Re-elected President Kenny Perdue sets his sights on issues vital to working West Virginians
Kenny Perdue was resoundingly re-elected to serve a third, four-year term as the president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO at the group’s convention in Charleston recently.
The WV AFL-CIO, formed in 1957, is the state’s largest labor organization with 575 affiliated unions and nearly 80,000 members. The organization spearheads much of the political and ideological agenda for the labor movement in West Virginia.
“I’ll continue to tackle issues that will make a difference in West Virginia,” said Perdue. “The situation with Patriot Coal, as well as past experience with problems with the steel and chemical industries, brought home the need for drastic reform of bankruptcy laws. Companies are abusing the bankruptcy process to erase debt, pensions and benefits owed to employees who gave their entire working lives to the company.”
Patriot Coal’s recent bankruptcy case jeopardized health benefits for thousands of retired miners. In 2007 Peabody Energy created Patriot Coal by spinning off some of its assets, and a lot of its liabilities, to form the new company. A few years later Patriot declared bankruptcy and asked to be relieved of all debt obligations, including the benefits owed to retirees, in bankruptcy court. Economists have referred to the practice as “dumping obligations.”
“Under current bankruptcy law, workers usually come last in line behind all other creditors and they usually get nothing,” said Perdue. “That has got to change.”
Perdue is also concerned about the growing Marcellus Shale industry in West Virginia leaving local workers behind.
Perdue pointed to the Marcellus and Utica shale regions as a source for job and business growth, but said the current path being taken by companies isn’t helping the state as promised. “West Virginians have learned the hard way that having valuable resources doesn’t always guarantee the benefits one would expect,” Perdue said. “The biggest opportunity, by far, in West Virginia today is the financial gain to be had from the Marcellus and Utica shale in our region. “Whether we maximize that potential and make sure local businesses and workers benefit, remains to be seen.”
Towns in the gas rich region have had motels, along with trailer and camper parks, filled to capacity for months due to the influx of out-of-state gas workers. Where these workers come from can be difficult to ascertain. For the second year in a row, a report released by Workforce West Virginia division lacked the residency data for Marcellus Shale workers.
“While West Virginians may not be hired for well-paying jobs in the gas industry, they are being hired for minimum wage jobs in the service and retail industries,” said Perdue. “Sadly, you can’t support a family working full-time at a minimum wage job.”
Wal-Mart has been the largest private employer in West Virginia for 15 years and the average employee makes at or near the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. For 20 years low-paying jobs in the retail and service industries have been some of the fastest growth in West Virginia, whereas high-paying jobs in the manufacturing and industrial sectors have been rapidly disappearing. Perdue said raising the minimum wage and making sure West Virginians who go to work every day earn a living above the poverty level remains a critical issue.
“Is it fair for a private company to pay poverty wages which force their employees to utilize public assistance?” Perdue asked. “The CEOs of these companies are using the taxpayer-funded safety nets to boost their revenues and salaries. “It’s not fair to their employees and it’s not fair to taxpayers.”
Perdue thinks if real progress could be made on these three key issues the quality of life and the economy of the state would be vastly improved for everyone.
“The West Virginia AFL-CIO fights to increase justice and a better standard of living for all workers in West Virginia,” said Perdue. “In a time where corporate money is influencing so much policy and legislation, to the detriment of the average working family, labor unions are needed now more than ever.”