2009 Year In Review
December 21, 2009
by Bill Onasch

Webmaster Bill Onasch, Safety Editor Mary Erio,and the Erio Cats wish you

It’s almost obligatory for commentators famous and obscure to do a year-end review. While the product is often pretty thin soup the concept is sound. It makes sense to step back from the hectic routine–or crisis driven–day to day activity to soberly judge where it all fits in to the long haul.

Any way you look at it, it’s been a tough year for the working class. By nearly every economic measure–unemployment, foreclosures/evictions, personal bankruptcies--we are worse off than at any time in living memory. The bosses are exploiting our vulnerability to the hilt, demanding take-backs in wages and benefits and increasing worker productivity even as twenty million of us can’t find work.

We have chronicled the crisis facing workers at home and abroad through postings on our Daily Labor News Digest and in our Week In Review. I hope you will bear with me as I once again recall some of the defeats and disappointments that our class has endured because I follow with some observations that I believe give us legitimate hope for better in the coming new year and decade.

How Last Year’s Predictions Held Up
Let me begin with some quotes from what I wrote at the end of last year.

“I know many readers are looking forward to the new year with great optimism because of the change in administration in Washington. I’m afraid I can’t share the euphoria so many express.

“To me getting a new President is sort of like getting a new boss. They’re not all the same. Some are bullies, others sweet-talkers. Some are bright, others not so much. Given a choice you might prefer one over another. But, at the end of the day, they are all bosses with different interests than you. They never forget that–and neither should we.

“The new man in the White House will be less abrasive, more articulate, and perhaps a little smarter than his predecessor. But make no mistake; he’s there to do the same job–use the power of government to advance the interests of the very same Establishment that brought us the present lame duck [Bush] resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“I predict that during the ‘honeymoon’ ahead the wars, the economic crisis, the environmental crisis will continue along their present paths. There will be no Employee Free Choice Act. We won’t see single-payer health care.”

Believe me, I don’t like to gloat about accurate predictions concerning hard times for the working class. I got these calls right not because of any exceptional talent or foresight on my part. I simply used an understanding of the central role of the struggle between classes to figure out the basic trends–a method once much more commonly used but today out of favor in a labor movement mostly dedicated to partnership with the boss.

In the presence of Obama, most leaders of the labor and social movements, and much of the left, resembled Tweenies in the front row of a Hannah Montana concert. Like the Nobel committee that picked Obama for the Peace Prize even before he took office, they extended sycophantic carte blanche to Bush’s successor before McCain’s concession speech. Even today, they continue to be more loyal than a dog rescued from the pound. This has enabled Obama to get away with attacks on the working class that McCain probably wouldn’t have dared try.

Intervention In the Unions
A prime example was the single biggest defeat ever suffered by American labor–the shotgun pre-planned bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors. Dictated by a White House task force closely supervised by the President himself, this was coordinated with the Tory government in Canada as well.

Plants were shuttered, tens of thousands of UAW/CAW jobs gone for good. Further wage, benefit, and work rule concessions were extracted from the unions. The VEBA agreements covering health care for hundreds of thousands of retirees and surviving spouses became instantly underfunded as promised cash from the employers was replaced with stock of dubious value. On top of all that, just in case there really is some recovery in the industry, the unions had to agree not to strike over economic issues for at least six years.

And there was tremendous collateral damage beyond the unionized workforce at these two shrunken former auto giants--thousands of salaried jobs were axed, the plug was pulled on dealerships employing over 100,000, and tens of thousands became jobless in the part supply and transport delivery industries.

You can imagine what our labor statespersons would have said had this kick below the belt come from a President McCain. But the leaders of organized labor saluted President Obama for “saving the auto industry.”

Along with unions, a key component of the electoral math that put Obama in office was overwhelming support from Latinos. In large part this was because they thought Obama would put a stop to the ruthless attacks, including high profile workplace raids, on immigrant workers that marked the last years of the Bush administration. They believed the new President instead would work for a fair reform, with a path to citizenship for those without papers.

But, as a matter of fact, the new administration followed up on a tactical shift already begun by Bush. Lists of employees with apparently invalid Social Security numbers were sent to major workplaces--along with the implied threat of employer prosecution if the bosses did not purge the suspected “illegals.” As David Bacon recently documented in an excellent article, The Brutal Dark Side of Obama's ‘Softer’ Immigration Enforcement, this led to even bigger mass firings than were seen on Bush’s watch--1800 at American Apparel in Los Angles; 1200 at American Building Maintenance in Minneapolis; 254 at Overhill Farms in L.A, to name a few. The last two were unionized in SEIU and UFCW.

The White House website makes clear its basic approach to immigration, “President Obama will remove incentives to enter the country illegally by preventing employers from hiring undocumented workers and enforcing the law.” And, of course, undocumented workers will be explicitly excluded from Obama’s health care overhaul. It’s reasoned if these sisters and brothers get hungry enough, or sick enough, they’ll have to go back to where they came from.

Much of the antiwar movement withdrew from all other activity during the election campaign to focus on helping Obama the “peace candidate.” Elated with victory they took great pains not to be seen as protesting the new President. They were determined to “watch his back,” to help him resist the war mongers.

In the meantime, Obama, who spoke so eloquently at the UN for nuclear disarmament, has continued to build new nuclear weapons. The new administration followed the old in rejecting signing on to the anti-land mine agreement. And the new commander-in-chief quietly doubled U.S. presence in Afghanistan before the surge of 30,000 additional troops was announced.

Health Care
The President, once an advocate of single-payer, promised universal health care reform. As of this writing it appears likely that--ignoring the gentlest complaints of labor officials--a “reform” will be enacted that will further enrich the insurance and drug robber barons at our expense and strengthen their stranglehold on our access to health care.

Climate Change
Environmentalists thought their prayers were finally answered when the global warming deniers were swept out of the White House. Most have held their nose while hailing the administration’s plan for cap-and-trade and, in the spirit of compromise, also including more biofuels and nuclear power, maybe even “clean coal.” They looked forward to the green President going to Copenhagen to help broker a historic global climate change agreement that could deal with humanity’s greatest crisis yet.

Obama did swoop in to the Danish capital for a brief visit to summon a few major players for a last minute “agreement.” Since most of the 180+ countries at the conference not a party to the backroom deal objected, the conference could only “take note” of this nonbinding set of vague goals accurately described by Friends of the Earth as “Sham Deal Requires Nothing, Accomplishes Nothing.” Even Der Spiegel, the German equivalent of Time magazine, wrote a scathing editorial, Gunning Full Throttle into the Greenhouse, that said, “What a disaster. The climate summit in Copenhagen has failed because of the hardball politicking of the United States, China and several other countries.”

But Dave Foster, a former Steelworkers district director now in charge of the Blue Green Alliance–a coalition of several unions and mainstream environmental groups–gave the approved White House spin,

“We commend world leaders for reaching this historic agreement to combat global climate change and to begin the work of building a new, green economy....The momentum achieved in Copenhagen means the Senate must act [on cap-and-trade] in early 2010. The United States now has the opportunity to establish itself as a global leader in the development and production of clean energy technologies while protecting the environment for future generations.”

Something Different Is Beginning to Happen
This litany of defeats for our class, accompanied by disgraceful apologies by too many leaders speaking in our name, could go on and on–but I won’t. I instead will turn to a series of hopeful developments. Not all of them appeared to be a big deal in and of themselves as we reported on them at the time. But stepping back, putting them together in a longer term perspective, they show some promise of being red shoots of recovery for the American working class.

One Big Deal
One was a big deal indeed–the unprecedented
rejection by the ranks of a concession contract reopener cooked up at Ford by outgoing UAW president Gettelfinger and president-in-waiting King. Since Ford had chosen not to go down the road of bailout/bankruptcy that decimated GM and Chrysler, they could not prevail on Obama’s muscle to get matching take-backs. Without the threat of liquidation that left workers at the other two with little choice, the workers at Ford decisively said no way–and were cheered by many others.

Other Examples
• In January, the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer was launched at a conference in St Louis. Their work included coordinating the submission of single-payer resolutions from affiliated unions to the September AFL-CIO convention. Single-payer sentiment was so strong the new federation leadership had to adopt a unique stratagem of passing two resolutions–one for single-payer, the other for the Obama plan. LCSP has scheduled another conference in Washington in March to decide on the next steps in the fight once Congress acts–or fails to act.

• Also in January, the National Union of Healthcare Workers was launched by leaders and stewards removed from United Healthcare Workers West by SEIU president Andy Stern. Against the toughest odds, they have made progress in reuniting UHW workers in a democratic union.

Labor Notes conducted Troublemaker Schools in New York, Chicago, and the Bay Area last spring that each attracted 200 or more labor activists eager to discuss how to fight back. Since then they have continued with smaller schools in other areas. Here in Kansas City this site gratefully accepted the offer to “partner up” with these schools through our New Crises, New Agendas conference in April.

• About a thousand turned out for two July events commemorating the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strikes. The celebrations spanned generations, bringing together young labor activists with veterans of past epic battles.

• Using many of the same methods and staff that pulled off the successful plant occupation at Republic Windows, the UE in Chicago launched a bold new campaign, Justice for Warehouse Workers. Currently their fight centers on the Bissell distribution center.

• Tens of thousands have participated in a series of strikes and demonstrations by unions and students at University of California campuses throughout the state, fighting against worker layoffs and student fee hikes.

• In November, a two day strike by the Graduate Employee Union at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus won a solid, inspiring victory.

• Over the past month, rank and file insurgents ousted Old Guard leaders in two important locals in New York City–UPS Teamsters Local 804 and Transport Workers 100, representing 30,000 transit workers.

• Two weeks ago US Labor Against the War went on record against the war in Afghanistan as well as Iraq and launched a new educational campaign on Obama’s war within the labor movement.

• Last but not least on this incomplete list was the successful completion of unifying three major nurses unions in to a new “super-union,” National Nurses United, expected to bring vigorous new organizing and militant adversarial unionism to RNs throughout the land.

Taken together, these seemingly unconnected developments indicate a new level of combativeness is stirring in American labor on a scale not seen for a decade or more. Similar examples could be cited in Canada as well.

Most on this list–and a lot more–will be represented at the Labor Notes Conference taking place in suburban Detroit April 23-25. I’ve already registered and booked my hotel room. I urge you to do the same. There will be no better venue for exchanging ideas and experiences among labor activists.

Before closing, I want to address two vital areas that remain sidetracked.

Climate Change
While this issue affects all it is above all a question for the workers’ movement. If we are to save our biosphere for future generations there must be a drastic restructuring of an economy already in crisis because of the failures of market capitalism. To do this effectively requires a mobilization on the order of what was done in this country during World War II–the greatest industrial achievement in history which also ended the Great Depression.

But this is not going to be done by the class that profits from environmental destruction. We need to place key industries such as finance, energy, transportation, and auto, in a new public sector to intelligently plan a truly green conversion. And, this needs to be done democratically, with elected worker representatives collaborating with the scientists and environmentalists. Displaced workers must be guaranteed not only retraining but decent living standards in a period of Just Transition. Nothing else will work, in my opinion.

The Blue Green Alliance was a promising idea. But their reliance on partnership with the employers and boss politicians dooms the project. We sorely need an Alliance for Class and Climate Justice to educate and agitate around a working class program to meet the challenge of climate change.

A Party Of Our Own
Our unions, and social movements, are important. They are especially effective in defending what we already have. But alone they are insufficient to win new advances in crucial areas such as health care, immigration, not to speak of climate change. Such struggles are essentially political and require a party of our own.

The USA remains the only industrialized country to have no mass working class party. As long as that deficiency remains we will break no new ground and any defensive victories will be temporary and tentative.

We must find a way to bring our once promising Labor Party out of dormancy and use it to advance all of our struggles.

These last two missing links are key to our future. Once they are brought on line no force on Earth can stop us. Until then, the road will remain rocky.

Best holiday greetings to all! We’ll be back in two weeks. As my first New Year’s resolution, I’ll use part of my break to catch up on long overdue replies to messages from readers.

That’s all for this year.

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