders of her father during a protest in Atlanta after George Zimmerman’s verdict. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
“He did nothing wrong except for what he did before.”
Those are the words that stay with me, after so many sad, mad and outrageous words have been uttered about the George Zimmerman trial. When, exactly does the clock start and stop on this notion of “before”?
“He did nothing wrong except for what he did before”Juror B37 told CNN’s Anderson Cooper after explaining that while the shooter may have shown "poor judgement" early in the evening in question, the jury couldn’t convict because:
“[…]because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground.”… “He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.”
What happened on the night of the shooting has, much of it, been called unclear, but some things are entirely clear. One of those is that for Zimmerman “the moment” wasn’t heated for very long. According to the police timeline, he shot Trayvon Martin at 7:16 pm on February 26, 2012. At 7:09, we know the heated moment hadn’t begun because that’s when he called a non-emergency police hotline.
It was a non-emergency for Zimmerman at 7:09.
For the next four minutes and seven seconds, Zimmerman and the non-emergency operator talked on the phone. No one talked about any threat to any life. At 7:11 and thirty-three seconds, they were still talking when he told her the teenage boy he perceived as suspicious appeared to be running away.
At 7:11 and fifty-nine seconds, the dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow the teen. He replied, “OK” but followed anyway. No heat-of-the-moment fear there.
At 7:13 and forty-one seconds the call ended.
For Martin by then, his moments had been heated already for a very long time.
We know for sure Martin’s moment was heated when he saw he was being followed by a stranger and he told his friend Rachel that he couldn’t lose the guy. It was heated, for sure, when she heard him say “What are you following me for?” And a bit later “get off, get off.”
For Martin, the heated moment probably started earlier, when he was caught in the rain and put up that hood (in that hood) and tried to pick a path home. Or even before that, when he was suspended from school at test time, for traces of weed in his backpack. That was somebody’s idea of an emergency.
Martin’s heated moment was long. Zimmerman’s was short. But the only moment the jury (apparently) talked about was the one just before 7:16, when they believe Zimmerman came to feel fear. In the jury’s eyes, the heated moment started right there.
And so it may be, under the law. But whose heated moment are we talking about?
It depends when you start the clock. Does the moment start when you leave your car and pick up your gun? Or when your head starts to bleed from the fight you picked?
We’ve heard this argument before. When does the moment get hot: when you steal the land and erect a fence? Or when you pull the trigger on the landless one who throws a rock? When you send troops abroad to suck up minerals and grain? Or when you send troops around the world again to shoot the labor organizers who fight back? Or how about when you force people in chains to work for you for free? Or when they stand up and look at you and you get scared?
Juror B37 told Anderson Cooper on CNN that Zimmerman had a right to stand his ground. Whose ground is it anyway? For how long? The Seminole, the Miccosuk?
Whose right? Whose ground? Which heated moment are we talking about?
We need a big long conversation about heated moments and a good long conversation about the law. Let us share that same heated moment, all of us, starting now.
In the days since George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges, people in cities across the country have come together to express their outrage and disappointment.
SONG, Southerners on New Ground, reacted to the decisions from the Supreme Court this week by releasing what they call their “love song” to their friends and allies in the movement.
“We know that here in the South our SONG family will be grappling with the reality of our lives, many of which have been made worse by the Supreme Court’s rulings affecting Affirmative Action, the Voting Rights Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act and the 5th Amendment,” the Atlanta based group wrote in their release which continued:
While the court also struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop 8, SONG knows that all the good that can radiate out from those decisions is because the climate around the lives and realities of LGBTQ people in our country has changed. Why has it changed? Because LGBTQ people and our families, friends and allies have made it change. We have come out, we have transformed our lives and each other, and we have built power in countless ways. That work makes these moments happen AND we still have so much work to do together as LGBTQ people…. the regression and contradictions of the decisions affecting People of Color in this country highlight that reality.
We know that in times like these we need each other and that we must turn to each other in the spirit of our collective survival. There is still much work to be done in order to bring the reality of true justice home to the South: so join us in Marrying the Movement: until every LGBTQ person has full dignity, safety, and liberation.
Looking for a way to respond to this historic week? SONG is looking for financial and social media help to get their video out to allies. Find out more at SONG.
While activists celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA, the Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act proves there is more work to be done.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks during a luncheon at the National Press Club Friday, May 20, 2011 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressed a gathering of labor activists in Washington this week and told them that he needed them.
“The future of America is at risk,” he said “because we have a democracy deficit and a solidarity deficit, and nowhere is that truer in our national life than in the workplace.”
The sentiment was less startling than the context, at the second annual conference of the Labor Research and Action Network (LRAN). LRAN attracts organizers largely from community-based workers’ centers and training and research groups who work with low-wage, immigrant and part time, non-union workers. The biggest guy in Big Labor, in other words, a man who came up through the nation’s oldest industrial union (the United Mine Workers), was asking the newest organizers on the scene—the fast-food, retail, restaurant, day labor and domestic workers—for help.
“How do we thicken relationships to both encourage experimentation and knit together a united labor movement?” he asked.
It’s no wonder that he’s asking.
When it comes to solidarity, Trumka knows whereof he speaks. The first time I laid eyes on him, in fact, it was in a place called Camp Solidarity in southwest Virginia. A public park turned union campground, in 1989 supporters flooded into Camp Solidarity from churches, schools and unions around the country in support of coalminers on strike against the Pittston Coal company.
Solidarity sparked the strike, which came in reaction to the company’s cuts to retired miners’ healthcare and pension plans. Solidarity kept it going, through sun and snow over a long eighteen months. Squads of volunteers cooked up burgers and wings for visitors and Appalachian music kept people step-dancing late into the evening. Trumka, a former miner, then president of the UMWA, would come by to thank the camouflage-clad crowd and encourage the striking miners in their campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience in defense of the workers who’d gone before them.
The UMWA occupies a particular place in American trade union history. Founded in 1890 with a (radical for its time) pledge to nondiscrimination based on race, religion or national origin, the union was a leader in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and a driving force behind the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Under legendary president John Lewis, the UMWA didn’t organize just coalminers but the entire industrial supply chain. Lewis sent UMWA organizers out across the nation Trumka recalled this week, because he understood that coal miners’ lives were linked to those of steelworkers and autoworkers.
A quarter of a century on, “We need our historic organizations of the nineteenth century to adapt to the new workforce of the twenty-first,” Trumka told LRAN.
Domestic workers, day laborers, farm workers and the rest, were never targets for John Lewis’ organizers. To the contrary, in the 1930s, they were explicitly excluded from the nation’s landmark labor law, the Fair Labor Standards Act. Calling themselves the “excluded workers” today they’re organizing for basic rights like overtime, paid sick days and minimum wages through non-union structures, like the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) or the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. That new generation of workforce groups has been turning heads and grabbing headlines, while traditional trade unions have been losing approximately 200,000 members a year since the 1970s. Less than half of the private sector workers—autoworkers, steelworkers, miners, plumbers—who were members in 1979 belong to a union today.
“Let me be frank, I am here to tell you that the American labor movement cannot and will not continue down the same well-traveled road—but the path forward is far from clear. We need your help,” Trumka told the crowd at LRAN.
He must be keenly aware of how true that is for coal miners. The UMWA just suffered its biggest blow since Pittston cancelled thousands of retirees’ health insurance cards in ’89. On May 29, a federal judge gave Patriot Coal, which declared bankruptcy last year, permission to end the existing health plan for 23,000 retirees and their families and replace it with what the union says is an inadequately funded Voluntary Employees Benefits Association or trust, administered by the union. The ruling also allowed Patriot Coal—which many believe was explicitly created to fail by the coal giants Peabody and Arch– permission to terminate the union’s current collective bargaining agreement and replace it one that reduces pay, benefits and time off for current workers.
While hugely profitable coal corporations move west to non-union mines in the Rockies, or China, union miners in Appalachia are frightened of the green light the Patriot decision gives to other companies. Jim Hall, of Castlewood, Virginia, who worked for Pittston, has a lot of medical expenses after a career spent down the mines. He had to have a heart valve replaced not long ago and relies on his union health coverage.
“It’s disheartening to think that a corporation will do that to people,” he told GRITtv this month. “We’re the ones went underground. Not them corporate officers. We’re the ones who put our lives on the line. They made money. They just want to make more.”
Before his retirement, Hall was active in the 1989 strike. His wife Shirley staffed the Camp Solidarity kitchen. This spring, they participated in Patriot protests and if there are more, they’ll be there, they say. They’d even support strike action.
Talks between the union and the company broke off June 12. Patriot’s cutbacks could go into effect as soon as July 1.
“Nothing’s off the table,” UMWA International Vice President James Gibbs told GRITtv. Without a contract, strike action would be legal, but risky, as reported by Mike Elk in In These Times:
[Patriot Coal CEO Bennett Hatfield] has hinted in the past that if the union struck Patriot Coal may be forced to liquidate the company. If the company sold off its mines, the new owner would decide whether to allow the union to return to work at them.
Miners and supporters rallied June 17 in St. Louis against Peabody, Arch and Patriot coal companies. Among the protesters, representatives from the Communications Workers, the SEIU and the St. Louis Central Labor Council—but there’s barely been a murmur in the national media. Will we see another Camp Solidarity? Were it to happen, it would have to look a whole lot different from the predominantly white, middle-aged crowd that gathered almost a quarter of a century ago in Virginia. More tacos, fewer hot dogs? Some salsa too, for dancing? One suspects that more than that will be wrapped up in building a more “tightly knit” solidarity for the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, one thing is clear: these are life-changing times for big, old labor.
Remember the phrase “good union job”? In contrast to the contingent fragile world of retail, service and fast food, a good union job is the sort union coal miners have. At least that’s what thousands of veteran union miners thought, until suddenly last summer—when they discovered that, just as if they were Walmart sub-contractees, a boss they’d never worked for was trying to break their contract.
Contracts are the heart of “good union jobs.” The work may not be glamorous, but the contract gives workers a fair shake. Through collective bargaining, they’re able to cut a deal, and in the case of coal miners, that deal is a matter of life and death. Talk to any miner’s partner and they’ll tell you they worry every minute their significant other is underground, but once they hit the surface, and if they make it to retirement, at least their family will have “Cadillac” coverage. That’s what they’ve won, in exchange for spending their lives digging rock out of the underside of a mountain in the dark, so that the rest of us can run our factories, or turn on our lights.
Living wages, basic safety protections and guaranteed quality healthcare for life—that’s the deal the union fought for, and after 120 years in existence, complete with coalfield wars from Colorado to Harlan County, that’s the deal the venerable United Mineworkers of America was able to extract from American coal companies in the second half of the 20th Century.
As union leaders explain in this informational video, the UMWA negotiated decades of those contracts with Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. The companies signed, the miners worked and the contracts and profits piled up, until we hit era of extreme corporate hubris.
At the same time that companies like Apple and Google were figuring out how to avoid paying tax by moving to tiny, exotic islands (or Ireland), and banks and mortgage companies were coming up with derivatives and bundled assets, big corporations like Peabody and Arch found that by spinning off smaller companies they could rearrange their responsibilities and their liabilities. One of those smaller companies was Patriot Coal. In 2007 The Patriot Coal Corporation was created by Peabody, and acquired all the company’s union operations east of the Mississippi. By 2012, Patriot had most of the union mines of Arch Coal, too. Their sort of coal mining was in decline, but they sure had a lot of those retired miners’ contracts—and a lot of liability—for thousands of retirees who’d never worked a day in their life for Patriot.
To no one’s surprise but the miners’ and their families’, in July 2012 Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy and announced its intention to modify its collective bargaining agreements. The company said it was responding to the market and trying to survive. Just like Google and Apple, Peabody and Arch say everything they did was legal. The union accused them of intentionally setting up a shell to dump their union pensions. Now a federal judge in Patriot’s hometown of St. Louis has until May 29 to decide if Patriot’s bankruptcy plan is valid.
Jim Hall is a retired union miner. Twenty-four years ago, when the Pittston Coal company tried to stop paying retiree health benefits, he along with thousands of other UMWA families, went on strike on behalf of their fathers and uncles and the generation before them. “I was working then. The struggle was about the retirees,” said Hall last month. “Now I’m retired and I know what it means to need good healthcare. I’ll do anything the union asks me to.” “And so will I” said Jim's wife Shirley. The couple has already traveled out of state from their home in Castlewood, Virginia, to join a Patriot protest.
“What’s at stake at Patriot is the union,” says Jan Patton, now approaching her 90s, a miner’s widow in Clincho, Virginia. “I know what a difference the union makes because I watched what my father and grandfather went through before they had one.”
In 1989, thousands of miners, miners’ wives, church groups and community supporters lay down in the streets at the entrance to Pittston’s mines to block the coal trucks, and make the media take notice. Reverend Jim Lewis, former rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, was among those arrested then in a struggle which ultimately was mostly victorious.
This spring, their benefits on the chopping block once more, miners and their supporters have been lying down in the streets again, but this time in front of the federal court house in St. Louis. The protests are barely registering in the media.
Cecil Roberts, the president of the UMWA who was a leader in the Pittston strike, was one of a dozen protesters arrested in St. Louis in the latest peaceful protest Monday. Lewis was arrested in a protest late last month.
“In comparison to 1989, I looked over the crowd and saw people much older, weaker, in a weaker environment, economically and in terms of movements,” said Lewis, who was recently part of a fact-finding mission by religious leaders that produced a report, “Schemes from the Board Room.”
If the plan is approved, the report estimates that more than 23,000 retired miners and their families will lose their benefits and that lifetime guarantee. The company’s proposing a trust fund instead, which will start at $15 million and go up to a maximum of $300 million. That, says the United Mineworkers of America, is miserably inadequate. It also sets a dangerous precedent.
What’s happening in St Louis doesn’t look like a coal-field war, but the same things are at stake: reciprocity, respect, fair play. If the companies can walk away from "good union jobs" and the UMWA then heaven help the fast food workers and those contractees at Walmart.
The fight against Citizens United just picked up a big win in LA. Read John Nichols’s take.
What a difference five years make! In 2008, when a few hundred union workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago voted to occupy their plant instead of submitting meekly to being laid off, theirs was a rare act of courage in a cold winter of crisis for organized labor. Five years on, as some of those same workers cut the ribbon on their own cooperatively run business last week, it was yet another bold step by innovative workers in a season of daring by labor.
It’s no easy thing to sign a lease, buy equipment and open a business with a group. Starting a coop is risky, just like walking off a low-wage job. Asked why he and his fellows had decided to start a co-op, veteran window maker “Ricky” Maclin told me it was because they were tired of their lives being in someone else’s hands. In the last five years, two different owners for two different sets of reasons had tried to lay them off. Now Maclin and his partners are owner/operators of a cooperative company called New Era and a similar sort of determination and defiance is being seen in city after city, from fed up workers who are taking to the streets.
There’s plenty to be fed up about. The same people slashing services are talking about an economic recovery, but if this is the economy in recovery, workers seem to have no place in it. Politicians and pundits are doing OK—in fact, for anyone with a stock portfolio, the economy’s in the pink. But that old supposed pact between Big Labor and the Democrats is clearly broken. Labor unions invested millions in helping Democrats win the last election but they’re getting nothing back—at least nothing that helps working people live and rear families and eat.
Wages remain rock-bottom, millions are more or less permanently out of work and those who are working are working harder, for more bosses, in less secure workplaces, with nothing in the way of benefits.
No wonder people are embracing new tactics. And surprise, surprise, those tactics work.
By occupying their plant the first time (in December 2008), the New Era workers won back-pay—and time for a new owner to be found. By occupying a second time (in February 2012, when those new owners threatened to liquidate), they won a chance to form a cooperative and make a bid on equipment.
Now their company’s name is seeming especially apt: New Era Windows. Are we, in fact, entering a new era for labor? The last time the labor movement embraced sit-down strikes and worker occupations, it was the 1930s. For most of the last century, industrial unions viewed autonomous worker co-ops as a threat. Today the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America will be representing the New Era workers, and the United Steelworkers of America is working with the Basque co-ops of Mondragon to open industrial co-ops in the US.
Likewise, until recently, trade unions refused to support ambitious strikes by low-wage workers in predominantly non-union industries, especially strikes led by women, immigrants and community organizations. The one-day stoppages around the country by retail and fast food workers this season are targeting non-union chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and TJ Maxx. Community groups are leading the way (although many are funded by the SEIU). They’re demanding a meaningful raise—to $15 and hour—and the right to organize a union without attack. So far, they’re succeeding in staging one-day walkouts without dire reprisals from management. That’s a jaw-dropping thing, with visible support. Milwaukee’s strikers returned to work Thursday, flanked by elected officials and clergy.
While the one-day strikes may be involving only a minority of workers so far, they are clearly building support as the wave of actions shows. What happens next? Strikes and co-ops are two different ways to respond to the finance-driven crisis of job losses and low wages. The first aims to build power at the bargaining table, the second to compete in the market. The outcome’s unsure, but just like that first occupation at Republic, the experiments themselves have unleashed new potential.
It just goes to show what can happen when workers lead the way, and when, as Jim Hightower would say, those who say it can’t be done get out of the way of those who are doing it.
In this video from Raise MKE and Wisconsin Jobs Now! workers describe what it’s like living on a low wage and why they’ve had enough. Today’s low wage buys only about 70 percent of what it bought in 1968. The majority of jobs created in this so-called “recovery” have been low-wage jobs. What’s that like to live on? As one woman puts it simply, “Living on minimum wage sucks!”
New York fast food joints may be in trouble for rampant wage theft. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.
According to New York’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, some 120 co-op buildings, with 13,000 apartments, and 368 condominiums, with 7,000 units, sustained flooding and damage after Hurricane Sandy blew through town.
Many now need extensive repairs, but people who live in housing co-ops are considered small businesses under federal law and, as such, they’re ineligible for federal hurricane relief. Instead of relief, they’re being advised to apply for a “small business” loan even though they are essentially nonprofit entities set up by property owners.
That’s what many New Yorkers have been discovering to their surprise, as they’ve been turned down for FEMA aid. Even though assistance is finally coming through, people who live in co-ops just can’t get it. And according to the executive director of an organization that helps low-income New Yorkers turn distressed city properties into cooperatively owned and operated homes, that hits low income co-op households especially hard.
“Co-op owners aren’t considered homeowners,” explains Andy Reicher of Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB).
Maybe it’s time we overhaul our notion of ownership and “home” just as we’re updating our notion of “family.”
Area lawmakers are trying to change the law. This is certainly no time to be discouraging cooperative home-owning, says Reicher. It’s the one sort of home ownership that came out of the mortgage crisis mostly unscathed. Having weathered the financial storm thanks to low rates of foreclosure and arrears, it would be a shame if storm Sandy hurt co-ops now.
This week, climate activists are taking direct action off-shore. Read Wen Stephenson’s report on the Henry David T. versus big coal.
Meet the takers: They took over their factory, they took on their bosses, they took the initiative to form a worker cooperative and today they’re taking the wraps off a brand-new worker-owned company: New Era Windows. It opened May 9 in Chicago.
The workers in this story are members of the same workforce who, when they received word that their plant was about to be closed with no notice at what was then the Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008, occupied their plant and became a cause célèbre in a grim winter of mass layoffs. When they were laid off again in early 2012, by a second owner, they decided, as Apple would say, to “think different.” With encouragement from their union, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), and The Working World, a progressive investment group that helps co-operative start-ups internationally, they formed a company, “New Era LLC.” New Era is 100 percent owned by workers and now, at last, open for business.
“We decided to make a co-op because we were tired of our life being in someone else’s hands,” window maker Melvin “Ricky” Macklin told GRITtv the day before the opening.
“When [Republic] closed we felt like it was the end of our lives…but we realized, we’re not nobody,” added co-worker/owner Armando Robles, president of the union local, UE 1110.
It hasn’t been easy. Last year the New Era team had to fight for several months even to be allowed to bid on the factory. After that came contract negotiations and a move to a cheaper new location. To save on expensive moving costs, workers shifted the equipment from their old plant, themselves, in eighty tractor trailer loads.
“There have been times that we weren’t sure that we were going to be able to get New Era off the ground,” recalled Macklin. “You need investors. Well, we didn’t have a lot of people knocking on the door to give us money.”
That’s where The Working World stepped in.
“We have to remember, it still has a long way to go,” says The Working World’s Brendan Martin. But the only way the company has been able to get launched in less than a year, he says, is because of the potential unleashed in the process of launching a cooperative. “If this were looked at by normal investment institutions, they’d have assumed it would cost $2-5 million to open a business like this. It’s been less than a million and the only reason for that is because that other $2-3 million of value has been brought by the workers.”
A day before the opening, workers were putting the final touches on the plant, showing the fire inspector around and thinking about the work ahead of them. With just twenty worker-owners currently employed, the factory space looks large. Will they get enough orders to fill it? They are confident (and they passed the fire code inspection).
The former owner of Republic Windows and Doors didn’t go bankrupt. He’s still operating a factory in town. New Era is small by comparison. As Martin put it, “They don’t have all the inside connections; they don’t have all the backroom buddies.”
On the other hand, they don’t need a massive profit margin to be viable, and they live in a community that needs good, modern windows.
“Now more than ever they need support,” says Martin. Among other clients, they’re hoping that housing cooperatives and other cooperative businesses will choose to buy their windows from New Era in solidarity. “It’s not just about financial support, but it is about customers,” he says.
Becoming owners brings with it new responsibilities and work. GRITtv asked the workers if they’re nervous:
“In opening up this plant we have learned we are so much more than what we thought we were,” Macklin said. “In opening up this plant we’ve done our own electrical work, we’ve done the plumbing work. And all we thought was we were just window makers.”
You can read more about the journey to New Era here, here and here and watch GRITtv’s 2009 discussion of worker takeovers with Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis and UE organizer Leah Fried here. For more information on New Era, go to newerawindows.com.
Why did fast food and retail workers strike yesterday in St. Louis? Read Annie Shields’s report.
Investigators are blaming ammonium nitrate for the massive explosion that devastated most of the town of West, Texas, on April 17. The chemical, which was stored in large amounts at the West Fertilizer Co., is used to make fertilizer. It’s also used by coal companies to blow up mountains.
Ammonium nitrate poses a threat to human and environmental health not only when it catalyzes fatally in a dangerous stockpile but also when particles of the stuff shatter into the air and seep into groundwater from strip mining, say residents of mining communities. Opponents of so-called “mountaintop removal” are in DC this week, taking that message to the Obama administration in a week of action culminating May 8 with a delivery of toxic water to the Environmental Protection Agency.
GRITtv was in Central Appalachia the week after the Boston Marathon bombing and the West, Texas, fire. While terrorism of the bomb-plots sort seemed far away, explosions there were a daily occurance. Vernon Haltom of Coal Mountain River Watch, who showed us around, cited estimates that more than a million acres and tens of thousands of streams have been affected since so-called mountain top removal began. Having depleted the area’s rich underground seams, in the late 1970s coal companies in Central Appalachia began blasting the tops of the mountains to get at coal just beneath the surface.
Since then, more than twenty peer-reviewed studies have raised alarms, some linking trace amounts of ammonium nitrate, benzine and silica to health problems, including low birth weights and elevated death rates in mining areas of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
People living near mountaintop mining have cancer rates of 14.4 percent compared to 9.4 percent for people elsewhere in Appalachia, studies by the West Virginia University, among others, show. “Birth defects are over twice as high than if the mother smokes during pregnancy,” says Vernon Haltom, who served in the US military as an explosives expert.
But just like giant agribusiness, Big Coal would rather keep ammonium nitrate unregulated. Activists are hoping that the explosion in West and the homemade bomb blasts in Boston will turn up the heat on regulators.
Mining companies aren’t the only ones who know ammonium nitrate’s blasting power. Readily available and easy to assemble, it’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building and it’s what improvised explosive devises, or IEDs, are usually packed with.
In 2011, Obama’s EPA vetoed the largest single mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history, slowing production but issuing no binding regulations. Democrats have introduced an Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act, H.R. 526) which would effectively impose a moratorium. The current week of Appalachia Rising action is calling for the EPA to step in. There’s no earthly reason why the agency isn’t charged with monitoring ammonium nitrate. Under the Clean Air Act, the agency is mandated to reduce the risk from explosive chemicals.
Why isn’t ammonium nitrate already on the EPA’s list? That was one of Senator Barbara Boxer’s questions to the agency in the wake of the Texas fertilizer plant disaster. Informed fingers have pointed at lobbying by the Agricultural Retailers Association and the Fertilizer Institute but up to now, Big Coal has avoided tough questions. No industry uses more ammonium nitrate for underground and above-ground explosions.
The last and, so far, the only time a federal agency proposed monitoring the chemical, the National Mining Association lobbied against it. After the Department of Homeland Security proposed regulating the of the sale and transfer of ammonium nitrate for security reasons, the National Mining Association requested an exemption, citing the “undue burden on the mining industry.”
Texans and Appalachians don’t need another tragedy to know it’s long past time the “undue burden” on human life received priority. In West Virginia, GRITtv spoke with Vernon Haltom and Vernon “Hoot” Gibson, uncle of famed mountain defender Larry Gibson, whose family’s cabins sit on some of the last surviving peaks of the Kayford Mountain.
Occupy the Pipeline activists are working to prevent a New York City fracking nightmare. Read Allison Kilkenny’s report.
Bob Edgar died suddenly from a heart attack last week at age 69. In Congress from 1975–87, as general secretary of the National Council of Churches and as the CEO of Common Cause, Edgar worked to hold those in power accountable to the public.
Whether it’.s for requesting that the Justice Department investigate Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas for a conflict of interest in the Citizens United ruling, or for bringing aid to the Palestinian town of Jenin after the 2002 Israeli bombardment, Edgar is remembered for his lifelong commitment to social justice and his opposition to the insidious influence of money in politics. As New Yorkers, among others, push forward on bills to change campaign financing across the country, it’s worth remembering his words: “We the people have to stand up, take ownership of our government, reduce the impact of money, reduce the impact of corporate interests. People have to recognize that they are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”
I had the luck to talk with Edgar for the Free Speech for People project in the spring of 2011. What follows is a part of that conversation. Watch a longer interview with Edgar about democracy, myths and realities, here.
Bob Edgar: When I served in Congress, special interests groups brought their talking points first. They watched how you voted and the people who didn’t like the way you voted, they didn’t bother you very much, they weren’t out trying to get you defeated. In those days it used to be talking points first, now it’s money first.
We used to have smoked-filled rooms, now we have money-filled rooms. Over the last few years, particularly with the Citizens United decision where the Supreme Court voted five to four to give corporations and labor unions the ability to dip into their corporate treasury, there’s just been an exponential, a huge increase in the amount of money, and I believe that money is corroding our system.
The Koch brothers, for ten years they have been having semi-secret meetings with the Glenn Becks and the O’Reillys of this world, and we discovered they have also been bringing Supreme Court Justices twice a year to their events to think about changing the way people perceive global warming. They have actually set up organizations to put false science together to get reports out that counter basic science on what’s happening to the environment. They can do it because the two brothers have a combined wealth of more than $40 billion.
We don’t have the opportunity to have all of that false information playing itself out there; we have got to make some tough decisions on global warming and the environment. I think we are living in a very dangerous moment. My hope is that we recognize that we live on a fragile planet.
When I was born in 1943 there were about 2 billion people on planet earth, this year we will pass 7 billion people on planet Earth. More than half of all the people who ever lived on planet Earth are alive today, so I would hope that we could lessen the impact of our spending on military and focus that on peacemaking, that we would be stewards of a fragile planet and work on environmental cleanup and that we would not just talk about the upper class or the middle class but that we would recognize that the working class, the working poor also need to be helped.
We are working hard to spread a good virus across the country called public financing. We installed it in Arizona, in Connecticut and in Maine. In Connecticut in 2008, 74 percent of the candidates running for the state legislature used our voluntary public financing system, took no special interest money. Eighty-one percent of them got elected, and for the last two years we’ve had probably the best legislature in Connecticut than they’ve had in the past. Special interests could still lobby, but they had to lobby with their talking points and not with their checkbooks. We the people have to stand up, take ownership of our government, reduce the impact of money, reduce the impact of corporate interests. People have to recognize that they are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.
In a massive, covert experiment, corporate interests are destroying your health. Read David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s take.