Working In These Times

Monday, Nov 17, 2014, 3:30 pm  ·  By Eric Fink

Charges for Coal CEO: 6 Years for Worker Deaths, Up to 25 for Deceiving Investors

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is accused of sacrificing worker safety for coal profits, helping lead to the deaths of 29 miners in 2010. (Rainforest Action Network / Flickr)  

A federal grand jury last week indicted former Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship on charges stemming from the April 2010 explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch ("UBB") mine, which killed 29 miners. Blankenship faces two counts of conspiracy based on his role in a pattern of widespread mine safety and health violations at UBB and two counts of securities fraud based on public statements by the company following the explosion.

If convicted, Blankenship could face up to 31 years in prison.

The indictment recounts the dismal safety record at UBB. MSHA inspectors issued 835 citations in the 27 months leading up to the explosion. Fifty-nine of these citations resulted in orders to shut down the mine, an extreme remedy imposed in cases of immediate and severe hazard.

The most common violations involved accumulations of coal dust, inadequate ventilation to disperse methane gas and deficient water sprays—conditions that substantially increased the risk of explosion and fire. The indictment also explains how UBB personnel sought to avoid detection of unsafe conditions. When MSHA personnel would arrive at the mine for unannounced inspections, company guards would send warnings to mine supervisors, who in turn "would direct miners to quickly cover up violations."

Blankenship closely monitored operations at UBB, receiving daily reports on MSHA violations and estimated fines, and production updates every thirty minutes for the mine's longwall section and every two hours for other sections. He repeatedly ordered subordinates to cut back on construction and maintenance of ventilations and other safety features in order to focus on increasing coal production.

Blankenship's single-minded focus on meeting aggressive production quotas and his refusal to devote adequate personnel and time to safety compliance, created the conditions that resulted in the deadly explosion.

The securities fraud charges are based on a shareholder statement and press release that Massey issued in an effort to stem a nearly 17 percent drop in the company's share price immediately following the explosion. Blankenship—whose own holdings of Massey stock took a nearly $3 million hit, according to the indictment—personally reviewed and approved both the shareholder statement and press release.

Denying that non-compliance with safety standards led to the disaster, the company insisted, "We do not condone any violation of MSHA regulations, and we strive to be in compliance with all regulations at all times." Citing Blankenship's knowledge of and complicity in the widespread and persistent MSHA violations at UBB and other Massey mines, the indictment contends that these assurances were knowingly false and misleading and were made for the purpose of deceiving investors in Massey stock.

The securities charges are significant because they carry much stiffer penalties—up to 25 years imprisonment and up to $5 million in fines—than the MSHA violations, for which the maximum sentence is six years. Clearly, the law places a much lesser value on workers' lives than investment capital.

In response to the indictment, an attorney for Blankenship suggested that his vociferous criticism of mine safety and environmental regulators is the real motivation for the prosecution. Just a few hours before the indictment was released, Blankenship tweeted a jab at Assistant Secretary of Labor Joe Main.

The coal industry knows Main is not qualified to head MSHA. Lardieri takes Main to task. See MAIN at http://t.co/0MUSoZ2t3D

— Don Blankenship (@DonBlankenship) November 13, 2014

This case will be an important test of MSHA's competence—and of Blankenship's bravado.

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Monday, Nov 17, 2014, 2:18 pm  ·  By Moshe Z. Marvit

A Textbook Example of a Boss’s Campaign to Destroy a Union

In a major victory for workers, a judge has ruled that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center engaged in illegal anti-union behavior. (Mark Haller / Flickr)  

If you’d like a sense of what a boss’s campaign to try to destroy a union looks like in the 21st century, take a look at a recent NLRB decision against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).

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Monday, Nov 17, 2014, 1:08 pm  ·  By Jordan McCurdy

The Heartbreaking Poetry of an Apple Factory Worker in China Who Took His Own Life

A Foxconn facility in Shenzhen, China—the city where Xu Lizhi killed himself. (Prachatai/Flickr)  

In late September, 24-year-old Xu Lizhi killed himself by jumping out of a dormitory window at a factory in Shenzhen, China. Foxconn, his employer, is the electronics manufacturing company that engineers the world’s majority of Apple iPhones. 

With 18 attempted suicides in the last five years, this is no new story for Foxconn. Xu, however, a regular poetry contributor to Foxconn People (Foxconn’s internal newspaper), silently documented his reflections on life on the assembly line. Following his death, fellow factory workers collected these poems to be published in the Shenzhen News

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Friday, Nov 14, 2014, 4:41 pm  ·  By Alex Lubben

California Port Gridlock: Labor Disputes May End Up Costing Billions

Longshore workers and truckers in California operate at key nodes of the American economy, able to prevent billions of dollars worth of goods from reaching stores throughout the country. (Lance Cunningham / Flickr)  

West Coast ports are stuck in gridlock. Earlier this week, truck drivers were waiting for as long as seven hours at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to try to retrieve single containers of cargo. The backup at these ports, which handle the majority of shipments from Asia, is threatening the timely delivery of billions of dollars’ worth of holiday goods.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents the docking companies at ports along the West Coast, blamed the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) for the initial slowdown, accusing the union of refusing to dispatch skilled workers at the ports, creating backups that are part of an attempt to gain leverage in contract negotiations. The union—whose workers have been without a contract since July—has denied that they are intentionally clogging the port’s flow of goods.

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Friday, Nov 14, 2014, 1:59 pm  ·  By Kevin Solari

With New President Michele Roberts, the NBA Players Union Gets a Legal Wizard

Roberts is now the first woman president of a major sport's players union.   (ESPN)

In July, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) named Michele Roberts as its new executive director. Roberts will replace ousted Billy Hunter to become the first woman to lead a major professional sports union. But that’s not the only reason she’s notable: She has already come out as a strong advocate for the players, making it very clear she feels the players are the heart of the NBA and the owners are interchangeable.

She told Pablo S. Torre of ESPN the Magazine, "Let's call it what it is. [Without the players,] [t]here. Would. Be. No. Money. Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. These guys [the players] go? The game will change. So let's stop pretending."

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Friday, Nov 14, 2014, 12:55 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Republicans Chalk Up a Victory After Forcing Obama to Withdraw Labor Board Nominee

Republicans successfully maneuvered to block President Obama's National Labor Relations Board nominee Sharon Block. (NASA / Flickr)  

Some of the fallout from the thumping defeat of the Democratic Party in last week’s midterm elections landed at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Wednesday when the White House announced it was abandoning its effort to place pro-union lawyer Sharon Block as a member of the NLRB’s five-person ruling panel. The election victories by Republicans last week gave them the leverage they needed to derail the Block nomination, which has been opposed by Republicans as a symbol of President Barack Obama’s alleged effort to tilt the board in favor of labor unions.

The move is a win for Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), who has vigorously opposed Block’s nomination and is also expected to become Chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee when the Republicans take full control of the Senate in January. Alexander spoke out against Block at a September confirmation hearing and led other Republican senators in committee-level voting against her nomination, though the committee did vote to approve her nomination. Although no representative of Alexander would provide confirmation, it is believed that he personally demanded the withdrawal of the Block nomination in return for his consent to allow other federal nominations to go forward.

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Friday, Nov 14, 2014, 3:00 am  ·  By Ari Paul

Students to Teach for America CEOs: You Are ‘Complicit’ in Attacks on Public Education

Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp's vision for an elite but temporary teaching corps has come under fire in recent years. (Tulane University / Flickr)  

Dani Lea, a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, believes that Teach for America (TFA) teachers in her high school in Charlotte, North Carolina, were detrimental to her learning experience and for those around her. Lea claimed that her principal didn't even know which teachers were members of TFA and which weren't.

Upon hearing this, TFA co-CEO Matthew Kramer said, “That’s not our lived experience.” Lea responded, “That was my lived experience.”

The volley took place during an unusual open meeting at TFA’s midtown Manhattan headquarters November 13 between United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) activists and TFA’s top leadership, which offered the meeting after a widespread USAS campaign against the organization that includes visiting college campuses to question the education organization’s projected image as crusading do-gooders in American public education.

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Thursday, Nov 13, 2014, 2:10 pm  ·  By Marina Fang

Striking Federal Contractors: Thanks for the Raise, Obama, But We Want $15

Workers at the U.S. Capitol building joined other federal contract workers in a one-day strike on Thursday. (Good Jobs Nation / Twitter)  

For the first time in history, federal contract workers at the U.S. Capitol building walked off the job Thursday, fighting for a $15 minimum wage, better benefits and the right to unionize. They joined workers from the Pentagon, the Smithsonian museums, the National Zoo and other federal contract workers in the nation’s capital.

According to the New York Times, the employees—food service workers and janitors at some of Washington, D.C.’s most popular tourist attractions and busiest federal government buildings—are urging President Obama to sign executive orders that would prioritize federal contracts to companies who could guarantee workers a $15 minimum wage, health insurance and paid leave.

Though Obama signed an executive order in February that mandates a $10.10 minimum wage for all new federal contract workers, the 800 workers and supporters who rallied on Thursday are demanding higher wages and more protections.

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Thursday, Nov 13, 2014, 1:43 pm  ·  By Stephen Franklin

Domestic Workers Emerging from the Shadows

Ania Jakubek, a domestic worker organizer at Arise Chicago and former au pair, discussing how the movement for domestic workers' rights has grown rapidly in recent years. (Photo by Shelly Ruzicka)  

Domestic workers’ stories about how they are cheated out of their wages, overworked or not treated with respect often move Ania Jakubek.

But every so often she hears a truly troubling story like one offered by a woman, who told her how a middle-income family made her live in their garage, sleep on a flimsy cot and use a bucket for her toilet because they would not let her into their house at night.

“People treat their pets much better,” said Jakubek, an organizer for the Arise Chicago Worker Center, which has served several thousand workers since its founding a dozen years ago.

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Wednesday, Nov 12, 2014, 12:51 pm  ·  By Yana Kunichoff

Will Chicago Progressives Unite Behind Chuy Garcia, Rahm’s 11th-Hour Challenger?

(Chuy Garcia)  

It’s official: There’s a new candidate in the race for Mayor of Chicago, and he could carry some weight. Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia threw his hat in the ring on October 27, less than four weeks before the deadline to get on the ballot. Garcia is picking up the torch from Karen Lewis, the wildly popular Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president who was seen as the most viable challenger to sitting Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the upcoming February election before she was forced out of the race by health problems. Garcia has already won endorsements from Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and a coterie of other Chicago progressive groups.

At the CTU’s annual fundraiser on October 31, Garcia was introduced to a roomful of progressive aldermen, union leaders and education activists as “Chicago’s new mayor."

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