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

Mike Elk

Protesters march in Louisville, Virginia against Patriot Coal. (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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