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Big Coal and the Big Terminal

GPT may run on Peabody’s energy, but labor will bless it just the same

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

At first acquaintance, Mark Lowry seems more a college professor than a bus driver/labor leader. His soft-spoken, articulate style makes him the most effective Bellingham voice in support of the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal at Cherry Point.

“I’ve been driving a bus for 17 years,” Lowry observes. “I know people who used to be the working poor. I used to take them to work and pick them up after work. I know their names. Now they’re not riding any more. They can’t find work.”

“The economy may be growing,” he admitted, “but it’s a hollowed-out economy. It’s mostly service jobs we’re gaining. When you lose a $60,000 manufacturing job with benefits and replace it with a $20,000 WalMart job with no benefits, that’s a zero replacement.”

What about the often mentioned if seldom-seen Bellingham renaissance in small manufacturing? It’s not really happening, Lowry says. Not so you’d notice.

“When Georgia-Pacific closed it was paying 850 union members a living wage with benefits. Nothing took its place. Instead, we’re manufacturing lattes for each other. I don’t think that’s a recovery.”

In addition to driving his WTA route, Lowry heads both Amalgamated Transit Union Local 843 and the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council. At the drop of a hint he’ll argue, civilly but passionately, in support of the construction and operating jobs that are supposed to come with the new coal terminal.

He’ll support it even if it promises to further enrich Peabody Energy Company, a likely candidate for any working person’s list of the most anti-union outfits in the country.

Peabody is not building the port nor hiring local workers, but without Peabody there’s no Gateway Pacific Terminal. The coal giant provides the only shipping contract that port developer and operator SSA Marine has announced so far. Peabody agrees to ship 24 million metric tons of Montana coal per year through GPT. That’s half the terminal’s proposed long-term coal capacity.

The most recent story you probably read about the corporation is still developing, in a St. Louis federal court. Peabody spun off some of its employee benefit contracts, along with a couple of coal mines, to a new subsidiary it created, known as Patriot Coal. Patriot promptly declared bankruptcy and asked the bankruptcy court to cancel its pension and health obligations to longtime Peabody employees.

The Patriot plot may be sneaky, but it’s vanilla cookies in the context of Peabody’s long-term relations with organized labor. A brief glance at its labor history is revealing.

The famous 1931 Harlan County, Kentuckyviolence against unionizing mine workers began at a Peabody mine, the Black Mountain. Union supporters were shot, jailed and beaten, and their homes were burned. When a Seattle sympathizer, Jessie Wakefield, went to Harlan County to minister to the starving families of the mine workers, her car was dynamited. Journalists who came to Harlan County to write about the violence were handcuffed and escorted out of the county with warnings not to come back. They wrote anyway.

Peabody has civilized its tactics but continues strenuously to oppose organized labor.

Where federal laws have forced the company to recognize unions, it has closed the union mines and opened more non-union mines. As a result, according to the United Mine Workers’ Association, fewer than 30 percent of Peabody’s miners are currently union members.

Only last year, the National Labor Relations Board directed Peabody to stop intimidating pro-union workers at its Willow Lake mine in Illinois, and a federal judge ordered it to rehire
a worker fired for union activity. Peabody soon closed the mine for “safety concerns.”

Eight hundred workers lost their jobs.

Peabody owns the lion’s share of rights to strip coal from public lands in the Powder River Basin in Montana, where its mining jobs are 90 percent non-union.

Does it matter to local unions that the new export terminal will further enrich a national symbol of anti-labor practices? If so, it doesn’t change their support for GPT.

“I don’t do business with Peabody,” Mark Lowry said. “I don’t like Peabody. I don’t trust multi-national corporations. But I am forced to be a realist. SSA Marine has a good record of dealing honestly and reasonably with unions and offering living-wage jobs with good benefits. That’s what we’re after.”

Lowry seems at times uncomfortable in his role as booster for the coal terminal, and in conflict with some of labor’s traditional, Democratic Party allies. He keeps emphasizing that he’s in no way in thrall to SSA Marine.

“I am not on SSA’s payroll,” he emphasizes. “I’m not on their side. I’m on labor’s side. I’m trying to get some damn jobs in this county.”

A well-known labor activist who doesn’t want his name used, expressed his feelings more vividly, if less elegantly than Lowry.

“Yeah, f___king Peabody,” he said. “Why did it have to be them? We’ve had some long
and hot debate about that. But we’ll take the jobs.”

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