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Labor

What Did You Learn At Work Today?

What Did You Learn at Work TodayWhat did you learn at work today?
By Helena Worthen
Reviewed by Mike Matejka
Grand Prairie Union News

We all learn something new. We learn from school, family and friends, and much of what we learn is on the job. That can not only mean job skills, but also learning human personalities, workplace issues and basic job justice.

Though few in number, some universities, like the University of Illinois, have labor education programs. The professors and scholars there work for and with workers, sometimes on direct job issues, sometimes on union training.

Helena Worthen, in What did you learn at work today?” takes her years of labor education and slimmed them down, seeking to understand how we learn on the job and in the union hall.

Unless you are a teacher, most Americans don’t think about learning styles or philosophies. Worthen covers four different analyses of how we learn and applies them to everyday situations.

She then does case studies of workers she’s been involved with: striking AFSCME care workers in Effingham, Illinois, inner-city pre-apprenticeship trainees, garment workers, trade apprentices, power plant technicians and teachers. Through each case, she documents on how workers’ empowerment and involvement changed not only their work lives, but them personally.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is how children view their working parents. Worthen served as a scholarship judge for AFSCME and read hundreds of essays on “What does AFSCME do for my family?” We often forget how observant children are of family dynamics, how job security or insecurity impacts the family and how much pride they take in their parents and their work. The Labor Movement is missing a great opportunity by not including union families and their children in activities, as these essay writers are often very insightful on how the union maintains their family unit.

Ultimately, a union is about workers developing power to better their conditions. Knowledge is power. How we gain and maintain worker knowledge is the great lesson of this book.

Labor Update: Schedules That Work In Iowa

Field Workers

Field Workers

Four Democratic legislators introduced the Schedules That Work Act (H.R. 5159)  on July 22 without fanfare. Labor and Women’s groups were quick to sign on to a bill that asserts its help for part time workers in a middle class that increasingly seeks flexibility and fairness in work scheduling from employers. This is especially true for workers who clean, perform janitorial work, serve in restaurants, and work retail.

The statement of Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families on the day the bill was introduced gets the conversation started:

WASHINGTON, D.C.— “The Schedules That Work Act introduced today by Senators Tom Harkin (D– Iowa) and Elizabeth Warren (D– Mass.) and Representatives George Miller (D– Calif.) and Rosa DeLauro (D– Conn.) is a critically important bill that would address the unpredictable and all-too-common employer scheduling practices that leave many workers unable to make ends meet and provide for their families. We urge every member of Congress to support this legislation, which is a matter of basic fairness for workers and is good for the nation.

Across the country today, millions of workers receive no advance notice of their schedules or the number of hours they are expected to work. Some are required to call to find out if they are scheduled to work each morning– and have no guarantee of work, pay, or that they won’t be sent home early if they do travel to their workplace. These practices mean that workers, especially women and those paid low wages, are left with significant uncertainty about whether they will be able to pay for basic expenses, meet family and caregiving responsibilities, or pursue educational and job training opportunities. It is a harmful and unnecessary situation.

By giving workers more control over their schedules, encouraging employers to be clear about scheduling and hours expectations, and ensuring employers provide some wages when schedules are irregular or change on short notice, the Schedules That Work Act would provide much-needed predictability and financial stability for workers, businesses and our economy. The bill would go a long way toward helping people meet the dual demands of job and family while promoting economic security and opportunity.

Vermont and San Francisco have laws like this on the books, so why not everyone else in the country? BFIA readers know the answer to that.

Whether the bill gains traction seems doubtful in a Congress less popular than cockroaches. At the same time, creating a viable economic model for a family that relies on several part-time jobs is hard. It’s harder if there are young children. If a person tries to lead an honest, decent life, and get ahead through schooling or job training, it is impossible without a social safety net that includes government tax credits for health insurance and a retirement plan of Social Security and Medicare. If illness or injury have darkened a family’s doorway, they are at the mercy of the community, and life can get hopeless with part time work supporting a family.

Does something need to be done to encourage more people to work part time? Yes, there is a business demand for part time workers, and demand has already pushed starting wages well above the minimum wage, at least in Eastern Iowa. Does something need to be done by government to frame a structure to make life easier? Maybe, maybe not.

During the past five years, the author has worked a number of part time jobs and found most to be accommodating of a flexible schedule. If they were less so, they had strict work rules to facilitate work with an employee base that turned over frequently. A person can understand work rules when they are strict and fairly enforced, and agree to the deal. Companies also seem willing to accommodate flexibility if an employee has basic work skills like showing up on time, working while at work, and producing desired performance results. In a competitive business environment, there will be plenty of part time jobs, and there is something to the idea that the market will drive employee accommodations, because businesses need a skilled workforce to conduct operations.

That isn’t to say there is no merit in the Schedules That Work Act, just that the initial information indicates a lopsidedness in perspective. So read up.

The New York Times ran a background story on July 15, which can be accessed here.

President Obama is on board with some protections, and issued a statement here.

Currently though, as Jennifer Ludden of National Public Radio suggested, if you want flexibility, consider moving to Vermont or San Francisco.

The Schedules That Work Act seems dead on arrival in a Congress obsessed with Obamacare, impeachment, unwavering support for Israel, and deporting young children seeking shelter. The Schedules That Work Act will be one to follow into the midterm elections, and if Democrats win, into the next Congress.

Could Iowa Football Players Form A Union?

Brother Herky
By Nate Willems

Earlier this year, the Chicago Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University have the right to form a labor union and bargain with their employer pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). A hearing developed an extensive factual record as to the realities of life at a major college football program. Applying these facts to the NLRA, the regional director found that football players are employees with labor rights under the law.

Though appeals may last for years in the Northwestern case, one of the first questions that came to my mind is “what would be the outcome if this happened at Iowa?” Northwestern is a private university and, as such, the NLRA– federal law– governs. At the University of Iowa, the controlling law would be Iowa’s Public Employment Relations Act, or Chapter 20. Though Chapter 20 is largely modeled on the NLRA, there are some key differences. So, assuming the realities of the life of a scholarship football player at Northwestern are relatively similar to a player at Iowa, what is the best guess as to how the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) and Iowa courts would rule if Hawkeyes attempted to form a union?

The threshold question of whether football players have the right to form a union is answered in Chapter 20.4, the exclusions section. Most relevant is 20.4(4) which excludes “students working 20 hours or less.” Certainly, when making its case against labor rights, the Board or Regents would argue that the NCAA prohibits football programs from having more than twenty “countable athletic hours” during the sport season and no more than eight in the off-season. Since the average over the course of the year must be below twenty, the Regents would argue that Iowa football players have no right to organize.

Countable athletic hours, though, excludes time spent in travel, training meetings, “voluntary” weight-lifting, medical check-ins, tape review, and training table. When the NLRB regional director took testimony witnesses attested to a far greater time commitment. During August camp, players averaged 50-60 hours a week in football activities; during the season from September through November, players averaged 40-50 hours per week; from mid-January through the end of July the average was 12-25 hours per week. If PERB or a reviewing Iowa court considers all football related activities, the twenty-hour threshold will be easily surpassed.

Would PERB have to take into account the realities of time demands the NCAA ignores in calculating countable athletic hours? Good question. Consider travel time, Iowa Code 91A.13 states that travel time is not compensable when the transportation is “provided by the employer… as a convenience for the employee, and the employee is not required by the employer to use that means of transportation to the worksite.” Unless Athletic Director Gary Barta decides to allow football players to carpool to road games, Iowa law seems to say football travel time is compensable.

With regard to weight lifting, training meetings, and the rest, would that time count towards the average of twenty hours worked? We do not know for sure. However, when in doubt as to whether a person is “working,” we often look to the body of federal law, which is binding on the University of Iowa in this instance, developed around the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)- the law that says you must get paid at least the minimum wage and time and a half after forty hours. The FLSA states that when an employer “suffers or permits” an employee to work, they are working. As the U.S. Department of Labor says, “work not requested but suffered or permitted to be performed is work time that must be paid for… for example, an employee may voluntarily continue to work at the end of the shift… the reason is immaterial. The hours… are compensable.”

If players are allowed to lift weights or participate in team meetings, this is time worked. Using the text of Chapter 20, the facts of Northwestern football, and the principles of Iowa and federal law regarding time worked, it becomes apparent that Iowa football players probably exceed an average of twenty hours worked and do have the right to form and join a union. NCAA policies do not trump state or federal law. More likely than not, our Hawkeyes have the right to become our union brothers.

~ Nate Willems is an attorney who lives in Mount Vernon.

Reprinted with permission from the Summer 2014 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter, available only in hard copy for $12/yr.!!  Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.

Questions For Candidates In 2014

We have Questions

We have Questions

As we pass Independence Day and inch closer to the heavy political season (it never stops anymore) we need to get ready for the real job of a democracy. The past two years in particular have resulted in gridlock caused by Republican politicians at all levels. This is not what government is about. If those Republican politicians want our vote, they need to answer some questions. Here are some I would love to hear asked and answered honestly, especially by the four Republican candidates for the US House.

1) Do you agree with John Boehner’s action to sue the President?
– Will you join in the lawsuit if elected?
– What are the specific issues (be specific, not “he acts like a king”) for which Mr. Obama should be sued?
– Will you push for impeachment? On what specific grounds?

2) Do you support the SCOTUS ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius?
– If so, what other issues do you believe should be brought to the SCOTUS on religious grounds?
– Should discrimination against gays based on religious beliefs be allowed for closely held public businesses?

3) What specific legislation will you push to address the inequality in pay and conditions for women?
– Please cite Republican legislative action to address this issue in the past?

4) What specific action or legislation will you propose to address income inequality in this country. Please be ready to explain exactly how your proposal will directly affect the working class poor.

5) On immigration, particularly from Latin American countries. Some in your party have described such immigrants as “drug mules with cantaloupe calves.” Do you agree with this assessment?
– What is your proposal to practically deal with undocumented immigrants? What are the ramifications of your proposal?

6) The cost of college has skyrocketed while government support has fallen to all time lows. Thus the cost of college is out of reach for more and more Americans. Soon America will not have the human resources to maintain its lead in many economic categories. Does the cost of post-secondary education feel about right to you?
– Do you have a proposal to alleviate the crushing burden of debt for students? Please be specific on details and ramifications.

7) If elected will you support the House continuing to bring up legislation to end the ACA?
– If so, what would you propose to replace the ACA? Please be specific on coverage and on how the costs will be covered, especially for the poor.

8) Finally, many Republicans are coming to believe climate change is happening. What is your belief in this area?
– Please give specific documented sources for your supporting arguments.

That is a good start. I would really much rather know what an representative believes before I vote. Don’t you?

Wage Workers In Iowa

Workers

Workers

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This post ran last summer and remains emblematic of a situation lowly paid workers find themselves in Iowa. Since then, Simon Head published Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans, which gets to the heart of the workplace I described. In many ways, this is the new normal for wage workers).

One of my work mates this spring was an Iraq War veteran. Stationed in Tikrit, his military occupational specialty was fueling, although military contractors did most of the fueling work. He had a lot to say about war profiteers, including members of the Bush-Cheney administration. Locals he met did not like the American presence in Iraq. “Too many car bombs,” he said, something they experienced less when Saddam Hussein was in power.

Our supervisors discourage us from talking while we are in our cells (a.k.a. work stations), but when the computer network went down for about 45 minutes one night, we had a chance to talk. For me, that meant mostly listening.

I had been working as a temp in a warehouse in North Liberty for about two weeks. Not sure I could hack it— repetitive motion, standing and walking except during lunch break— my focus had been on staying healthy, and getting the work done as best I could. My goal was to survive, and beyond that, to learn everyone’s name and a little about them. Employees turned over at a rapid pace, so I hadn’t yet done very well on getting to know people. Mostly, it was nose to the grindstone.

It turned out that the Iraq War veteran found another warehouse where he could work through a temp agency for about two dollars more an hour. He was scheduled to start there on Monday. There was no surprise, as the discussion was overheard in the lunchroom the previous day. I wished him good luck with his new job, in case we didn’t get to speak to each other on Thursday.

Living paycheck-to-paycheck, and working poor was something I had not experienced until now. Measuring each week by the number of checks that will arrive, knowing it is enough to barely make regular expenses, can be a grind. I can see why my work mate took the new job— some might say, it’s a no-brainer. But a different view, is that temp work does not provide the means to earn a living wage in any case, at least temporary warehouse work. It was not designed to do so.

These jobs are part of the American outsourcing movement— clear evidence that the changes in a worker’s life regarding wages, and for whom we work, aren’t only happening when jobs move to Asia or Mexico. They are endemic to the Iowa experience.

My hourly wage cost the company $0.154 per kit I assembled. Add on whatever the temp agency gets for their fees, and it is not much. There are no paid benefits. In the context of the entire operation, the expense includes management, supervisors, equipment, material moving, overhead, supplies and external transportation. Inherent is the idea that there are cost savings to the principal manufacturer by doing business this way. And jobs are created, somewhere between 125 and 150 of them where I work.

My work mate and I worked well together. Probably because of our common military experience. At the end of the day, that may be all we had together, as our logistics process, like any in the transformation of the American workplace, could easily be changed, eliminated or improved. In many ways, logistics is a facilitator of the transformation of business. Wage workers have to take it how they can, and sometimes that means switching jobs for another $80 per week.

Wage Theft: An Iowa Disgrace

Senator Joe Bolkcom

Senator Joe Bolkcom

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece first appeared in the Iowa City Press Citizen. It is reprinted with the permission of Senator Bolkcom).

It might seem hard to believe, but some Iowa employers are regularly stealing from their employees. It’s a problem in Johnson County and across Iowa. A recent report suggests that unscrupulous Iowa employers are robbing Iowa workers of $600 million annually.

Iowans work hard for every dollar they earn, and it should not be stolen from them by their employers. This is a disgrace that must be stopped.

Last fall, Kossiwa Agbenowassi worked cleaning the Outback Steakhouse in Coralville. She worked hard seven days per week, scrubbing the dining area, kitchen and bathroom to support her young children. Now, months later, the cleaning subcontractor for Outback has refused to pay her for more than 49 days of work— a total of $2,346 in unpaid wages! Her efforts to get the money she earned have so far failed.

This is a classic case of wage theft, when workers aren’t paid the wages they are legally owed. Studies say it’s a growing epidemic in Iowa, and across the country.

Not only are these employers stealing from their employees, they are not paying withholding taxes, worker compensation or unemployment insurance. They are cheating the system while good employers and every taxpayer subsidize this deplorable practice.

Iowa has some of the weakest wage enforcement laws in the country with virtually no penalties or enforcement when cases are reported to Iowa Workforce Development. Until last year, the department had just one wage investigator to address the concerns of our state’s 1.3 million private sector employees. That’s why Senate Democrats insisted last year and successfully secured funding to add a second wage investigator.

Senate Democrats have introduced legislation several times over the past few years to establish better safeguards to ensure Iowans get paid and allow investigators to more easily go after businesses that fail to pay what they owe. The bill called for better record keeping, stronger penalties and retaliation protections for workers.

Unfortunately, these efforts have been blocked by some of Iowa’s largest and most powerful business associations, including the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Grocers Association and the Federation of Iowa Insurers. Moreover, it has no support from Governor Branstad or House Republicans. And when we voted on it in the Senate this year, not a single Senate Republican supported legislation to protect Iowa workers. They appear to not care that taxpaying Iowa workers are getting millions of dollars of their money stolen from them.

The vast majority of Iowa’s employers are honest and ethical and have nothing to worry about. The proposed reforms simply require employers to provide the terms of employment to their employees in writing and keep a copy on file. This protects both the employer and the worker if there is a disagreement.

Because of the failure of politicians to better protect Iowa workers, the most effective enforcement has come from community groups that have waged a public campaign against employers that owe money but refuse to pay. The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Center for Worker Justice have done extraordinary work in getting some workers back the money they have earned and are owed.

It is long past time to protect Iowa workers from the disgraceful practices of some Iowa employers.

~ Joe Bolkcom represents Iowa City in the state senate.

Labor Update: Staples Boycott

Staples BoycottIt’s hard to fathom the cavalcade of minutia encountered when mailing a package at the post office. The question has been “can a lowly paid worker at Staples do the same work for less?” The postal unions have said no, and the AFL-CIO supported them with its “Don’t Buy Staples” boycott launched earlier this month. In Iowa, the land that puts one to sleep, there has been a little action, but not much. What is going on?

“Office-supply giant Staples has been struggling recently due to the secular decline of major categories like PCs, ink, and paper,” wrote Adam Levine-Weinberg for The Motley Fool. “North American comparable-store sales declined four percent last year. With sales falling, Staples has found that it has far too much space in its stores, and it is therefore looking to downsize to smaller formats.” To use some of the newly created space, Staples struck a deal with the U.S. Postal Service to offer mini-post offices in some of their stores. Staples sells stamps, Priority Mail and other postal services during normal business hours. What and how they do it is outside consideration of union contracts, and hence the rub with union members.

In April the postal worker protests of the Staples-USPS deal made a splash, but Staples and the USPS may have broader problems than a boycott by the small minority of union worker that exist in post-Reagan America. Like with many advocacy efforts against businesses, economics will be a key driver of whether Staples stays in business trying to deal with what the Fool suggests is a problem with the economics of their business model– namely the thrill is gone with regard to visiting specialty retailers like Staples to buy office supplies.

As a former union member, I empathize with Iowa postal workers. In recent months a cavalcade of ever changing rural delivery operators, presumably all non-union, has been delivering mail to our home. Our local post office downsized, with the long-time postmaster retiring, and a different face at the counter every time we go in to buy stamps. Speaking of the latter, the number of stamps our household purchases has decreased significantly as we now pay most bills on line because of the convenience and predictability of payments.

The USPS has problems with its relationship with its union workers, but the lack of Congressional action to properly fund it, combined with changing consumer patterns put the postal service in a no-win situation.

“Labor problems do not exist in a vacuum,” wrote Donald Woolf in an article titled, Labor Problems in the Post Office. Woolf’s article suggests that operational issues like plant obsolescence, the changing nature of the USPS labor force, union representation and bargaining structure, inter-union rivalries and other factors may play a more significant role in postal worker disgruntlement than the USPS-Staples deal. The Staples deal is just more visible than all the wonkiness Woolf refers to.

While it may feel good to have a specific targeted action like the “Don’t Buy Staples” boycott, closer to the truth is feeling good isn’t good enough.

A solution? Elections matter, so get informed and get involved with politics. Electing candidates like Staci Appel, Jim Mowrer, Pat Murphy, Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley may not solve the problems at the USPS, but would go a long way toward getting an empathetic ear in the Congress on the significant challenges that are today’s USPS.

Oh, yeah. It wouldn’t hurt to boycott Staples and let them know it. However, the market will likely take care of Staples.

Labor Update: Harris v. Quinn

Labor Movement

Labor Movement

Organized labor has a voice in Iowa politics, but not the power it once had to move its agenda. Looking back at Nate Willems’ March 30, 2007 article from Prairie Progressive, and the Iowa Fair Share debate, he wrote, “the battle for Fair Share in Iowa is the front line of not just the fight for better paying jobs, or for a stronger Democratic Party.  It is the fight to rekindle a progressive brand of politics that has been missing for far too long.” That fight was lost and it changed how labor union leadership viewed their relationship with the Iowa Democratic Party.

It is exactly the type of political advocacy Willems wrote about in 2007 that may be at stake in Harris v. Quinn, a U.S. Supreme Court case expected to be decided before the court ends their current session later this month. The case is about a group of public sector workers who object to paying a fair share of the expense a union has in representing them at a workplace. The court seems poised to make a decision that has broad implications for public sector unions. To better understand the case, read Lyle Denniston’s argument recap on SCOTUSblog here.

“The case threatens the existence of the ‘agency shop,’ a bedrock institution in American labor relations—one relied on in the most successful recent union organizing, and that is decisive to the health of public sector unions,” wrote Joel Rogers in the April 14 issue of The Nation. Rogers explained:

In American labor law, a union wins the right to be the exclusive collective bargaining representative for workers in a particular unit by demonstrating its support by a majority of the workers in the unit. But the law also imposes a duty with this right. The union must represent all workers, union members and nonunion employees alike, when it negotiates and administers collective bargaining agreements. Thus it is theoretically possible for nonunion employees to capture the benefits of collective bargaining won by their union colleagues (often at considerable expense) but pay nothing for it.

Depending upon how the court decides Harris v. Quinn, this entire paradigm—established in another SCOTUS case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education—could go out the window. The U.S. Congress currently has little ability to change a court decision.

Oral arguments were heard in January, and Harris v. Quinn is one to watch this month for a summer surprise. In the meanwhile, read Rogers’ entire article here.

Wage Theft: A Widespread Problem

Wage Theft

Wage Theft

DUBUQUE– Americans like to think that a fair day’s work brings a fair day’s pay. In today’s labor market, however, wage theft annually amounts to billions of dollars and affects millions of wage earners. Victims include U.S. citizens and immigrants; men and women of every race and ethnicity; and both full-time and contingent workers.

Employers who commit wage theft rob federal and state treasuries of many billions of dollars of revenue through tax and payroll fraud. By cheating workers out of wages, these employers also depress consumer spending and stunt economic growth.

Survey research shows that about two-thirds of low-wage employees suffer wage theft. The withholding of wages or benefits rightfully owed to an employee takes several forms: failure to pay overtime, minimum wage violations, illegal deductions in pay, employee misclassification, and working off the clock.

While wage theft occurs in all industries, it is especially prevalent in restaurants. A recent poll found that 90 percent of fast-food workers report having wages stolen from them. Restaurant workers hold seven of the 10 lowest-paying occupations in the U.S., earning less on average than farm workers and all other domestic workers. Although the industry has grown steadily over the last twenty years, restaurant workers continue to earn significantly less than workers in almost every other industry, forcing them into public assistance programs.

The average fast-food CEO made nearly $24 million last year, four times more than the average in 2000. By contrast, the average hourly wage for employees increased just 0.3 percent in real dollars since 2000. Taxpayers actually bear a double burden. In addition to the money in food stamps, Medicaid and other government assistance impoverished fast-food workers need to survive, taxpayers also underwrite CEO compensation by allowing deductions for so-called “performance pay.”

Over the past year or so, you’ve probably seen news coverage of the strikes and other job actions fast-food workers have taken against their employers. And wage theft lawsuits have been filed against such giants as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

While those at the bottom of the wage scale are hardest hit, wage theft can be found across the employment spectrum. For example, payroll fraud also impacts people like engineers, financial advisers, adjunct professors, and IT professionals.

Most wage theft goes largely unreported because workers fear losing their jobs, many don’t know their rights, and some don’t even realize the robbery. When reported to authorities, months elapse before the completion of an investigation. And criminal charges are rarely filed. Besides, almost half of workers surveyed nationwide have experienced some form of illegal retaliation, like firing or suspension, when they file complaints.

Right now, government agencies charged with recovering lost income are largely ineffective. Few local governments have the resources or staff to combat wage theft, and several states have shut down or severely cut back their labor departments, leaving workers largely unprotected and vulnerable to exploitation. With only 1,000 investigators to oversee about 7.3 million business establishments employing 135 million workers, officials at the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor concede that violators have a good chance of not getting caught. Even when compelled by judgments or settlements to pay back wages, some employers disappear or go out of business before victims can collect.

Communities, activists, and unions have mobilized to address the problem and scored some victories in several states, cities, and counties, but much more needs to be done. In order to stop wage theft, we need stronger worker protection laws, more enforcement of wage and hour regulations, a lower rate of unemployment, a rise in the minimum wage, and public accountability of individual employers who commit these violations.

Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta.  He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University.  His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque.  Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.

‘Sixteen Tons’ Captures Coal Field Life

corley book coverSixteen Tons
by Kevin Corley
Hardball Press

Reviewed by Mike Matejka
Grand Prairie Union News, Bloomington, Illinois
Posted with permission

Coal miners were once referred to as the “shock troops of labor,” hardened union members who were often shot at and not afraid to shoot back.

Coal was the fuel of 19th and early 20th century economic expansion. The work was dangerous and poorly paid. Coal miners, often in isolated rural communities, fought hard to build a strong union.  There are battle grounds and disasters that still echo today– Virden, Cherry, Ludlow, Matewan, Herrin and numerous others.

Central and southern Illinois was a critical building block to the United Mine Workers’ success.  Drawing all these stories together yet still making them vivid and real is a challenge for any writers.  Retired Christian County high school teacher Kevin Corley has successfully done that in his new novel, Sixteen Tons.

Historical figures like Mother Jones and Matewan’s Sheriff Sid Hatfield appear, but Corley has woven together a diverse cast of characters– Italian immigrants, West Virginia miners, African-Americans and native born.

Together they do what families do– mature, get married and raise families.

Coal field hard realities continually interrupt their lives. There are mine disasters and grieving widows. There is World War I and the mass flu epidemic that followed. There are miners from central Illinois volunteering to help other miners, bringing them to Colorado, Kentucky and West Virginia to aid strikers.

Finally, the Illinois coal fields erupts in a war– not between the miners and the coal companies, but miner against miner, as union members dissatisfied with their national organization start their own union.

High stakes battles could easily overshadow character in a novel this far-ranging. Corley effectively creates individuals who are not cardboard cut-outs, but real workers with varied viewpoints. The women are just as vivid, showing families debating their risks and next move.

As a teacher, Corley soaked up stories of the Illinois coal fields, translating them into a readable novel of a recent past that should not be forgotten.