Sep 282013

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

Instead of the promised continued look at worker productivity I am centering this WIR on more time sensitive issues–set in historical context. In the process this became the longest WIR to date.

Still Not In Business For Our Health
Open enrollment through the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act begins Tuesday for English speakers–maybe. The Spanish language website for sure won’t be up for another few weeks. Initially, visitors to exchange sites in many states may find they are not yet completely functional, lacking such key information as services provided and premiums charged.

Essentially, every U.S. resident not already covered by employer offered health insurance, or the public Medicare, Medicaid, or Veterans Administration programs, must go to the exchanges and buy private health insurance. Those with low income may be eligible for government credits and subsidies to help pay premiums. Any choosing to remain uninsured are liable for hefty fines.

The important health sector of the ruling class, despite the occasional kvetch, are pleased. They should be–they wrote the law and the rules for implementing it. If all goes as planned, they will have millions of new customers.

Paradoxically, the traditional favorite party of Big Business is fighting like the Japanese garrison on Iwo Jima to stop or cripple this bonanza for the insurance robber barons. Perhaps even more bizarre, our labor statespersons have assumed the role of Marines aiming to triumphantly raise the flag of ObamaCare on Mount Suribachi.

If the mean spirited cracked teapots were to succeed in killing or maiming ObamaCare, with no alternative readily available at this late stage, it would be bad news for millions of uninsured individuals and unions who have been bargaining with employers in anticipation of major changes in insurance.

For these reasons opposing the loony right sabotage is an understandable reflex. But I have been bombarded by appeals from labor, women’s, and civil rights groups to not only denounce  Republican kamikazes but to also hail the Affordable Care Act as the greatest thing since sliced bagels.

Such a position is merely the flip side of the teapot opportunist coin. Both camps subordinate the health of American workers to the perceived short term political needs of a boss party.

The Affordable Care Act does not resolve America’s health care crisis. In many ways it makes things worse. The unexpectedly low premiums touted by the President and Secretary Sebelius last week do not take in to account the extremely high deductibles and copays that accompany these “bargains” in affordable care. The cheapest plans would require spending thousands of dollars out of pocket before insurance starts paying sixty percent of further costs.

The best alternative to commodity health care that is expanded by the new law would be socialized medicine such as the British Labor Party established in that country 65 years ago. That hasn’t gained much traction yet in the USA.

The less comprehensive but still significant and worthwhile single-payer reform–an improved version of Canada’s Medicare won by the NDP labor party north of the border–has. In all the pre-ObamaCare polls in which single-payer was included as an option it consistently received the most support.

At the 2009 AFL-CIO Pittsburgh convention the California Nurses Association (now part of National Nurses United)  took the initiative in organizing delegates to support a fight for single-payer in the health care debate beginning in Congress. Michael Moore, who helped popularize single-payer in his 2007film SiCKO, moved the world premier of his film Capitalism A Love Story to a theater near the convention site and the Nurses organized a pro-single-payer march of hundreds of delegates to the showing. These efforts succeeded in adding support for a single-payer bill, with an impressive list of sponsors, already introduced by Rep John Conyers from Detroit, to the Federation’s health care program . Out of these achievements in Pittsburgh the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer was launched.

Senator Max Baucus was charged by the White House to get ObamaCare through Congress. To assist him a senior health insurance industry official came to do her bit at public service on his Finance Committee staff by drafting the Affordable Care Act and later fleshing out its implementation. In hearings she was always by Baucus’s side.

When Baucus refused to allow testimony from single-payer advocates some of them made a mild but vocal protest of their exclusion. He had them arrested and jailed for contempt of Congress.

Newly elected AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka tried very hard to be a “player” in the long struggle to get a health care bill through Congress. He immediately jettisoned single-payer and eventually even the symbolic “public option.” In the end, he did his duty for his White House friend through heavy-handed lobbying to get single-payer supporters–whose votes were sorely  needed–on board for ObamaCare. The bill would have never passed without Trumka’s diligent efforts.

Since then both the AFL and Change to Win unions have tried to justify their cave-in by being the most energetic and exaggerating apologists for their “friend’s” signature achievement. While single-payer still remains an official position of record, at the recent AFL convention in Los Angeles its advocates had to be content with a literature table in the lobby.

But even at that carefully choreographed conclave discontent with the Affordable Care Act still erupted. Many were livid over the surprise exclusion of multi-employer health care plans negotiated by unions from credits and subsidies available to all other plans. This is a mortal threat to the very existence of these plans. A resolution demanding a fix was passed and a delegation headed by Trumka was dispatched to meet with the President.

But their “friend” in the White House–who had earlier granted reprieves from some provisions of the new law to employers without even being asked–condescendingly explained he could not tinker with the law of the land as a favor to friends.

With a degree of loyalty usually only seen in abused pets, our mainstream union officials continue to do the heavy lifting for their pal in the White House, his party–and, in this example, the insurance company moguls.

ObamaCare will likely survive the current Republican assault even if it’s pushed to a government shutdown. But this is no victory to crow about from our side. We’ll still be saddled with a substandard health care system devouring a far bigger share of our GDP than any other country.

On October 11, the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer will be holding a special Expanded Steering Committee and Advisory Board Meeting in suburban St Louis to take stock of where that movement is at and where to go over the next year. They are inviting all single-payer supporters to attend. You can find details by clicking here.

Beginning that same evening in the same place is a unique weekend conference, Jerry Tucker: The Person, The Mission, The Legacy. The conference website says,

“For more than 30 years, Jerry Tucker was an inspiring figure of the labor movement. His untimely passing in October 2012 was mourned by many in the labor community and beyond. Over the years, Jerry was a rank-and-file worker, union leader and adviser, and mentor to many. This conference explores Jerry’s work within the labor movement and examines the fundamental question that he wrestled with throughout his long career: How do we build a powerful social movement and exercise the collective might of the working class through true solidarity, accountability and democracy? We will discuss how to apply Jerry’s vision to today’s struggles, and we will celebrate his extraordinary life through music, videos and personal testimony.”

Even though it is a challenge for a Social Security pensioner’s budget, I wouldn’t miss this tribute to a principled working class fighter I held in highest esteem. I hope to see many WIR readers there as well.

The first opportunity I had for an extended discussion with Jerry was at a Labor Party Advocates gathering in St Louis that called the 1996 Labor Party Founding Convention. I hope that the need for revival of the labor party project will be a part of the conference discussions. It should be crystal clear that we will not resolve health care or any of the other crises facing the American working class until we have a party of our own.

GE Zaps More UE Workers
One of the strategic targets for elimination as part of the restructuring of the U.S. Economy mentioned in last week’s WIR is a union in which I was deeply involved back in the day–the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE). Since the 1980s, the UE national agreement with General Electric has been systematically battered by plant closings, reducing representation to a handful of surviving sites.

A few months ago, GE announced plans to move hundreds of jobs from its Erie, Pennsylvania Locomotive Works–one of its biggest remaining North American plants, organized by UE–to a recently opened facility in Ft Worth, Texas. Now they have targeted the UE plant in Ft Edward, New York. In an e-mail message Chris Townsend, the UE’s “Capitol Hill Shop Steward,” writes,

Some of you may already be aware that the General Electric Company (GE) has announced their  intention to close and abandon the Ft. Edward, New York capacitor plant after more than 70 years of profitable production. This plant is notorious as it is one of two plants that polluted both the Hudson Falls and Ft. Edward communities, along with an enormous stretch of the Hudson River. The largest geographic Superfund site in the country is a mess made by GE’s
dumping of toxic chemicals, oils, and PCB’s into the community and the Hudson River for several decades. After furiously resisting governmental efforts to take responsibility for years on end, GE was ultimately forced to fund the clean up of the river and numerous polluted areas in the region. That cleanup is ongoing and will take decades more to complete.

While these electrical capacitor plants once employed several thousand workers, in recent years GE has refused to invest in new equipment or machinery and the workforce has been reduced to just over 200. Even under these conditions the GE plant in Ft. Edward remains one of the best places to work in the entire region. Workers earn living wages, most still retain a real pension, and Local 332 ensures that GE honor the terms of the UE-GE national labor contract. UE has for many decades worked tirelessly to ensure that the immediate and long term health and safety of the workforce and retirees is not ignored….

This week I was in Ft. Edward and the UE Local 332 membership unanimously endorsed an aggressive campaign to force GE to maintain capacitor production in Ft. Edward.

As this struggle unfolds you will be able to access update bulletins directly by visiting the main UE web page;

Much of the coming campaign will be a simple test of whether elected leaders and regulators at all levels will confront the brazen and destructive behaviors of GE. The UE membership intends to do so. On behalf of the Local 332 members and their families, thanks very much for taking a look.

Chris Townsend
Washington Office
United Electrical Workers Union (UE)

As always, there were many more other stories this past week deserving of comment than can be included in a column of manageable size–even this record breaking one. One story we will soon follow up on is the latest report on climate change by UN scientists. Links to articles of interest are posted on our companion Labor Advocate Blog, updated by 9AM Central, Monday-Friday.

A reminder in closing, as I must mention once in a while, we have no other revenue sources to support travel and other expenses than contributions from readers. If you appreciate the Week In Review, and haven’t recently sent us anything, now would be a good time. You can click on to our Donate Page for options to use PayPal or a credit card or–our preference–send a check or money order.

That’s all for this week.


Sep 222013

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

AFL Convention
As I was pulling together comments for the WIR on the recent AFL-CIO convention I got–and accepted–an invitation from my friends at Socialist Action to do an article for them. In the interest of space conservation I ask you to read it by clicking here.

Not A Grand Bargain
After a break for threatening war in Syria, and yet another debt ceiling crisis, the President managed to resume saying a few words about his Better Bargain for the Middle Class in a trip to my hometown. The venue was a new Ford stamping plant in suburban Liberty, not far from the big Kansas City Assembly plant in Claycomo.

Ford never asked for the massive government bailout loans granted to GM and Chrysler four years ago but they got plenty of state/local incentives for the new plant and upgrading at Claycomo. This fits in to the “Simplify the tax code for business” promoted in the Jobs section of the Bargain that includes  “lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs in the U.S.; lower rates for new manufacturing jobs; cut taxes for small business.”

When the President took office he asked his party, then controlling both houses of Congress, to hold up on their campaign pledge to end the Bush tax cuts that favored corporations and the rich and famous. Echoing the GOP minority, labor’s new friend said recession was no time to raise taxes. The continuation of the Bush tax cuts clearly didn’t create enough jobs but they  contributed to a mountain of cash for business Big and Small–and breathtaking increases in compensation for corporate executives. All this also helped swell the government’s debt.
Bosses hire workers when they are needed to generate profits. Ford expects to sell more cars and trucks so they are expanding a bit and hiring some new workers. While they are happy to accept tax-payer incentives for this standard business practice, tax breaks are not a decisive factor in hiring or firing–profits are.

The President has long urged U.S. manufacturers to bring home offshored work. Some have. General Electric restored some jobs to what’s left of its American appliance operations–after getting unions to accept a new wage tier that starts far below Middle Class rates and with substandard benefits. The Big Three automakers have boasted about similar “in-sourcing” after the 2007 UAW mother of all give-backs–later boosted still more at GM and Chrysler through the Obama imposed bankruptcy.

A recent New York Times article, U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People, illustrates the true depth of the Middle Class crisis. Filing her byline from South Carolina, Stephanie Clifford writes,

“Just as the Carolinas benefited when manufacturing migrated first from the Cottonopolises of England to the mill towns of New England and then to here, where labor was even cheaper, they suffered in the 1990s when the textile industry mostly left the United States….Which is why what is happening at the old Wellstone spinning plant is so remarkable. Drive out to the interstate, with the big peach-shaped water tower just down the highway, and you’ll find the mill up and running again. Parkdale Mills, the country’s largest buyer of raw cotton, reopened it in 2010….In 2012, textile and apparel exports were $22.7 billion, up 37 percent from just three years earlier. While the size of operations remain behind those of overseas powers like China, the fact that these industries are thriving again after almost being left for dead is indicative of a broader reassessment by American companies about manufacturing in the United States.”

While far above Bangladesh or even China rates, labor is still cheap by Middle Class standards in the Carolinas. But what is really attractive is how few workers are required as plants are built or reopened with the latest technology. Following up on her Parkdale example Clifford tells us,

“The mill here produces 2.5 million pounds of yarn a week with about 140 workers. In 1980, that production level would have required more than 2,000 people.”

Norma Rae wouldn’t have much of an audience if she stood on a lunch room table in the Carolinas today.

Certainly work offshored to Asia and Latin America has eliminated a substantial number of American Middle Class jobs. Palpable threat of offshoring is a powerful boss tool for extracting give-backs from North American workers. It remains an important option for employers. The example of textile so ably examined in the Clifford article shows how they weigh numerous factors in determining whether Made in America enhances the bottom line.

But the exponential growth in productivity of workers in this country is a much bigger factor in both job loss and depressed wages than shipping work abroad. The productivity gains cited by Clifford in textile use 1980 as a benchmark. The growth in worker output since the legal standard eight-hour day, forty-hour workweek was set by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 is at least just as astronomical.

The permanent loss of millions of Middle Class jobs in steel, auto, coal, electrical, rail, longshore and other industries spawned many foolish pronouncements about the “de-industrialization of America.” The fact is the USA has remained the biggest industrialized economy ever since the World War II economic mobilization that ended the Great Depression.  The economy has been restructured to churn out more than ever–with drastically fewer workers.

Part of the restructuring included strategically abandoning and replacing former bastions of unionism with new, smaller, scattered worksites that have successfully resisted union organization.

And even offshoring has been two-sided. As some American work is sent abroad there has been an explosion of plants of European and Asian companies in the USA, including in basic industry. These transplants have in fact done more hiring in this country than their American based competitors.

Productivity continued to grow substantially even during the period of 2007-2012, encompassing the Great Recession and Jobless Recovery. There was an annual average increase of just under two percent. These modest sounding annual increments compound like interest on a defaulted loan. It is remarkable, not to mention shameful, that workers are being squeezed to put out more than ever while there is still mass unemployment and millions more working part-time because they can’t find full-time work.

How society utilizes greatly increased productivity is a many sided and crucial question for the working class. I’ll continue on this topic next time.

Sweating the Truth
Robin McKie, science editor of the Guardian/Observer, opens a Saturday article,

“Scientists will this week issue their starkest warning yet about the mounting dangers of global warming. In a report to be handed to political leaders in Stockholm on Monday, they will say that the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation have now led to a warming of the entire globe, including land surfaces, oceans and the atmosphere. Extreme weather events, including heatwaves and storms, have increased in many regions while ice sheets are dwindling at an alarming rate. In addition, sea levels are rising while the oceans are being acidified – a development that could see the planet’s coral reefs disappearing before the end of the century.”

McKie goes on to say,

“The fifth assessment report on the physical science of climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that humanity is on course over the next few decades to raise global temperatures by more than 2C compared with pre-industrial levels. Such a rise could trigger the release of plumes of the greenhouse gas methane from the thawing Arctic tundra, while the polar ice caps, which reflect solar radiation back into space, could disappear. Although the report does not say so, Earth would probably then be facing a runaway greenhouse effect.”

This scenario is not new but its plain statement and empirical updates by a body not known for jumping to rash conclusions is. Whether it will have the needed impact on government  representatives assembling in Sweden is dubious.

Former Vice-President Al Gore, who did a good job in popularizing the threat of global warming through his award winning book and film An Inconvenient Truth, said in a recent e-mail,

“Today’s announcement by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is an important step forward for our nation and our planet. From now on, future coal- and gas-fired power plants must take responsibility for their global warming pollution by reducing or capturing their overall emissions. This is a critical achievement for President Barack Obama and his administration.”

This is Gore’s conflicted personae swinging back once more from science advocate to apologist for the ruling class in to which he was born and raised. The new EPA regulations are  at best a very modest step that could have been taken under existing law during the Clinton-Gore administration. Emissions from power plants have already been incrementally reduced by widespread conversion from coal to marginally cleaner, and at least temporarily cheaper, natural gas.

Scams such as what used to be called carbon capture/sequester have long been dismissed by mainstream science. But they recently received artificial respiration from the Obama Energy Department. According to the New York Times, as much as eight billion dollars will be given to industries like coal and oil to make cleaner energy with “technologies that are too complex, unproven and expensive for investors and private companies to pursue on their own.”

There’s nothing complex or unproven about leaving fossil fuels in the ground and replacing them with clean, renewable sources provided free by nature wherever the sun shines and winds blow. The infrastructure required to utilize these fuels will require some expense. The political strategy needed to bring it about can be complex. The risk of not trying is unacceptable.

That’s all for this week.