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Working In These Times

Friday, Sep 27, 2013, 7:14 pm

Teamsters Have Beef with Ted Cruz; Guest Workers’ Zero-Dollar Pay; Exxon Mobil Goes Gay-Friendly

BY Mike Elk

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Protesters march in Louisville, Virginia against Patriot Coal. (Fairness at Patriot)   (Fairness at Patriot)

Today, a federal court in Charleston, W. Va. struck a blow to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union by ruling that Peabody Energy and Arch Coal did not violate the law in shifting millions of dollars in retiree obligations to a spin-off company, Patriot Coal, which is now filing for bankruptcy. From the Charleston Gazette:

In a 13-page ruling issued Friday, Goodwin said that actions by Peabody and Arch did not violate the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA.

One provision of ERISA prohibits an employer from interfering with the attainment of any right to which employees may become entitled under a benefit plan covered by the law. 

But Goodwin said that section of the law applies only to the individual rights of employees to attain benefits, not to the financial security of the plan as a whole.

"Here, the plaintiffs do not assert that the spin-off/sale of the subsidiaries interfered with their right to attain benefits," the judge wrote.

"Instead, the plaintiffs argue their rights were interfered with because the sale/spin-off of the subsidiaries jeopardized the fund's capacity to pay their entitled benefits. However, courts have generally held that [ERISA] does not protect the financial stability of a pension fund."

The coal miners union argued in court that Patriot Coal was set up to fail as a way to offload retiree healthcare and pension obligations. In a statement in response to the ruling, UMWA President Cecil Roberts said the union would appeal:

I am very disappointed in the Court's decision to dismiss the lawsuit we had filed under the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act (ERISA) to get Peabody and Arch to live up to their responsibilities to their retirees. The UMWA intends to appeal, because we believe the decision fails to recognize the purpose of ERISA, which is to protect the benefits employees have earned.

Our members who are at risk of losing the retiree health care benefits Peabody and Arch promised them clearly earned those benefits. We will continue to fight for them in every possible venue until those benefits are secure.

This week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) made headlines by giving a 21-hour speech on the Senate floor against Obamacare, but Teamsters President, James Hoffa, is upset that he keeps getting cited in Cruz’s speech. From Huffington Post:

"I call on Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. David Vitter and others to cease and desist from misusing our constructive comments in their destructive campaign to hobble the president and the nation," Hoffa said.

Back in July, Hoffa signed onto a strongly worded letter from several unions calling on Democratic congressional leaders to address their issues with the landmark health care legislation. Unions, including the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, have said they are concerned that many of the non-profit, joint-employer health care plans their members are currently enrolled in will eventually become uncompetitive under the law. They asked that the administration bend the law so that workers in so-called Taft-Hartley plans would be eligible for subsidies just like individuals on the new health care exchanges.

The administration ultimately rebuffed the unions, but their criticisms of Obamacare have nonetheless lived on -- primarily in Republican talking points. Unions, of course, have been reliable backers of the Obama administration, and the grievances from labor leaders helped conservatives like Cruz argue that even the president's allies will suffer under the law.

Josh Eidelson over at Salon has a blockbuster story out today about companies stealing wages from H-2B guest workers by writing them $0 paychecks. From Salon

Photos provided to Salon by the National Guestworker Alliance, the group behind the work stoppage, show checks reading “No Dollars and No Cents,” and a page dated June 25 warning guest workers on H-2B visas that, “Any worker who does not show up for your assignment will be immediately removed from Mister Clean Housing and will be reported as AWOL (Absent Without Leave) to ICE (Immigration Custom Enforcement).”

The statement, which was in all-caps, continued, “You will then be escorted to pick up your plane ticket and go back to Jamaica. You will have an ICE and Okaloosa County Sheriff Department Escort.” Workers say that warning arrived stapled to their checks. Mister Clean did not respond to a request for comment.

The Supreme Court is set to hear a major case that could affect how unions are organized. What's at stake are neutrality agreements, in which unions strike a deal with an employer in exchange for a promise that the employer will not interfere with an organizing drive. From Labor Notes:

A worker at the company, Martin Mulhall, got help from the National Right to Work Foundation to sue the employer and the union, jointly, for violating a clause in the 1947 Taft-Hartley law that says an employer can’t provide a union any “thing of value.” ...

No employer would think to bribe a union by making it easier for the union to organize,” noted UNITE HERE in a press release.

But judges on an 11th Circuit panel voted 2 to 1 that “organizing assistance can be a thing of value.” UNITE HERE appealed to the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments November 13.

Other circuit courts have found neutrality agreements legal and called claims to the contrary far-fetched. If neutrality is a “thing of value,” a district court judge wondered in 2006, what about provisions in a contract that are favorable to the union?

“If the Court were to find that participation in card-check agreements was illegal, it would have the effect of criminalizing all collective bargaining agreements,” the judge wrote. 

Finally, after being widely criticized and sued in Illinois for not offering same-sex benefits, Exxon Mobil announced today that it would change its policy. From the Associated Press:

Exxon, which is facing a same-sex discrimination lawsuit in Illinois, said it was following the lead of the U.S. government. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which had allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states. In recent months, federal agencies have begun to offer benefits to legally married same sex couples.

"We haven't changed our eligibility criteria. It has always been to follow the federal definition and it will continue to follow the federal definition," said Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers in an interview.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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