Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 24, 2010

Critical Mass
It began with a state legislator, whose resume includes a centerfold photo au natural in Cosmopolitan, agreeing to be the Republican sacrificial lamb in the special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. But after the last hurrah Scott Brown was elected as the forty-first Republican Senator–denying the Democrats their already shaky super-majority needed to hold off filibusters from a recalcitrant and mean spirited GOP.

The giddy Republicans proclaimed this a referendum against “government run health care.” The Obama health care “reform” was no more “government run” than the Massachusetts state reform established on former Republican Governor Romney’s watch. But there’s no doubt working class voters were not pleased with the Obama plan. The proverbial last straw was the tax on benefits insisted upon by the President–after swearing during the election campaign he would never agree to such a tax.

Despite last minute intense campaigning by prominent national Democrat and union leaders, more unionists voted for Brown than his Democrat opponent. Rich Trumka explained this was an indicator of an apparently previously undetected “working class revolt,” and warned the Democrats to get back on the track leading to jobs, jobs, jobs.

While the working class is not yet in full revolt anger is building. There were high expectations that this Administration, now celebrating its first anniversary in power, would move quickly to address job loss, stagnant wages, foreclosures and evictions, and, yes, the health care crisis. Instead, the situation has gotten worse and the “middle class” that every politician hails is an endangered species. A common expression has spread to many diverse victims of the Great Recession–“If we were a bank we’d be fixed by now.”

The American political system is designed to accommodate Massachusetts-style revolts by directing voter discontent with those in power to the column of the only recognized opposition. If you don’t like the party that pretends to be labor’s friend you can instead vote for the traditional party identified with Big Business.

As far as getting the Democrats “back on track;” there is only one track–and it doesn’t lead to jobs. While one party is always shunted off to a siding both their trains are competing to deliver the rest of us to the same destination–the place described by the Canadian labor party leader Tommy Douglas as Mouseland, where the Fat Cats rule.

As the multiple crises we face deepen growing numbers will become dissatisfied with this ancient shell game. Our nation’s real rulers try to prepare for this by offering extra-electoral far-right backup–the Tea Party, Minutemen, Operation Rescue, and the like. This is a danger we cannot take lightly.

Our only mass organizations, our unions, should be embracing a workers revolt. It is up to the labor movement to provide a credible working class alternative to the twin parties of capital and their subcontracted right-wing thugs. That means a party of our own to lead this revolt in the workplace, the streets, and on the ballot.

Going Public
The U.S. public sector has long had greater union density than the private. Now government unionists actually outnumber their sisters and brothers in the market economy. This shocking statistic doesn’t represent growth in the public unions. Layoffs and contracting out by state and local governments, along with quasi-public transit agencies, are common and growing.

It instead registers the collapse of remaining union bastions in construction and manufacturing. Last year–continuing the massive job loss of 2008--construction employment fell by another 900,000 while an additional 1.3 million factory jobs were slashed. As a result, even though aggressive organizing successes have been achieved by a few unions such as National Nurses United, during the first year of the Obama administration overall union membership fell 771,000.

Union density in the private sector now stands at 7.2 percent–the lowest percentage since at least 1900. While some of the construction work will probably eventually come back most of the good paying manufacturing jobs–such as the tens of thousands eliminated during Obama’s bankruptcy restructuring of GM and Chrysler–are gone for good.

How does this fit in to jobs, jobs, jobs?

UAW Local 879 in St Paul recently held a press conference urging Ford to build plug-in electric or plug-in hybrid cars at their plant currently producing Ranger pick-ups–and scheduled for closure by the end of next year. They are calling for government financial subsidy to Ford to keep this next generation product line in a UAW plant.

Nearly all government jobs plans revolve around subsidies and tax breaks to private employers as an incentive to hire or keep workers. The track record of such schemes is not good. In this particular case, Ford is building its popular Fusion hybrid in Mexico where labor costs are about twenty percent of what St Paul workers earn. There’s no way that either the workers or government incentives can compete with such offshored work.

Previously the Local had, in collaboration with environmental and community groups, campaigned for public ownership of the plant and conversion to new products. They nearly landed production of new clean buses ordered by the local transit agency. But the local Establishment put the kibosh on those logical plans leading to the latest last ditch effort to keep Ford.

The original strategy advocated by Local 879 was sound. But, like so many good ideas, it is difficult for one isolated group of workers to implement in the face of hostility from the bosses and their politicians. We need a national jobs policy that replaces trying to bribe employers with nationalizing the key industries needed for a healthy economy. A whole new public sector, including finance, energy, transportation and auto for starters, could lead the way in putting everyone to work in decent paying jobs, rebuilding an economy to tackle the threat of climate change and other urgent needs.

Only the Strong Get It
Tens of thousands have volunteered services in Haiti. Individuals and institutions have contributed around 350 million dollars to relief efforts. Even Palestinians suffering under an Israeli blockade have sent what money they could spare. A lot of folks genuinely care about what happens to fellow human beings hit by natural disaster. And Haiti needs all the help they can get pronto.

But the first priority has been assembling a large military presence in that stricken country projected to include 10,000 U.S. troops, along with an additional 12,000 UN soldiers. The U.S. Navy has fourteen ships in Haitian waters including an aircraft carrier. All of this traffic has greatly slowed the delivery of relief personnel and supplies.

Doctors Without Borders issued an angry statement after chartered planes carrying desperately needed medical supplies were three times turned away from the Port-au-Prince airport. At last report RN volunteers from National Nurses United, after having initially been told the Navy would provide some transportation, are still unable to find a way to where they are needed.

Air charter outfits are making out like bandits. One relief coordinator was shocked to be quoted a price of a half-million dollars for one flight from China. The next bid he received was for over a million.

The justification given for the big military mobilization is to assure orderly distribution of relief. But, for the first ten days after the quake, U.S. military relief was mainly limited to helicopter drops from the air, only trying a few small scale ground operations over the past weekend.. Haiti’s UN ambassador said, “We don't like it... because when they make (aid) drops, only the strong get it.”

Iraq Labor Solidarity Needed
In retaliation for his leadership of a December strike, the state owned Cotton Industries Company has removed Federation of Workers Councils and Unions president Falah Alwan from his job. This is a fresh example of how the “anti-Baathist” bosses continue to enforce Baathist anti-labor laws from the Saddam Hussein era. US Labor Against the War is campaigning in solidarity with the Iraqi brother and has an electronic protest letter which you can sign on to by clicking

No Waffle In Belgium
Even before General Motors announced they were closing the Opel plant in Antwerp as part of a slashing of 8,300 jobs across Europe, workers were blockading the plant. Armin Schild, head of the IG Metall union in Frankfurt, Germany called GM’s move a “declaration of war” on all European workers.

In Jupille, Belgium InBev workers spontaneously built a 15-foot high barricade of beer crates around their brewery to protest company plans to eliminate 260 Belgian jobs. They also called for a boycott of all InBev beverages which would include Budweiser. As Der Spiegel commented, "not an official strike but there is no beer.”

Not Even PG?
Kids in the Menifee Union School District in California who hope to benefit from President Obama’s “race to the top” will have to jog along without the help of the most popular lexicon of American English. After discovering it contained a reference to oral s__, the school board ordered the removal of Merriam-Webster's 10th edition dictionary from school shelves. Even though it’s been safely quarantined these educators are continuing their investigation. “It's hard to sit and read the dictionary, but we'll be looking to find other things of a graphic nature,” said board spokesperson Betti Cadmus.

We Knew Things Were Tough But...
A BBC headline: Scottish MPs consider assisted suicide.

That’s all for this week.

Coming Events...
Labor Campaign for Single-Payer National Conference
National Labor College, Silver Spring, MD, March 5-7

Tenth Anniversary Of kclabor.org
North Kansas City Library, March 21

Labor Notes Conference
Detroit, April 23-25

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