Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 25, 2009

Polar Opposite Attracts
We have reported from time to time about the dangers posed by melting ice, due to global warming, in the Arctic. Until recently, scientists thought the other end of the globe had been so far largely spared and might even be cooling a bit. After filling in gaps in data records they now know that was misleading.

There was some cooling in the 1970-2000 period because of a different environmental problem–a big hole in the ozone over the South Pole, caused by escaping coolant gasses and propellants. The fixing of that threat is one of the few environmental success stories. But now it is clear that the trend before and since those three decades has been a steady warming of Antarctica.

That’s very bad news indeed. The uninhabited continent is bigger than the United States and is covered in ice which is more than a mile thick in many places. If all that ice were to melt it would raise sea levels about 50 meters (165 feet.) That extreme is unlikely any time soon but clearly even a few percent of that would be sufficient to wipe out the homes of hundreds of millions. Huge icebergs–measured in miles--are already regularly breaking off and floating northward to melt in the South Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

This disturbing news was reported by the respected British scientific journal Nature. Perhaps even more disturbing was that it wasn’t considered newsworthy by the mass media. I ran across it through my Yahoo subscription to environmental stories. Burying such news helps explain a recent poll by Pew Research showing public concern about global warming came in dead last in a list of twenty issues.

Hiding the truth helps the worst polluters--and their faithful union “partners”--in the drive for profits that will heat our biosphere even more. Sunflower Electric Corporation has had efforts to expand a giant complex of coal-fired power plants near the tiny town of Holcomb stymied by the Governor of Kansas because of the greenhouse gas it would produce. Even though she is a “friend of labor,” the Central and Western Kansas Building and Construction Trades Council, along with Kansas City area trades, have joined with the company in a new effort to overturn Sebelius’s decision.

The motivation for this rare union break with a Democrat administration is straight forward enough–Sunflower has pledged to use all union labor in building their coal burners. Glowing like red-hot fly ash, trades leaders Rich Taylor and Gary Kemp wrote,

“The amount of work this facility would bring to each of our memberships is unprecedented, a once-in-a-generation opportunity for jobs and training. The 30,000 members of the unions and councils we represent encourage Kansans to support the Holcomb station expansion and this much-needed shot in the arm for the Kansas economy.”

When this fleeting “once-in-a-generation opportunity” is finished perhaps union carpenters can get work building arks for those living on our coasts.

The area around Holcomb happens to be a prime location for clean wind power rather than dirty coal. There could be many generations of work for construction trades in building wind farms, solar panel arrays, and new transmission lines using clean energy across the land. An entire new manufacturing sector would be required to make this conversion. And, along with good jobs, we might just be able to keep our planet sustainable for new generations.

This is not a Number 20-ranked question. There is nothing more important today. The combined struggle to save both jobs and planet is the central theme of our New Crises, New Agendas conference in Kansas City April 3-4. I hope you will consider joining us for this event.

Additional Conference Speakers
I’m pleased to announce two additions to the concluding panel at the April conference:

* Richard Mabion, a well known Kansas City, Kansas activist who promotes dialogue among people of color and environmentalists. A principal organizer of the local Breaking the Silence conferences he has been invited to attend the upcoming national meeting of the Blue/Green Alliance.

* Molly Madden, a fellow ATU retiree, is a hard working volunteer on the award winning Heartland Labor Forum radio show. Back in the day, we collaborated on our union’s old Community Outreach Committee and she will speak about the need for a revived combined union-community response to fresh cuts in transit service as well as other attacks on the public sector.

Another Bank Failure
The UAW Jobs Bank has long been a focus of attack by the boss press. How can American companies survive when they pay workers not to work? The “comment” sections following Internet articles on the topic are filled with those in the tradition of “Mr Block,” parroting the attacks on the overpaid, lazy autoworkers.

Of course, no one gets paid for not working. Unemployed workers get paid because they can’t work-- the boss no longer has anything for them to do. Programs such as Supplemental Unemployment Benefits (SUB) and the Jobs Bank maintained both a stable workforce and worker living standards until work picked up again.

The biggest weakness of these programs was that they, like the excellent UAW health insurance and pension benefits, were tied to particular employers rather than social benefits covering all workers. The Japanese, Korean and German owned transplants--never organized by the UAW--have nothing resembling these benefit expenses. This gives them a great competitive advantage over the Big Three.

Over the years, the UAW has yielded concession after concession in the vain pursuit of making their Big Three “partners” competitive. With the bridge loans stingily granted by the government came harsh terms. Incremental give-backs aren’t enough. The UAW must agree to give up virtually everything that is superior to the transplant wages, benefits, and working conditions–right now.

The first casualty, even before “negotiations” are completed, is the Jobs Bank. As of tomorrow it’s gone at Chrysler with GM to soon follow. While Ford is not party to the government decree it’s unlikely that job security protections will survive there either.

A Split Decision In More Ways Than One
The Los Angeles Times framed it in boxing nomenclature. The ruling by Andy Stern’s hand picked judge of charges leveled by the Stern Gang against the leadership of United Healthcare Workers West (UHW) was labeled a “split decision.” Ray Marshall--Jimmy Carter’s labor secretary during days of attempted wage controls and Taft-Hartley injunctions–meted out Judge Judy like justice, essentially ruling in favor of his client’s attacks on the UHW. He did urge, however, that the Sal Rosselli leadership of the giant local be given one more chance to comply with Chairman Andy’s directives before placing the local in trusteeship. Stern dutifully gave the dissidents five days to shape up–and ship out 70,000 of their members to a more loyal local.

In some ways it was a split decision. If Stern prevails currently united workers will be split. If the UHW members back up their elected leaders it means a split from SEIU. But it will not follow the boxing analogy where decisions, split or otherwise, are handed out after the required number of rounds. This is a labor brawl, not governed by the Marquis of Queensberry. So far we’ve seen only sparring. Now the real match begins.

This fight is crucially important not only for those in UHW and SEIU. If the UHW survives this assault by the most ruthless bureaucratic machine around it will inspire many who seek to reform and rejuvenate top-down unions. It’s a battle we’ll follow closely and assist in all appropriate ways.

Will Was Right
The depression era humorist and social commentator Will Rogers once remarked, “the banks only lend money to those who don’t need any.” This wisdom is being reconfirmed in the mortgage refinancing sector. A major objective of the government take over of Fannie and Freddie, the 700 billion TARP, and the Federal Reserve’s support for mortgage backed securities, was to allow those strained by high interest rates to move to more affordable refinancing. Presumably they would then have more disposable income which they would use to get the consumer economy going again.

Thirty year fixed interest rates have come way down–around 5 percent currently–and may drop further yet. But few, even with good jobs and credit ratings, can get them–at least not without costly other charges. Despite a trillion tax dollars already injected in to the finance system banks seem more reluctant than ever to lend money.

To qualify for the low rate you generally must have at least twenty percent equity in your home. Because of collapsing property values few with high interest loans have anywhere near this percentage. Many have negative equity. Those in that category would have to come up with cash equaling a twenty percent down payment on their present home. Even the few who could swing that certainly wouldn’t be in a position to also give a bump in consumer spending.

Some are advised to buy private mortgage insurance. This is costly and they too have stringent requirements. In some markets they demand borrowers to have at least 10 percent equity in their homes and a credit score of more than 720. About half of Americans have FICO scores under 700.

Meanwhile, mortgage foreclosures are at a record postwar high–and the banks are asking for more government money.

More Canadian Democracy In Action
As the city of Ottawa did with transit workers, bosses at York University in Toronto forced another vote from CUPE strikers–who, like their ATU fellow unionists in the federal capital, resoundingly reaffirmed their rejection of the last offer and continued the strike. 3300 teaching assistants and contract faculty have been on the picket line since November 6.

Now the provincial government is going to the legislature for a back to work bill. It is opposed by the opposition NDP labor party who said,

“It almost looks like the university has taken the position, 'We won't bargain and then we'll allow the McGuinty government to settle this' and that's wrong.” The NDP leader asserted that “chronic underfunding of education in Ontario” was at the heart of the problem and “trying to blame the workers is frankly just wrong.”

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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