Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
February 16, 2009

A Tsunami Of Fire
Fires of a seldom seen size, speed, and intensity destroyed over 1.2 million acres of wild forest known as the Bush in the southeast Australian state of Victoria. Huge walls of fire finally were contained just short of the suburbs of Melbourne. More than 200 humans, and an estimated million wild animals, perished in the firestorms that overtook people fleeing in cars.

The headlines have labeled the fires arson, and the Australian Prime Minister blamed the calamity on “mass murderers.” It’s possible one or two of the fires may have been intentionally set but most were apparently ignited by natural or accidental sources. Of course, arsonists should be taken in to custody where they can do no more harm. But human culpability for this catastrophe is not restricted to criminals and psychotics with matches.

The decade long drought that left the Bush tinder dry; the heat wave reaching 117 degrees Fahrenheit; the sixty miles-per-hour winds; that stoked this conflagration are linked to global warming. Scientists had in fact predicted such events. The Australian government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization issued a report in 2007 that projected these impacts of global warming on their continent:

“Climate change would likely mean less rain, but rainfalls that did occur would be more intense. Drought in the south [which includes Victoria] — the wheat-, sheep- and cattle-growing food belt — would be more frequent and fires more common. Cyclones that are a regular feature of the summer months [coinciding with winter in the northern hemisphere] in the north would hit harder.”

At the same time as the horrible fires in Victoria, sixty percent of the northeastern Queensland state was covered by flood waters after weeks of drenching rain from a dying offshore cyclone. Three thousand homes were damaged. The projections of the scientists are becoming reality much more quickly than they imagined less than two years ago.

The Australian P.M. came to power last year largely as a result of opposing his predecessor’s global warming denial. But while the new government acknowledges the problem their goal of reducing carbon emissions by five percent over the next eleven years will fall far short of any meaningful impact on climate change.

Prime Minister Rudd’s “honeymoon” has proven to be short-lived. The United Firefighters Union of Australia said in an open letter,

“Given the federal government's dismal greenhouse gas emissions cut of 5 percent, the science suggests we are well on the way to guaranteeing that somewhere in the country there will be an almost annual repeat of the recent disaster....Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk.”

Senator Bob Brown, of the Australian Greens Party, said,

“It's a sobering reminder of the need for this nation and the whole world to act and to put at a priority our need to tackle climate change in a way that politicians have simply been unable or refused to do in past decades.”

As Senator Brown notes, Australia is not alone; the whole world must act. Every continent is being affected by climate change and Australia after all is a relatively small player in the total greenhouse picture.

In reporting on the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science a Washington Post article opened,

“The pace of global warming is likely to be much faster than recent predictions, because industrial greenhouse gas emissions have increased more quickly than expected and higher temperatures are triggering self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms in global ecosystems, scientists said Saturday.”

The same story quotes Christopher Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University,

“We are basically looking now at a future climate that's beyond anything we've considered seriously in climate model simulations.”

The American scientist James Hansen, the first to warn congress about global warming, has an article in the British Observer entitled, Coal-fired power stations are death factories--Close them. It is a follow up to previous letters he sent to government leaders such as Britain’s Brown, Germany’s Merkel, Australia’s Rudd, and, most recently, Barrack Obama. He says,

“Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet. The climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear and there is a potential for explosive changes, effects that would be irreversible, if we do not rapidly slow fossil-fuel emissions over the next few decades.”

Despite Hansen’s stature as one of the greatest scientists of our times, his reasoned, though growingly impatient appeals are unlikely to move the men and women in power. That’s where ordinary folks like you and me–who do the work, pay most of the taxes--come in. We need to watch Jim Hansen’s back, and, following the example of the Australian Firefighters, use our brain and muscle to put a stop to killing off life on our planet.

The UAW’s New Line In the Sand
By the time you read this there may be a new agreement between the UAW and the Big Three automakers. Union negotiators had broken off talks with GM over the weekend asserting that the company was exceeding the concessions spelled out in the government’s loan term agreements regarding VEBA.

When VEBA, meant to assure long term funding of retiree healthcare, was first adopted as part of the 2007 contracts with the Big Three UAW president Gettlefinger assured his members that GM’s commitment could be counted on for “eighty years.” His estimate was only off the mark by about 79 years. A condition of the government bridge loans he helped his management “partners” beg for requires that the union agree to accepting worthless stock instead of cash for about half of the company obligations. That is what the negotiators were fighting to defend.

As this is written, talks have resumed and President Obama has chosen an Auto Committee, instead of an expected czar, to oversee industry restructuring.

Of course, there would be no need for VEBA, or paycheck deductions for healthcare–long the most contentious issues in U.S. collective bargaining--if we had a Canadian style single-payer system. But in a speech at the National Press Club last week AFL-CIO president John Sweeney brushed aside this alternative–endorsed by hundreds of union bodies, including the UAW. Instead brother Sweeney gave full support to President Obama’s approach to healthcare “reform.” The semi-official press story opened,

“The AFL-CIO favors a mixed public-private universal health care system, with government, business and individuals all sharing in its costs and with strong cost controls, including a government-run insurance alternative to keep the private insurance industry honest, federation President John Sweeney said.”

The Great Pretender
The SEIU leadership has long disguised themselves as a dynamic, progressive union even as they “organize” through sweetheart agreements with corporations and pay to play deals with state legislatures. Now some of them are impersonating Registered Nurses as they seek to organize a hostile takeover of their archrival, the California Nurses Association. According to CNA, “Elements of the multimedia campaign include the creation of a false ‘RN’ group titled ‘RNs for Change’ with a fake website, e-mail address, and 800-phone number. All it was missing was actual RNs.” You can get details on the CNA site by clicking

The Great Mirage
The median net worth of American households increased by a seemingly healthy 17 percent between the end of 2004 and the end of 2007. But, as a New York Times story puts it, it was a “great mirage,” soon dispersed by collapsing real estate and stock market values. The Federal Reserve now estimates that the median family was 3.2 percent poorer as of October 2008 than it was at the end of 2004.

Partnering With Labor Notes
Labor Notes is in the process of putting together some regional conferences on the economic crisis. They contacted us about cross-endorsing those events and the conference this website is sponsoring in Kansas City April 3-4. We are, of course, pleased to partner with LN. There will be an announcement of these conferences in the March issue of Labor Notes and we’ll pass along the information too.

We’ll be on the road from Friday-Monday and won’t be updating the Daily Labor News Digest during that period. We may be a little late with the next Week In Review as well.

That’s all for this week.

 New Crises, New Agendas
Save Jobs, Save the Planet
Kansas City, April 3-4
Click for conference site
Hosted by KC Labor, marking nine years online
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