February 18, 2006

SOWING THE WIND...

Administrators of West Virginia's recently privatized workers' compensation system stirred up a hornet's nest with a policy that takes away benefits for widows or widowers of workers killed on the job when the deceased worker would have reached retirement age.

In the wake of recent and horrific mine fatalities, this measure is facing major and righteous opposition from affected families, the WV AFL-CIO, many legislators, and state Attorney General Darrell McGraw.

According to a report by Charleston Gazette staff writer Paul Nyden, "Workers' Compensation Commission officials issued the new internal policy on March 10, 2004. It meant the agency no longer had to pay survivors' benefits after a deceased worker would have reached 70, or after that worker would have reached 65, if benefits were awarded before 2003."

This policy appears to conflict with state law, which says benefits are due to "a dependent widow or widower until death or remarriage of the widow or widower, and any child or children dependent upon the decedent until the child reaches 18 years of age."

A number of widows have already lost benefits under the policy and are facing financial hardships, including the prospect of losing their homes.

The West Virginia AFL-CIO is not amused. On Friday, it joined with several widows and state legislators in a media conference denouncing the policy. Kenny Perdue, president of the state labor federation, said "Shame on them for making this policy behind closed doors. And shame on them for breaking the law."

State Attorney General Darrell McGraw filed a petition asking the state Supreme Court to intervene. The petition states that "While the legislature has made significant changes in compensation law over the past decade, it has never touched the language affording protection to widows and widowers."

APPLIED ETIQUETTE SECTION. While it's better not to kick anyone at all, it's really rude to kick people who can't kick back. As the Dude said in the cult film The Big Lebowski, "This aggression will not stand, man."

SUNDAY SCHOOL SECTION. For the Biblically inclined, kicking around widows and orphans is a major faux pas, to put it mildly. To use just one of many instances, in the opening chapter of Isaiah, the prophet warns rulers to "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow."

GOAT ROPE CULTURAL AND LITERARY SOCIETY

(Note: this section is intended to clear the palate and provide a little artistic respite from the daily grind.)

If you're looking for a good book a little off the beaten path, let me recommend the novels of Haruki Murakami, a contemporary Japanese writer whose style could be described as postmodern supernatural realism. In a typical Murakami story, protagonists lead fairly bland daily lives punctuated by dreamlike adventures that may involve talking cats or monkeys, vague sinister forces, extended visits to the bottom of a well and/or the occasional preternaturally powerful sheep. For starters, I'd recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Wild Sheep Chase. His newer book Kafka on the Shore is also good. Weird but good.

FUN GOAT FACT: Did you know that the word "tragedy" comes from the ancient Greek words "goat song?" Goats were sacred to the Greek god Dionysus, who is credited with giving us wine. Greek tragedies such as those of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were an integral part of the Dionysian festival. So the next time you enjoy a good serious movie or play, give a nod or better yet raise a glass to our cabrine friends.

GOAT ROPE LEVEL ADVISORY: ELEVATED

February 17, 2006

WELCOME TO THE GOAT ROPE!

Thanks for viewing the first "edition" of The Goat Rope. An obvious question would be "What on earth is a goat rope? I learned the expression while attending a class for volunteer firefighters on auto extrication, the art and science of cutting people out of vehicles after accidents.

Our instructor had a number of great expressions, but "goat rope" was a clear favorite. When a situation started to get out of control, he'd say "Boys," (even though there were several women in the class), "what we got here is a goat rope."

What can I say? It was love at first hearing. My appreciation for the term grew with my acquaintance with actual goats, which are surly, malcontented, anarchistic creatures who could teach the Wobblies a thing or two about direct action.

This blog, however, is about public affairs and culture with a particular focus on economic justice issues rather than goats as such. When you look at the current situation in my state of West Virginia, the nation, or the world, you're looking at, well, a goat rope. So it isn't just a clever name.

WEST VIRGINIA NOTES

MINE SAFETY. In the Mountain State, the legislature is a little past its halfway point. A key issue in the minds of many is mine safety. In barely a month, 16 coal miners have died in several disasters. West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has shown strong leadership, pushing through state mine safety legislation and urging Congress to do the same.

On Feb. 1, the governor called for a Mine Safety Stand Down to conduct safety inspections at state mines, an unprecedented step. Earlier, he appointed Davitt McAteer, former assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration under Clinton to serve as special advisor in the investigation of the disasters. The results of this investigation could be far reaching.

The disasters raised the issue of worker safety to center stage and are another reminder of the price working people too often pay to create the wealth that for the most part they never see.

MINIMUM WAGE. Around the country, campaigns are in progress to raise the minimum wage at the state and federal level. Many of these are working under the umbrella of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign (www.letjusticeroll.org), which takes its name from the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos. LJR is a diverse coalition of religious, community, and labor organizations.

In West Virginia, bills have been introduced in both houses to raise the wage. HB 146 and HB 4023 would raise the state minimum in three stages to $7.25 by June 2008. Little action has taken place at this point, but the bills are still alive.

You know it's time to raise the minimum wage when the CEO of Wal-Mart, a person not generally regarded as a leader of the proletariat, calls for an increase. Speaking of Wal-Mart,

FAIR SHARE BILL. A lot of noise has been raised by proposed legislation similar to Maryland's which would require private employers of over 10,000 people to spend at least 8% of their payroll on health benefits or pay the state the difference. Guess who is the only employer to fit that description?

Some of the unintentionally sillier comments have come from those who see this rational effort to recoup some of the public subsidies states pay to low wage workers as an attack on capitalism itself. In some quarters, we seem to be witnessing the rise of a new religious fundamentalism based on the worship of the market god.

For true believers, "The Market" is not an efficient but imperfect way of distributing goods and services but rather an all-wise and jealous divinity who becomes exceedingly wrathful when its devotees are inconvenienced in any way.

The problem with this idea, aside from the whole bad religion/idolatry thing is that it just isn't true. Far from being a devotee of free markets, Wal-Mart is more like The Mother of All Welfare Queens. Consider:

*According to a 2004 study by Good Jobs First, titled "Shopping for Subsidies: How Wal-Mart Uses Taxpayer Money to Finance Its Never-Ending Growth," the company has collected more than $1 billion in subsidies from state and local governments. Public subsidies have included free or reduced-price land, infrastructure assistance, tax increment funding, property tax breaks, state corporate income tax credits, enterprise zone status, job training and worker recruitment funds, tax-exempt bond funding, and general grants. A nice gig if you can get it.

*In 2004, the Charleston Gazette reported that "Here in West Virginia, Wal-Mart collected more than $12.5 million in super tax credits between 1994 and 2004. The money helped finance giant stores in Charleston, Nitro, Elkins, Weston, and Ripley. The tax credits were given for 'creating jobs'--but rows of boarded-up storefronts along downtown Main Streets are mute testimony to the jobs that were lost."

*The same source cited a May 2004 article in the San Francisco Chronicle that said Wal-Mart wages and benefits locally made "half their [employees] families eligible for the federal food stamp program and government-funded health care for their children."

*According to John Dicker's book The United States of Wal-Mart, one Wal-Mart store with 200 employees can cost taxpayers $500,000 a year.

*In Dec. 2004, the Gazette reported that Wal-Mart is the employer with the greatest number of workers whose children are eligible for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

*And, last but not least, let's not forget that Wal-Mart's everyday low prices are made possible by taking advantage of labor market conditions in China and elsewhere, which are in effect a mega subsidy.

Although the fate of the legislation is uncertain this time around, it has at least raised the issue.

NATIONAL RANT. If you are as worried as I am that our oil companies are not making enough money, take comfort in a Feb. 14 New York Times article that announced "The federal government is on the verge of one of the biggest giveaways of oil and gas in American history, worth an estimated $7 billion over five years." That's a relief, huh?

This news comes shortly after Congress voted on a Bush administration-supported budget bill that cut $40 billion from Medicaid, student loans, foster care, child care, child support enforcement and other services and just after the the administration proposed a new budget which would make even deeper cuts to social services while expanding tax cuts for the wealthy. At least we have our priorities straight.

GOAT ROPE LEVEL ADVISORY: ELEVATED