Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 7, 2008

An Occupation We Fully Support
It’s been over twenty years since I paid dues to the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America but I’m still a “UE-er” at heart. One example of why I, and countless others, still feel this attachment is the worker occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors plant on Chicago’s north side.

You’ve already undoubtedly heard something about this bold action, reported in the mass media across the country and abroad. When Bank of America abruptly severed Republic’s normal line of credit, the company was forced to shut down with only three days notice–instead of the sixty days required by the WARN Act. Workers were shown the door without vacation or severance pay they had coming by law and/or contract and stripped of their health coverage.

Most unions would have called the lawyers. But that’s not the UE way. Instead the 260 members at Republic first organized themselves in to shifts to occupy the premises and defend the plant’s assets until they get their just compensation. They didn’t keep it a secret either. The media was summoned. Jobs with Justice agreed to take up their cause. A congressman came out to say some nice words to the occupiers. The Rev Jesse Jackson’s offer of food was welcomed.

The Republic workers are centering their fire primarily on Bank of America. The UE website says,

“Bank of America, the country's second largest bank, has received $25 billion in taxpayer money as part of the $700 billion government bailout of the financial industry. The public was told that this bailout was necessary in order to keep credit flowing and prevent the loss of jobs. Yet the very-well-paid executives at Bank of America have actually cut off credit to Republic, forcing the closing of a plant where workers were, at least up until Friday, producing energy-efficient doors and windows.”

We might add Friday was also the day BoA got final approval of their acquisition of Merrill Lynch.

My good friend Adam Shils, who seems to show up at every picket line in the Chicago area, took some doughnuts down to Republic, pitched in unloading a truck load of supplies brought by Rev Jackson, and then sent me some observations,

The workers are maintaining good security with only union members allowed past the main entrance...While the occupation is 24 hour, it is being organized in shifts with workers returning home to sleep.

The weekend temperature in the plant is 50 degrees....The police presence appears to be minimal.

Support from other unions has been good. There were about 250-300 at yesterday's rally and contingents from IBT Locals 705 and 703 there today.

This is obviously a very important struggle which demands our full solidarity and support.

Our Monday Daily Labor News Digest will carry a number of articles and video clips about the Republic action and we’ll be updating further developments. In the meantime you can:

●sign on to the JwJ support campaign by clicking here
●send a solidarity message to the Republic workers
●send a financial contribution to:

UE Local 1110 Solidarity Fund
37 S. Ashland
Chicago, IL 60607

Twisting the Bankruptcy Knife
When Archway & Mother's Cookie Co. gave their workers a letter on October 6 informing them they were filing for bankruptcy, and going out of business immediately, many workers scrambled to get medical care before the end of the month--while their Blue Cross plan was still in effect. One had her doctor induce labor to ensure a Blue Cross baby. Another bought 6,000 dollars worth of insulin for his diabetic daughter. And a woman moved up a previously scheduled gall bladder removal to beat the deadline.

But it turns out these workers didn’t actually have a Blue Cross plan. Archway was self-insured, and used Blue Cross only as an administrative go-between the company and healthcare providers. By the time the workers got their letter Archway no longer had the funds for Blue Cross to disburse. The workers who had lost their income and benefits were now also stuck with medical bills, some running in to many thousands of dollars.

Many workers think they at least have the last resort of COBRA (named after the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986) allowing them to continue their health insurance–at full cost–for eighteen months after losing a job. But COBRA only works when the company plan still exists. If the company plan–or the company itself–is terminated there is nothing to continue. And, as the Archway workers discovered the hard way, if the termination occurs before your doctor bills are paid you are out of luck. Only in America.

Bail Local, Profit Global
Some UAW members have started referring to their top officer as President Kettleringer. He has in fact been the constant companion of Big Three CEOs on Capitol Hill and assured congress that General Motors was on the brink of collapse, in urgent need of a handout.

An article in today’s Los Angeles Times paints a more balanced, realistic picture of GM’s fortunes. It opens,

“Nearly three-fifths of the employees at General Motors Corp. work for a company that makes cars that are admired, popular and profitable....They just don't work in the United States.”

It continues,

“GM has a bigger presence outside the U.S. than in it, employs more people in other countries than here, and actually makes money selling cars everywhere from Sao Paulo to Shanghai. Its U.S. revenue has sunk 24 percent in the last three full years, but in the rest of the world, GM can boast a 28 percent increase.”

This raises the question: why can’t GM bail out itself? If they were honest, their reply would be, why should we when we can get governments and unions to help us out?

This follows the same pattern of the GM parts making spin-off Delphi who outsourced so many jobs south of the border they became the second biggest private employer in Mexico. While they were making money hands over fist in Mexico they declared bankruptcy on their U.S. operations and made mince meat out of their union contracts.

Ford too has extensive operations abroad. Only Chrysler, still stinging from their disastrous experiment with the Rootes Group in the Seventies, has no significant holdings outside North America.

Still, some in congress have questioned why Chrysler’s principal owner, Cerberus Capital Management, can’t help out with some cash. This privately held outfit is an upscale strip and flip operation with fingers in many pies, in many lands. They are far from a profitable flip at Chrysler and figure they should have enough juice on the Hill to get public financing to salvage their speculative investment. Among their directors are former Vice-President Dan Quayle and former Treasury Secretary John Snow. Just in case, they have retained a gold plated bankruptcy specialist.

Brother Kettleringer, of course, was doing more than just hustling congress over the past week. He summoned all the Big Three local leaders to Detroit and explained it was time to do “whatever it takes” to save their “partners.” He has publicly pledged to scrap the Jobs Bank, SUB, and to allow the companies to defer their VEBA payments. There may be more than that before it’s over.

In the end, what might secure the Big Three a reprieve was the November unemployment figures released on Friday. 533,000 full-time jobs were eliminated–the biggest monthly total since the bitter 1974 recession. As the New York Times reported, underlying figures show the real situation to be even worse,

“More significantly, the unemployment rate does not include those too discouraged to look for work any longer or those working fewer hours than they would like. Add those people to the roster of the unemployed, and the rate hit a record 12.5 percent in November, up 1.5 percentage points since September.”

Not wanting to add the collapse of the Big Three to this mix, it’s likely the lame duck congress will grant them barely enough money to carry their U.S. operations over to the next congress, the next White House. Meanwhile GM, further applying the principle of shared sacrifice, is pursuing handouts from Canada, for Vauxhall in Britain, and for Opel in Germany.

Backwards From Bali
Poznan, about the size of Kansas City, is one of the oldest cities in Poland. It has a centuries-long history as a center of resistance against foreign occupiers and indigenous dictators, led in modern times by a militant trade union movement. Today there were again thousands of protesters marching in the streets, this time demanding action on global warming because Poznan is the host for the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Some recent reports show that ground has been lost since the last conference in Bali a year ago. The amount of U.S. greenhouse gases flowing into the atmosphere, mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, increased last year by 1.4 percent after a slight decline in 2006, the Energy Department reported Wednesday. Overall, U.S. greenhouse gases have increased 16.7 percent since 1990–the baseline established by the Kyoto Treaty, accepted by the Clinton administration but later rejected by Bush.

The 2007 increase in China was even greater–7.5 percent–though the U.S. appears to have held on to the dubious distinction of world leader in this area.

A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concludes two key international programs–“cap and trade” emission quotas and offset grants for aid to energy projects in developing countries–have little or no benefit in curbing global warming. Cap and trade is thought to be an essential component of the yet to be fully revealed environmental program of the Obama administration.

We’ve got to save a little bit for next time.

That’s all for this week.

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