Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 1, 2009

Taking On Capitol Power
Over the years there have been many mass demonstrations at the White House, Capitol, Pentagon, and Supreme Court. On Monday it’s expected–weather permitting--that hundreds, perhaps thousands, will engage in massive, nonviolent civil disobedience–at the Capitol Power Plant.

The plant, a few blocks from the Terror Dome that houses the legislative branch, hasn’t actually supplied electricity to the congressional venue since 1952. But it still manages to be the number one carbon polluter in the District of Columbia as it continues to provide steam heat, and cooled water for air conditioning, for our lawmakers and staff.

What has young folks attending a National Youth Summit in Washington, along with groups such as Greenpeace and Rain Forest Action Coalition, so hot under the collar is the fact it is fueled by what NASA scientist James Hansen calls “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet”–coal. (Hansen plans to be among the protesters as well.)

In 2000, the Architect of the Capitol considered eliminating the use of coal at the plant but a strong reaction from Senators from coal-producing states, led by West Virginia Democrat Byrd and Kentucky Republican McConnell, put the kibosh on that idea. Since then the Architect has referred all questions about the Plant to congressional leaders.

After winning a majority in the 2006 election the new House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, announced a grand plan to “green” the Capitol complex. The Democrats adopted a goal of becoming “the first carbon neutral legislative body in the world.”

But they never got much past changing light bulbs and offering recycled paper in the Congressional Stationery Office. Instead of reducing emissions from the Power Plant Pelosi purchased “carbon offset” indulgences from the Chicago Climate Exchange. Now even that gesture is being dropped. The demonstrators will be calling out the faux green politicians for such hypocrisy.

In motivating his new budget President Obama said,

“We'll be working with Congress on legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy...To support this effort, we'll invest 15 billion dollars a year for 10 years to develop technologies like wind power and solar power, and to build more efficient cars and trucks right here in America.”

Cap-and-trade schemes have been in place in most industrialized countries for sometime–and greenhouse gas emissions have continued to climb. As long as carbon pollution is profitable there can be no market-based solution to global warming. Emissions may become more expensive–with the customers of the polluters picking up the tab at the end–but they will continue their destructive rise.

15 billion a year for new, cleaner energy technology is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed–especially when much of this figure will be diverted to the auto industry to develop marginally more fuel efficient cars, and even to more agribusiness biofuel scams. Sixteen times more money than allocated for renewable energy is set aside in the 2010 budget for additional bailouts of the financial sector. And 15 billion is indeed paltry compared to Pentagon spending, up four percent to 633 billion for 2010--plus 75.5 billion added on to the current year for Iraq and Afghanistan. And that doesn’t count billions in stimulus money given to the war machine to spruce up their facilities.

Unlike the old, the new administration does not deny global warming. But they resist the emergency conversion of the economy needed to tackle this great challenge and put even their largely symbolic gestures on short rations. Despite all the sound bites about “green jobs,” nothing is in the works for utilizing the failing auto industry, or destructive war industry, or slumping construction industry, in the fight against climate change--while preserving and expanding decent paying union jobs.

We salute those college kids, and dedicated environmentalists, that see through the smoke being blown at us and who demand effective action on climate change before it’s too late. Young people in the past proved to be vital catalysts for the civil rights, antiwar, and modern environmental movements.

But the catalyst has still not yet activated the only force that can bring about needed real change–the working class. The late Tony Mazzocchi was not only the driving force behind the launching of the Labor Party, but was also a pioneer in building labor-environmental alliances. In fact, Tony believed the working class should take the lead on environmental issues, creating what he called a Just Transition movement.

Building such a working class environmental movement as part of the program for dealing with the twin economic and climate change crises, is the central theme of the New Crises, New Agendas conference in Kansas City April 3-4. I hope you will join us in discussing the next steps as we face humanity’s greatest challenge yet.

Opel Ja, GM Nein
Opel has a long history in Germany producing at various times bicycles, sewing machines, rocket planes, and tanks. But since building their first in 1899 its cars they’ve been noted for. In 1929, a few months before the stock market crash, General Motors bought the company as an entry to the European market.

In 1938 GM Vice President James D. Mooney was decorated with the Order of the German Eagle by Adolf Hitler, rewarding his efforts in rebuilding the Wehrmacht. After failing to convince the Allies not to bomb Opel plants making Panzer tanks during World War II GM wrote off Opel as a total loss but later reclaimed ownership in 1948. Today Opel is fourth in sales in Europe, is responsible for design and engineering of the more successful models produced by Saturn in the USA, and just set a new record for January sales.

GM has attempted to use the future of Opel to play hardball with the German government and Opel workers, demanding bail-outs and concessions. The reception in Germany has been somewhat different than America. Thursday 60,000 workers and their families held rowdy stop-work marches and rallies at Opel plants. Some chanted “Yes We Can--Without GM!” The next day they were joined by other Opel workers in Austria, France, Spain and Hungary and the Vauxhall British division. The leader of German Social-Democrats, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who could become chancellor after elections later this year, said,

“GM has long earned good money with Opel. It would be obscene were they now to throw away European factories like a squeezed-out lemon.”

Lofty and Vague
That’s how the Washington healthcare “conversation” could be characterized so far.

“We have to transform the system...There’s a huge opportunity.”

That wasn’t President Obama speaking. The words are those of Ronald A. Williams, Aetna’s CEO.

The top dog at United Healthcare chipped in he was “open to reform.” To help prepare for reform he had paid Tom Daschle–who had been Obama’s first pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services–5,000 dollars for advice on a strategic plan.

Even the healthcare robber barons are feeling the impact of the economic crisis as millions lose their employer provided insurance. Aetna’s earnings were down 24 percent to a measly 1.4 billion. United suffered even more–earnings plummeted 36 percent though they still had about three billion left at the end of the day. They would very much like to see universal coverage drive millions back in to their fold.

They are ready to talk with Obama who declared, “We can no longer afford to put health care reform on hold.” Details of how to get off hold have been skimpy so far. His budget includes a healthcare “down payment” of 664 billion. The robber barons will be aiming to expropriate as much of this as possible--and they are not likely to be disappointed.

No matter how vague and tenuous the conversation appears at the moment definitely excluded are alternatives such as Britain’s socialized medicine or even Canada’s single-payer system. Those options–and similar ones in every other industrialized country–were won by working class parties. Because we don’t have one of those we will have to take “reforms” acceptable to the likes of United Healthcare and Aetna.

On A Kaiser Roll
A majority of Kaiser Permanente’s 50,000 workers have signed a petition to disaffiliate with United Healthcare Workers West–placed in trusteeship by SEIU’s Andy Stern--and instead join the National Union of Healthcare Workers that emerged from that takeover. This brings the total number of workers petitioning to switch unions to 80,000 though SEIU is claiming a contract bar to decertification in some cases.

That’s all for this week.

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