Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 21, 2008

Before returning to developments in the auto crisis we’ll deal with some issues we’ve short changed recently.

No Honeymoon In Kirkuk Or Kandahar
President-elect Obama’s reappointment of current Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and his selection of General James L Jones as National Security Adviser, could easily have been made by a President McCain. McCain might not have chosen Hillary “obliterate Iran” Clinton to be Secretary of State but she has received high praise from the most hawkish Republicans. Obama openly stated during the campaign his intention to greatly escalate U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Gates is organizing a surge that will double the number of GIs in that seven-year long conflict. A few days ago Obama was briefed by Gates and top generals about the need to stay in Iraq beyond the sixteen month time line he promised voters and yesterday it was announced U.S. troops will replace withdrawing British forces in Basra. These are clear indicators that the wars will continue along the path of the Bush Doctrine in the new administration.

This should come as no surprise. We certainly were not alone in predicting it. What remains to be seen is what becomes of the antiwar movement in the post-Bush era, especially during the much heralded First Hundred Days of Obama as commander-in-chief of these wars.

Last weekend United For Peace & Justice held their national conference in Chicago. Though UFPJ projects itself as the peace coalition it was about half the size of the conference held in Cleveland last June that led to the establishment of the awkwardly named but otherwise solid National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations. The Assembly has been promoting unity among a fractured antiwar movement. One of the most perceptive accounts of the UFPJ conclave I’ve seen came from the delegation representing the Pittsburgh Thomas Merton Center Anti-War Committee,

“The UFPJ leadership had initially called for actions in Washington, D.C. for the week of March 16-21. Based on this a proposal had been put forward (by the pro-unity National Assembly to the End U.S. War and Occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, with which the AWC has affiliated) for unified mass demonstrations against the war on March 21 in Washington and San Francisco. Several other anti-war formations (including ANSWER) expressed support for such actions. The UFPJ leadership then reversed itself - proposing a national action in New York for April 4.

“In the opening session, UFPJ leader Leslie Cagan argued that the peace movement needs to move away from national marches and more into local organizing. She hailed the Obama family's upcoming arrival at the White House as the dawning of a new era that would usher in substantial change. In introducing the April 4 campaign proposal, the UFPJ Steering Committee stated that they did not want to alienate the new generation that supported Obama. This was the reason, they said, that they decided to move their action from Washington, D.C. to New York. They also listed a central demand of their protest in New York as a ‘re-ordering of economic priorities.’”

By a 2-to-1 vote, the UFPJ conference rejected support to the unity effort around March 21 national actions.

Even US Labor Against the War, who participated in the Cleveland conference, and has a good track record in promoting movement unity, appears to be awed by the new administration and cautious about how to proceed. A report adopted at a Leadership Assembly two weeks ago (that unfortunately I was unable to attend) after reviewing how the economic crisis diverts attention from the wars says,

“We must be very careful not to underestimate the historic importance of Obama’s election and the hope and exuberance that people feel. We must not be seen as carping naysayers....

“Our challenge is to move Obama in a positive way. Rather than demonstrate against him, we should demonstrate in support of fulfilling the hopes his campaign and victory has unleashed. If we become the engine that drives his train, we will have a substantial impact on the direction that train takes. Our task is to be in the engine, not the caboose.”

To continue this train analogy, it has already left the station before the Obama family moves in to their new residence. There were no seats for us much less the opportunity to blow the whistle on the front end. Opponents of wars of intervention will have to meet up in the hobo jungle.

Of course, the economic crisis has diverted attention from the wars. The job of the antiwar movement is to remind all of us these criminal adventures abroad continue, good people are being killed and disabled physically and mentally, Iraqi and Afghan working people are suffering, and a trillion tax dollars have already been spent with no end yet in sight. My Oxford Universal dictionary defines carping as “complain or find fault continually.” That is precisely our duty–carping naysayers against these wars that serve only the interests of the bosses and bankers.

For more information about the March 21 actions click here.

Taking Expropriate Action
The frigid air mass that has sunk Kansas City below zero Fahrenheit is not the only thing that bears watching coming out of Canada these days. My friend Rod in Vancouver was the first to tip me off about a fight we can learn from in Newfoundland. When 800 members of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union refused to accept huge take-back demands, AbitibiBowater announced they were permanently closing the paper mill in Grand Falls-Windsor–a devastating blow to the area’s economy. Not so fast, said the NL provincial government. They promptly expropriated not only the mill but all of the company’s other extensive holdings in the province. The company, headquartered in Canada but incorporated in the U.S., is relying heavily on NAFTA in a legal challenge to the government’s action. Stay tuned.

There have been a number of other important Canadian stories recently. An ATU transit strike has tied up Ottawa; 3400 CUPE workers are on strike at York University; 2100 PSA workers have been on strike against Canada Post for a month; and today we heard a settlement has been reached between CEPU and PetroCanada to end a 13-month lockout at a Montreal refinery–and a national boycott of PetroCanada organized by the CLC.

COP 14 Cop Out
Christine Frank, writing in the newsletter of the Climate Crisis Coalition of the Twin Cities, summed it up as well as anybody,

“COP 14 UNFCCC, POZNAN , POLAND , DECEMBER 1-12
As we assumed, it was just more hot air coming out of government leaders & environment ministers still debating who is to blame for the climate crisis and then safely taking several steps backward. For instance, Canada , Australia (heavily influenced by its mining industry) and Japan pulled the text on 2020 emissions targets from one of the conference documents. Many nations have opted for target ranges of from ridiculously and extremely low to just plain low, meaning that virtually nothing was accomplished once again.”

3CTC, as they are known, is one of the most active local environmental coalitions with connections to the labor movement. Christine will be a featured speaker on the environmental crisis at the April 3-4 New Crises, New Agendas conference in Kansas City, initiated by this website.

A Fate Worse Than Bankruptcy?
In an example of mean spirit, the President kept those dependent on the Big Three automakers dangling for over a week. At first, Bush indicated he would find the funding for the compromise deal he had supported in congress but was blocked by a threat of Republican filibuster in the Senate. Then he said he’d like to do more. Next came “we’re looking at every option.” Thursday he told the American Enterprise Institute that a “managed bankruptcy” seemed to be the only thing that made sense and the Midwest braced for doomsday. But when Friday rolled around Bush announced a reprieve–not even the pardon granted the Thanksgiving turkey.

GM and Chrysler are granted modest bridge loans with titanic conditions. The government is entitled to preferred stocks, with priority over all other debts, what some have called a “partial nationalization.”

The government is allowed a “czar”–for the next month this will be Treasury Secretary Paulson-- to oversee a restructuring plan that the companies had to sign off on. If the plan isn’t implemented, or at least acceptable progress made by March 31, Washington can call in their loan and it will be hard landing time in Detroit.

One of the arguments advanced against bankruptcy was that it would turn off potential buyers fearful of owning an “orphan” car no longer supported by warranties, maybe facing unavailability of parts. But it seems to me this prolonged, humiliating treatment of the Big Three, and the highly conditional aid granted them, has itself done a lot to undermine consumer confidence in Detroit.

Why did Bush choose to go this route? I believe it is an attempt to secure the advantages of bankruptcy much quicker than possible in the sometimes sluggish pace of the courts. Instead of allowing the lawyers to argue over every point the czar can make workers and dealers offers they may feel they can’t refuse.

What will this mean for UAW workers and retirees? All the conditions may not have been yet revealed but the ones known are substantial.

●The UAW must accept the same pay and benefits as Honda, Nissan, and Toyota provide. The wage figure being thrown out is 24 dollars per hour–a four dollar an hour cut. The COLA would be eliminated. Active workers would have to accept substantial paycheck deductions for family health coverage. A new retirement plan would have to be set up.

●The Jobs Bank, and Supplemental Unemployment Benefit, would be eliminated.

●Retiree healthcare would be severely undermined as company contributions to the VEBA will become half-funded through stock of dubious value instead of cash agreed to in the UAW agreement.

So far unspecified changes in seniority and work rules will also be required.

All in all, the bosses couldn’t expect much better through a “managed” Chapter Eleven bankruptcy. There is no real cause for joy among auto workers and the industries and towns that depend on them.

UAW leaders are pinning their hopes on the new President adjusting some of these harsh conditions. Since the measures are so draconian, Obama may very well make a gesture of alleviating some. But the impact will still be severe, leaving little intact of the UAW contract, eliminating any interest among the transplant workers in becoming unionized.

In the longer run, sticking it to the workers, retirees, and dealers will probably amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking ship. These measures will not overcome the problem of overproduction/overcapacity, nor will they meet the challenge of reducing car usage in response to global warming.

Full nationalization, and conversion of the industry to new planned, socially useful production is the only way out of this auto crisis–and the broader economic crisis–that can be acceptable to working class interests.

On that cheery note let me wish you a happy holidays. We will be taking a holiday break in posting the Daily Labor News Digest. After this Wednesday’s edition we will be off until Monday, January 5. We do plan to have a regular Week In Review out next weekend.

That’s all for this week.

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