Trump’s Choice For Commerce Left Mixed Legacy In Ohio Valley Monday, Jan 16 2017 

The billionaire Wilbur Ross is headed for Senate confirmation hearings as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of the Department of Commerce.

Ross made it to ultra-rich status in part by salvaging coal and steel assets in Appalachia and the Rust Belt. His business dealings leave a mixed legacy in the Ohio Valley region, from rescued steel mills to the site of a searing workplace disaster, and raise questions about the leadership he would bring to the president’s cabinet.

Senate Commerce Committee staff

Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross meets Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee.

Billions from Bankrupt Mines

Wilbur Ross made his billions from bankruptcies. He specialized in scooping up troubled steel and coal companies with an eye toward reselling them later at a profit.

Ross founded International Coal Group (ICG) in 2004 when he and other investors bought the assets of Kentucky-based Horizon Natural Resources in a bankruptcy auction. (The investors purchased only Horizon’s non-union operations. A bankruptcy court later stripped the workers at Horizon’s unionized mines of many of their benefits.) ICG soon had more than a dozen mines in Kentucky, Ohio, and the Illinois coal basin and was looking to buy more.

Early in 2005 the company initiated the purchase of mines from the financially struggling Anker Coal Group in West Virginia. Anker would expand ICG’s holdings of “metallurgical” coal, used in steel production. One of the Anker mines, the Sago Mine in West Virginia’s Upshur County, had a particularly poor record of worker safety, with hundreds of violations on record. But ICG pushed ahead with the deal and owned Anker mines by October of that year.

On the second day of 2006, a lighting bolt somehow met methane gas underground sparking an explosion at the Sago Mine that would leave 12 miners dead.

The Sago Disaster

The Sago disaster unfolded in dramatic and particularly bitter fashion. Miners trapped by the explosion had barricaded themselves in a sealed-off chamber deep in the mine to await rescue. But all but one had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning before rescuers could reach them.

As family members huddled in a nearby church, an error in communications led them to think the miners had been found alive. Even the state’s governor, Joe Manchin, burst out of the church to share with reporters news of a miraculous rescue, only to learn shortly after that a dozen men were dead. (Manchin, a Democrat, is now the state’s senior Senator and sits on the Commerce Committee, which will question Ross Wednesday. The ReSource asked Sen. Manchin and Mr. Ross for comment. Neither responded.)

An independent investigation found the disaster could have been prevented. An idled portion of the mine could have been more securely sealed. Authorities could have been notified sooner (more than an hour passed before federal officials were told of the explosion) and rescuers could have entered the mine earlier. Mine safety expert Davitt McAteer led that investigation.

“Mr. Ross was noticeable by his absence,” McAteer said, recalling the nearly two-day ordeal at the disaster scene. “He didn’t show up, though — being president of ICG — he was the ultimate responsible party.”

West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Media at the scene of the explosion at the Sago Mine in January, 2006.

Ross later told New York magazine that he’s haunted by the deaths at Sago. The company set up funds for families of victims but also faced wrongful death suits and penalties and fines from mine safety regulators.

Now, a decade later, you’d be hard-pressed to find people in the region who even know who Ross is.

Roger Nicholson, general counsel at ICG when Sago exploded, said that’s normal.

“I think it’s an unreasonable expectation that he be known perhaps in any of the areas where his portfolio companies operate,” Nicholson said. “We don’t expect that of the chairman of McDonald’s Corporation, to be at every operation of everything that he might have an investment in.”

Still, some remember him. Bill Hamilton, a West Virginia state legislator from the Sago region, remembers Trump’s early announcement for secretary of commerce.

“My first thought was, if Wilbur Ross is going in there, well, he’s a businessman,” Hamilton said. “He buys companies that are bankrupt, tries to reorganize them, sells them for a profit and moves on.”

Hamilton said he was immediately concerned about potential influence of this shrewd businessman on the pending Miners Protection Act, a federal bill that would provide health benefits for retired miners and their widows.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A memorial for some of the 12 miners killed in the Sago disaster.

Fouled Water, Faked Records  

Ross’ practice of plucking out parts of failing companies has earned him several nicknames, including “King of Bankruptcy.” Some call him a phoenix that rises up from the ashes of burnt industries; others think of him as a vulture.

The social justice nonprofit Kentuckians for the Commonwealth was involved in litigation over water pollution caused by ICG mines. The mines were sending runoff into streams with high levels of selenium, which can be harmful to people at high levels and is toxic to much aquatic wildlife. The lawsuit not only pointed out the company’s pollution, it also presented evidence that ICG’s water discharge reports to state regulators were fraudulent.

Teri Blanton, a former chairperson for the citizens’ group, said Ross’ leadership of the company he formed was largely to blame. She worries about his nomination.

“If he would put [ICG] together and have total disregard for people’s lives he was operating around, how could we expect him to take such a high position and care about the people of the United States of America?” Blanton asked.

ICG ended up settling and paying $575,000 in penalties for the water pollution violations.

In 2011 the company was sold to Arch Coal for $3.4 billion, the largest acquisition in Arch’s history. It yielded a handsome profit for ICG’s owners that the New York Times “Dealbook” called a “vindication” for Ross. Five years later, Arch filed for bankruptcy.

Saving U.S. Steel?

“From my dealings with Wilbur, he was a believer in domestic manufacturing,” said longtime president of the United Steelworkers, Leo Gerard. Gerard was there more than a decade ago to see Ross buy up major failing steel companies when no one else would.

Ross bought assets from a dozen collapsing steel companies between 2002 and 2004, including Bethlehem Steel Corporation and Weirton Steel. By purchasing only certain assets but not the entire company, Ross avoided taking on some of the company’s more costly obligations, including some health and pension guarantees to steelworkers. He sold the companies in 2005 to a company overseas called Mittal for $4.5 billion — fourteen times what he initially invested. Today Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal is the world’s largest steel producer.

Bob Jagendorf/Flickr

A Weirton Steel facility in the upper Ohio River valley. Ross’ International Steel Group purchased many of the financially struggling company’s assets.

Gerard points out that many of the assets Ross bought still exist as a result, including thousands of jobs.

He also says the demise of the steel industry in the U.S. has little to do with antiquated mills or labor costs.

“U.S. trade laws don’t work — period,” Gerard stated emphatically.

This is an area where labor finds common ground with the billionaire investor. When pressed for answers about national commerce priorities, Ross also focuses on the shortcomings of U.S. trade policy.

A month ago on Fox Business Network, Ross said addressing current U.S. trade policies was a top priority.

“We’re going to go in a scheduled way through trade agreements,” Ross said, “through the [countries] we do have trade agreements with and [countries] we do not. Because we’re not anti-trade agreement, we’re anti ones-that-don’t-make-sense.”

Ross calls President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership — a trade deal seven years in the making — a “figment of people’s imagination,” and he wants to totally rework NAFTA.

Ross also hopes to see ten percent of environmental regulations undone to make more comfortable business environments (although the secretary of commerce does not directly control many of those regulations other than fishing in U.S. waters).

Ohio Valley Implications

Gerard believes improved trade agreements will allow the steel industry to grow, and that, he says, would also mean more coal mining.

“You can’t make steel without coal,” Gerard said. “So if we grow the steel industry back by standing up for domestic manufacturing, then you’ll obviously have to have some expansion of the coal industry.”

Davitt McAteer is less optimistic about the “King of Bankruptcy” taking over the Commerce Department.

“From the standpoint of looking at how you might build the economy up through the creation of jobs, that’s not been the way he’s operated in the past,” McAteer said. “Mr. Ross is noted for buying companies that are in trouble, selling off the good parts, and dropping the others.”

A confirmation hearing for Wilbur Ross is scheduled for January 18 in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

In Old Louisville, Loss Of Kroger Could Bring Isolation Sunday, Jan 15 2017 

The shoppers at the Kroger in Old Louisville on a recent morning included a mom at the checkout counter buying hair products and pacifiers, a dad with his infant strapped in front while looking at his grocery list in his left hand, and a woman in a wheelchair perusing the meat aisle.

Workers unpacked boxes of drinks and sold cakes and cookies in the bakery.

Mike Clark, 25, takes a bus downtown every day. He came to shop at the Kroger on his silver folding bike while on break. He bought apples and bananas to get him through until wrestling practice later in the day.

“Kroger’s a pretty decent place to get some organic stuff,” he said.

Roxanne Scott

Mike Clark

No matter if you’re buying pasta, cucumbers or almond butter, when you walk through this Kroger, you find an adequate supermarket. But it’s also a place where neighbors catch up and keep up with the news.

That will change at 6:01 p.m. on Saturday, January 28. The grocery store, which has been in the neighborhood for 37 years, will close its magnetic glass doors for good.

The owners, State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio, want to sell the property instead of continuing a lease, according to Tim McGurk, Kroger spokesman. He said the supermarket chain attempted to extend the lease until 2017, but those offers were rejected.

The building is for sale for $1.6 million.

For now, that leaves downtown — and surrounding neighborhoods like this one — without a grocery store nearby. And the people who will feel it most are those who don’t just prize the convenience of a supermarket close by but depend on it.

Low-Income Families Lose Support

Sure, there are places to buy food in and around Old Louisville, including restaurants and fast-food joints.

But good luck to a shopper looking for a place to buy milk and bread after they get off work in the evening. Or the Old Louisville resident who depends on the Kroger pharmacy. Or one of the 520 families in the area who use WIC, the supplemental food program for low-income women and their children.

“The Second Street Kroger is by far the largest WIC vendor in the area and has the largest offering of fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods,” said Brandy Kelly Pryor, director of Louisville Metro’s Center for Health Equity.

There are options to help bridge the gap that will be left by Kroger’s departure. The Gray Street Farmers Market is in nearby Phoenix Hill, for example. There are also several community gardens downtown and in Old Louisville.

But farmers markets typically operate between spring and fall. And they don’t often have much beyond fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

Cassia Herron is a community development professional and one of the organizers behind the Louisville Food Co-op initiative, which is seeking to create a community-owned grocery store run by a board. The plan is still in development, and the group’s goal is to be up and running in at least three years.

Along with WIC families, the elderly are also a population that depended on a nearby supermarket and pharmacy, Herron said.

“I’m very disheartened that those folks aren’t going to be served,” she said.

Scale is Critical — and Scarce

Community gardens and farmers markets are part of an ecosystem of food that supports neighborhoods, but alone they’re not enough.

“In Louisville, the consumer demand for food is about $3 billion a year. And apart from it being a huge economic engine … it becomes an engine for health and well-being,” Pryor says.

In other words, aisles of cheese, eggs and peanut butter also spark social connectivity, Pryor said. For some vulnerable residents, a trip to the supermarket may be the only meaningful social interaction they get for the day.

For some shoppers, like Mike Clark, the simple solution is to go to another grocery store.

“I’ll probably ride my bike to other stores. There’s a Kroger up the road by U of L,” he says. “Stores close all the time.”

For others, it may not be so straightforward.

“Not only are we talking about nutrition, not only are we talking about women and families,” Pryor said, but isolation.

Report: ACA Repeal Would Cost Kentucky 45,000 Jobs, $700M In Taxes Friday, Jan 6 2017 

If the Affordable Care Act is repealed without a plan to replace it, Kentucky stands to lose 45,000 jobs. That’s according to a new report from the Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan health research group.

The state would also lose $700 million in state and local taxes, according to the report.

The estimated number of jobs lost is based on the current repeal plan in Congress that would immediately do away with the employer and individual mandate. In 2019, Medicaid expansion and tax subsidies to buy coverage on the individual market would also go away.

Because Republicans are still deciding on a replacement plan, the impact of what that might be wasn’t calculated for the report.

As reported by NPR, a poll released Friday by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 75 percent of Americans say they either want lawmakers to leave the ACA alone, or repeal it only when they can replace it with a new health care law.

The bulk of the jobs would be lost in areas where there are heavy concentrations of hospitals and other health care companies, like Louisville. That’s according to Leighton Ku, director of the Center for Health Policy Research at The George Washington University and lead author on the report.

“Congress has said they want pro-growth policies, and one of the first items on the agenda isn’t pro-growth at all and it’s at risk of having serious adverse affects for state economies and state budgets,” Ku said.

More than $23 billion is coming into the state via funds from the federal government to pay for Medicaid expansion enrollees’ care and for tax subsidies so people can get insurance on the exchange market.

Ku and his team used a model to trace where that federal money goes first and found hospitals, pharmacies, doctor’s offices and insurance companies are the first place it ends up. But then purchases are made for medical equipment, new construction, renovations and most of all, to pay employees.

“That flows to the employee, and they buy food, pay for housing, and the same thing happens when money goes to another business: the money trickles through the economy,” Ku said. “Because this is much a broad, sweeping law and it affects so much money, the repercussions are much broader.”

One-third of the jobs lost would be positions in health care. Here’s a breakdown of where the other job losses would come from, according to the report.

  • 6,000 retail jobs
  • 4,600 construction and real estate jobs
  • 13,500 other private employer jobs
  • 2,000 finance/insurance jobs
  • 1,400 state/local government jobs

U.S. Added 156,000 Jobs In December; Hourly Wages Rose 10 Cents Friday, Jan 6 2017 

The U.S. added 156,000 jobs last month and hourly wages rose by 10 cents, according to the monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The unemployment rate was little changed; it ticked up slightly to 4.7 percent, compared to November’s 4.6 percent.

Economists had been watching closely to see if the jobs report reflected a rise in wages.

The 10-cent increase pushed average hourly earnings to $26; in November, they had dipped down slightly, by 2 cents. Over the course of the year as a whole, average hourly earnings rose 2.9 percent, the BLS says.

The labor force participation rate changed little, both in December and over the course of the year as a whole.

In addition to the 156,000 new jobs in December, job growth in November was revised up significantly — to 204,000 from 178,000. The October report was revised downward, to 135,000 from 142,000, but the overall change for the two months was still positive: 19,000 more jobs than previously reported.

For the year overall, the U.S. added 2.2 million jobs — an average of 183,333 jobs per month.

“Job growth last year slowed from its pace in 2015, when growth averaged nearly 230,000 [per month],” NPR’s Yuki Noguchi tells our Newscast unit. “Part of the dropoff in hiring is coming from smaller firms, which hired the majority of workers during the economic recovery. Partly it is also that producers of goods — manufacturers and miners — have seen a continued contraction in their industries.”

Manufacturing jobs actually edged up slightly in December, their first increase in months, but remained down by 63,000 compared to last January.

The industries that saw noteworthy job gains in 2016 include the health care sector, social assistance, professional services and food services.

Friday’s jobs report was the last report of Barack Obama’s presidency. That’s put some economists in a reflective mood, looking back on the first report under Obama.

On Twitter, FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman notes that the February 2009 report showed 598,000 jobs lost in a month — which was later revised to 791,000.

With the latest jobs report, the U.S. has now seen 75 straight months of job growth — which The Washington Post reports is the most extended streak of job growth since 1939.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

What Would Killing The Prevailing Wage Mean For Louisville? Friday, Jan 6 2017 

Kentucky lawmakers in the coming days will likely approve a measure to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law.

The state House approved the bill Thursday in a 57-40 vote. It now moves to the Senate.

Paired with so-called right-to-work legislation, the two proposals serve as the cornerstone of a Republican upheaval of longstanding labor policies in Kentucky.

The state is among 30 that currently have a prevailing wage law on the books.

The law sets a base hourly rate for workers on public works jobs in the state that cost more than $250,000. Rates are based on wages of similar jobs in a region and determined by a state labor cabinet hearing or through adoption of federal prevailing wage rates.

For instance, bricklayers working on building projects in Jefferson County were guaranteed at least $24.03 an hour under the law, according to an August 2016 determination by the state’s labor cabinet. Carpenters were promised at least $27.50 — and the list goes on to include nearly every element of large-scale construction: boilermakers, laborers, operators.

In Jefferson County, there are more than 600 public works jobs scheduled or in progress, according to the state’s project database. Many of those fall under the prevailing wage law.

It’s difficult to get an idea of just how a repeal of the law would impact Louisville and the city’s development aspirations.

Mayor Greg Fischer’s office, the city’s economic development department and Jefferson County Public Schools all declined to speculate on the effect a repeal could have on the state’s largest city.

‘It’s not the American way’

Experts in the fields of labor and development, however, are happy to discuss the proposal and the effects that may come.

Jeff Hudepohl is president of Valley Interior Systems. His company got a $9.4 million contract to hang drywall and metal studs on nine floors of the luxury Omni Hotel and Residences under construction in downtown Louisville. That project falls under prevailing wage law.

He calls prevailing wage a “good, fair wage” and praises the law for its requirement to provide benefits to workers, like health insurance. He especially likes the incentive it gives to workers to pursue a career in the trades.

Repealing the law, Hudepohl said, would undercut productivity and quality on projects in Louisville. He said nixing prevailing wage requirements opens the door for scrappy, shoddy craftsmanship.

“It’s not the American way,” he said.

Tom Carrier, a spokesman for the local ironworkers union, said repealing the prevailing wage law would be an insult to skilled workers because it’d likely lead to lower pay. He chastised lawmakers ushering in the repeal for sending a message that skilled workers aren’t worth the paychecks they’re currently earning.

Those in favor of the bill, like Greater Louisville Inc., the city’s chamber of commerce, praise the repeal for its potential to lead to vast cost savings on construction projects.

Carrier dismissed that notion. He said while workers’ wages may decline, the costs of materials and overhead would remain the same.

“No one is taking a cut except the guy at the end of the tool,” he said.

Sarah Davasher-Wisdom is chief operating officer at GLI. She said the group has long been pushing for prevailing wage repeal and is looking forward to the measure passing.

She said the cost savings to come from a repeal would allow for more investment in other projects and boost competition on public works projects. Smaller companies sometimes can’t pay what prevailing wages require and, therefore, can’t bid on jobs, she said.

“We do not think it levels the playing field,” she said of current prevailing wage law.

And, she said, there’s no guarantee workers would get less pay with no prevailing wage.

“The free market determines these things,” she said, adding that contractors may pay workers higher wages to get quality work.

Tim Lucas, an architect and consultant, testified before a state House committee this week. He presented data from a 2001 study by the Legislative Research Commission that says a repeal of Kentucky’s prevailing wage law would save about 12 percent of the overall construction cost on public works projects.

But another study, authored by two economists and presented to the Kentucky State Construction and Trades Council in 2016, found the overall burden to taxpayers would increase with a prevailing wage repeal.

That study says incomes for construction workers would fall 10 percent, which would result in less spending and more dependence on public assistance. In addition, the study found some 3,000 jobs would be lost and the state would miss out on some $400 million in economic activity.

Here’s What You Need To Know About ‘Right-To-Work’ In Kentucky Friday, Jan 6 2017 

The Kentucky General Assembly is on track to approve legislation to make Kentucky a so-called right-to-work state by Saturday night. For Republicans, this is the culmination of years of championing the issue.

The bill passed the House Thursday, and assuming it passes the GOP-controlled Senate and is signed into law by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, Kentucky will become the 27th so-called right-to-work state in the nation.

Twenty-six states already have similar laws, and many of them have been around for decades. But now, with the proliferation of Republican-led legislatures around the country, more states are poised to pass similar regulations.

According to Louisville union organizer Richard Becker, the phrase “right-to-work” is a misnomer.

“This is a complex set of issues,” he says, “that cannot be summed up in three single-syllable words.”

So, what does becoming a right-to-work state mean for Kentucky?

The “right to work” seems awesome. What’s the problem?

Sorry to disappoint you, but you should continue your job hunt, silly rabbit. The phrase does not mean entitlement to a nine-to-five.

So, what does becoming a right-to-work state really mean?

Short answer: It means unions can’t require people to pay dues as a condition of employment. So in any given place, there could be two classes of workers — union and non-union — working under the same union agreement.

Seems legit. Why should a worker be forced to join a union?

Unions are obligated under federal law to represent all workers in a unionized workplace, whether workers are part of the union or not. If a shop has 300 workers, and only 100 are union members, the union is still required to represent all 300 workers.

In a right-to-work state, a worker would not be required to pay any membership dues to the union. But whether they join and pay the dues or not, they would still get the benefit of being represented by the union. Becker, the Kentucky union organizer, likens this to getting a service you didn’t pay for.

Kentucky’s new Republican leadership — Senate President Robert Stivers, House Speaker Jeff Hoover and Gov. Matt Bevin — celebrating their Election Day landslide last year.

Oh. That doesn’t sound fair. Why would Kentucky want to be a right-to-work state?

“It’s like putting a sign in your window to say you’re open for business,” said Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s estimated that a third of companies don’t even look at non-right-to-work states,” he said of companies that are looking to relocate. “I’m convinced we’re losing thousands of jobs per year in Kentucky by not being a right-to-work state.”

Though Adkisson did not name a company who has chosen another state over the commonwealth, he said he knows businesses that have chosen to relocate to nearby right-to-work states such as Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina.

Those are all Southern states. Why?

Kentucky is the only state in the South that doesn’t have right-to-work laws, which makes it an outlier in the region, Adkisson said. And whether Kentucky is considered the Midwest or the South, he said Southern states are the commonwealth’s main competition.

So why right-to-work now in Kentucky?

The business community and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce have supported right-to-work for at least three decades. “Clearly the political environment is Frankfort has changed,” Adkisson said. Republicans now control the House and Senate under the Republican governor, Matt Bevin. “And they are very favorable to right-to-work,” he said.

Will it kill labor unions?

No, but it could weaken them. Or, maybe not.

John Beck is a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations. He said strong unions — like the UAW — haven’t seen a significant drop in membership even after states pass right-to-work legislation. But typically, unions that support public sector workers — like teachers — do take hits.

He added that the states that have had right-to-work laws for decades rank among those with the smallest number of union workers.

But: “In those states that had high unionization rates before the onset of right-to-work, they still were able to keep a good amount of people in the union,” he said.

Mike Elk is senior labor reporter at the Payday Report in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which covers labor issues. He said union membership has been decreasing in the Midwest but not in the South.

“The South right now is the fastest-growing region in the United States for union membership,” Elk said.

Last year, 150,000 workers chose to join unions in the region, and union membership in the region is close to 3 million. This suggests an opportunity for unions to still grow in Kentucky.

“What it means is that unions are going to have to work really hard to get every single member to sign up and to expand,” Elk said. “And in some states, some unions say right-to-work causes them to be more competitive.” 

But Beck said over the long-term, unions and workers could both suffer if the number of dues-paying union members drops in Kentucky.

“If the union weakens because it has less and less dues dollars and less and less members, then it has a harder time bargaining subsequent contracts and getting the kind of good wages, benefits or contract provisions that they’ve had in the past,” Beck said.

Google Maps

Ford has two major union facilities in Louisville.

When will the right-to-work bill go into effect?

Technically, it’ll go into effect whenever Bevin signs it. Practically, it’ll go into effect when union contracts are up and due to be renegotiated. For UAW Local 862, for example, which represents workers at Ford’s two large Louisville auto plants, they’ll be covered until 2019, which is when the current collective bargaining agreement expires.

Do right-to-work laws work?

It’s hard to tell. And it depends on what you mean by “work.”

A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute — a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that gets just over a quarter of its funding from labor unions — found wages and benefits in right-to-work states were lower than those in non-right-to-work states.

The study controlled for variables across states (like demographics, jobs, economic conditions and cost-of-living differences) and still found that wages in right-to-work states were 3.1 percent lower than those in non-right-to-work states. There were disparities in employer-sponsored health insurance and pensions, too.

Anna Baumann is a research and policy associate for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. She testified this week at the statehouse on the economic impacts of the right-to-work bill.

“There’s definitely a wage advantage to being employed by a unionized organization,” she said. “Wages for workers in right-to-work states are about $1,500 lower a year.”

There are many factors that affect wages — not just right-to-work laws. And it’s not just about lower wages. Baumann said work fatalities are higher in right-to-work states as well.

Mike Elk of Payday Report speculated a far bigger threat to unions is President-elect Donald Trump. Elk said unions have been able to grow in the South because of the National Labor Relations Board.

“If Donald Trump defunds the National Labor Relations Board, then there’s not going to be much prosecution of union-busting nationwide,” Elk said.

And when the board doesn’t go after employers, it makes it harder for unions to organize.

“In my opinion, that’s going to be a very big threat, in some ways bigger than right-to-work,” Elk said. “And it’s going to force unions to adapt and become more militant and seek innovative ways to organize — or die.”

Erica Peterson contributed to this story.

Shaming Firms That Export Jobs Has Worked For Trump So Far Wednesday, Jan 4 2017 

Ford and General Motors both reacted Tuesday to President-elect Donald Trump’s continued criticism of U.S. companies manufacturing products in Mexico.

Ford announced it would cancel its $1.6 billion plans to build a plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and instead invest an additional $700 million to expand an existing plant in Michigan to make autonomous and electric vehicles. That comes on the heels of another decision in November to keep production of some small SUVs at its plant in Kentucky.

That announcement came a couple of hours after Trump took to Twitter to criticize General Motors: “General Motors is sending Mexican made model of Chevy Cruze to U.S. car dealers-tax free across border. Make in U.S.A.or pay big border tax!”

GM responded that only a small number of hatchback models are manufactured in Mexico and sold at U.S. car dealers. “All Chevrolet Cruze sedans sold in the U.S. are built in GM’s assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio. GM builds the Chevrolet Cruze hatchback for global markets in Mexico, with a small number sold in the U.S.”

Why did Ford change its mind?

The move marks a departure for Ford, whose CEO last month said it was looking forward to working with the Trump administration on trade but that it very likely wouldn’t change plans for its $1.6 billion factory.

Now CEO Mark Fields tells NPR that Trump’s rhetoric was a factor in reversing the earlier decision, but one of several factors. He says the carmaker was influenced by promises of new tax and regulatory reforms and the prospect of keeping jobs at home. “Ford is a global automaker, but our home … is right here in the United States,” he said.

What is the significance of this change?

It means 700 additional Ford jobs will come to Michigan, and Ford says every factory job is likely to create another seven related jobs. “We’ve created 28,000 jobs and we’ve invested $12 billion in the U.S. in our plants in the last five years,” Fields said in a press conference.

Shifting a factory itself would not be news but for the fact that it is highly unusual for companies to respond to direct, public pressure from an incoming president.

“I know from talking to business people that no major firm wants to be a subject of a Trump tweet,” says Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He says companies realize Trump controls the Justice Department, the Defense Department, the IRS, Treasury and regulatory agencies, and “the amount of control that intersects with what companies are doing is enormous.”

Will such moves inspire retaliatory trade barriers that hurt other U.S. firms and cost American jobs?

Trump has pledged to rework U.S. trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump has also called for high tariffs on companies that manufacture products overseas and then import them for sale in the U.S. The question is how broad such tariffs would be, and whether American trading partners would object and retaliate with similar measures.

So far, Trump has (or claims to have) put pressure on American companies including Carrier, Sprint, Ford, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and GM. But Hufbauer says if Trump makes good on actually raising tariffs, “I think some form of retaliation [from other countries] is almost certain.”

Who’s next, and what is the possible economic impact?

So far, tweeting trade and other corporate policy has played well for Trump. He has targeted Boeing for a potentially large contract to build a new Air Force One, and he criticized Lockheed Martin for its expensive F-35 fighter jet contracts.

Hufbauer says it remains unclear what the economic impact of all this will be. So far, the tweets have gotten a massive amount of media attention, and that may mean it will continue and that others — consumer brands in particular — could find themselves targets. “Some people may wrongly think this is the way to create jobs in the U.S.,” Hufbauer says.

“My estimate is that this kind of thing [companies responding to tweets] is not going to have a major effect,” and it is not in keeping with a well-functioning economy,” says David Dollar, senior fellow for the Brookings Institution.

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Layoffs Begin At Toyota’s Northern Kentucky Headquarters Tuesday, Jan 3 2017 

Toyota is beginning to move hundreds of jobs out of its northern Kentucky headquarters as part of a nationwide consolidation of the company’s operations.

Layoffs began at Toyota’s Erlanger plant on Tuesday and will continue through the end of 2018, The Kentucky Enquirer reported.

The company, which is moving its facilities to the Dallas suburb of Plano, said the move will affect 648 workers.

Erlanger has been home to the Japanese automaker’s North American engineering and manufacturing headquarters since 1996.

Marc Fields, Erlanger’s city administrator, said the city is sad to see Toyota leave, but it has been preparing for this moment since Toyota announced its consolidation plans in April 2014.

“We have been fortunate that several new businesses have come to Erlanger since the announcement or are on the move here,” he said. “The future looks bright. … We will continue to recruit businesses and promote the city to prospects.”

The company has been an active participant in philanthropy in Kentucky and it is also one of the biggest taxpayers in the city of Erlanger.

“Although Toyota’s Erlanger-based headquarters will eventually move, we know that a continued strong presence in Kentucky is central to Toyota’s ongoing success,” Toyota North American CEO James Lentz said in a letter to then-Gov. Steve Beshear in 2014. “We want to make clear that Toyota’s roots will remain deep in this state, and we plan to maintain a strong presence in Kentucky for decades to come.”

Payday Lenders In Kentucky Made $117 Million In Fees In 2015 Monday, Jan 2 2017 

Payday loans not only hurt poor and working class Kentuckians — the high rates also affect service members.

Payday lenders in Kentucky made $117 million in fees in 2015. That’s from the $68 million they lent out, according to a new report from the bipartisan Task Force On Vulnerable Kentuckians.

“I do think payday lending still is one of those issues that we have never been able to tackle,” said state representative Joni Jenkins, vice chair of the task force.

Dixie Highway, which is in Jenkins’ district, has myriad check cashing businesses.

“And if you drive down Dixie Highway,” Jenkins said “every minute you see a check cashing and payday lending operation.”

She describes the interest rates of many of these lenders as “unconscionable.”

While not capped for civilians, the interest for payday lending for military members is 36 percent. According to the report, the average soldier’s salary is $30,000.

The task force recommends an annual 36 percent cap for all borrowers. It is advocating for tougher restrictions for operations that violate lending rules, including $5,000 – $25,000 fines for lenders, per violation. Currently, fines are $1,000 – $5,000.

Perpetual violators in the same year would have to abide by a “three strikes and you’re out” law, under recommendations from the task force.

Searching For The True Meaning Of Christmas In Santa Claus, Indiana Friday, Dec 23 2016 

When pulling up to the Santa Claus Museum and Village, a 22-foot gray statue of Santa Claus greets visitors. He holds a bag full of toys and stands on an engraved plinth that reads: “Dedicated to the Children of the World. In Memory of Undying Love.” Next to the statue is a a white church, built in 1880. Two Christmas wreaths deck the doors.

It’s December 21, the last day that volunteer elves answer the letters addressed to Santa that come from as nearby as Kentucky and Ohio, and as far away as Belarus and Taiwan.

The deluge starts around November. Every letter addressed to “Santa Claus” comes to this rural town in Southern Indiana.

Pat Koch helps answers those letters. Also known as Chief Elf, she and an army of volunteers answer every letter that comes with a return address. This year, the elves mailed out more than 20,000 letters to kids around the world. The postage isn’t cheap: Koch’s non-profit got donations to help cover the more than $10,000 in costs.

Pat Koch, Chief ElfRoxanne Scott | wfpl.org

Pat Koch, Chief Elf

America’s Christmas Hometown

Santa Claus welcomes more visitors than the number of people who live there. With a population of around 2,500, the area sees some 10,000 people every year. And travelers don’t just come to feel the festive Christmas spirit. There’s also an uptick in visitors in the summer thanks to the Holiday World Theme Park and Splashin Safari Water Park.

Santa Claus was founded in the 1850s. The town’s leaders wanted to name it Santa Fe — pronounced as FEE. But there was already a Santa Fe in the state so they settled on an alternative: Santa Claus.

Around World War I, the letters addressed to Santa Claus began pouring in. The city’s postmaster tried to answer all of them, but was overwhelmed. In the 1930s, Koch’s father, Jim Yellig started helping the Santa Claus Post Office sort through the letters. He enlisted the town’s veteran groups, monastery and other organizations to help as well.

“Our history is we answer letters,” Koch says. “We get it done.”

And part of that history also has to be cashing in, right? Especially during the holiday season that now seems to begin around Halloween and stretch through Christmas.

Much has been talked about the commercialization of Christmas in the United States. I didn’t know what I’d find in Santa Claus, Indiana, but the New Yorker in me kind of wanted to see a Times Square of Christmas — a town draped in glimmer, Christmas lights and a plethora of gaudy statues of Santa. The town’s tagline after all is, “America’s Christmas Hometown.”

Cashing in on Christmas?

On Three Kringle Place in Santa Claus, Indiana, sits a brick building that looks like a house. Over the arch of the entrance reads “Santa’s TOYS.” The store has been open since July.

Mark Schmidt, co-owner of the specialty shop, moved here from Northeastern Pennsylvania. Schmidt and his wife always wanted to open a toy store. His wife got the idea to move to Santa Claus after seeing the town featured on House Hunters, a reality show that follows families on their quest for a new home.

“There is a fine line between making money off of Christmas and exploiting it,” Schmidt says.

He says the town — through laws — does a pretty good job at toeing that line. Schmidt gave an example of a marketing tactic he wanted to use when he first moved to town.

“I wanted to paint the word ‘TOYS’ on the roof and just to draw attention,” Schmidt says.

The verdict on that was clear cut — absolutely not.

“They will never allow this town to become that commercial, Las Vegas, blinking lights, ‘get your shirts here’ kinda place,” he says.

But even though Santa Claus’ Christmas attractions are understated, I wonder how they sit with people who prefer a more religious interpretation of the holiday.

So I take it to church. And I meet Tim Ahlemeyer, the lead pastor of the Santa Claus United Methodist Church.

Tim Ahlemeyer, pastor at Santa Claus United Methodist ChurchRoxanne Scott | wfpl.org

Is Tim Ahlemeyer, pastor at Santa Claus United Methodist Church, also Santa?

“Do you believe in Santa?” I ask.

“I absolutely do. I absolutely do,” Ahlemeyer says. “Oh my goodness. To not believe in Santa Claus is to lose a whole portion of my life.”

Wait. What?

Ahlemeyer believes in the idea of Santa Claus, and what the jolly symbol represents. However, he says he’s challenged by other pastors on how he makes sense of the image of St. Nick when he believes the conversation should center around the birth of Jesus Christ.

He references Narnia novelist C.S. Lewis and the hopelessness some felt after the world wars. The symbols in the Chronicles of Narnia, he says, help people toggle between what the world can be, for example in the Chronicles of Narnia, and reality. The symbols of Christmas such as gifts, Christmas trees and Santa Claus do the same by helping people understand concepts such as love, hope and belief in a higher power, Ahlemeyer says.

Before I leave, Ahlemeyer gives me a tour of the church. Instead of ridged wooden pews, there are cushioned chairs neatly placed in rows. To the right of the stage is a Christmas tree, wrapped gifts and a model of Santa Claus.

With gray hair, an unbothered temperament and a burly physique, Ahlemeyer resembles the Santa Claus that I spoke to earlier in the commercial center of the town.

“Serious question — are you Santa?” I ask.

With a smile, he says, “I’m not Santa. I’m Pastor Tim.”

Unsatisfied, I make the five-minute drive back to the Santa Claus Christmas Store where I met the town Santa earlier. I find him standing there, talking to employees in the bedazzled ornament store.

Santa ClausRoxanne Scott | wfpl.org

Santa Claus

In this Southeastern Indiana town 70 miles west of Louisville, Santa Claus and a higher power coexist.

“I get to live in a place surrounded by those symbols of hope all year round, 365 days of the year,” Ahlemeyer says. “The symbols of Christmas are symbols of hope.”

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