Jul 222013

onaschoutsmall by Bill Onasch

Leaving No One Behind
While I have visited the Detroit area on numerous occasions it’s mainly been to attend conferences in suburban chain hotels. My one extended stay in the downtown area was around a convention of the Young Socialist Alliance in 1965. Upon learning I was not familiar with her city, one of the local comrades offered to show me some of the attractions. It turned out we spent almost all of our time at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Most of that was in the Rivera Court. My guide had become somewhat of an expert  who was able to explain in detail every message-packed square inch of the 27 panel Detroit Industry fresco, painted on wet plaster over an eleven month period by arguably Mexico’s greatest muralist–the Marxist Diego Rivera. My recollections of the convention I attended 48 years ago have grown hazy but that day with Detroit’s cultural centerpiece remains unforgettable.

I haven’t been back to the DIA since and long ago lost touch with my guide that day. What jogged this little trip down memory lane is the imminent danger facing this rare crown jewel, justly cherished by the people who have maintained it with pride, as the ruling class moves to liquidate the sparse remaining Detroit public assets through bankruptcy. Some say its treasures might fetch three billion or so but since there has never been such a mass dump of precious art it’s anybody’s guess.

Leaving aside dollar amounts, looting the DIA is equivalent to a bill collector demanding not only all your money, car, and TV set but also your family pictures, wedding rings, and your kid’s bronzed baby shoes. The conquering Roman and British Empires were soft hearted compared to the Governor of Michigan, his appointed gauleiter now in charge of the Motor City–and the bankers they front for. 

It’s important to understand Detroit is different than even the mean-spirited austerity programs being imposed in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and other countries by European bankers or the IMF. Nor does it totally resemble the White House dictated bankruptcy reorganization of General Motors and Chrysler that had such a big impact on Detroit. There are no bail-outs in store, no plan for recovery. It is more akin to the asset stripping of mines, mills, and factories by private equity firms who have left industrial ghost towns scattered across North America.

Detroit is in bad shape–not even Fiat-Chrysler’s advertising agency can refute that cold reality.  In 1950 Detroit had a population of 1.8 million and was the fifth largest city in the country. By 2007–when the UAW agreed to massive concessions to the Big Three automakers to “save jobs”–the city’s population had already shrunk to half the 1950 number. Today–after President Obama scuttled 100,000 auto-related jobs, including many in Detroit, through the scripted bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler, and the Great Recession and Jobless Recovery continued to impoverish workers in Detroit as elsewhere–it stands at a little over 700,000.

The population loss began in prosperous times through the curse of Urban Sprawl. It was fed not only by typical white flight from inner cities but also many Black “middle class” workers in the heavily unionized Detroit area. Plant closings in the Eighties inspired others to leave the newly dubbed Rust Belt altogether, heading to places such as Houston and Phoenix. Steadily, Detroit became a two-tier city–a few pockets of affluent whites walled off from mostly poor Black, immigrant, and elderly white workers and pensioners with no where to go. The city’s official unemployment rate is sixteen percent but many more have simply given up looking.

This disgraceful chronic decline of a once great city has been long ignored or dismissed as hopeless. This gave the new right-wing reactionaries an opportunity to take the initiative. As Jane Slaughter explains in a good piece in Labor Notes,

“Detroit hit the Trifecta yesterday—the third in a series of body blows that politicians have landed on the city’s working people. The Michigan legislature passed ‘right-to-work’ in December and gave the governor the right to impose ‘emergency managers’ on cities two days later. When Detroit’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr announced Chapter 9 bankruptcy Thursday, he was following a predicted trajectory that will lead to further impoverishment and privatization.”

The Washington Post identifies Orr,

“Long anonymous to most of Washington, Kevyn D. Orr is among a tiny handful of prominent African American corporate turnaround lawyers in the country. Until recently, he was perhaps best known for helping guide Chrysler through its wrenching but ultimately successful 2009 bankruptcy.”

The “success” at Chrysler, bankrolled by U.S. and Canadian government loans, as well as plant  and dealership closings, and give-backs by workers and retirees, was limited to making the company profitable once more under its new Fiat ownership.

Cities are not supposed to be profitable. Any profit potential in Detroit’s assets will indeed be  sold off at bargain basement prices to the private sector, as sister Slaughter asserts.

Jane also points out the dog-eared page in Orr’s playbook tackling the “retiree burden.” She writes,

“The bankruptcy will enable an appointed judge to impose further cuts to city expenses and to void union contracts. A prime target for cost-cutting is the pensions owed to 21,000 city retirees and 9,000 active workers.”

AFSCME Local 207 has called a mass demonstration in downtown Detroit this Thursday. It’s good that some unions of city workers are ready to fight to defend themselves. The streets will be a more effective venue than the courts.

The ramifications of bankruptcy will be felt far beyond the city limits of Detroit. Motown is not the first municipal bankruptcy but it’s far the biggest–and it takes place in what was the cradle, and once the pace setter, of industrial unionism in this country. We owe them. And defeat in Detroit can quickly spread to other cities with similar problems such as St Louis, Kansas City–even Chicago–to mention just a few. That’s why this battle is a battle for all workers. We cannot leave our wounded Detroit comrade behind.

In Brief…
* I came across an interesting article reprinted on the National Nurses United site entitled How Climate Change is Fueling a Rise in Deadly Diseases. It concludes, “… illnesses that currently impact other countries could flourish in the United States if they were to find their way here. Rift Valley fever — which causes fever, vertigo, and neck stiffness — is also spread through mosquitoes. Public health officials in Europe and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have publicly warned that populations should prepare for a rise in these diseases as a consequence of global climate change. But currently, only eight states have taken measures to prepare to combat the public health consequences of climate change.”
* Worth reading is an article by Leo Panitch, Why are Canada’s Trains Vulnerable? Good Old Capitalist Cost-Cutting.
* From the New York Times, “A Canadian company’s plan to build an oil pipeline that will stretch for hundreds of miles through the Midwest, including through many sensitive waterways, is quietly on the fast-track to approval — just not the one you’re thinking of. As the Keystone XL pipeline remains mired in the national debate over environmental safety and climate change, another company, Enbridge Inc. of Calgary, Alberta, is hoping to begin construction early next month on a 600-mile-long pipeline that would carry tar sands from Flanagan, Ill., about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, to the company’s terminal in Cushing, Okla. From there the company could move it through existing pipeline to Gulf Coast refineries.” Missouri’s Democrat Governor Jay Nixon and Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill, are cheerleading this “job creation.”
* New York Times auto editor Bill Vlasic sought a silver lining in Detroit’s cloud, Last Car Plant Brings Detroit Hope and Cash. The “last plant” is “More than 4,600 workers staff Chrysler’s sprawling Jefferson North factory nearly around the clock, making one of the most profitable vehicles on the market, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The plant, painted white and surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire, generates about $2 billion in annual profits and is a huge contributor to the health of Chrysler, the nation’s third-largest automaker, and Fiat, its Italian parent company.”

There were many other important story links on our companion Labor Advocate Blog.

That’s all for this week. 

Jul 142013

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

Happy Bastille Day!

Pop, Crackle–But No SNAP
For decades, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps, has been tied in to farm assistance legislation. Hand outs to wealthy farmers and AgriBusiness were the price liberals had to pay to keep malnutrition among the poor at manageable levels.

But that was back in the day when the two boss parties normally compromised to make government work–for them. Often to the chagrin of the mainstream ruling class, one of their parties has been captured by a loony right that would rather see government fail than to surrender any of their ideological objectives. Perhaps sensing their days in positions of power are numbered, the cracked tea-pots  are determined to make irreversible changes while they can.

Their control of a number of state legislatures and governors has been used to eliminate or slash public services, including public sector worker wages and benefits; shift even more of the burden of taxation on the working class; harassment to discourage people of color from exercising their right to vote; using state and local law enforcement to terrorize immigrant workers; and wielding state power to advance mean spirited, faith-based attacks on women’s right to choose–such as just this past week in Texas, North Carolina and, with the complicity of a Democrat Governor, Missouri. Sometimes their reactionary success emboldens the other party to take similar initiatives–that would have once been anathema–where they are in charge.

In Washington, this new posse in town since the 2010 midterms, estranged from conservative elder statesman Bob Dole, and seemingly contemptuous even of their own timid sheriff, controls the House of Representatives. While little legislation of substance has been passed they have extracted cuts in hated Big Government by refusing to approve debt authorization until the one great bipartisan “fiscal responsibility” deal was accepted–now responsible for the across-the-board chiseling of “sequestration.”

While they may be sociopaths, they are not completely stupid. Their base wants a farm bill. That’s why they made a SNAP decision to replace the usual meat cleaver with a scalpel, to surgically separate the offensive aid to the poor from the Senate farm bill for further dissection. Senate Democrats were testy but, as always, their resolve for a bruising fight is questionable.

One of the more cogent points made by Mit Romney during last year’s presidential campaign was the charge that Obama will be known as the “food stamp President.” It was a palpable hit. Food stamp rolls swelled to record numbers during Obama’s first term–now standing at nearly fifty million, about one in seven Americans.

Our side is outraged because these numbers quantify a growth in poverty. It is a Democrat failure and disgrace. We would like to see this program–nearly the size of the population of England–greatly reduced through people getting decent paying jobs. Romney’s party wants to just see it reduced–period.

Food stamp usage does expand and contract with the unemployment rate. But since the Clinton administration’s gutting of welfare a large regular component of SNAP are working poor. Many are employed by America’s biggest “job creator”–Walmart. Others are in food service and temp jobs–which comprised 43 percent of all new jobs over the past year. Wages in the lowest paid categories have actually fallen by five percent.

Currently, applicants can exempt up to 2,000 dollars in savings accounts in calculating their income eligibility. The Republicans would allow states to count even such modest emergency reserve as income. Just being poor is not enough–they want you to be destitute.

As it stands now, SNAP users will lose an average of 20-25 dollars a month with the expiration of a special temporary stimulus boost. House Republicans are proposing to slash 21 billion over the next ten years. Their Libertarian scholarly advisers at the Cato Institute think that’s not nearly enough to reign in what they call “the fastest-growing welfare program that we have.” The Democrat “friends of the poor” are countering with a smaller cut of .5 percent.

Behind the statistics and ideological rants are workers, along with their kids and elderly  parents, who will be hungry with any loss of funding. We should fight like hell to stop taking bread out of their mouths.

But while defending the present stop-gap SNAP we should also be advancing measures that would make food stamps largely unnecessary. The program adopted at the Labor Party Founding Convention included this demand,

“First and foremost everyone, both in the private and public sectors, needs a guarantee of a right to a job at a living wage — one that pays above poverty-level wages and is indexed to inflation. And in today’s world that comes to a minimum of about $10 an hour. [adjusted for inflation that would be about 15.00 in 2013] We want this right written directly into the U.S. Constitution.”

That demand, along with the rest of the Program, is even more urgently needed today than in 1996. Certainly the ruling class has grown far richer–at our expense–than seventeen years ago.

Unfortunately, the party then founded with much promise no longer functions today. We can–and must–utilize that program, and the lessons of the earlier attempt, to revive the movement for a party of our own. This is the only way we can take needed bold new grand measures for a more just society–or even to guarantee every American can have enough to eat.

Pipeline On Rails
That’s the title of an excellent article that appeared on Counterpunch, a site that unfortunately is not friendly to linking. Jonathan Flanders, a retired railroad machinist, past President of IAM 1145, and a member of the Steering Committee of the cross-craft rank-and-file Railroad Workers United, explains,

“The boom in oil fracking and tar sands has lured the great and small to the rails in search of profits and jobs. The great include Bill Gates, who took time from the virtual world of software to acquire controlling interest in the Canadian National railroad(CN), part of the real world of steel rails, mile long trains and the rumble of linked diesel locomotives pulling tar sands oil out of Alberta. The not so great, like Edmund Burkhardt, CEO of Rail World, which controls the short line ‘Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway’ saw the boom in rail transported petroleum as a way to make his mini-empire of short lines profitable. And of course the ‘small people’, railroad employees of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway like Tom Harding, the engineer of the train that blew up, found steady work running the endless strings of crude oil tankers across Canada and the US to refineries. Harding, by the way, is now being blamed by CEO Burkhard for the disaster. Railroad industry watchers have predicted even more exponential growth for the ‘pipeline on rails’ booming on in the shadow of the stalled Keystone pipeline plans still awaiting Obama’s signature.”

Ian Austen may well have been inspired by Flanders in his useful New York Times article, Before Blast, Hauling Oil Revived a Tiny Railroad.

Flanders quickly adds,

“Now all these plans are up in the air, after the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train’s engine caught fire, was shut down, which might then have been the cause for the brakes to leak off, sending fully loaded oil tank cars careening down the grade into Lac Mégantic, Quebec where they exploded, incinerating dozens of people.”

Unlike most commentators, Flanders sought out the opinions of veteran railroaders about this preventable disaster. The bottom line:

“In the case of Rail World, taking shortcuts is official policy. The CEO is a staunch advocate of single employee crews and remote control. The train that exploded in Québec had only one crew member, the engineer in charge of the whole train, saving the expense of a conductor, a job still the rule on most Class 1 roads. Not that the major railroads aren’t eyeing getting rid of this job. Far from it….Moving dangerous cargo whether by rail or pipeline can never be perfectly safe. But in a capitalist economy where profits rule and bean counters run corporations like Rail World we can be sure that more accidents like that in Québec will happen. It will take an aroused public, supporting campaigns like the one against single employee crews being waged by Railroad Workers United, to counter the plans of the rail and pipeline profiteers to wring the last dollar out of the North Dakota fracking and the Canadian tar sands. And speaking just for myself, it will take an aroused public to demand that we end our climate destructive addiction to fossil fuels, stop the fracking and leave the tar sands in the forests. Locomotives, railroaders take note, can run on electricity generated by renewable energy.”

Right on, brother.

In Brief…
*  SEIU Local 503 representing 19,000 Oregon state employees has strike authorization after a membership vote. The state workers haven’t had a raise in five years. Their contract expired June 30 and negotiators are still apart on crucial issues. Their last work stoppage, lasting a week, was in 1995
* Two interesting headlines appearing the same day: Japan to give nuclear power another chance and Japanese Nuclear Plant May Have Been Leaking for Two Years.
* Another 24-hour general strike against “austerity” has been called Tuesday in Greece.
* WorkDay Minnesota reports, “Striking members of Laborers Local 563, fighting to retain their retirement benefits at Elk River-based Cretex, are expanding their outreach to Twin Cities’ Spanish-language radio. Commercials about the workers’ strike already are airing on other Twin Cities stations and began Wednesday on AM 630 Radio Rey and La Mera Buena FM 107.5.”

Much more of interest was posted on Monday-Friday daily news updates on our companion Labor Advocate Blog.

That’s all for this week.