July 25, 2009

Something positive

If these walls could talk...

Back in 2007, news flashed around the country and the world about a horrific torture case involving an African American woman, Megan Williams, in Logan County WV.

At the time, many people in Logan, black and white, were horrified by the event and determined to do something to show that this didn't represent their community. They held an inter-racial prayer vigil at a church near where the crime took place after a white preacher offered to host the event.

But that wasn't all. Community members and groups like the American Friends Service Committee decided to do something with a more lasting impact. They joined together across lines of class and race to build a home for two elderly sisters in the county who lived in an unsafe and inaccessible house.

The whole process took a long time to complete and wasn't pretty at times, but it got done. This weekend, that home is being dedicated.

You can read or hear more about it from WV Public Radio here.

Sometimes, with hard work, patience and luck, people can bring about something positive in the wake of something negative.

July 24, 2009

And the pleasures are few

One thing that's sad about current coalfield controversies is that they sometimes seem to pit people against each other who should be on the same side. An example might be people who work in and around mines that engage in destructive practices and people who live nearby whose wells are ruined.

As I mentioned yesterday, this is a time when miners more than ever need an independent voice distinct from--and when necessary in opposition to--the companies which employ them. Without naming any names (not that I need to) some who have been most active in trying to destroy the United Mine Workers union also engage in the most environmentally damaging practices. And then they have the gall to present themselves as the voice and defender of miners.

I'm trying to think of an appropriate analogy, but the closest I can get right now is Claudius posing as the protector of Hamlet and grieving heir of the brother he murdered in Shakespeare's play.

I don't think working people have ever gained much by groveling.

A CALL FOR PEACE IN THE COALFIELDS came from the WV Council of Churches in the wake of increasing heated controversies over mountaintop removal and climate change. As I wrote earlier this week, I wouldn't be surprised if someone got killed before this is over.

FEELING THE STRAIN. Many states are borrowing to pay for rising unemployment insurance claims. Fortunately, WV address the solvency of its fund during the last regular legislative session (although that was quite a fight).

COOL COSMIC PICTURE of a galaxy with a black hole at the center here.

HERE'S HOPING YOU WON'T NEED THIS. From The Nation, 10 things you might need to know about being homeless.


July 23, 2009

Where the dangers are double

"I remember the ways in the bygone days
when we was in our prime
How us and John L. give the old man hell
down in the Blue Diamond Mine"

El Cabrero is basically a labor person. The issues that interest me and the ones that I've spent the most time working on are those that affect working and low income people. Unions have always important in that department and always should be.

In West Virginia, the union that has had the biggest impact historically has been the United Mine Workers of America. It has had good times and bad times but its high points were high indeed.

Founded in 1890, it was an early example of an industrial union, one which aimed to include everyone who worked in and around the mines, regardless of skill level. It was always racially integrated and reached out to immigrant labor, often having several different language committees working in the same big mines. And it fought titanic battles (sometimes literally) with companies to improve conditions for miners.

The UMWA helped give birth to the mass industrial unions of the CIO during the 1930s, which eventually enabled millions of workers to earn a living wage with benefits and enter the middle class. It has also often led the charge for workplace safety and for things like black lung benefits.

Unfortunately, the UMWA has been hit by all kinds of changes over the last several decades, starting with automation and the switch to less labor intensive (and, many would add, more destructive) kinds of mining.

It has also been the target of a major union busting campaign beginning in the 1980s, with Massey playing the key role.

Sometimes the UMWA is singled out for criticism by environmentalists, but their position is that their job is to represent their members, who don't get to decide under what conditions coal is to be mined. And they are caught in a bind over climate change and the future of coal, regardless of what happens with mountaintop removal.

It's a tough situation. But I think the position and interests of people who work in mining would be much stronger in all these controversies if the union itself was larger and stronger. It would be better positioned to take a stand independent of the coal companies who now claim to represent their interests.

It is really galling for me to see the same companies that have worked so hard to destroy the union to claim to be the protector and beneficiary of miners.

FORKED TONGUES. Opponents of health care reform are following a carefully crafted script.

GO TEAM! From the same source, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution supporting the Employee Free Choice Act.

USING THE T WORD. This item talks taxes.


July 22, 2009

Damp as the dew

The psychologist Erik Erikson once observed that people often try to recreate the first fight in which they felt at home. The first big fight--in terms of economic and social justice--I was able to get involved in at more than a superficial level was the Pittston coal strike of 1989-1990 in support of the United Mine Workers of America.

I didn't have much of an impact on it, but it had a big one on me.

It had very little moral ambiguity, which is a good thing in a major struggle. We should thank the gods for such times.

People usually do better in a struggle that is morally clear. Pittston was basically miners and their families striking against the same coal company that gave us the Buffalo Creek Disaster of 1972, which killed around 125 people, left thousands homeless and wiped out several communities. The main issues in the strike were health care-imagine that--and retiree benefits.

One thing that is sometimes sadly different about current coal controversies is that these often divide people who were once allies. And, given the union busting success of certain coal companies which shall remain nameless, the UMWA is not as strong as it once was at a time when workers need an independent voice.

More on that to come.

BUT WHILE WE'RE AT IT, minimal training by Massey Energy and a related contractor was cited as contributing to the death of coal miner Steven Cain last fall.

HEALTH CARE. WV health care advocates, including yours truly, held a press conference yesterday and released a report on how West Virginia would benefit from health care refom.


NO PRESSURE. Meanwhile, the struggle over health care may be reaching a critical point.

MINIMUM WAGE. Here's a new issue guide on the wage increase from the Economic Policy Institute.


July 21, 2009

Dark as a dungeon

El Cabrero has a feeling that controversies about coal, climate change, and mountaintop removal are going to get more and more heated in West Virginia.

I wouldn't be surprised if these issues bring out some of the same kinds of responses here that the civil rights movement did in the deep south in the 1950s and 1960s.

I'm not saying that the issues are similar or morally equivalent. But I'd bet a bottle of wine that the patterns will be similar. As the saying goes, history doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes.

First, the powers that be here will resist any climate change legislation or regulations of mining with the same intensity that those in the south resisted desegregation.

Second, state political leaders will try to outdo each other in positioning themselves as defenders of the status quo--even some of the ones who know better.

Third, it wouldn't surprise me if somebody gets killed. If that happens, it will probably be at the hands of people inflamed by over-heated rhetoric.

Fourth, when it's all over, people will wish they'd done things differently.

I'd really like to be wrong about all of this.

PAYING FOR HEALTH CARE REFORM. Here are some options by way of the WV Center on Budget and Policy.

WHAT RECOVERY. Robert Reich thinks this recession isn't like the others and the recovery won't look like others either.

MINIMUM WAGE. Here's yours truly holding forth on the coming minimum wage increase.

THE BLOB--for real.

WHILE WE'RE AT IT, here's an item on the attack of the giant jellyfish.


July 20, 2009

This one's for Frances

El Cabrero has spent a good chunk of time working on public policy issues that affect working and low income people. I guess it's only natural when that people who do certain kinds of things are interested in others who did similar things.

As far as effective advocacy goes, my vote for Most Valuable Player of All Time goes hands down to Frances Perkins, who has been described as a major architect of the New Deal and the social conscience of Franklin Roosevelt.

As I've mentioned previously, I recommend Kirstin Downey's biography, The Woman Behind the New Deal. While I was aware of her work in FDR's administration, until I read the book, I had no idea what an amazing track record of effective work she had done on issues of workers rights, safety, and women's and children's issues before she held any major public posts.

She kicked butt.

(Did I mention she was an Episcopalian? Go team!)

According to Downey, when FDR asked her to join his administration as Secretary of Labor, she told him she wouldn't accept it unless he was committed to work to enact a major--and almost unthinkable--list of social reforms. These "a forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance."

The amazing thing is that all but one of those things came to pass (though most of the public employment programs were phased out as the Depression lifted).

There's just one major item on the list that hasn't happened yet. I'm of course referring to health insurance, the major fight that's going on now.

Frances, this one's for you!

ON THAT NOTE, despite the recession, several states are expanding health care for children.

ASTROTURF. Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo unveils what and who is behind the WV anti-climate change protests.

THANKS FOR STATING THE OBVIOUS. REALLY! No irony intended. Some research indicates what a lot of people already suspected, i.e. that the juvenile and criminal justice systems often make bad situations worse.

IF I READ MY CALENDAR ARIGHT, this is the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. Here's some stuff from Wired Science about that. Which reminds me of one of my favorite songs.

LOW WAGE WORKERS GET A BOOST. This item from McClatchy discusses the increase in the minimum wage that was just enacted.