Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
April 6, 2009

Back To Routine–We Hope
We resumed our updates of the
Daily Labor News Digest this morning. We may possibly be a bit late with tomorrow’s update depending on how soon our web host completes scheduled server maintenance downtime. We also hope that CWA can win an acceptable agreement and that there will be no disruption in our AT&T DSL service.

We had taken a few days off from updating the site to prepare for the New Crises, New Agendas conference held this past weekend. We’ll have an article on the conference up soon. The two most common comments I heard from folks were that the eleven hours of sessions went by too quick and that there should have been more people there. I would have to agree with both.

Most of the conference was audio and/or video recorded. Stuart Elliott from Kansas Workbeat, and Mary Erio, took lots of photos. We will eventually post texts of presentations if available, and recorded versions of most everything else.

Because of a schedule crunch my remarks on the lessons of the economic mobilization during World War II were somewhat reduced. I promised conference participants the prepared text would be posted right away and you can view it by clicking here.

Stuart Elliott has posted his photos online which can be seen here.

Longer Fuse Only Delays Explosion
The usually perceptive Steven Greenhouse had an interesting article in the Sunday New York Times entitled “In America, Labor Has an Unusually Long Fuse.” He begins reviewing recent working class actions in Europe–the 35,000-strong march against the G20 summit; much more massive strikes and demonstrations in France, supplemented by taking bosses hostage in the face of plant closings; plant occupations in Ireland, including occupied Belfast; 15,000 angry German workers protesting at GM’s European headquarters. He could have added even Canadian autoworkers have held sit-downs. If you follow our Daily Labor News Digest you know all about these actions and more.

Then Greenhouse goes on to say,

“The country of Mother Jones, John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther certainly has had a rich and sometimes militant history of labor protest — from the Homestead Steel Works strike against Andrew Carnegie in 1892 to the auto workers’ sit-down strikes of the 1930s and the 67-day walkout by 400,000 G.M. workers in 1970.

“But in recent decades, American workers have increasingly steered clear of such militancy, for reasons that range from fear of having their jobs shipped overseas to their self-image as full-fledged members of the middle class, with all its trappings and aspirations.”

Greenhouse quotes some professors about the rugged individualist streak that American workers purportedly possess. He also spoke with the well known militant Jerry Tucker who observed,

“You have a general diminution of union leadership that was focused on defending workers by any means necessary. The message from the union leadership nowadays often is, ‘We don’t have any choice, we have to go down this concessionary road to see if we can do damage control.’”

Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, son of a Canadian socialist, was another expert Greenhouse consulted,

“Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, said there were smarter things to do than demonstrating against layoffs — for instance, pushing Congress and the states to make sure the stimulus plan creates the maximum number of jobs in the United States. ‘I actually believe that Americans believe in their political system more than workers do in other parts of the world,’ Mr. Gerard said.”

This assertion is only partially correct. There is in fact a deep running cynicism about politics. Typically, about half the working class doesn’t participate in the political process even by voting. But it is true that the mainstream labor statespersons–among whom Gerard would be considered “left”–have done a thorough job in extinguishing any vision of the working class advancing our own agenda in the political arena.

Of course, you don’t demonstrate against “partners” in the workplace and certainly not against “friends” in government. You try to help your employer partner beat all competition, domestic but especially foreign, and you watch the backs of your friends in Washington, hoping some day to see sixty friends in the Senate. Last December SEIU president Andy Stern said in The Nation that labor’s task was “to make sure that what the President wants to get done, gets done.”

I have to admit that I have been wrong about some of my predictions about President Obama. Writing in last December 21 Week In Review about conditions attached to the emergency bridge loans Bush granted GM and Chrysler I said, “Since the measures are so draconian, Obama may very well make a gesture of alleviating some.” Man was I wrong about that.

What this President “wants to get done” in auto is far harsher than anything Bush suggested. The auto task force, headed de facto by private equity mogul Steven Rattner, envisions a General Motors shrunk to just Chevrolet and Cadillac. They are frankly dubious about Chrysler’s viability and won’t palaver with them further unless they bring in Fiat to take charge. The gut wrenching cuts in wages, working conditions, health and pension benefits demanded from the UAW for both active and retired members will likely still be insufficient to meet Rattner’s goals--meaning bankruptcy and a complete rewrite of the contract starting from scratch.

This is the result of the “smart” alternative of relying on friends in the political process rather than the exuberant antics of the Europeans and Canadians demonstrating in the streets and occupying plants. Well, brothers Gerard, Stern, and Gettelfinger, I’d like to know why if you’re so smart we’re so poor?

You’ve kept the fuse long. But eventually it will ignite a mighty explosion. I’d suggest our leaders not be standing too close to their partners and friends when this working class finally erupts.

Keeping Health A Private Matter
My wife Mary watched a PBS Frontline special last year where Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid did a pretty good job at comparing healthcare systems in five different countries–Britain, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, and Switzerland. While there were many differences they all had three things in common. They spent a lot less of their national wealth on healthcare than the U.S.; they had better health results than the U.S.; and none permitted for profit insurance companies to control access to healthcare.

When Mary heard Frontline was showing another segment with Reid comparing different setups in the USA she tuned in. She was disappointed. The clear message from Reid’s earlier work–keep for profit insurance out of basic healthcare–seemed muted. There was in fact a pitch for the insurance robber barons included in the show.

Only later did we learn that a furious Reid disowned the documentary, altered after it had been completed. Welcome to the real world of “public” television.

An openly commercial network, CBS, showed far more integrity with a Sixty Minutes segment The Recession's Impact: Closing The Clinic. It’s about the shutting down of the cancer outpatient clinic at Nevada’s only public hospital because of the budget crisis. Most of the patients were “middle class” workers who had lost their jobs and health insurance. For many it is literally a death sentence.

In California a half-million have lost health insurance since the beginning of the recession.

The last of President Obama’s Regional Forums on Health Care is being held today in Los Angeles. Substantial numbers of members from the thirty area unions that have endorsed the Labor for Single-Payer Campaign will be outside demanding healthcare as a right.

The campaign is also setting a national day of action, calling on all supporters to join in local events supporting a "Medicare for All" solution on May 30 while many Members of Congress will be in their home districts.

Life After Harvard
After President Obama’s chief economic adviser was none too gently nudged out of his post as president of Harvard he spent the last two years in New York on what he has described as part-time work in the hedge segment of the financial sector. Larry Summers’ earnings advising investment strategies for DE Shaw & Co. during this time was a measly 5.2 million. In addition he picked up 2.7 million in speaker honoraria.

Contrast this to the poor national security adviser, General James Jones, who had to make do with 900,000 from the Chamber of Commerce, 330,000 from Boeing, and 290,000 from Chevron.

The President’s social secretary, Desiree Rogers, did a little better than the General. She drew more than a million as a president of two gas companies, pocketed 350 grand from Allstate Financial as president of its social-networking division, and another 150,000 in board fees from Equity Residential.

They share our pain.

That’s all for this week.

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