Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 11, 2009

Big Government Is Back–In the Labor Movement
Exhibit A–The UAW
More information was revealed this week about the conditions for the emergency bridge loans to General Motors and Chrysler. It was already known that deal required a gutting of the UAW contract, spelling out specific conditions in the
loan terms. These included wage cuts, elimination of the Jobs Bank, SUB, and restrictions on plant closings, new health and pension plans, accepting stock in lieu of cash contributions to the VEBAs, and even revamped work rules. Now it turns out the Treasury Department also warned that a strike by the UAW resisting these contract changes would trigger an immediate, automatic calling in of the loan–guaranteeing collapse of the companies. (Ford didn’t ask for a bridge loan but has made it clear they expect to get the same concessions extracted from the union at the other two in order to remain “competitive.”)

Not since World War II has there been such direct intervention by the government in dictating specifics of contracts and undermining the right to strike. Representative Barney Frank, a top Democrat leader, has denounced the terms as “unfair assault on working men and women,” and attempts to tinker with them as part of a bill clarifying how the 700 billion dollar TARP bailout should be administered. It would give the new President until February 1 the option to come up with new conditions and would require an independent “car czar” to dictate recovery plans. But, as the Detroit Free Press noted, Obama’s czar (rumored to be Steven Rattner, head of the 6-billion dollar private investment firm Quadrangle Group) would be free to keep the current draconian conditions–or even impose harsher measures. While Frank’s bill may pass the House its future in the Senate is dubious. Meanwhile the UAW is “negotiating” a new contract with the Big Three.

And by the way, the outgoing director of the U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. warned Friday that Detroit's Big Three automakers face a 41 billion dollar pension shortfall. He said, “We're not trying to tell people that the pension house is on fire. The point is that in many ways this has a similar look to other situations, such as a Bethlehem Steel.” After Bethlehem filed for bankruptcy in 2001 95,000 workers took a big hit on their benefits as PBGC had to step in. That shafting of steel workers was engineered by Robert S Miller–well known to UAW members for bankruptcy scams at Delphi and Federal-Mogul.

Exhibit B–‘Labor Unity’
Last Week, the top honchos of twelve major U.S. unions issued a statement favoring an early reunification of the divided union movement. Even the National Education Association, which has always been independent, participated. Steven Greenhouse, writing in the New York Times, explains the catalyst for this unexpected announcement,

“The union presidents issued their joint call after the transition team for President-elect Barack Obama signaled that it would prefer dealing with a united movement, rather than a fractured one that often had two competing voices. David E. Bonior, a member of Mr. Obama’s economic transition team who withdrew from consideration as labor secretary, helped arrange and oversee a meeting of the union presidents on Wednesday in Washington.”

We, of course, argued four years ago that the launching of rival federation Change to Win was an unprincipled split. Perhaps even more unprincipled would be a shot-gun wedding of the estranged parties to provide a mouthpiece for the new administration’s policies.

Some CtW affiliates–above all its largest, SEIU–have developed sweeping changes in bargaining, organizing, and structure. (See more below.) Is there a balance sheet of Chairman Andy’s reinvention of trade unionism? Would it serve as a new model for a reunified movement, or be rejected, or maybe peacefully coexist? And how would tensions between AFT and NEA, SEIU and CNA, Teamsters and UTU, for example, be handled? Would they be sorted out by the unions–or by Dave Bonior?

Effective unions can be neither “partners” with the boss nor tails of political “friends.” They need to be independent organizations that solely advance the interests of their members and the broader working class. Unity of such fighting organizations is an important goal. But this latest unity scheme is a giant step down the slimy slope of incorporating the union bureaucracy in to the government bureaucracy that serves the interests of the employers.

As workers strive for unity in action we need two, three, many “competing voices” to democratically determine the objectives of our action.

The Latest On Change
This morning’s New York Times reports that the severity of the economic crisis has convinced the President-elect and congressional Democrats that they must “delay some of the promises he made on the campaign trail to avoid political distractions and focus on reversing the economic slide.” Among promises deferred, “renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, overhauling immigration laws, restricting carbon emissions, raising taxes on the wealthy and allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military.” Other pledges have been reduced to modest “down payments” such as, “his promises to expand health care coverage and promote energy independence in the economic recovery package.”

Obama also confirmed rumors we relayed last week as the NYT reported, “President-elect Barack Obama said Wednesday that overhauling Social Security and Medicare would be ‘a central part’ of his administration’s efforts to contain federal spending, signaling for the first time that he would wade into the thorny politics of entitlement programs.”

The Wall Street Journal offered a dim prognosis for the centerpiece of labor’s program, “Labor had hoped the Obama administration would take up the Employee Free Choice Act within its first 100 days. The bill would let unions register members by collecting signatures on cards rather than through elections. But its enactment now appears doubtful.”

¿Hasta la vista, Andy?
As expected, the proposal by SEIU president Andy Stern to raid and take charge of United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), reported on in last week’s WIR, easily passed his international executive board. 125,000 UHW members had previously submitted petitions objecting to the action and even more boycotted a phony “vote” conducted by Chairman Andy’s machine. The Washington Post reported,

“Today's SEIU vote would bust [UHW president Sal] Rosselli's local by breaking off nearly half of its 150,000 members into a new chapter combining all long-term care workers in California. The SEIU is also threatening to seize control of Rosselli's local over charges that it misused funds for political purposes, which Rosselli denies.”

The same article quotes CNA executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, “The Teamsters used to be notorious; SEIU makes them look like choirboys.”

Seeing no other way out, UHW members have begun the process of disaffiliating from SEIU. This undoubtedly will be a tough, protracted struggle.

Maybe They’ll Want to Try Two Out Of Three
Ottawa transit workers, members of ATU Local 279, have been on strike since December 7. It’s not about wages and benefits. They were willing to accept the miserly raises offered by the city. What they wouldn’t buy was turning their lives upside down with a new scheduling demand that would have eliminated picking assignments by seniority and would have quit paying them when riding a bus to relieve another driver.

I can strongly sympathize with these sisters and brothers. I drove a bus for the Kansas City ATA for fourteen years. There were times I really disliked my hours, days off, and routes. But every three months I had a chance to pick work by seniority and slowly improve my conditions. I don’t think I would have stuck it out if we had the system Ottawa is trying to impose.

The Mayor kept demanding that Local 279 take another membership vote and finally got a government agency to mandate one. 2045 out of 2200 members voted–and 75 percent voted to reject. “No means no.”

Transit strikes are, of course, a hardship not only for the strikers but those who depend on transit. They are never taken lightly. But ATU 279 deserves the solidarity of passengers as well as the labor movement until the city backs off this life-changing take-away.

In Brief...
¶ UE Local 1110 members who occupied their factory late last year are asking for a court-ordered injunction through the National Labor Relations Board to require the plant's owner to return equipment removed from the factory. Employees of Republic Windows and Doors filed charges against their employer on Tuesday morning, alleging violations of their collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

¶ Disappointed that most of us used last year’s stimulus checks to pay down bills, or put it in savings, the Obama stimulus strategy calls for tax credits giving us an extra twenty bucks every two weeks--with the hope we’ll just go ahead and spend it. Pizza anyone?

¶ The TVA had another coal ash spill–10,000 gallons of sludge in to an Alabama tributary of the Tennessee River. The New York Times reports there are at least 1300 coal ash dumps across the country--similar to the earlier one in Kingston, Tennessee that sent a billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres--that contain heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a threat to water supplies and human health. But, of course, the dumps themselves are all unregulated.

¶ “Without their brain and muscle...” On Thursday all trains and streetcars in Norway observed a two-minute halt. The union explained, “Because of the situation in the Gaza Strip, the Locomotive Drivers Union in Norway has decided to demonstrate our solidarity with the Palestinian people. This will be organized by adding two more minutes of stoppage at the station. The same action applies to all passenger trains in Norway simultaneously. We demand the immediate withdrawal of all Israeli troops from the Palestinian territory. Thank you for your understanding.”

I had tentatively planned to attend the Labor for Single-Payer conference in St Louis this weekend but other demands kept me in town. We hope to have information about the gathering next week.

My chronic problems in keeping up with e-mail correspondence became more acute this week with troubles in AT&T’s e-mail service and even broadband availability. I again plead for patience and forgiveness.

That’s all for this week.

New Crises, New Agendas
Save Jobs, Save the Planet
April 3-4, Kansas City
here for conference site

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