Jul 312013

onaschoutsmall by Bill Onasch

That was the theme of a series of strikes, rallies, and marches in several U.S. cities on Monday and Tuesday–including Kansas City. They were by and for the working poor in the fastest growing component of economic recovery–fast food and retail workers.

Nearly all entering these new positions offered by the “job creators” start at the legal minimum wage. The Federal minimum is 7.25 an hour; Missouri workers get a dime more than that. Those that stick it out get little reward for loyalty. The median wage is 8.95–equivalent to 18,500 a year for a full-time worker. But relatively few get steady full-time work. In fast food, employers have started using sophisticated software to project customer flow and schedule only the minimum work force needed from day to day.

Not many of these workers will ever get a paid vacation. In the rare case of health insurance being offered it’s unaffordable on their meager wages. None have pensions; few even have a 401(k) option. And, of course, paid sick leave is unknown.

These jobs are no longer just for students or entry level for those leaving high school. You’ll find just as many parents of high school students toiling at the only kind of  job they can find.  McDonalds has boasted they are recruiting thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The plight of these workers has long been widely known. But, with the honorable exception of the Industrial Workers of the World in a few areas, prior to the last year or so unions have pretty much ignored them.

There are formidable obstacles to organizing. In addition to the boss advantage in current labor law, there’s a high turnover in the workforce. The amount of money spent on serious organizing may never be recovered through dues collection. It’s an attitude similar to that taken by conservative craft unionism that lost so much ground during the hard economic times of the Great Depression.

It was only when class struggle unionism was revived that unions went on to great victories in the Thirties and Forties. Particularly the CIO was seen as a broad social movement fighting for the interests of all workers. That’s what made organizing and bargaining success possible even in times of mass unemployment. Some forward looking unions, such as the United Mine Workers, donated millions of dollars to organizing efforts in other industries with no expectation of ever being reimbursed.

There’s no figure comparable to John L Lewis in the labor movement today. I’m not predicting an imminent upsurge on the scale of the CIO. The actions in KC Monday and Tuesday were organized by a diverse coalition that included  the NAACP; Jobs with Justice; the faith-based Communities Creating Opportunity; the  Cross Border Network, involved in solidarity with Mexican unions and defense of immigrant worker rights in this country; as well as SEIU and a number of AFL-CIO unions.

But the crowds were overwhelmingly workers and their families. Many were fast food and retail workers but there were hundreds of other union members and retirees who were there solely out of a duty of working class solidarity. It was a mobilization that hasn’t been seen in a while and was actually treated as news by the media.

Just as there is turn over in low wage jobs too often there is a short attention span among movement leaders. Sometimes they quickly shift to talking points on a different topic that comes down from higher authority. It’s early days but hopefully this time action for the most exploited of our class will be sustained.

Members of Labor Party Advocates got a friendly reception as we distributed leaflets advertising a Labor Day Weekend event. Entitled “Searching For Our Turning Point,” it features the showing of an award-winning documentary film, Labor’s Turning Point. It examines how the victory of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes helped inspire an insurgent union movement that organized millions and indirectly brought beneficial change to tens of millions more.

Of course, conditions are not exactly the same today as before most of us were born. We can’t simply try to duplicate the hard won success of Minneapolis. But there are many social, political, strategic, and tactical lessons from that pivotal struggle that are still relevant and essential. After the showing there will be a wide open discussion about those lessons and what we can do next.

That event is Saturday, August 31, 1PM at the North Kansas City Library, 2251 Howell Street, North Kansas City, MO. For more information call 816-753-1672.

Jul 282013

onaschoutsmall by Bill Onasch

Why the President Came to Warrensburg
I have some distant but fond memories of Warrensburg, a small college town about an hour drive from Kansas City. What was then called Central Missouri State Teachers College there was a regional stop on the way to two state championships for Ruskin High School Debate Teams. But I was as curious as the next person about why the leader of the Free World had chosen this low profile campus as venue for a major speech.

An AP story explained the official attraction,

“Obama spoke to more than 2,000 people at the University of Central Missouri, which is a partner with a Kansas City-area community college and public school district in what’s been dubbed the ‘Missouri Innovation Campus.’ The initiative allows select students to start earning community college credits in high-tech, high-demand jobs while still in high school, then earn a bachelor’s degree after spending just two additional years at the university campus in Warrensburg. The program also pairs students with business internships, and their education is to be paid for by a mixture of corporate funding and state scholarships, grants and loan-forgiveness programs.”

The number of  “select” students–being trained in systems engineering and design/drafting technology–in the first year at Warrensburg was a whopping nineteen. Seventeen will be returning for their second year and fifteen new ones starting this fall.

The Warrensburg “innovation” has a somewhat familiar ring–not unlike long standing vocational school programs tailored to the needs of specific employers. The pro-privatization Lumina Foundation, seeded with money from student loan lenders, has been pushing to supersize such schemes as part of their goal to get degrees or certifications for sixty percent of Americans by 2025. They coordinate with Bill Gates and Bill Clinton in education “reform” that strengthens private profit–and weakens teacher unions.

It’s understandable that the President would prefer to showcase this purported success rather than discussing the collapse of the Kansas City School District in the urban core where accreditation was lost long ago. A highly paid superintendent hired to turn things around in KC promptly left after shutting down dozens of schools, and firing teachers–to go to work for the Governor of Michigan to do the same in Detroit and other Black majority districts. Missouri’s Democrat Governor Jay Nixon–beaming at the President’s side in Warrensburg–has imposed millions of dollars in cuts to higher education. Only if you tune in to the news on the WGN America channel would you likely know about almost daily protests in the President’s home town by students, parents and members of the Chicago Teachers Union against layoffs of thousands of school employees–dictated by Obama’s former Chief-of-Staff, now Chicago Mayor.

Warrensburg seemed pretty small potatoes to serve up to a national audience. But it was just an appetizer for some fiery populist redux to soothe not only outrage about the unconscionable price of higher education but also anxiety about jobs, health care, retirement, and the environment–as well as frustration with a dysfunctional political Establishment.  

A recent NBC story begins,

“The American public’s dissatisfaction with Washington has reached new heights, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, as the political world continues to fight the same intractable battles over the budget, health care and immigration. A whopping 83 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress’ job, which is an all-time high in the survey. What’s more, President Barack Obama has seen his job-approval rating dip to its lowest level since August 2011, when the debt-ceiling showdown wounded almost every Washington politician. And nearly six-in-10 voters say they would vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress if they had such an option on their ballot–another all-time high.”

The ruling class has done quite well during the Obama years. Most of the One Percent still have confidence in him–and disdain for the loony right that some maverick super-rich put in charge of today’s Republican Party. Obama is their best hope in neutralizing resistance to once unthinkable objectives of gutting the few meaningful social benefits won in the past, such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They count on him to continue to advance privatization of government, education, and the Post Office–and to stand aside while the banks start raiding pension funds and other public sector assets along a pattern being established in Detroit. He is expected to tame the unions, keep the lid on the potentially explosive civil rights movement, appease women’s rights struggles with empty gestures, place immigrants on probation, and co-opt environmentalists–and so far, by and large, he has met these expectations as no white Republican possibly could.

But while this subservience of movement officialdom has led to record lows in strike activity, fewer big demonstrations of any kind, and no “riots” even in the response to the outrageous acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, both White House and ruling class patrons are becoming concerned about the depths of discontent quantified in the NBC/WSJ poll. That’s why the President is on the road again to places like Warrensburg and Galesburg, Illinois, delivering campaign-style populist speeches trying to rekindle the promise of si se puede.

But most workers are no longer so sanguine about their can do prospects–and for good reason. They wisely trust neither the President nor his even more reactionary opposition. But they see no other viable alternative because none has yet been created.

We can whine. We can mope. We can pray. We can get drunk. But we can’t defend ourselves  until we rejuvenate our unions and issue movements around working class solidarity–and go on to finally build a party of our own.

Regular readers are familiar with this view. It’s been around in various forms since capitalists created the working class to serve them. It’s been a tough sell in the USA in recent decades. But it seems to me the benefits and invincibility of Free Enterprise are being are being doubted on a scale not seen for generations. It’s time to consider what measures can be taken to prepare a counteroffensive by our side in this class war waged against us.

If you are in the Kansas City area, or willing to travel here over the Labor Day weekend, I urge you to mark your calendar for an event sponsored by Kansas City Labor Party Advocates on Saturday, August 31. Entitled “Searching For Our Turning Point,” it will feature a showing of the film Labor’s Turning Point, an award-winning 43 minute documentary about the historic victory of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike that inspired many more victories across the country throughout the Thirties. Following the screening there will be a wide open discussion about how we can use our heritage to help figure out what to do next today. The free admission meeting will take place at the North Kansas City Library at 1PM. For more information you can call me at 816-753-1672.

A Compelling Article
I always look forward to reading articles, that have spanned many topics, by my long-time friend Dave Riehle. His latest, posted on WorkDay Minnesota, details the Lac-Mégantic runaway train disaster and goes on to include a much broader look at the industry.

Riehle’s qualifications go beyond his impressive investigative and writing skills. He is a retired Union Pacific locomotive engineer and Local Chair Emeritus of United Transportation Union Local 650 in St Paul. He knows first hand railroading and rail labor.

In addition to discussing needed technical safety measures Riehle writes,

“The only way these transportation systems can be operated safely is as public utilities, whose mandate is safe, reliable and socially useful service, ultimately answering to the people, and not the banks. Whether that can happen can only be determined in struggle. If the labor movement, which formally encompasses both Canada and the United States, entered into this struggle in a unified manner, and carried out a broad educational campaign, it could have a real impact, and put the discussion on the national agenda….To leave the railroads in the hands of the money kings can only guarantee future disasters.”

In Brief…
* Paul Lewis writes in the Guardian, “Plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech are being stepped up in the wake of an angry reaction over the decision to acquit George Zimmerman over the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and a recent decision by the supreme court to strike down key sections of a law that protects Black voters.” For more information about labor involvement click here.
* The National Nurses United site reprinted a piece entitled Saving Detroit is a Step towards Saving America.
* There has been an eleventh hour tentative agreement avoiding a strike by 8,000 steelworkers at six Goodyear plants, including Topeka. No details yet available.
* This Tuesday, July 30, Kansas City Jobs with Justice is organizing a barbeque, rally and march in support of fast food workers. We will start gathering at 2PM in Gillham Park at 41 & Gillham. Labor Party Advocates will be there with our banner and leaflets for the August 31 event.
* Talk about a budget-buster. From the Guardian, “Governments and industry have expected the widespread warming of the Arctic region in the past 20 years to be an economic boon, allowing the exploitation of new gas and oilfields and enabling shipping to travel faster between Europe and Asia. But the release of a single giant ‘pulse’ of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian sea ‘could come with a $60 trillion [£39tn] global price tag’, according to the researchers who have for the first time quantified the effects on the global economy.”

That’s all for this week.