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The Road Not Taken

The shuttering of the GM works in Lordstown will also bury a lost chapter in the fight for workers’ control.

By Sarah Jaffe
The New Republic

June 24, 2019 – Illustration by Nicolas Ortega Chuckie Denison took the podium at the United Steelworkers hall in Canton, Ohio, in his ever-present blue Good Jobs Nation T-shirt, flanked by people holding protest signs. One handmade sign read “Promises Made, Promises Broken”; it featured a likeness of President Trump, who’d flown into Ohio that day for a big-money fund-raiser at a nearby country club. Another sign pointed out that Lordstown, home of the iconic General Motors auto plant, was only 49.4 miles away. Still another read, “We will lose 43,000 jobs because of Lordstown closing.”

Denison leaned into the microphone and told the assembled crowd his story, introducing himself as a third-generation GM autoworker. “I started in Dayton, Ohio. I watched that plant close. I went to Shreveport, Louisiana. I watched that plant close. I come here to Lordstown, Ohio, happy to be back in my home state. I’d never have thought that Lordstown would close.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Denison said, Trump came to northeast Ohio and promised better days. “He looked the people in the eyes and told them, ‘Do not sell your homes. The jobs are coming back.’”

The jobs never came back. When GM announced, last November, that the Lordstown plant would be closed as part of a restructuring plan, the community held out hope that the company would decide to retool the plant, and rehire some of the laid-off workers. But the last Chevrolet Cruze rolled off the Lordstown assembly line on March 6—a no-frills white model that workers draped in an American flag and posed behind for a last photo.

Variations of this scene have played out in countless shuttered plants and deindustrializing communities over the past four decades. But with the closure of Lordstown, workers are losing more than paychecks, retirement plans, and long-term job security; they’re also burying a lost chapter in union organizing—the moment in the early 1970s when the militant leaders of United Auto Workers Local 1112 at the Lordstown facility briefly revived the demand for greater control in the workplace. With the specter of Trump, the self-advertised mogul-savior of the manufacturing sector, lurking offstage, the last days of Lordstown feel like a parable about what becomes of workers in a political economy that hinges on their systematic disenfranchisement—on the factory floor and in the public sphere alike.

And as a twenty-first–century parable of the workplace, it naturally involved Donald Trump spouting off on Twitter. Nearly two weeks after the last car left the plant, Trump fired off a couple of tweets telling David Green, president of UAW Local 1112, to “get his act together and produce.” That outburst, combined with the news that Trump was heading to Ohio but skipping the plant, led to the press conference where Denison had laid into GM and Trump.

At the same event, Ohio Democratic Representative Tim Ryan—who’s mounting a 2020 run at the presidency—spoke about how plant closures destabilize the entire community. “You hear from a football booster, ‘So-and-so had to transfer. He was treasurer of the football boosters. So-and-so had to transfer. They ran this Boy Scout group,’” he said. “That’s what workers are…. They put their time in. You do everything right and then when you get home, you go coach Little League.” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten joined him in calling for GM to reopen the plant. “If parents lose their jobs, it devastates the community,” she told me afterward. “Teachers understand that; they are in some ways the first responders.”

Alyssa Brookbank is one of those teachers and the president of the Lordstown Teachers Association. She’s seen the effects of the shutdown up close. “Students know they are going to have to leave some of their family and close friends behind,” she said. “They don’t know how to handle it, and it is not their fault. It is a lot to put on the shoulders of young kids. This is much bigger than just GM. It is going to affect other businesses in ways we don’t even realize yet. It is going to have a ripple effect.”

Denison has the words “Union Thug” tattooed across his forearm in sweeping script. Higher up on his arm, he told me, he has a tattoo of the state of Ohio. He returned to Ohio, to work at Lordstown, just in time for the bottom to fall out of the economy in 2008. By that time, he had enough seniority with GM—having hired on right out of high school in 1998—to survive the wave of layoffs that came with GM’s bankruptcy filing in the wake of the crash. “The biggest thing wasn’t the money,” he says now. “It was the fact that I had a pension.” Because of those benefits, he was able to retire this year after 20 years of factory labor. He’s one of the lucky ones. Continue reading The Road Not Taken

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PA General Assembly Under Some Pressure to Act on Minimum Wage

By John Finnerty
New Castle News

June 18, 2019 – HARRISBURG – The state’s secretary of Human Services on Monday called on the Legislature to boost the minimum wage, noting that child care workers and direct-care workers who serve seniors and the disabled make so little many of them are enrolled in public assistance programs, themselves.

Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said that she depends on quality child care for her 3-year-old daughter and she knows that some of the people who take of her child while she works are enrolled in safety net programs her department oversees.

“No one who works full-time should have to go hungry so their kids can eat,” Miller said in a Monday afternoon rally at the state Capitol.

The average pay for a day care worker in Pennsylvania is $9.71 an hour, she said. Direct care workers make about $11 an hour.

In both cases, about half of the workers in those positions are receiving public assistance of some kind.

Miller said that the state’s low minimum wage – Pennsylvania uses $7.25, the rate set by the federal government, while every surrounding state has moved to a higher minimum wage – creates a “system built on inequities” that shame workers who must turn to safety net programs “for circumstances they can’t control.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has called for a move to $12 and hour with target of reaching $15 an hour by 2025.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated last August that there were about 106,000 people making minimum wage in Pennsylvania, about 3.1 percent of the hourly paid workers in the state.

A report by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a labor-linked think tank, estimated that moving to $15 an hour would lead to wage increases for 2 million Pennsylvania workers.

Legislation to increase the minimum wage has not moved in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Continue reading PA General Assembly Under Some Pressure to Act on Minimum Wage

Ohio Valley Environmental Tour a ‘Real Eye-opener’

Shippingport, due to close, but some irrationally want to keep pouring money into it.

Why the Green New Deal Matter to Us

By Rick Shrum
Observer-Reporter / Southwest PA

June 1, 2019 – Ned Ketyer, a Peters Township pediatrician, appreciated the five-hour excursion along the Ohio River.

“This tour has been a real eye-opener,” he said Friday afternoon. “Look out the window and what you see should be beautiful, should be pristine.

“You see areas that aren’t green. You see a lot of damaged roads and probably a lot of damaged lives for people brave enough to live there.”

Ketyer, a leader with the environmental support group Climate Reality Project and a board member of the Southwest Environmental Health Project, was lamenting what he regarded as casualties from heavy industry that still has a significant presence in the Ohio Valley. He was among a group of 30 who coursed through this part of the tri-state on a bus, glimpsing and stopping at industrial sites along a 100-mile stretch.

And the sites were many.

The tour was organized by the Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania chapter of the Climate Realty Project; FracTracker Alliance; Breathe Project; and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Tour attendees discussed and listened to concerns related to natural gas processing, pipelines, emissions, pollution and – of course – cracker plants.

Many of their contentions, to be sure, conflict with statements by industry officials, such as fracking is usually done safely and greenhouse gas emissions have been cut dramatically. One natural gas producer recently established a goal of zero emissions.

Coalition members and supporters stated their case Friday.

The event began in Robinson Township, advanced to Beaver County, then navigated Ohio and West Virginia roadways that hugged the river south to Proctor, W.Va.

Twenty minutes into the tour, shortly after the bus crossed into Beaver County on Interstate 376, Karen Gdula picked up the microphone and talked about “my nightmare that became reality.”

She pointed to a barren hillside to the east where, last Sept. 10, the Revolution Pipeline burst following a landslide, sending flames aloft a short distance from the home where she grew up and which she now owns. One house and several garages and vehicles were destroyed.

“As a child, I had a nightmare that the woods behind my house were on fire,” Gdula said. “Then we had this fire in September. The flames were probably 300 feet high. It was very intense.”

Early in the journey, organizers passed along a jar containing polyethylene pellets, “the building block for plastics,” one said. These so-called “nurdles” are a vital product for the much-celebrated Pennsylvania Shell cracker plant that is under construction in Potter Township, Beaver County.

This type of facility processes ethane, a component of natural gas that is prevalent in the nearby Marcellus Shale, and processes – or “cracks” – it into ethylene.

Continue reading Ohio Valley Environmental Tour a ‘Real Eye-opener’

New Brighton was ‘Hub of the Underground Railroad’

At least nine sites in New Brighton — homes, flour mill and church — were safe houses to help runaway slaves escape from Southern states where slavery was legal to free states in the North, and ultimately to Canada.

By Marsha Keefer
Beaver County Times

June 9, 2019 – NEW BRIGHTON — New Brighton’s strategic location on the Beaver River and compassion of prominent abolitionists made the borough a natural harbor for fugitive slaves seeking asylum prior to the Civil War.

“It was the hub of the Underground Railroad,” said Odette Lambert, a member and former president of New Brighton Historical Society, who’s spent close to a quarter century researching the town’s clandestine freedom trail.

The organized system depended upon a network of people and safe houses to help runaway slaves escape from Southern states where slavery was legal to free states in the North, and ultimately to Canada.

It’s estimated as many as 100,000 slaves may have fled the South between and 1810 and 1850, according to u-s-history.com.

At least nine sites in New Brighton — homes, flour mill and church — were part of the effort.

What’s fascinating, Odette said, is that “very few safe houses are still in existence in the country” — many of them in disrepair and ultimately demolished — “and our little town of New Brighton is one of the few that still has that many homes in existence.” Continue reading New Brighton was ‘Hub of the Underground Railroad’

Investigation: Cracker Plant Will bring Jobs, Pollution

Some medical experts said breathing will be much harder once plant is up and running

By Paul Van Osdol
WTAE Investigative Reporter

May 9. 2019 – MONACA, Pa. — The massive ethane cracker plant in Beaver County is bringing thousands of jobs to Western Pennsylvania.

But Action News Investigates has learned it may also bring thousands of tons of air pollutants to a region that already has some of the nation’s dirtiest air.

At the cracker plant site, dozens of cranes soar into the sky as thousands of construction workers assemble the petrochemical facility that will convert natural gas liquids into plastics.

The project has breathed new life into what was an industrial wasteland.

But some medical experts who are also environmental advocates said breathing will be much harder once the plant is up and running.

“To me it’s about breathing. It’s about health,” said Dr. Ned Ketyer, a retired pediatrician affiliated with Pitt’s Climate and Global Change Center.

He said the plant’s toxic fumes will affect health as far south as Pittsburgh.

“Allegheny County is already dealing with higher risks of cancer because of air pollution and I believe this is going to make things much worse,” Ketyer said.

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a major industrial pollutant. Environmental Protection Agency records show the industrial plant with the largest VOC emissions in Western Pennsylvania is the Clairton Coke Works, with 291 tons of VOCs in 2014, the most recent year available.

But the cracker plant’s state permit says it is allowed up to 522 tons of VOCs per year.

Ammonia is another air toxin.

“That can have immediate effects on the brain and the liver,” Ketyer said.

EPA records show the Coke Works and U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock combined emitted 139 tons of ammonia in 2014.

But the cracker plant’s permit allows for even more — 152 tons. Continue reading Investigation: Cracker Plant Will bring Jobs, Pollution

On the Rise: Solar Farms Begin Cropping Up in Western Pa

Solar farm in Smith Twp, near Burgettstown.

By Megan Tomasic
TribLive

May 5, 2019 – Down a gravel road close to what constitutes downtown Slovan in rural Washington County, roughly 3,500 solar panels stand in a field of green grass, their blue-hued faces tilted toward the sun.

The development, one of the largest solar farms in Western Pennsylvania, spans 4.5 acres and can power about 750 homes. It’s just a small part of a national trend infiltrating the Pennsylvania landscape.

A similar project is slated to occupy 12 acres of Hempfield, Westmoreland County. Almost 11,000 solar panels will be visible from Hunker-Waltz Mill Road, near Westinghouse Electric Co.

But the state still has a long way to go, with only three major solar farm projects powering roughly 575 homes and one business — Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Snyder’s-­Lance in Hanover and Elizabethtown Solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, or SEIA, a solar energy advocacy group.

Westmoreland and Allegheny counties have no big solar projects, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

The report does not include individual panels on the rooftops of residential homes, said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, press secretary for the PUC.

While there are few solar farm developments in the immediate area, Pennsylvania has a growing number of solar jobs.

Between 2017 and 2018, the number of jobs increased by 10%, accounting for almost 4,220 workers, according to Avery Palmer, communications director at The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting solar and solar technology.

“Most of the jobs will be at companies that install solar on rooftops or commercial businesses,” Palmer said. “With that said, large utility-­scale farms are a major job creator in other states, and developing these projects could help create even more solar jobs in Pennsylvania.” Continue reading On the Rise: Solar Farms Begin Cropping Up in Western Pa

Industry Officials, Protesters Confront Appalachia’s Future as a Possible Petrochemical Hub

Protestors outside the Marcellus and Manufacturing Development Conference in Morgantown, West Virginia on April 9, 2019. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

By Oliver Morrison

PublicSource.org

April 10, 2019 – Attendees at an industry conference in West Virginia on Tuesday cheered projections for increased petrochemical production in the next 40 years, while protesters outside held up withered single-use plastic bags to show the environmental harm of petroleum products.

Both groups, however, shared a common view that the economic hype and resulting environmental impact predicted for the region may not pan out. It’s how they feel about the prospect that diverges.

The Ohio River Valley region is projected to be on the brink of a petrochemical boom adding to its already booming natural gas industry: Production of ethane, which is used to make plastics, is expected to quadruple by 2025, according to a presentation by Brian Anderson, the director of the National Energy Technology Center at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Several top industry executives and analysts at the Marcellus and Manufacturing Development Conference in Morgantown spoke about the rare opportunity to create 100,000 jobs, an industry estimate, and bring billions of dollars in economic growth to the region, which includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

“This is the chance of a lifetime to create a generational change for the region,” said Michael Graney, executive director of the West Virginia Development Office.

But the mood at the conference was not always celebratory. Several speakers focused on the urgent need to continue to sell the Appalachian region’s potential to the rest of the world. Continue reading Industry Officials, Protesters Confront Appalachia’s Future as a Possible Petrochemical Hub