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Wolf to Expand Medicaid, Dump Corbett’s “Healthy PA”

Posted by randyshannon on February 9, 2015

Gov. Wolf to ditch Healthy PA, institute straight Medicaid expansion

Updated just now

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, long a critic of his predecessor’s version of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, on Monday took the first step toward replacing it.

That step was directing the state Department of Human Services to withdraw a pending piece of the Healthy PA program from further federal consideration. Wolf proposes to replace Healthy PA’s three benefit plans with a single one that the DHS is working with the federal government to develop.

“Today is the first step toward simplifying a complicated process and ensuring hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians have greater access to the health insurance they need,” Wolf said in a news release.

Former Gov. Tom Corbett billed Healthy PA, which took effect Jan. 1, as a simplification of the state’s 14 existing Medicaid plans.

Wolf disagreed, with his release citing “people not receiving important treatment, confusion among recipients, and special populations being placed into the wrong plans” as examples of “complications under Healthy PA.”

“Our approach will alleviate confusion, remove unnecessary red tape, and streamline the system so that people can see a doctor when they are sick and health care professionals have more time to concentrate on providing quality care,” Wolf said.

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Take the fight for Jobs to Harrisburg!

Posted by carldavidson on February 9, 2015

Budget Rally Hburg 2.26

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Our Metro Area Faces a Critical Challenge in the Area of Liberty and Justice for All

Posted by carldavidson on January 18, 2015

Disturbing data: Pittsburgh must get to work on racial disparities

By the Post Gazette Editorial Board

Jan 18, 2015 – When Larry E. Davis says there are wide racial disparities in Pittsburgh that translate into broad and significant disadvantages for local African-Americans, he’s not giving an opinion. He is summarizing 137 pages of alarming statistics.

The report, “Pittsburgh’s Racial Demographics 2015: Differences and Disparities,” was released Tuesday by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems, where Mr. Davis is both director of the center and dean of the university’s School of Social Work.

The compilation paints a bleak picture of the economic, educational, health and social realities conspiring to limit opportunities for black residents. Perhaps even worse, it demonstrates — based on a comparable 2007 report — that circumstances of black Pittsburghers have not improved.

Some key findings:

• The household income for black families in Pittsburgh was just 49 percent of white families between 2007 and 2011 — $21,800 versus $44,600. That far exceeds the gap nationwide.

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Rep. Keith Rothfus Votes Against Disabled Americans

Posted by randyshannon on January 7, 2015

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

‘Hostage-Takers': Republicans Go After Social Security on Very First Day

Advocacy groups vow to fight back against what they believe is a preliminary “stealth attack” that portends a wider assault on a program that makes survival possible for millions of vulnerable Americans

Defenders of Social Security worry that if history is a guide, this latest “stealth attack” on the program’s solvency signals the “groundwork is being laid in advance” by the Republican Party for a larger attack on the program as a whole. (Photo: File)

As Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik immediately remarked: “Well, that didn’t take long.”

An attack by the Republican Party on the nation’s Social Security program took less than one full working day. Included in a new set of rules passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday was a new measure making it more difficult to move funds between separate accounts maintained by the Social Security Administration. A seemingly technical provision on the surface, critics says it puts millions of disabled and elderly Americans at risk and sets the stage for further attacks aimed at the wider program.

“The GOP is inventing a Social Security crisis that will threaten benefits for millions and put our most vulnerable at risk.” —Sen. Elizabeth WarrenAccording to Hiltzik:

The rule hampers an otherwise routine reallocation of Social Security payroll tax income from the old-age program to the disability program. Such a reallocation, in either direction, has taken place 11 times since 1968, according to Kathy Ruffing of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

But it’s especially urgent now, because the disability program’s trust fund is expected to run dry as early as next year. At that point, disability benefits for 11 million beneficiaries would have to be cut 20%. Reallocating the income, however, would keep both the old-age and disability programs solvent until at least 2033, giving Congress plenty of time to assess the programs’ needs and work out a long-term fix.

The procedural rule enacted by the House Republican caucus prohibits the reallocation unless it’s accompanied by “benefit cuts or tax increases that improve the solvency of the combined trust funds,” as paraphrased by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.In practical terms, the advocacy committee says, that makes the reallocation impossible; it mandates either benefit cuts across the board, which aren’t politically palatable, or a payroll tax increase, which isn’t palatable to the GOP.

In response to approval of the new rule, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) chastised Republicans in the House.

“The GOP is inventing a Social Security crisis that will threaten benefits for millions and put our most vulnerable at risk,” Warren fumed via her Twitter account. “This is ridiculous. 233k people in MA receive Social Security disability benefits that could be threatened by these political games.”

“All of these divide-and-conquer strategies are intended to turn Americans against each other so that all of their benefits can be cut.” —Nancy Altman & Eric Kingson, Social Security Works

Advocacy groups like AARP and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare expressed outrage.

“It is difficult to believe that there is any purpose to this unprecedented change to House rules other than to cut benefits for Americans who have worked hard all their lives, paid into Social Security, and rely on their Social Security benefits, including disability, in order to survive,” said Max Richtman, president of the NCPSSM, who also sent a letter to Congress expressing his concerns.

According to Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson, authors of the book Social Security Works! and members of the advocacy group of the same name, what would otherwise have been the “dry, mundane exercise” of adopting new rules in the House was “turned into a stealth attack on America’s working families.”

Like previous “stealth attacks” on Social Security, write Altman and Kingson, the small rule change shows “the groundwork is being laid in advance” for a larger attack on the program as a whole and described the tactics of Republicans determined to destroy the program, regardless of the costs, as “hostage-taking.” In their analysis, the GOP ploy involves playing disparate groups within the system off one another with the ultimate goal of drastically reducing the program for everyone—current and future beneficiaries alike. They write:

One of the strengths of Social Security is its universality.  It is based on the principle that we are stronger together.  It is an old tactic of the program’s opponents to seek to divide and conquer.  They seek to turn young against old by falsely claiming that too much is being spent on the old.  They seek to turn African Americans against whites with the preposterous claim that Social Security is unfair to blacks.  (We document and refute these and many other claims in our new book).  This time they seek to drive a wedge between retired workers and disabled workers by claiming that reallocation helps the disabled at the expense of the old – another preposterous claim.  All of these divide-and-conquer strategies are intended to turn Americans against each other so that all of their benefits can be cut.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) also condemned the rule, calling it not only contentious, but dangerous. “Re-allocation has never been controversial, but detractors working to privatize Social Security will do anything to manufacture a crisis out of a routine administrative function,” Brown said in a statement. “Re-allocation is a routine housekeeping matter that has been used 11 times, including four times under Ronald Reagan. Modest re-allocation of payroll taxes would ensure solvency of both trust funds until 2033. But if House Republicans block reallocation, insurance for disabled Americans, veterans, and children could face severe cuts once the trust fund is exhausted in 2016.”

For their part, Altman and Kingson said groups like Social Security Works and their allies will take this signal from the Republican Party and use it to re-energize their campaign to strengthen, not destroy, what they consider the single most successful social program in the nation’s history.

“If senior, disability, workers, women’s, veterans, civil rights, faith-based and other groups stand together – as they have in opposition to privatization and recent benefit cut proposals,” they concluded, “this stealth effort to pull apart our Social Security will be defeated. And if citizens from around the country let their representatives know that it’s time to expand Social Security to address the nation’s retirement income crisis, not cut it, all of us will be better off.”

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Progressive Democrats in Congress Oppose Gov’t Funding Deal

Posted by randyshannon on December 11, 2014

Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Statement on Government Funding Deal

keith ellisonWASHINGTON-Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) Co-Chairs Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), released the following statement ahead of a House Rules Committee hearing on a deal to partially fund the government through September of next year.

“We support a government funding bill that invests in creating jobs and American families. Unfortunately, the CROmnibus fails to do that.

“Republicans, who learned nothing from the financial crisis of 2008, included a provision that allows Wall Street to engage in some of the same risky practices that crashed the world economy. The short-term funding of the Department of Homeland Security sets up another government shutdown battle in February and is motivated by Republicans who refuse to fix our broken immigration system.  Continuing cuts to education and environmental protections while spending billions on endless wars is the wrong priority for American families.  Sneaking in last minute provisions, like turning our democracy into an auction house by raising campaign contribution limits, is the wrong way to govern.

“Republicans are once again using a potential crisis with the federal budget to hurt working families. The Progressive Caucus stands with the American people and opposes the bill.”

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Gov-elect Wolf Appoints John Hanger Sec’y for Policy and Planning

Posted by randyshannon on December 10, 2014

December 10, 2014

Randy Shannon

Its hard not to get a little hopeful about the incoming administration of Governor Tom Wolf. He has appointed John Hanger, an opponent in the primary that we supported, as the Governor’s Secretary for Policy and Planning.

John Hanger certainly has a lot of connections among progressives in PA. He visited Beaver County as a guest of our Progressive Democrats of America chapter and he walked the picket line downtown with UPMC workers early this year.

What we need to do now is work for a hike in the PA minimum wage, protection of our water, expansion of medical care, and boosting our educational sector. While doing that we must find some good candidates to run in our local legislative districts. Wolf and Hanger will have a hard time getting a lot done with the right wing dominating the PA Republican Party.

tom-wolfGovernor-elect Wolf announces key staff

December 10, 2014 by Wolf Transition Press

York, PA – Governor-elect Tom Wolf today announced key staff that will join him in the Office of the Governor. Wolf announced that John Hanger will serve as secretary of planning and policy, Mary Isenhour will serve as secretary of legislative affairs, and Obra S. Kernodle IV will serve as deputy chief of staff and director, Office of Public Liaison.

“I am proud to announce that John, Mary, and Obra will be joining my staff in the governor’s office,” said Governor-elect Tom Wolf. “As governor, I intend to get things done on behalf of all the people of Pennsylvania. These senior members of my team will be key to this mission because they are seasoned and have deep relationships on both sides of the aisle. I look forward to working with them to move our commonwealth forward.”

John Hanger – Secretary of Planning and Policy

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, John Hanger came to America in 1970 as an immigrant from Ireland. After graduating from Duke University in 1979, where he majored in Public Policy and History, John attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and then became a legal services attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

John was appointed as the Public Advocate for customers of Philadelphia’s municipal utilities prior to being nominated by Governor Casey as a commissioner of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. John served as commissioner at PUC from 1993 to 1998, where he expanded low-income and energy conservation programs and led efforts to restructure Pennsylvania’s electricity and gas industries.

From 1998 to 2008, John was the president of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future and then served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection from 2008 to 2011. Since then, John has been an attorney at Eckert Seamans. John resides in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Mary Isenhour – Secretary of Legislative Affairs

Mary Isenhour began her career as a staffer in the Kansas House of Representatives, where from 1991 to 1995, Mary was chief of staff to the Democratic Leader. It was here where Mary worked across party lines to advance legislation that improved the lives of the citizens of Kansas.

In this role, Mary worked with leadership and committee members to develop and implement committee and floor strategies, and she worked on developing legislative strategy and building coalitions that resulted in legislation in numerous areas. Mary also served as liaison between the Leader and other elected officials, agencies, and political entities.

From 1995 to 1999, Mary served as a national political director for the Washington, D.C. based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, and from 1999 to 2003, Mary served as executive director of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee (HDCC). Following her time at HDCC, Mary served as executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and as state director for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign.

Mary owns a consulting firm and served as senior strategist to Tom Wolf for Governor. Currently, Mary is co-chair of Governor-elect Wolf’s Inaugural Committee.

Obra S. Kernodle IV – Deputy Chief of Staff and Director, Office of Public Liaison

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Obra S. Kernodle IV is a graduate of Roman Catholic High School. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Education from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in 2002.

Before serving in his current position as senior advisor for Governor-elect Tom Wolf’s transition team, Obra played a key role on the Wolf campaign as both deputy campaign manager and political director.

Before joining the Wolf for Governor campaign, Obra worked in Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s Administration as deputy of legislative affairs, helping to coordinate the city’s Actual Value Initiative. In 2012, Obra was part of President Obama’s reelection effort as the Pennsylvania southeast political director. Obra previously served as the political director for both Mayor Nutter’s 2011 reelection bid and District Attorney Seth Williams’ race in 2009.

http://www.wolftransitionpa.com/

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Trade Unions’ Address Climate Change

Posted by randyshannon on December 4, 2014

This Statement was submitted to the 20th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP20), currently meeting in Lima, Peru, by theInternational Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

 

83938_990x742-cb1411319345WORKERS AND CLIMATE CHANGE

2015: A just, ambitious and legally binding agreement

The international community shares today more scientific evidence than it needs to inform decision-making on climate change. The impacts on people’s lives, livelihoods and prosperity if we fail to act now will be calamitous. Yet the opportunities for social progress and decent work behind an ambitious climate protection agenda are such that it would be irrational to let go this unique time in history where we can still solve the problem.

The international labor movement has supported the UNFCCC convinced that it is the place for delivering a fair, ambitious and binding global Agreement on climate change. But time is running out. Solutions must be found at all levels: from community based diversification to sectoral transformations, from macroeconomic planning at the national level to an international deal that sets a global goal for inspiring massive action.

css_home_badge_itucThe global crisis of climate change comes in parallel with another global crisis, the crisis of inequality. Never in history has humanity has created so much wealth and concentrated it in such a small number of hands – according to recent data the 66 wealthiest people in the Planet have the same amount of wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion!

Tackling these two challenges together requires bold measures, and most important, ensuring efforts towards the improvement of one goal are coherent with addressing the other. Climate measures must contribute to protecting the weakest in society; equality measures must put the need for moving towards a sustainable future at its heart.

Trade unions are convinced that only a massive demand from citizens will be able to correct the current unambitious path in which leaders have set their comfort zones. That said, it is our duty as workers’ representatives to expect leadership and vision from the very people we elect.

A renewed climate change agreement is needed for 2015. It must ensure the stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, at a level which will avoid the worst effects of human-driven interferences in the climate system.

It must ensure a high likelihood that it will keep the rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees, or 1.5° if possible, above pre-industrial levels.

The Paris 2015 agreement must include contributions in the form of targets, commitments and actions within a framework that provides sufficient support to countries with low capacity and ensures sustained and predictable funding for those particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It should also develop strong rules including on accounting and compliance.

The Lima negotiations, which will lead to the Paris COP21 are not about negotiating a full new climate regime, but about building on UNFCCC principles, in a way that the outcome responds to the climate challenge looking at present and future planetary realities. They are also about filling the gaps of the Convention when it comes to the linkages between climate action and the world of work.

arton15226A renovated framework for climate action will have to be informed by science, based on equity, be environmentally effective and ensure broad participation of all countries, while respecting their different responsibilities and capacities. It will have to provide clarity on emission reduction and the 2° degrees global temperature objectives, adaptation, support (financial, technological and human), strengthen its commitment to just transition and develop strong mechanisms for verification, compliance and review.

Trade unions consider fundamental that

  • Just transition: The new UN agreement honors the commitment made by Parties in COP17 on the importance of ensuring a “Just Transition which will create decent work, good quality jobs in the transition towards a low emission and climate-resilient society.” We welcomed the support for Just Transitionprinciples in the Global Commission on the Economy & Climate as well as ongoing work on the ILO. A strong message to the working people in the UNFCCC is key to show government’s commitment to fight climate change in a socially sound manner.

We suggest the following wording: Parties commit to accompany their climate policies and actions with the promotion of decent work opportunities arising from a low-emission society as well as with a strategy aimed at ensuring a just transition for workers, contributing to protecting them in times of hardship, strengthening social dialogue, securing their rights, growing new sectors and promoting prosperity and sustainable development.

  • Parties should support the introduction of this commitment in the section of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) draft negotiating text that confirms the commitment to 2°C. In doing so it gives a signal to all Parties on how to implement their climate policies in a worker-friendly way.
  • In preparing their “contributions” for the post-2020 period, governments are encouraged to introduce data on employment impacts of climate measures (both, positive in terms of job creation, as well as the identification of sectors which will need support in the transition).
  • Social Protection policies are brought to the center of climate action. Income security, unemployment benefits, child care and maternity protection, health care and pensions, including for people with disabilities, and respect for human rights, including internationally recognized labor rights, are critical for ensuring the sustainability of climate policies. This must be reflected in the new agreement.

The labor movement positions itself clearly among the actors calling for climate ambition:

  • Trade unions support a global regime which ensures a high likelihood that it will keep the rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees, or 1.5° if possible, above pre-industrial levels.
  • Following the Convention’s commitment from all Parties to reduce emissions, trade unions believe that all countries should take mitigation commitments and actions, within a multilaterally agreed, ambitious and equitable framework. Since 2007, the ITUC supports a reduction in global emissions by 2050 consistent with the likelihood of keeping average global temperature increase below 2°C or less. Therefore, developed countries should increase the ambition of their economy-wide targets, and go well beyond the 25-40% reduction compared to 1990 levels which was necessary by 2020. We also call on them to take the lead in taking commitments for 2025 and 2030, in such a way of aligning them to the Fifth IPCC report. major emitters in developing countries and countries that have surpassed a certain development threshold should take mitigation commitments and actions at a level compatible with an emissions’ pathway likely to achieve the 2°C objective.
  • A sound emission reductions’ regime must be designed in parallel with a responsible strategy for transforming and developing clean industries, empowering workers to access jobs created in them and supporting them and their families in the transition (see under just transition above). In this regard, emission reduction commitments could be complemented by commitments to public policies, which will give broader public visibility and positive flavor to climate action, and could include commitments to energy efficiency or renewable energies targets, to incorporate full climate cost accounting to public procurement, investment in sustainable water and land management, sustainable urban planning, among others.
  • Even though the entry into force of the future agreement will only take place in 2020, parties must urgently increase the ambition of their mitigation policies and plans in all possible sectors and at all relevant levels: local, national, regional, international and global.
  • Trade unions ask for a global regime which supports a properly financed global adaptation goal, aimed at ensuring citizens are resilient to climate impacts through coordinated action on sustainable infrastructure, social protection and disaster risk reduction policies.
  • Developed countries, according to the commitments they made, to mobilize the scale of funding required to face the impacts of climate change and help developing countries shift to low-emission development paths.
  • Knowledge-transfer must be a key part of technology sharing initiatives. All Parties should strengthen their efforts to increase the global exchange of clean and sustainable technologies and thereby support the development of alternatives to conventional ones.
  • Democratic ownership of energy is needed if we are to achieve ambitious climate action. energy, along with other common goods that belong to humanity (air, water) must be brought, administered and kept under public control. Energy companies need to be restructured in order to allow for broad democratic control and oversight, including a strong scheme of workers’ participation. reclaimed by the public, utilities and municipal bodies can be required to drive decentralized systems of power generation. Renewable energy cooperatives established to meet community energy needs also have an important role to play. energy transition plans at the national and subnational levels need to be developed in ways that serve the public good, meet science-based emissions reduction targets, end energy poverty and facilitate cross-border cooperation in research and development. These plans should attempt to shift decision-making to the local level while at the same time ensuring that the energy transformation is equitable and sustainable according to the principles of just transition and participatory democracy.
  • The transition towards a sustainable, decarbonized society must provide a means to pivot decisively away from ecologically and socially destructive methods of fossil fuel extraction (as in the case of ‘fracking’ for shale gas, tar oil exploitation, among others) towards renewable energy under public and democratic control. The energy transition must include an end to fossil fuel subsidies. It requires prioritizing the global common good against greed of large fossil fuel companies that continue to promote the uninterrupted use of ever greater quantities of coal, oil and gas.

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Ambridge Citizens Meet with Sen. Vogel on Reservoir Protection

Posted by randyshannon on November 26, 2014

Sen. Elder Vogel Meets with Citizens to Protect the Ambridge Reservoir

November 20, 2014

Marcia Lehman addresses concerns with Sen. Elder Vogel.

Marcia Lehman addresses concerns with Sen. Elder Vogel.

Rev. Jim Hamilton said a natural gas fracking spill at the Ambridge Reservoir would put thousands of homes, businesses and schools who depend on the water at risk of closure.

“There may be no alternative sources of drinking water for Ambridge, Baden, Harmony Township, Economy, Edgeworth, Bell Acres, Leet Township and Leetsdale,” said Hamilton of Ambridge.

He was one of several from the Citizens to Protect the Ambridge Reservoir (CPAR) who addressed concerns to Sen. Elder Vogel during a discussion about protecting the reservoir from surface drilling, water withdrawals and other risks associated with natural gas fracking.

Vogel, R-New Sewickley, met with constituents Thursday at the Church of the Savior in Ambridge. Leaders of the organization presented Vogel a petition containing more than 4,500 signatures and 66 letters asking to protect the reservoir and watershed.

Marcia Lehman of CPAR pointed out that Republican Sen. Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County was proactive in ending Marcellus drilling operations in the Brockway Reservoir where he gets his drinking water.

Scarnati, the Senate president pro tempore, said in an August news release that he reached out to the state Department of Environmental Protection to express serious reservations with allowing any further drilling at the proposed site or any nearby site that could potentially compromise the reservoir.

“He put a stop to the drilling there immediately with 300 signatures. We’re giving you almost 5,000 signatures,” Lehman said.

Hamilton said the Service Creek Watershed and the Ambridge Reservoir are designated as protected for cold water fishes and specially protected for high-quality water by the state Clean Streams Law.

Vogel told the group he was unaware of what Scarnati did, but agreed he would look into it and talk to the senator.

“Obviously drinking water and water in general is a precious commodity,” Vogel said. “At the same time you also have the private landowners who own the property around the reservoir, so that’s another issue we’ll have to try to deal with at some point in time.”

This topical map shows the Service Creek watershed in red and the Ambridge reservoir in blue.

 

http://www.ambridgeconnection.com/local-news/vogel-meets-with-citizens-to-protect-ambridge-reservoir

This topical map shows the Service Creek watershed in red and the Ambridge reservoir in blue.

 

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Massey CEO Blankenship Indicted for Upper Big Branch Mine

Posted by randyshannon on November 13, 2014

Longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship Indicted

by Ken Ward, Jr. / West Virginia Gazette Blankenship

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Don Blankenship, the longtime chief executive of Massey Energy, was indicted today on charges that he violated federal mine safety laws at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

A federal grand jury in Charleston charged Blankenship with conspiring to cause routine and willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch during a period from Jan. 1, 2008, to April 9, 2010, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said.

The four-count indictment, filed in U.S. District Court, also alleges Blankenship was part of a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations and hinder federal enforcement efforts by providing advance warning of government inspections. The indictment also alleges that, after the explosion, Blankenship made false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission about Massey’s safety practices prior to the explosion.

“Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing,” the indictment states. “Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”

The four counts charged carry a maximum combined penalty of 31 years’ imprisonment, Goodwin said in a prepared statement. Goodwin declined to comment beyond the prepared statement.

The indictment comes after a more than four-year investigation that began following the mine disaster on April 5, 2010, but expanded to examine a troubled safety record that critics have long argued put coal production and profits ahead of worker protections.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby has led an unprecedented government effort to link major safety lapses at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines up the corporate ladder to Blankenship, who was known for keeping a firm grip on every aspect of Massey’s operations during nearly two decades at the company’s helm.

Blankenship has previously denied any wrongdoing, insisted that Massey put the safety of its miners first, and promoted his theory that the Upper Big Branch explosion was fueled by an uncontrollable flood of natural gas that inundated the Raleigh County mine.

“If they put me behind bars … it will be political,” Blankenship wrote in a May 2013 article posted on a blog he has used to defend his record and attack his critics.

In a statement issued late this afternoon, Blankenship’s attorney, William W. Taylor III, said, “Mr. Blankenship is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and he will be acquitted.”

“Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety,” Taylor said. “His outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will not yield to their effort to silence him. He will not be intimidated.”

Two government and two independent investigations, though, blamed the Upper Big Branch deaths on a pattern by Massey Energy of violating federal standards concerning mine ventilation and the control of highly explosive coal dust, both of which set the stage for a small methane ignition to turn into a huge coal-dust-fueled explosion.

Those investigations all generally agreed that the explosion erupted when the mine’s longwall machine shearer cut into a piece of sandstone. The resulting spark, investigators said, ignited a pocket of methane gas. Investigators concluded that worn-out bits on the cutting shearer contributed to the explosion, while missing water sprays allowed the ignition to spread. Illegal levels of coal dust had not been cleaned up, providing fuel that sent the blast ricocheting in multiple directions throughout more than two miles of underground tunnels, investigators said.

“While violations of particular safety standards led to the conditions that caused the explosion, the unlawful policies and practices implemented by [Massey] were the root cause of the tragedy,” the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded in its report on Upper Big Branch. “The evidence accumulated during the investigation demonstrates that [Massey] promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.”

Blankenship invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions from MSHA, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training and an independent team appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin to probe the Upper Big Branch disaster.

Already, Goodwin’s investigation has produced four convictions — including plea agreements with an Upper Big Branch superintendent and a Massey unit president — and a more-than-$200-million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in 2011, that required Alpha to fund major safety improvements and create a foundation to support mine safety and health research.

For years, Blankenship has been not only a powerful voice in the coal industry, but a power broker whose involvement in West Virginia politics could cut both ways.

At a time when a major verdict against Massey was headed for the state Supreme Court, his personal funds helped defeat then-Justice Warren McGraw’s re-election effort and his personal friendship with Blankenship likely helped cost then-Justice Spike Maynard his seat on the court. Republican operatives who helped engineer their party’s takeover of both houses of the West Virginia Legislature in this year’s election got their start working for Blankenship-funded political efforts.

Less than a year after the mine disaster, Massey announced in December 2010 that Blankenship would retire from the company at the end of the year. The following month, Alpha announced its plans to buy Massey.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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Labor-Community Push Wins Wage Hike in MN

Posted by randyshannon on November 13, 2014

Minimum-wage victory showcases potential of labor-community partnerships

Surrounded by legislative supporters and members of the Raise the Wage Coalition, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill increasing the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2016 – and indexing it to inflation.

On April 14, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill gradually raising Minnesota’s minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2016 and indexing the wage so that it keeps pace with inflation beginning in 2018.

The bill signing was a victory for more than 350,000 workers statewide who are expected to see a raise as a result of the bill. But it also marked a victory for the coalition of unions, religious groups and other non-profits that united to push the minimum-wage hike across the finish line.

“We’ve seen what an impact we can make when we come together,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson said after the bill-signing ceremony in the Capitol rotunda. “It felt good.”

The Minnesota AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor federation, was one of several union groups that took a leadership role in the Raise the Wage Coalition, which united more than 70 diverse organizations behind a minimum-wage increase.

After DFL majorities in the House and Senate failed to agree on a minimum-wage bill last spring, unions and labor federations pledged to invest energy, resources and political capital into seeing a meaningful increase pass before the 2014 session gaveled to a close. They made the commitment despite the fact, as Knutson pointed out, “the vast majority of Minnesota’s union workforce makes well above the minimum wage.”

“The labor movement is committed to improving the lives of all working people,” Knutson said. “Like Paul Wellstone said, ‘We all do better when we all do better.’”

RaisetheWageWeb_0A step toward ‘enduring partnerships’

Unions’ leadership role in the Raise the Wage Coalition reflected local action on a nationwide directive put forth at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles last year. Known as “Resolution 16,” the directive calls on state and local labor federations to build “enduring partnerships” with community groups that share values and goals with the labor movement.

With the minimum-wage campaign, Minnesota unions backed up the AFL-CIO’s talk with action, said St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Bobby Kasper, whose office coordinated 96 volunteer shifts on behalf of the minimum-wage push this year.

“Building a movement for economic justice isn’t possible unless we look beyond our own unions and reach out to our allies in that struggle,” Kasper said. “Whether it’s fighting Right to Work or defending prevailing wage, our position will only be stronger if we have members of the broader community behind us, but we can’t expect their support if we don’t step up when they need us.”

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