Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 22, 2009

Top Non-Story Of the Week
On Thursday there was another general strike in France. This time a new law required rail and transit workers to stay on the job. This undoubtedly facilitated mobilizing some three million for demonstrations in every city and town across France. (With the difference in population this is equivalent to 15 million in the USA.)

Eagerly, but foolishly, I tuned in to NBC Nightly News to see some video reporting. Nada, not even a single word. The Kansas City Star carried four paragraphs the next morning on page eight.

The French workers took actions around issues similar to those facing American workers. Massive–at least by French standards–layoffs while the government is giving billions to the bankers and bosses. You don’t have to be fluent in French to recognize Goodyear was one of the targets of worker wrath.

The political establishment–which includes the Socialist and Communist parties–is so discredited that the politician now most trusted is a postman, Olivier Besancenot, leader of the recently formed New Anti-Capitalist Party. While hailing the strikes and marches Besancenot said,

“24 hours of strikes and demos are not enough to make the government and employers bend. Only by a prolonged general strike can we make them meet our demands: prohibit layoffs, increase wages, and lower prices.”

Stay tuned.

Healthcare Change I
It’s been a busy week on health care “reform.” First came the announcement of administration intentions to bill veteran’s private insurance plans for treatment of service related health problems. That proved to be a real gutter ball, not even rating a joke on Jay Leno, and the reformers had to beat a hasty retreat.

Still “on the table” is West Wing support for raising taxes--not on the insurance robber barons but the workers in employer brokered plans. The value of such benefits, which employers deduct as business expense, would be counted as taxable income for the worker. This would wipe out the “middle class tax relief” and then some.

Meanwhile the President’s “open, inclusive and transparent” White House Regional Forum on Health Reform road show stopped in Burlington, Vermont. There were nearly as many single-payer supporters demonstrating outside as the 400 invited guests within. Some labor supporters of single-payer, such as UE district president Peter Knowlton, did get a prized invitation–they just never got a chance to speak

The event was moderated by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas. Patrick used the occasion to boast about his state’s “universal healthcare” scam that seeks to drive everyone in to private insurance. Presiding in the style of Oprah and Don Francisco, they avoided known troublemakers that might cloud their transparency. But some innocent looking folks managed to get a spoon of honey in to this barrel of tar. Dr. Deb Richter, a family practitioner from Montpelier, asked the reasonable question,

“Why don't we just say, ‘Everybody in, one system,’ and pay for it through taxes?”

Healthcare Change II
The administration’s shenanigans were predictable. The announcement of a peace pact, and joint organizing effort between SEIU and the California Nurses Association was shocking to us outsiders. We were still trying to absorb CNA’s planned merger with two other nurse organizations to form the United American Nurses-National Nurses Organizing Committee (UAN-NNOC).

Of course, it’s better for SEIU and CNA to cooperate in unionizing the still largely unorganized healthcare industry than to raid one another, sue one another, or engage in physical confrontations, as has been the case in the recent past.

That said, this March surprise raises some serious questions. CNA has long been one of my favorite unions. They have played an exemplary role in organizing nurses not just as dues payers but to mobilize their power in the workplace, community, and politically. They have been the single most important labor component in the fight for single-payer. They have supported US Labor Against the War, the Labor Party, and participated in Labor Notes conferences and schools. There are precious few unions with that kind of resume.

SEIU has a fundamentally different approach to organizing and bargaining and has snuffed out any dissident formations within their ranks. CNA has bravely and correctly exposed and opposed the corporate union approach of SEIU. They have supported cothinkers driven out of SEIU that are forming the National Union of Healthcare Workers. What now happens to the courageous efforts of the NUHW to provide a democratic, adversarial alternative to SEIU? And what can workers becoming new dues payers expect from SEIU?

The terse published truce accord commits to “SEIU and CNA/NNOC publicly endorse measures that allow states to adopt single-payer health care systems.” This is probably a reference to the bill introduced by the “socialist” Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, that would provide money to five states to experiment with single-payer–sort of a ten percent solution. That’s probably the best that can be had from Chairman Andy. Stern has often explicitly rejected national single-payer. Can we rely on the same high level of past commitment to HR676 by CNA to continue?

The answers to these questions will undoubtedly have a major impact on the troubled union movement.

Ignorance Not A Laughing Matter
Derisive laughter is often the first response to polls of American public opinion. A substantial number reject the science of evolution. An even greater number still believe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Evolution will continue despite sectarian spells cast upon it but Bush’s lie about Iraq’s arsenal cost the lives of hundreds of thousands. Nor do I find much mirth in this recent Gallup Poll,

“Although a majority of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is either correctly portrayed in the news or underestimated, a record-high 41% now say it is exaggerated. This represents the highest level of public skepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming seen in more than a decade of Gallup polling on the subject.”

Here are some sample headlines of stories we posted on the Environmental section of our Daily Labor News Digest just over the past ten days: Scientists Issue Six Blunt Warnings on Climate Change; Lord Stern on global warming: It's even worse than I thought; Carbon tax only way to keep planet cool: Hansen; Termite Killer is Potent Greenhouse Gas; Global Warming: Right Here, Right Now; ‘We are facing the worst case scenario’; Climate scientists gather, and the news is not good; Carbon emissions creating acidic oceans not seen since dinosaurs.

Far from exaggeration, all of these stories were either written by top scientists or respected science editors reporting on new studies. They were largely ignored, or buried, by the mass media. I find such articles because I dig for them and then share them online with those who are interested.

So what explains the remarkable increase in skepticism? In my view, it’s a combination of fear of change heightened by the economic crisis and false hope offered by hucksters in slick TV commercials paid for by the American Petroleum Institute, along with the global warming deniers of trash talk radio and cable TV.

Instead of laughing at the working class doubters we have to talk sense to them. We need to convince them of both the imminent danger of the climate change crisis and the possibility that we still have a window of opportunity to save our biosphere through decent jobs in a new green economy.

The best cure for global warming skepticism I can think of would be attending Christine Frank’s presentation at our April 3-4 conference. She tells it like it is in clear language. She takes the edge off doom with a little humor–at the polluter’s expense. And she’s prepared to handle any doubter’s honest questions–or repetition of ignorant assertions. Her talk alone is well worth coming to the event.

EFCA–A Third Way?
There are various reports, some contradictory, in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and on AP, about a compromise being cooked up for the Employee Free Choice Act. It’s supposedly initiated by three “progressive” companies–Costco, Starbucks, and Whole Foods. About twenty percent of Costco workers are Teamsters. The other two have bitterly resisted unionization and have been charged with illegal firings for union activity.

One scenario replaces fifty percent card check recognition with a complex 70-50-30 formula. If seventy percent of workers sign up there would be automatic recognition. Fifty percent would require an “immediate” election. Thirty percent would allow union officials to come on company property to campaign during an election period. The arbitration for a first contract provision in the current version of EFCA would be dropped. Some penalties for both company and union infractions of the law would be stiffened

Coordinating this CEO compromise effort on Capitol Hill is Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton. He claims he’s getting a good response. “This is consistent with President Obama's overall approach of avoiding polarized positions and looking for third-way ideas,” he told the Post.

While the initial reaction of both the unions and Chamber of Commerce is they have no interest in such compromise Arkansas Democrat Senator Mark Pryor, who has been described as “ambivalent” about EFCA, hailed the CEOs initiative. “I appreciate a good-faith effort that could result in a reasonable compromise on what has become a highly polarizing matter.”

No one should be surprised if the administration now puts pressure on union leaders to accept this milk toast crumb as the only reform with a chance in the Senate.

We’re Early For A Change
Because of meeting schedules today, I’ve posted this WIR earlier than usual. I’m only beginning to get reliable reports about antiwar actions held yesterday in Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St Paul, Columbia, and Duluth. But clearly, they were, by far, the smallest nationally called efforts since the Iraq war was launched. The antiwar movement will need some serious discussion about next steps and I will offer some comments next week.

One bright spot on the Iraq scene was the successful International Labor Conference held in Erbil in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. US Labor Against the War issued an initial report on this gathering which you can read by clicking here.

That’s all for this week.

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