Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 4, 2010

Remembering the Needy
We’ve been in the season used since Dickens to remember the needy. End of year fund appeals abound and even this cynic with shallow pockets has been known to slip a few bucks to Oxfam as well as solidarity campaigns.

It’s also turned out to be an opportune time to remind the world of one group desperately in need that has been largely ignored over the past year–the long suffering people of Palestinian Gaza. Since the Israeli government withdrew their invasion forces about a year ago they have kept Gaza hungry, cold and unemployed with their sealed border crossings through Berlin-style Walls. The crossing controlled by Egypt has been mostly closed as well.

We salute the more than 1300 from around the world–including hundreds from North America--in the Gaza Freedom March, who bravely forced media to address this inhumane situation. While they were stalled and physically harassed by the Egyptian government and the U.S. embassy, their efforts were welcomed by outpourings on both sides of the Israeli/Gaza border--including even some Israeli Jews who oppose the virtual permanent siege of Gaza.

We hope this goes beyond a seasonal gesture. This should be the beginning of a persistent global campaign to allow the Palestinians of Gaza to live and work as human beings--not as perpetual prisoners literally under the gun. Since Washington provides billions in aid to the Israeli government those of us in the USA have a special obligation to support the Gaza Freedom movement.

Climate Jobs, Not Green Jobs
Wendy Thompson, retired president of United Auto Workers Local 235 in Detroit and a long time activist in Labor Notes circles, helped me overcome the depressing results of the Copenhagen fiasco by packing a lot in to a blog entry,
One Million Climate Jobs Now. As she explains, that’s also the title of an excellent pamphlet recently issued by the British Campaign against Climate Change trade union group.

While all manner of jobs are being pushed as “green” these days the British group defines “climate jobs” as “jobs that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we put in to the air.” That, of course, is exactly what we urgently need to stop climate change short of catastrophe for humanity. And, British workers facing their greatest unemployment crisis since the Great Depression could sure use a million new jobs. (A million British jobs would be roughly equivalent to five million in the USA, a half-million in Canada.) The pamphlet, based on a report prepared for British unions, goes in to some detail of the kind of restructuring plan required. You can read it online, or download a 52-page PDF version of the pamphlet, by clicking here.

Sister Thompson writes about a similar approach taken by the Autoworkers’ Caravan she helped lead about a year ago,

“The Autoworkers’ Caravan went to Washington, D.C., last December to influence the debate on the auto industry in Congress. We were pushing the idea of converting auto plants into factories that would make electric cars, buses, light rail, high speed trains, and alternative energy such as wind turbines. We organized a rally with the same ideas at the International Auto Show in Detroit last January. This year we are going to rally again at the International Auto Show on press day, January 11 (across the street from Cobo Hall, 10:30 am–12 pm).”

It’s What’s For Dinner
My Old Man eagerly dropped out of Lutheran parochial school at age fifteen for a rare opportunity during the Great Depression to hire on at the Armour packinghouse. Over the years he developed his skills and switched to the wholesale side of the industry, later cutting and trimming T-bones and filet mignons served in the most exclusive clubs, hotels and restaurants in Kansas City. Some of his product also wound up on our supper table leaving me with a life long addiction to meat–though I broke with family tradition by not pursuing my father’s craft.

While I have so far resisted the sound ethical and environmental case of vegetarians, my wife included, defense of my guilty pleasure is becoming increasingly harder. A couple of recent articles have moved me as no PETA argument has ever done.

E. coli is among the most deadly pathogens that can enter our bodies through food. Contamination, caused by unsanitary handling somewhere in the supply chain, is typically a problem in ground meats. Any on the surface of fresh cuts of meat is generally killed by cooking. At least that was the case before the adoption of “mechanical tenderizing.” A Washington Post story describes the process that replaces manual whacking of subprime meat with a tenderizer mallet,

“Mechanical tenderization softens tough cuts of beef by hammering the meat with metal needles or blades that break up muscle fibers and connective tissue. It is often used to improve the tenderness of roasts and steaks that are cooked at a processing plant before being sent to restaurants. In the meat industry, it is referred to as ‘needled’ meat.

“Consumer advocates say mechanical tenderization poses contamination risks in meats that are served rare, such as steaks, because it can bring bacteria from the surface of meat to the center of the cut. A rare steak may be cooked enough so that bacteria on the surface are killed but those inside the meat survive.”

Needled meat reduces labor time and enhances profits. But twenty-one people in 16 states were recently infected with a potentially lethal strain of E. coli bacteria after consuming needled beef in restaurants supplied by National Steak and Poultry. When exposed, the company “voluntarily” recalled 248,000 pounds of beef destined for diners at steakhouse chains.

A spokesperson for the Consumer Federation of America said, “This is something that's been coming along. It's not an overnight problem.” Her group, along with others, wrote the Secretary of Agriculture back in June saying,

“The USDA has been looking at this for a long time. . . . People have proposed ways to address it and nothing was done about it in the Clinton administration, the Bush administration and now the Obama administration.”

Now let’s switch from steaks to hamburger. You’ve probably got a bottle of ammonia sitting under your kitchen sink. It can do wonders for your floors. But did you know it’s great for keeping hamburger healthy? A New York Times article begins,

“Eight years ago, federal officials were struggling to remove potentially deadly E. coli from hamburgers when an entrepreneurial company from South Dakota came up with a novel idea: injecting beef with ammonia.

“The company, Beef Products Inc., had been looking to expand into the hamburger business with a product made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil. The trimmings were particularly susceptible to contamination, but a study commissioned by the company showed that the ammonia process would kill E. coli as well as salmonella.”

The USDA was so excited by this solitary finding that they exempted privately held BPI from normal testing of such hamburger extending products. The company grew rapidly, becoming a principal supplier of filler, which later becomes mixed with real hamburger, to McDonald’s, Burger King, big grocery chains–and many school districts. It’s estimated this hamburger helper shaves as much as three cents a pound off the end product–significant if you’re dealing in many millions of pounds.

But, believe it or not, the magic ammonia-burgers have run in to problems. Responding to customer complaints about odor and acid flavor at the dosages certified in the study, BPI has been experimenting with lower doses of ammonia–which are proving not always reliable in purging the pathogens. E. coli and salmonella were found dozens of times in sample testing of BPI’s ammonia-treated product.

They used to say the packinghouses utilized “everything but the squeal.” But that didn’t mean everything was destined for human consumption. It took more greed than even the old Armour family manifested to shift product from dog food to hamburger. I’m going to be eating a lot more free range organic eggs–cooked over, well.

Danger: Congress Returns Tomorrow
Congress takes a little longer holiday break than you and I and will resume their debilitations tomorrow. That’s generally bad news and this time worse than usual. It seems all but certain that the Senate version of health insurance “reform”–perhaps minus a few of the more outrageous horse trades–will become the law of the land. The final line drawn in the ever drifting sands by our labor leaders is “please don’t tax our benefits.”

Also up is a bill designed to sweeten the pot for employers if they create jobs and a cap-and-trade bill to issue free permits to pollute to the worst offenders. And, of course, there is no doubt that congress will fund the escalation in Afghanistan/Pakistan.

Too bad they couldn’t extend their vacation a bit more. I’d be happy if they took a sabbatical.

Dennis Brutus
This remarkable poet, anti-apartheid activist, and all around decent human being passed away during our break. Classified as “colored” in the South Africa he grew up in, his writings were banned and he was arrested more than once. He once got a cell that had earlier accommodated Gandhi, and later was in a cell next to Mandela. After his release from prison he went in to exile, first in Britain, and then for more than a decade in the USA. You can read a tribute from his South African colleagues by clicking

Lost Fruit of Labor
At the airport you used to be able to easily spot those returning from Hawaii. They were always decked out in colorful shirts–and carrying a super-size pineapple. Now we’ll have to rely on just the eye-popping threads.

The last pineapple at the last major Hawaiian plantation has been picked. According to AP, the Maui Land and Pineapple Co. shut down its century-old agricultural operation just before Christmas to focus on real estate development.

Does that mean I’ll be deprived of my favorite cake–pineapple upside down? Only if I’m concerned about a greatly expanded carbon footprint--along with heightened labor exploitation for this treat. Agribusiness is replacing the largely unionized operations in our fiftieth state with much cheaper labor in the Philippines.

Meanwhile Back In the Office
I shouldn’t have slept in til 5:30 every morning during my two week break and a blizzard didn’t help. I didn’t come close to accomplishing all my catch-up goals. Some progress was made in updating long neglected resource pages on this site. Our
union, environmental, and organizing pages are newly edited. Some out of date pages now display “under construction” notices as we continue to update. A few seldom used ones have been archived. We will peck away at our stack of “needs reply” e-mail messages–including many new welcome ones received after our year-end review.

This morning we resumed our postings on the Daily Labor News Digest, updated by 7AM Central, Monday-Friday.

That’s all for this week.

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