Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
August 17, 2009

'A Recovery Only a Statistician Can Love'
That was the title of a Washington Post
article by Annys Shin looking at, and deflating, the hype that briefly drove the stock market in to a frenzied surge.

Bob Hebert, writing in a similar vein in the New York Times, picked the headline, A Scary Reality. The usually perceptive Hebert is spot on again with such comments as,

“The American economy does not seem able to provide enough jobs — and nowhere near enough good jobs — to maintain the standard of living that most Americans have come to expect....

“For those concerned with the economic viability of the American family going forward, the plight of young workers, especially young men, is particularly frightening. The percentage of young American men who are actually working is the lowest it has been in the 61 years of record-keeping, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

“Only 65 of every 100 men aged 20 through 24 years old were working on any given day in the first six months of this year. In the age group 25 through 34 years old, traditionally a prime age range for getting married and starting a family, just 81 of 100 men were employed.

“For male teenagers, the numbers were disastrous: only 28 of every 100 males were employed in the 16- through 19-year-old age group. For minority teenagers, forget about it. The numbers are beyond scary; they’re catastrophic.

“This should be the biggest story in the United States. When joblessness reaches these kinds of extremes, it doesn’t just damage individual families; it corrodes entire communities, fosters a sense of hopelessness and leads to disorder.”

There was more “good news/bad news” later in the week. With little capital investment in technology, U.S. worker productivity nonetheless grew in the second quarter at the fastest pace in almost six years while labor costs decreased at a 5.8 percent rate–the biggest drop in eight years.

An explanation of the underlying causes of this stunning change can be found in an excellent article by Labor Note’s Jane Slaughter, Harassment: The Recession’s Hidden Byproduct. Based on surveys and case examples, Slaughter shows how the bosses are using the tanking economy to step up harassment and speed-up on the job. The same trends cited in her unionized examples are hitting the unorganized, even in the financial sector, with even greater force as those “lucky to keep their job” are in fact performing additional work formerly done by those now on the unemployment line. As long as the employers can continue to squeeze more out of present workers they have no need to recall or hire.

There were other reports this past week that undermine all the earlier happy talk about recovery–home foreclosures were up seven percent in July over the previous month, retail sales fell, the number of homeless families seeking shelters has tripled during the recession, consumer confidence is down, back to school shopping has been disappointing and personal bankruptcies are up 34 percent over the past year. 

There was much applause here in Kansas City about the announcement that Ford’s Claycomo plant is boosting production of the Escape SUV because of brisk sales during the Cash for Clunkers. But most of the increase will be accomplished by shifting workers currently building F-150 pickup trucks–not adding workers. Ford is also in negotiations for more UAW give-backs on wages and work rules. 

The UAW was a strong, essential force in getting the Clunkers program started, and then expanded. But UAW members can expect little in the way of additional work. The lion’s share of Clunker sales have gone to Asian-owned car makers who are not unionized in this country--and many of the cars sold by the Big Three were produced in Mexico or Asia. Because all Clunker trade-ins must be crushed--shrinking the used car market--the poor, including many who used to depend on the Big Three, will find used car prices now out of reach. Clunkers was simply another three billion dollar bailout to clean out auto inventories–their version of “toxic assets.” The biggest winners were the bottom lines of the Japanese and Korean companies. 

Neither the capitalist market, nor stimulus incentives, will produce stable, decent paying jobs. We need government intervention on a more fundamental and massive scale. It can’t be the kind of government such as the present that is beholden to the monied elite who continue to prosper during our time of misery. We need a government that serves the interest of working people, one that is prepared to take over the failing sectors of our economy and put them to work on things we need. 

If we don’t start preparing to move in that direction then we will face what Bob Hebert warned of–hopelessness and disorder. We will see some desperate people looking at the so-called “populists” of the far-right for guidance. It’s high time for American workers to organize as a class once more. 

More On Legacy Of Iraq Occupation
It was a special childhood treat when my grandfather occasionally gave me a box, illustrated with a beautiful picture of a camel with a palm tree oasis in the background, labeled “Dromedary Dates, Product of Iraq.”
 

Dates were just one prized product developed where agriculture was born 7,000 years ago. Today, as Timothy Williams reports in the New York Times,  

“The agricultural industry has been particularly damaged during the past few years, a situation perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the country’s once bountiful date orchards. Date palms have been left to die for lack of water, and fungi and pests have ruined thousands of tons of fruit because the country has only three crop-dusting airplanes and three qualified pilots. American military approval is still needed to fly.” 

As recently as twenty years ago, before the unrelenting succession of wars, sanctions, and occupation, Iraq was not only self-sufficient but an exporter of wheat, rice, fruits, vegetables, and sheep and poultry products. Largely state-run industries also produced and exported textiles and leather goods, as well as even a little steel and cement. This modest but important industrial sector is now mostly gone as well. Iraq is dependent on imports of much of its food and nearly all manufactured products–all controlled by the occupiers. 

The U.S. occupation has transformed the Iraqi economy to be solely focused on one product–oil. The government they installed is little more than a comprador for Big Oil. The only significant force standing in the way of the theft of Iraq’s last remaining resource is the embattled union movement. Iraqi unionists will tour cities in the USA next month and will also be guests at the AFL-CIO convention. For more information click here. 

Glad It Didn’t Stay In Vegas
My old friend Peter Rachleff led an important workshop at the recent American Postal Workers Union Postal Press Association Editors Conference in Las Vegas. In an article posted on MRZine, he describes fresh threats set the tone,

“The wolf which has loomed at the APWU's door for years -- plant closings, job losses, disruptive excessing, economic insecurity, to be followed by the wage and benefit cuts and attacks on retirees' benefits which workers in other industries have experienced -- is now huffing and puffing for real. In my workshop, ‘Learning From the Past to Conquer the Challenges of Today,’ we discussed ways to turn this crisis into an opportunity to revitalize the union, to secure its role not only in the workplace and at the bargaining table but also in the community, and to lead the fight to preserve -- if not expand -- public service.” 

Peter continues, 

“Our workshop revolved around three historical moments: (1) the revitalization of unions in the Great Depression era of the 1930s, using the Minneapolis teamsters as an example; (2) the incorporation and weakening of unions in World War II, the late 1940s, and 1950s; and (3) the attack on unions and their members by business's and government's turn to economic ‘neoliberalism’ in the 1980s. We then discussed what we can learn from these historical moments that we can use in this crisis that we face now, so that we can turn it into an opportunity to rebuild the labor movement and redirect society as a whole.” 

He concludes his description of the workshop, 

“We must learn the lessons of the 1934 Minneapolis teamsters -- to make every member an organizer, to build support with other unions, to seek support in the community, and to make clear demands together upon the government. If we want the Postal Service to survive this crisis, if we want our union to survive this crisis, if we want our jobs to survive this crisis, we must turn it into an opportunity to rebuild and revitalize our union. We must once again make the expressions ‘organized’ labor and labor ‘movement’ ring true.” 

To read Peter’s full account of the workshop click here. 

An Unhealthy Mess
The backers of the modest proposal to provide counseling to those about to make tough decisions when end of life may be approaching–what the loony right has called “death panels”–have pulled it off the table because it was “misunderstood.” Apparently these lawmakers didn’t feel confident about explaining such humane attention to our loved ones. What the town hall rowdies crowd will understand is that the liberals will cut and run at the first sign of unpleasantness.
 

Feeling wind in their sails, the behind the scene organizers of the town hall follies decided to come out at a rally in the friendly confines of Atlanta’s Centennial Park on Saturday. A few thousand Tea Party Patriots, and advocates of a theocratic society, were treated to speeches by Dick Armey, former House Majority Leader, an author of the Contract On America, now heading up FreedomWorks, a “watchdog” funded by Verizon, AT&T and others; Ralph Reed who, in better days got on the cover of Time while running the Christian Coalition, now trying to make a comeback with a new group he just founded, the Faith and Freedom Coalition; and Atlanta-area conservative trash talk-radio hosts Joel Aaron and Herman Cain. 

The President, who would avoid the designation liberal, showed he too could quickly give ground. Speaking through his HHS Secretary appearing on CNN Sunday morning it was confirmed that public option, already on the critical care list, would be removed from life support. 

Dr Howard Dean, Democrat Chairman Emeritus, could have benefited from some counseling before the heart of his “prescription for real health care reform” stopped beating. Always slow to get with the program, the good doctor still insists that choice between private and public is “essential.” 

Also sure to be disappointed are the mainstream union leaders, MoveOn.org, The Nation, and various “left” groups who thought they were with the President in a clever end run around the insurance and drug robber barons with a “robust public option.” For the umpteenth time in history they’ve been left by their Democrat “friends” to twist in the wind. 

The one glimmer of hope in all this mess is speculation by semi-official commentator, Mark Gruenberg 

“With one month to go before September’s national AFL-CIO Convention in Pittsburgh, the biggest floor fight there may be over health care. And that floor fight, in turn, could affect the whole health care battle on Capitol Hill and nationally. 

“That’s because while the federation has supported and actively campaigned for legislation based on the principles of universality, cost controls, choosing your own doctor and a government-run alternative to the insurance companies, 552 labor bodies -- from international unions down to local councils -- want to go in a different direction: A government-run single-payer Medicare-like system. 

“So if the AFL-CIO yanks its support for legislation being considered in Congress, and backed by Democratic President Barack Obama, that legislation could sink.” 

That’s all for this week.

 

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