Category Archives: Labor Justice

LABOR JUSTICE: Walmart joins CIW’s Fair Food program

from Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida

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This afternoon, at a ceremony held under a watermelon packing shed on a tomato farm outside of Immokalee (photo above), Walmart and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers signed an historic agreement for the world’s largest retailer to join the CIW’s Fair Food Program, the widely-acclaimed social responsibility program that is bringing real, measurable change to the men and women who harvest tomatoes for Florida’s $650 million tomato industry.  As part of the agreement, Walmart will work with the CIW to expand the Fair Food Program beyond Florida and into “other crops beyond tomatoes in its produce supply chain.”

Alexandra Guáqueta, chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, also attended the signing ceremony “to support the Immokalee workers and the Fair Food Program, which offers such promise for us all,” and conveyed a statement on behalf of the Working Group…

Read more by clicking here.

REFLECTION: A promise made is a debt unpaid

Fr. John Rauschby Fr. John S. Rausch,
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

Coal miners are marching with angry signs to the headquarters of Peabody Energy in St. Louis and chanting shaming slogans before the offices of Patriot Coal in Charleston, WV.  In both cities the United Mine Workers of America staged acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to draw attention to over 22,000 retired miners and their dependents in jeopardy of losing their healthcare benefits.  Through corporate and legal maneuvering Peabody and Patriot are attempting to offload the heritage healthcare liabilities that miners had secured over the years through contracts and agreements.  (Full disclosure: I participated in the Charleston demonstration on April 1, 2013 and was arrested for trespassing on private property.)

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For over sixty years the UMWA negotiated contracts with coal companies that included both terms and conditions of employment for active miners, and defined income and health benefits for retired miners and their dependents.  Coal mining is one of the most dangerous occupations, so historically miners put health and safety first.  They deferred larger wage increases, longer vacations and enhanced fringe benefits in exchange for contracts that gave them greater control over workplace health and safety and the promise of guaranteed lifetime health care.  Now those promises are about to be broken.

In 2007 Peabody Energy created Patriot Coal by spinning off some of its assets and a large portion of its UMWA benefit liabilities.  Some economists call this pattern “dumping obligations,” and 90 percent of the retirees covered by this arrangement never worked a day for Patriot.  Arch Coal used a similar process and created Magnum Coal two years before.  In 2008 Patriot Coal bought Magnum and assumed much of the long-term heritage obligations of both Peabody and Arch.  This made Patriot Coal a top heavy company with almost $1.4 billion liability debt wobbling through the marketplace.  With the recession and weakening of coal markets, Patriot declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012 placing all forms of deferred compensation, such as the health benefits of retirees won by UMWA contracts, at the mercy of the bankruptcy court.  On the surface, Peabody and Arch dumped their heritage liabilities, and with Chapter 11 bankruptcy Patriot can renegotiate all its contracts.  The big losers: the workers.

Catholic theology has another way of looking at business.  John Paul II tells us that the purpose of business “is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons…” (Centesimus Annus, #35).  This is the meaning of the principle of the priority of labor over capital (Laborem Exercens, #12).  From the Catholic perspective, labor is not simply an input to production, but workers become subjects within community.  They cannot be used up and thrown away.

Catholic social teachings would still recognize Peabody Energy and Arch Coal as “indirect employers” (cf. Laborem Exercens, #17) whose obligations do not cease with the formation of Patriot, but take up when the first employer, Patriot, can no longer meet its obligations.  Indeed, a promise made is a debt unpaid.

In general U.S. bankruptcy laws are designed to protect assets, not people.  Still the bankruptcy judge can decide if Patriot Coal was formed intentionally, or recklessly, to dump huge heritage obligations with little chance of Patriot’s success, in which case the judge can hold the former employers responsible.

Meanwhile, approximately 1,100 retirees have written the judge citing their problems with black lung, back injuries, heart disease, and bulging discs from mining.  These miners made the profits for their companies.  They deserve health care.  Anything less, is injustice.

Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, is the director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia and works against mountaintop removal.  He was the recipient of the Pax Christi USA’s Teacher of Peace Award in 2007.

TAKE ACTION: Sign the letter of conscience to Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack

faq_pic1Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, has asked Pax Christi USA to help them gather signatures for this letter to be sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. In November, the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships lifted up the Fair Food Program as a powerful model for addressing human trafficking here in the U.S. As such, a variety of faith-based groups are using the opportunity to urge the USDA to embrace the model and purchase tomatoes for school lunches and market stabilization through the Fair Food Program. The opening of the letter is below with a link to the entire letter where you can also add your signature and send it in.

On this 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation we remember our nation’s courageous ancestors who denounced slavery, resisted its practices and devoted themselves to creating structures of commerce that upheld the human rights and dignity of all people. Advances that had been unimaginable became possible because of the creativity and perseverance of slaves, abolitionists and key government leaders. The work of freedom takes all of us; and it is ongoing.

Though enormous strides were made, the scourge of slavery has persisted, despite its illegality, in different forms, including in the agricultural fields of the United States today. Since 1997, Florida agriculture itself has seen nine prosecutions of cases of forced labor, involving over 1,200 people.

Modern-day slavery in Florida agriculture cannot be understood in a vacuum. It is not separate from the past, rather its roots extend deep into the state’s history of farmworker poverty and powerlessness…

Click here to read the entire letter and add your signature.

CHRISTMAS: An incredibly inspiring Christmas ceasefire

Tony Maglianoby Tony Magliano

As the first Christmas of World War I approached, Pope Benedict XV on Dec. 7, 1914, asked the leaders of all warring governments to agree to an official ceasefire. He begged “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”

Sadly, his plea was ignored by government leaders. But many of the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce.

On Christmas Eve of 1914, German troops in Ypres, Belgium put candles around their trenches and sang Christmas carols. When opposing British troops heard the Germans singing, they responded with Christmas caroling of their own.

Artillery throughout the region fell silent.

Then a remarkable scene occurred. German and British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and ventured unarmed into the highly dangerous “No Man’s Land” to exchanged gifts of food and drink, as well as souvenir hats and buttons.

The truce also allowed opposing sides to retrieve their dead and participate in joint services.

A firsthand account of this inspiring Christmas truce was given by Bruce Bairnsfather, who fought with a British machine gun unit. He wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange.”

Reportedly as many as 100,000 British and German troops along much of the Western Front – a line of trenches stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France – stopped fighting and engaged in similar acts of human kindness.

What an incredibly inspiring Christmas story!

But as is often the case, the “leaders” got in the way. High ranking officers ordered all such truces to stop – and to start killing again.

The political, cultural, military, media and economic forces for war have long been extremely powerful. And in recent decades their power has become almost invincible.

Our culture praises warriors. Our entertainment industry inspires a sick delight in war. With patriotic platitudes, politicians send our young men and women off to battle – to kill and be killed. Weapon producing corporations get rich from war and war preparation. Clergy remain mostly silent. And countless people just simply accept all of this evil as normal.

Well thank God not everyone follows the constant drumbeat to war. In fact, some who were once a part of the war-machine are now committed to dismantling it. The organization Veterans for Peace (www.veteransforpeace.org) is an excellent example.

These former warriors, now converts to nonviolence, have a prophetic message to all who support war: “Our collective experience tells us wars are easy to start and hard to stop and that those hurt are predominantly the innocent.”

The mass murder of war is right out of hell.

But Christmas is a time to think of heaven touching earth; a season to joyfully recall the Prince of Peace coming among us.

It’s a time to climb out of our trenches to grasp the hands of our enemies, and seriously reflect upon the message of angels who call each of us to build peace on earth and good will towards all.

Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist. Please contact your diocesan newspaper and request that they carry Tony’s column. Tony is also available to speak at conferences and other events on social justice and peace issues and can be reached at  tmag@zoominternet.net.