Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
July 21, 2009

Delays Unanticipated and Expected
Our old house was besieged for several days by platoons of roofers, carpenters, and painters taking longer than expected to do some necessary repairs. Unfortunately, their efforts greatly reduced the time I could spend in my little attic office putting me farther behind than ever on many projects, including the Week In Review.

I may as well say now that we’ll be late with the next WIR as well. In the predawn Friday my wife Mary and I will be heading to Minneapolis to attend, and report on, events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 1934 Teamsters strike (see links below). Mary will be getting some taped material to use on the Heartland Labor Forum radio show and I will be doing an online spread. Look for the next WIR next Wednesday.

From Basra To Paktika To USAJobs
The Brits pulled out of Basra months ago, handing it over to the Baghdad regime. Since then it has been praised as one of the most peaceful areas in Iraq. Last Thursday three Minnesota National Guardsmen became the first GIs to die in combat in Iraq since the beginning of “withdrawal” June 30. They were killed when rockets hit their base near the oil center of Basra.

Oil worker unionists in the area are also threatened with arrest and violence by Baghdad’s determination to enforce Saddam Hussein’s laws--maintained by both the occupiers and the new regime--banning unions in the public sector. Even though greatly damaged by decades of wars, sanctions, and occupation, oil exports are still by far the biggest component of Iraq’s GDP. The Baghdad rulers are trying to cut deals with American, British, and French oil giants to sell development rights for the world’s third biggest proven oil reserves for a song. They see the unions as an obstacle to this betrayal.

While Baghdad dominates Basra, oil reserves in the north are being hotly contested by the Kurds. Last week Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told the Washington Post that the autonomous Kurdish region and the Iraqi government are “closer to war than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.”

Shifting from the war that is supposed to be winding down to one being quickly escalated:

In a strange twist of deja vu it seems the Russians and their helicopters are back on the scene in a big way in Afghanistan. Over the past week two of many Soviet era-built helicopters, now operated by Russian, Moldovan and Ukranian contractors, went down in separate incidents. One was shot down while taking supplies to a remote British outpost. Reuters reports, “NATO troops in Afghanistan rely heavily on air craft from the former Soviet Union for cargo and transport flights in a country where travel by road is often difficult.”

Only after film of him was posted on the Internet did the Army acknowledge the Taliban had apparently captured their first U.S. prisoner weeks ago--Private Bowe Bergdahl, a Ketchum, Idaho native serving with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in the Afghan province of Paktika.

Afghan prisoners taken by American forces have not fared well. Bush/Cheney early on declared the “war on terror” would not be pursued according to rules of the Geneva conventions. The whole world knows the inhumane conditions at U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, and some third country contractors--including even torture. As many of us have argued from the beginning, these actions are not only morally reprehensible–they put GIs at risk when the other side inevitably takes prisoners.

We sincerely hope the Taliban will follow international law in their treatment of Private Bergdahl. To facilitate fair treatment of captive GIs Washington and London should immediately renounce the illegal “war on terror” rules and pledge to abide by Geneva.

Of course, the best way to guarantee the safety of Americans in uniform remains--bring them all home, right now, where they belong. Instead, the Obama administration is increasing the size of the Army by 22,000. Defense Secretary Gates–held over from the Bush/Cheney war on terror–explained, “The Army faces a period where its ability to deploy combat units at acceptable fill rates is at risk.”

Perhaps this can be billed as part of the stimulus. There’s sure to be at least 22,000 unemployed youth who will be ready to say, like Brecht’s song, “let’s all go barmy and join the Army.”

Taking Their Stand Sitting Down
In an article on sit-down occupations of French plants the New York Times noted, “First the bosses were taken hostage. Now, workers facing layoffs in France have threatened — twice this week — to blow up their factories unless they receive more severance pay. Although the threats have so far turned out to be less than serious, the theatrics are increasing the level of labor tension as the economy shrinks.”

While some may be disappointed to see these struggles settled without fireworks the workers understand that destroying plants would not only be bad publicity but would also preclude ever going back to work there. The key to their strategy was hanging on to the plants in defiance of the most sacred right in a Free Enterprise society–property rights of the owners.

During the brief wave of sit-downs in rubber, auto, meat packing and other industries that helped build the CIO in the 1930s, the workers inside took great pains to keep the plants maintained and clean. They warned that damage would come only if the cops or National Guard tried to violently expel them. In almost every case the workers won their demands. That’s why the Supreme Court ruled them illegal and few unions have challenged that decision made more than seventy years ago. One that did, and won, was the UE at Republic Windows in Chicago earlier this year.

The French have not been alone in reviving the sit-down. There have been some in Britain and Ireland as well. This morning there is a new report with a fresh twist in England. 25 workers barricaded themselves in the office of a Vestas wind turbine factory threatened with closure, and loss of 525 jobs, on the Isle of Wight. Unlike the auto industry plants where most other sit-downs have taken place, the demand for wind turbines makes it a growth industry. Danish-based Vestas, the biggest turbine maker, is highly profitable. Last quarter they reported a 59 percent increase in sales, earning a billion Euros. The workers suspect the company will transfer their work to lower wage areas.

200 Vestas workers have camped outside the plant and have been providing food to those inside. They were promptly joined by activists of the Campaign Against Climate Change who issued a statement,

“We give the workers our full support. The government should take over the plant and restart production and if there currently is not enough demand for wind turbines, then it should build more wind farms itself.”

We could use a few more unions and environmental groups such as these on this side of the Atlantic.

A Rare Audience
The top leaders of the U.S. labor movement remind me of the label on old RCA Victor phonograph records. You may be too young to share my memory of this little piece of trivia Americana. It showed a very pleased dog sitting next to the record player speaker with a line beneath reading “His Master’s Voice.” That perfectly captures their attitude whenever their friend in the White House speaks.

But on July 13 thirteen carefully vetted union officials were granted a rare audience with the President himself where they could actually speak. Dave Bonior and Labor Secretary Solis, were on hand to moderate this 45 minutes of history.

Their post-meeting statement declared,

“We spoke with a unified voice today to the president as we discussed progress on issues that are so important to working families, including the 16 million working Americans in our unions...We are working hard with Congress and the president to win health care for every American. We support a robust quality public plan option...We also talked about the Employee Free Choice Act, which will restore the middle class by giving workers the choice to bargain, not borrow, their way to a better life. We look forward to its passage....”

There was much smiling and nodding by the commander-in-chief on these bold issues as well as their praise for the 787 billion dollar stimulus. But they perhaps pushed their luck by suggesting more was needed. As semi-official reporter Mark Gruenberg acknowledged, “Obama, however, is cool to a second stimulus, as are many congressional Democrats. He says the first one needs time to work and show its results.”

Is this group, which styles itself the National Labor Coordinating Committee, really the “single voice of labor?” Unfortunately, uncritical support to the Democrats does seem to have unanimous consent among all the upper echelons. But beyond that rivalries old and new guarantee there will be no unified voice among our labor statespersons. For an examination of these divisions I highly recommend a new article by Jane Slaughter, posted on the Labor Notes site, Has Andy Stern Reunited Labor?

In the week since this historic White House gathering everyone, except for the People’s Weekly World, has had to acknowledge that any EFCA bill will be minus its two key elements–card check and first contract arbitration.

In Brief...
¶ For a good update of where things stand on health care reform check out a summary with a provocative title by CNA executive director Rose Ann DeMoro,
Go Ahead, Tax those Benefits.
¶ The Delphi bankruptcy has not only cost a lot of jobs, and reduced wages and benefits for those still working–it may well leave behind a big environmental mess for others to clean up. For example, three abandoned sites in Saginaw County, Michigan with serious pollution residue might have to be taken care of by the depressed state.
¶ Heavy rain runoff prior to the Memorial Day weekend produced dangerous levels of E-coli in the Lake of the Ozarks–a very popular resort area. Though the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was aware of the readings they declined to release the information to the public. They explained their silence, “Business and tourism was a consideration. We didn’t want to panic the people.”

As usual, much of the material for this column was based on stories we posted on the Daily Labor News Digest, updated by 7AM Central, Monday-Friday.

That’s all for this week.

A Weekend Of Celebration Of the 75th Anniversary
Minneapolis Truck Strike
fight2 by One Day In Julyteargas by One Day In Julyfuneral by One Day In Julybutton by One Day In July
Saturday, July 25, 2-10PM
One Day In July—A Street Festival For the Working Class

Sunday, July 26, Noon to Five
Picnic, Speakers, Historical Displays, Food, Games


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