May 312013

onaschoutsmall by Bill Onasch

The Confined Space of Affordable Care
Being married to a Certified Industrial Hygienist, I’ve heard a lot of confined space injury stories. Particularly enraging are the easily preventable fatalities resulting from trench collapses. Often working alone, workers untrained, or simply ignoring safety protocols, while digging to lay water and sewer lines can become buried under the dirt they have dug–resulting in an agonizing suffocation.

Except for the working alone part, it’s a good metaphor for the Affordable Care Act, now universally called ObamaCare. Many hands–including, with a few honorable exceptions, nearly all union officials, liberals, and even some calling themselves socialists and communists–dug deep and shoveled much dirt to lay a new health care pipeline as directed by their “friend” in the White House.

Oh some of them complained now and then. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka even drew some lines in the sand they had scooped out. But President Obama, who spent his early years on Hawaii beaches, kicked the silica back in poor Richard’s face. Suitably chastened, Trumka became the lead singer in the chorus praising Affordable Care as the greatest invention since pre-sliced bagels. They even threatened to lead Primary election challenges against any rouge Democrats who didn’t get with the ObamaCare program.

Now three years later, most of the ambiguous features of the Affordable Care Act have been fleshed out and the most substantial changes are about to be implemented. Only now, as it becomes clear that the new pipeline brings not fresh water but the toxic sludge of commodity health care, and recognizing the trench they dug is being filled over our heads, are some labor statespersons showing some too-late twinges of buyer remorse.

UFCW president Joe Hansen recently wrote,

“‘If you already have health insurance through your job — and because many of you are members of unions, you do — nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change your coverage or your doctor. Let me repeat: Nothing in this plan will require you to change your coverage or your doctor.’ Those were the words spoken by President Obama at the AFL-CIO Convention in Pittsburgh on Sept. 15, 2009. Since then, Congress has passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and it has been signed into law. It has withstood a challenge before the Supreme Court. Regulations have been issued, exchanges created, and open enrollment is set to begin in a matter of months. Unfortunately, what also has become increasingly clear with each passing day is that the president’s statement to labor in 2009 is simply not true for millions of workers.”

Hansen focuses on threats to so-called Taft-Hartley non-profit health care plans negotiated directly between unions and employers. In the UFCW, many of the workers in these plans are low-wage and/or part-time. The new law allows all employers to opt-out of insuring part-time workers.

Dianne Stafford wrote in the Kansas City Star,

“Since the Great Recession began, …the proportion of involuntary part-time employment has grown, and there are signs the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — is swelling those ranks as employers prepare to reduce their health-insurance coverage responsibility for full-time employees…. Beginning in 2014, businesses that have more than 50 full-time-equivalent employees must offer their full-time workers access to a qualified health care plan or pay a penalty of $2,000 a person. The health care law defines a full-time employee as anyone working more than 30 hours a week. That is a precedent-setting and low definition of full-time work, a member of the National Federation of Independent Business testified before Congress last month….A study released earlier this year by the University of California-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education estimated that 2.3 million workers nationally, or nearly 2 percent of the workforce, are at greatest risk for having their hours cut to below 30 hours a week.”

Expanding the part-time, no benefits sector of the working class is far from the only game change in store. If you are lucky enough to have a union job with really good benefits be ready to trade in your Cadillac plan for a Vespa. Reed Abelson writes in the New York Times,

“Under the law, an employer or health insurer offering a plan that costs more than $10,200 for an individual and $27,500 for a family would typically pay a 40 percent excise tax on the amount exceeding the threshold….Although the tax does not start until 2018, employers say they have to start now to meet the deadline and they are doing whatever they can to bring down the cost of their plans….the changes are right in line with the administration’s plan: To encourage employers to move away from plans that insulate workers from the cost of care and often lead to excessive procedures and tests, and galvanize employers to try to control ever-increasing medical costs.”

Apparently the President discovered those health insurance plans he promised we could keep actually were being abused by our demands for “excessive procedures and tests.” There’s certainly nothing I love more than a trip to the doctor’s office to be probed, prodded, scanned, and drained of various fluids. ObamaCare and the boss will make us more thrifty, less self-indulgent.

Many bosses didn’t need the threat of ObamaCare to demand higher premiums, deductibles, copays, and prescription charges. These give-backs have become the norm in collective bargaining and fait accompli for the unorganized.

Currently a tentative agreement for what is now the biggest national union contract is being reviewed by UPS Teamsters. Unlike most agreements today there are raises, not wage cuts. But it does include health care changes.

Currently UPS Teamsters pay virtually nothing out of pocket for anything. After some initial posturing, the tentative agreement avoids assessing  premiums but provides for modest out-of-pocket charges for services. Though the TA would maintain a Cadillac plan enjoyed by few others any more, there is understandable widespread opposition to any give-backs to a company earning  record billions in profits. It remains to be seen whether the deal can be sold.

UPS is insistent on these concessions that are relatively insignificant in the overall package because they want to tie in to the general ruling class offensive to shift the cost of health care more directly than ever to the workers. When the new contract expires, if ObamaCare is still in place, even the concessionary plan would be subject to the new forty percent tax. With the no concession barrier already breached the hammer would come down hard in 2018.

Even during the worst of the recession, health care was one industry experiencing consistent job growth. That appears to be changing in response to both ObamaCare in general and reductions in Medicare payments in particular. One example is quasi-public Liberty Hospital in the Kansas City suburb of Liberty, Missouri. They recently laid off 129 staff, including many long service RNs. Their marketing director explained they were “necessary in part because of new federal mandates put forth in the Affordable Care Act that reduces money coming in from Medicare, leading to higher payments required of patients and more issues with bad debtors.” Because they are staunchly nonunion, “The positions picked for elimination were based on a mix employee performance and business necessity as it pertained to the individual position.”

And what about perhaps the most important claim of all for ObamaCare–universal coverage? From Robert Pear in the New York Times,

“The refusal by about half the states to expand Medicaid will leave millions of poor people ineligible for government-subsidized health insurance under President Obama’s health care law even as many others with higher incomes receive federal subsidies to buy insurance. Starting next month, the administration and its allies will conduct a nationwide campaign encouraging Americans to take advantage of new high-quality affordable insurance options. But those options will be unavailable to some of the neediest people in states like Texas, Florida, Kansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, which are refusing to expand Medicaid. More than half of all people without health insurance live in states that are not planning to expand Medicaid.”

In summary,

* Those who had plans we wanted to keep are mostly losing them while millions without any coverage before still do without.

* Health care costs for workers have been climbing and will climb more–for some much more as the Cadillac tax kicks in.

* Many providers are playing hard ball, curtailing Medicare business rather than accept cuts in payments.

* Jobs in health care are in jeopardy.

Though Administration ineptitude and Republican obstructionism are both palpable, the crisis flows from the very system of commodity health care. ObamaCare was drafted by a senior insurance company strategic planner. A more efficient implementation would mean little improvement for us.

Even single-payer, modeled on the Canadian system and supported by some unions and doctors,  is only a partial reform. It would eliminate the insurance robber barons–good riddance to bad rubbish. But we would still be in constant battle with the corporate providers and Big Pharma.

Quality, affordable health care for all is not realizable within the market economy. We need to socialize health care such as, for example, the British and Cubans did long ago.

The health care industry is an important base for the class that rules. Socialized medicine will not be won through the political Establishment of that class. The British needed a Labor Party in power; the Cubans made a revolution. Since I don’t look good in a beard, and don’t care much for camping out, I say let’s first try that Labor Party thing.

In Brief…
* In 2007, energy giant Peabody spun off Patriot Coal, launching it with 16 percent of its assets and 40 percent of its retiree liability. The following year Patriot acquired a retiree dump in a spin-off from Arch Coal, Magnum, which had started out with 12 percent of Arch’s assets and a whopping  97 percent of its retiree health-care liabilities. With three times as many retirees as active workers, no one was surprised when Patriot filed for bankruptcy and told the bankruptcy judge they would have to liquidate unless she abrogated the United Mine Worker agreements covering 13,000 retirees. Wednesday the Judge did the company’s bidding. The union, who have mobilized impressive demonstrations in defense of retirees threatened with destitution after these betrayed promises, is appealing. More about this in a future WIR.
* There have been many recent headlines proclaiming new optimism about the economy. But a sobering story in the Washington Post reminds us, “American households have rebuilt less than half of the wealth lost during the recession, leaving them without the spending power to fuel a robust economic recovery, according to a new analysis from the Federal Reserve. From the peak of the boom to the bottom of the bust, households watched a total of $16 trillion in wealth disappear amid sinking stock prices and the rubble of the real estate market. Since then, Americans have only been able to recapture 45 percent of that amount on average, after adjusting for inflation and population growth, according to the report from the St. Louis Fed released Thursday.”

Save the Dates
This coming October 11-13 there will be a conference marking the first anniversary of the passing of a remarkable labor stalwart, and mentor to many of us, Jerry Tucker. The venue will be the University of Missouri at St Louis–Jerry’s home town. A message from Mark Dudzic posted on the Center for Labor Renewal e-mail list says in part,

“This promises to be an unusual and inspiring gathering at a moment in history in which many of the gains that the working class has made in the past 100 years are being attacked. Along with his family and friends, the conference will pay tribute to Jerry’s life and legacy with music, video and personal testimony. And, following Joe Hill’s instructions to ‘Don’t mourn, organize!’(which Jerry would have heartily concurred with), the weekend will include workshops, plenaries and discussion to address the strategies of working class unity and struggle that he passionately fought for in his lifetime.  We hope to address the broad question which Jerry articulated so well, namely: How do we build a powerful social movement and exercise the collective might of the working class through true solidarity, accountability and democracy.

“If you knew and loved Jerry or worked with him on his many campaigns and projects, this conference is for you. If you are engaged in the working class struggles for justice, inside and outside of the labor movement, and are looking for thoughtful strategic discussion and debate on the direction of our movement, this conference is for you. If you are a young activist seeking to connect with a rich history of struggle and to share your experiences and ideas, this conference is for you.”

As more details about the event are available I will pass them on through this column.

That’s all for this week.


May 242013

onaschoutsmall by Bill Onasch

A Multi-Purpose Holiday
Monday is Memorial Day in the USA. For weeks already we have been bombarded with advertising about Memorial Day “sales” by car dealers, big box retailers, and drive-in restaurant chains. We are also enticed to travel “destinations” over the span of what is a three-day weekend for many. The holiday prop for this commercial frenzy is defined in Wikipedia,

“Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. By the 20th century Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service.”

That’s a worthy gesture I support. I would extend that sentiment though to include all who have perished in wars–including combatants of all sides and the civilian “collateral damage” as well.

But the day is not limited to quiet respect for the fallen through prayer by the religious or decorating graves. Politicians and brass hats always loudly use the occasion to try to whip up support for current wars adding to the list of the departed while on duty. That they are largely ignored by those taking a long weekend for recreation or shopping seems an insufficient response to such life-and-death matters.

When I was a little kid, I often pestered my maternal grandfather to let me peek at his Marine dress blue uniform he had preserved since his post-World War I honorable discharge. In those radio days, I often sat with him to listen to a fifteen-minute performance of the US Marine Band playing Sousa marches every day at 4PM on WDAF. That music stirred me then–and still does.

While he was clearly proud of his stint as a leatherneck, grandpa was no jingoist. He never personally got in to combat–he mainly guarded the Navy’s coal in Guantanamo and the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the transition to oil-fired boilers. But he saw and heard enough from those returning from the trenches in Europe to convince him such slaughter and maiming of good people should never again be permitted. He was one of the few family members who defended my later antiwar views.

In my book, the last just war fought by the U.S. armed forces was the Civil War that gave rise to Decoration Day. That conflict had a righteous cause–abolishing slavery. All since have been driven by corporate  and financial interests of the class that rules.

U.S. armed forces for decades carried out internal genocidal campaigns against American Indian nations.

The Spanish-American War, launched around what proved to be a false pretext, took the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba away from a crumbling empire and established the USA as a global power.

The quick victory against Spain opened what military historians call the Banana Wars–a series of military interventions in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Nicaragua was occupied almost continuously from 1912-1933–until a liberation uprising led by  Augusto César Sandino, and a Depression budget crisis, forced American withdrawal.

Late American entry in to what President Wilson came to call the War to End All Wars–my grandpa’s war–tipped the balance of power in a bloody impasse to the alliance led by the old and brutal British Empire against the newly assertive German one. From that point on, the USA became the strongest global power.

To overcome massive public opposition to U.S. involvement in what became the Second World War, FDR skillfully maneuvered the Japanese in to firing the first shot. As a warning of what the American super-power was now capable, that war ended with the only use to date of nuclear weapons against human beings.

Reeling from the loss of China to the Chinese, the Truman administration got UN sanction for the Korean War–a stalemate still only in truce status.

Another setback for Washington was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba–secretly armed and given limited tactical support by U.S. armed and intelligence forces–but stopped on the beach by the revolution’s defenders.

LBJ followed up on JFK’s earlier policy of sending U.S. “advisers” to a corrupt dictatorship in south Vietnam with an all-out disastrous seven-year war ending in defeat.

Johnson also found time to dispatch GIs once more to the Dominican Republic to oust a democratically elected socialist government.

Reagan organized a massive task force to invade tiny Grenada because of their ties to Cuba.

When Panama’s dictator, long loyal to U.S. policies, got sideways with his masters Bush I carried out his first military action. He, of course, followed that up with perhaps the most lop-sided major conflict in history–the coalition effort in the First Gulf War.

His son went back for a second helping of quick victory in Iraq–leading to a total destruction of civil society in that country that continues even since American withdrawal after an eight-year occupation.

This is not an exhaustive list. There were numerous other small interventions of varying military success. And, of course, I have yet to mention the longest war in U.S. military history. It is still going, in fact experiencing a new Taliban offensive in Afghanistan.  Far from presenting any kind of credible exit strategy, the Obama administration has managed to spread the conflict in to Pakistan as well.

I love the diverse working class majority of the country of my birth and think we are as good as any.  I’ve never been a flag burner. While I’ve enjoyed experiences in other lands I prefer to stay where I am  to fight for a better place rather than becoming an expat.

But I understand that these arrogant imperial policies of the government that speaks in our name have earned fear, mistrust, and outrage among much of the world. Some strike back with horrible vengeful acts of terrorism. The U.S. superpower war machine is not only morally reprehensible but endangers the security, freedom, and material interests of my America–working class America.

It particularly cynically endangers the mostly working class men and women who volunteered to serve their country in uniform. Many have been killed, and many more have suffered physical and emotional wounds, fighting wars based on lies.

They were not part of any consultation about global strategic policies. Few are heroes, even fewer are war criminals. The men and women who serve and have served have done so out of a sense of duty to their country’s elected government. We need to make amends for allowing their commendable dedication to be corrupted by politicians serving not nation but ruling class.

Yes, we should remember the war dead. But we should also, adapting the military parlance now in vogue, tell the living who still serve–we’ve got your six and we’re leaving no one behind. We will not rest until every last GI is removed from harm’s way by bringing them home where they belong–now.

And we should redouble efforts to win living veterans the care they were promised by those who sent them off to danger. The Veterans Administration has nine-hundred thousand unprocessed claims for benefits from those the war-makers like to describe as heroes. Shame is an inadequate adjective for such traitorous abandonment.

While I hope my venting may help remind us of the reality of war being buried under two-bit scandal  mongering in the media, I don’t wish to completely spoil a well-earned holiday break for readers. We all need a little relief in times of crisis. After arranging a reliable cat-sitter, my wife Mary and I will be heading north to Ames, Iowa to celebrate the high school graduation of a daughter of good friends we have watched grow up. May you have as pleasant a weekend experience as we expect to have.

For Those Who Care…
If, as most scientists say, our most important knowledge is usually the result of failed experiments than the many hours I recently invested in a futile attempt to use new software for updating the website surely portends great success. I can now edit already existing web pages but still can’t upload new ones.

But I don’t want success to go to my head. Since I can’t afford the patience of youth I will forego further experiments for now and continue to add new material on the KC Labor WordPress site.

In Brief…
* The Washington Post reported, “Karen Lewis, the fiery leader of the Chicago Teachers Union who led a strike last year and became a nationally known anti-school reform figure, has been elected to another three-year term as president. Today she will lead the first of three days of protests against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to close 54 public schools.” Of course, the Lewis-led slate, who won about eighty percent of the vote, is not against all school reform–just those attacking public education. After the mass protests against closings failed to move the Mayor-controlled school board the issue has been taken to court.
* Regular readers have seen a lot in this column about the host of environmental threats from hydraulic fracturing–known as fracking–in gas extraction. Der Spiegel reports a new twist to this topic, “ The fight over fracking in Germany has taken an unexpected turn: German breweries are now warning that the controversial method of extracting natural gas from rock layers deep in the earth would affect their ability to brew the best beer. The process threatens to contaminate drinking water, according to a letter written by the German Brewers Federation to the federal government, and quoted by the mass daily tabloid Bild. Regulations controlling the brewing of beer in Germany date back to the beer purity law, or Reinheitsgebot, of 1516 — the world’s first food purity law. According to the Brewers Federation, German beer still may only be made from malt, hops, yeast and water.”

That’s all for this week.