Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
May 2, 2010

A Rare Strike Victory
Sometimes we have to stretch to find some “good” news in these reviews. When I saw the settlement terms for the 1500 nurses, professionals and technical employees at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia--members of National Nurses United who had been on strike for 28 days--I knew there was no need to blow smoke. This is a solid victory for them, and our side, that merits pride and joy. Apparently that was also the opinion of the ranks who approved the new contract 1045 to 30.

This happy conclusion did not come easily. The employer’s “last, best and final” pre-strike offer was full of substantial and even humiliating take-away demands. Hundreds of professional scabs were contracted to immediately replace the strikers. (The union estimates Temple spent about seven million dollars a week on 850 strikebreakers compared to normal labor costs of 2.6 million for the 1500 strikers.) It could have easily have taken the all too familiar pattern in American collective bargaining of either forcing the union to accept gut-wrenching concessions–or breaking the union altogether.

In the April 4 Week In Review I wrote,

“Many union leaders facing similar attacks tell their members ‘in these times this is the best we can do,’ and press for ratification of take-aways. But Temple is learning they are not dealing with a typical union. During the months of fruitless negotiations the union was also preparing for a show down fight–not only among their own members but also building support among Temple students, other unions, community groups, and elected officials. If you want to see a model of how a strike should be organized check out Temple Watch.

I wish all my predictions were so validated. The Temple bosses were put on the defensive from day one and by day twenty-eight had to abandon their demands for a gag-rule against any public criticism; elimination of the union shop; different contract expiration dates for the RNs and other professional/technical union members. And they had to restore–and make whole–the employees' dependent tuition benefit, which Temple illegally discontinued last spring. Wage and health insurance differences were also satisfactorily resolved.

Hats off to the Professional Association of Nurses and Allied Professionals, NNU at Temple!

More Blood For Coal
Alliance’s Dotiki Mine near Providence, Kentucky, where two miners were crushed to death Wednesday night, had been cited six times this year just for using too few supporting bolts in the roof. Roof bolts are metal rods drilled into overhead rock layers to help prevent roof falls. According to the citations, inspectors allowed the mine sections to reopen after additional roof bolts were inserted in each of the locations. Apparently remediation of penny-pinching came too late for Justin Travis, 27, and Michael Carter, 28.

Dotiki Mine ranks seventh in the U.S. by the number of “significant and substantial” violations accrued since January 2009, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data. The operation has collected 321 citations, 35 percent more than Upper Big Branch where 29 miners were recently killed in an explosion

Congress “strengthened” mine safety laws in 2006 after several high profile deadly coal mine accidents. A Business Week story notes,

“While the new law did result in more citations and higher fines, the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2007 added 10 criteria that inspectors had to meet before a mine could be shut down for a ‘pattern of violations,’ said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA official who is now an attorney working on mine safety cases in Lexington, Kentucky.

“Only one mine has ever been ordered closed for a pattern of violations, according to a Labor Department report given to President Barack Obama on April 15. That order, issued in November 2008 to a Patriot Mining LLC mine in Virginia, was revoked when one of the violation findings was withdrawn, the report said. ‘There should have been hundreds’ of mines closed’, Oppegard said. ‘For substantial periods of time, MSHA has been anti-regulation, anti-miner and pro-industry.’”

While onsite inspectors are not always as cozy with the operators as their political appointee bosses, the backlog of challenges to their citations at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission has grown to more than 16,000 today from fewer than 1,500 before the “tougher” law was passed.

Egging Me On At Breakfast
My wife Mary has become an expert at winding me up at the breakfast table with such innocent sounding provocations as asking me this morning what I think of a Guest Worker program. I’m sure she was not surprised at my response–it’s simply another name for indentured servitude. When workers are at risk of immediate deportation as well as discharge if they displease the boss they tend to remain quiescent.

I suspect she was also not shocked at my reply to a follow up question, what would be a fair immigration policy? I think it would be fair to place the same restrictions on workers moving across borders as apply to the movement of capital between countries. Under NAFTA, CAFTA, and all the other TAs of the globalization stage of capitalism that would be zero. It hardly seems fair to me for American bosses and their government to wreck industries and agriculture in places such as Mexico and then treat displaced workers and peasants seeking a living here like criminals.

That’s essentially Mary’s view as well. What sparked this devil’s advocacy was the big May Day demonstrations in a number of cities focusing on immigrant worker defense--and especially the new Gestapo law in Arizona. While still much smaller than the gigantic actions four years ago, they exceeded most organizer’s expectations. Chicago, for example, turned out about 20,000 marchers with significant union contingents from UFCW, Teamsters Locals 705 and 743, Unite Here, SEIU, Workers United/SEIU, UE, and the Laborers.

The Area Can Only Sustain So Many Environmental Insults’
So says Dr Alexander Kolker, a professor of coastal and wetland science at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, as his region awaits an expected environmental disaster of the first magnitude from a massive oil slick heading their way.

The wetlands of Louisiana have long been shrinking because of levee construction, and ship channel widening and dredging. Their diminished state was a major factor in the storm surge destruction accompanying Hurricane Katrina five years ago. Now much more of this natural buffer, also rich in both protected and commercially exploited wildlife, is sure to be lost–likely for at least generations, maybe forever.

While the coast from Louisiana to the Florida pan handle will be the first victim many scientists fear the still growing slick could become caught up in the Gulf Stream current, taking it right around Florida and up the Atlantic seaboard of the USA.

How did this out of control devastation happen? When BP--the original multinational oil giant, founded as Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1909–applied for their permit last year to drill with Deepwater Horizon, they told their friends at the federal Minerals Management Service it was “unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities.” They further reassured, “due to the distance to shore [41 miles] and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.”

Despite one of the worst records of safety and environmental damage among oil giants, the Obama administration regulators took this for good coin and told BP go ahead, drill baby, drill.

When the explosion/fire killed eleven and seriously injured seventeen workers on April 20, BP assured everyone there was no danger that the massive, now evacuated and burning platform would be lost. But the ultra-deepwater, dynamic positioned, column-stabilized, semi-submersible drilling rig, with a list price of about 700 million dollars, soon capsized and sank.

On day three of the disaster, a Coast Guard brass spokesperson told CBS News there was absolutely no oil leakage. Soon, BP acknowledged it might be leaking a little bit, maybe a 1,000 barrels (44 U.S. gallons to the barrel) a day. But satellite photographs of the rapidly growing surface slick made such low-balling untenable. NOAA said that the rate was probably five times that and more recent estimates from academic sources put the loss as high as 10,000 barrels a day–perhaps increasing.

As late as Friday, BP was saying they did not know the cause of the explosion. On a Sunday morning talk show, BP’s CEO said it was due to a “a failed piece of equipment.” It seems more likely the cause was more similar to the greatest peacetime oil spill in history–Pemex’s Ixtoc I, also an exploratory drill in the Gulf of Mexico.

That catastrophe, which lasted from June 3, 1979 til March 23, 1980, was caused by a loss of “mud” used on the drill to maintain pressure balances while drilling at extreme depths. The mud loss allowed both crude oil and highly volatile methane to blow out on the platform leading to explosion/fire. That accident leaked 10-30,000 barrels a day for months. While there was significant damage to Mexican and Texas shoreline greater disaster was averted only because that leak was 600 miles offshore–not 41.

Whether or not there was as yet unspecified “equipment failure,” there certainly was an equipment absence. Had this platform been in Norwegian waters it would have had a fail-safe acoustic switch to automatically cap the shaft. But such onerous burdens–costing a few hundred thousand dollars–are not imposed on companies drilling in U.S. territory.

BP is telling everyone they will pick up the financial cost of the mess they have made. We remember the same assurances from Exxon at the time of the Valdez disaster in Sarah Palin’s home state. Exxon compounded the ecological damage by also poisoning the workers hired to clean it up. They resisted all legal claims from that, as well as those who lost livelihoods, and got a jury award greatly reduced.

President Obama has said that BP by law must pay the cost of clean up. That’s true–as far as it goes. But the same law limits BP’s legal liability for claims of economic loss. Any government assistance to the likely devastated fishing and tourist industries will mainly come from tax payer dollars. Nor will any of us be compensated by anyone for sky-rocketing fuel and sea food prices that are sure to come.

While new applications for offshore drilling permits have been temporarily put on hold don’t expect the practice to be curtailed–regardless of the scope of the present ecological and economic mayhem. Since the most notorious accident off U.S. shores–100,000 barrels on the beach of Santa Barbara, California in 1969--U.S. demand for oil has increased 35 percent while, even with the opening of huge drilling operations in Alaska, domestic oil production has decreased by about the same percentage during that time.

That burning of oil that is contributing to climate change also demands more extreme–and dangerous–sites and methods for obtaining ever more of the stuff. This means more, perhaps even bigger, disasters are inevitable.

Oil is the richest of all major industries. Last year BP was fourth among the world’s corporations in revenue. (The three ahead of them were Wal-Mart, Exxon-Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell.) They are players in American politics and “partners” with the United Steelworkers. That’s why both boss parties demand that expanded drilling offshore, and other areas long verboten, must be incorporated in new energy/climate legislation–right along side “clean coal,” and nukes.

The only acceptable alternative to following this path of guaranteed destruction is for society to take control by nationalizing the energy industry, operating it under management of scientists and workers, as we transition to clean, renewable energy sources.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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