Dec 162013

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

Rappelling Down
Last year at this time there was much consternation about a looming plunge off a Fiscal Cliff. Now there Is lavish praise of a compromise partial budget deal “splitting differences.”

A compromise initially seemed within reach last year as well. House Speaker Boehner was ready to say yes to a tentative bold deal with the President that would have begun to seriously chop once untouchable Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But Instead of being cheered for this historic deal the Speaker was called out and humiliated by the House GOP caucus–bullied by an intransigent minority Tea Party faction that would accept nothing less than Obama’s unconditional surrender. The Speaker was forced to recant and repent.

The loony right draws their power to intimidate through major funding by ruling class mavericks such as a couple of the Koch brothers. This year they dictated an agenda of sequestration, obstruction, and eventually even a government shutdown. They repealed the Affordable Care Act dozens of times–nearly equaling the record low number of bills actually becoming laws in this session of Congress.

The mainstream of the One Percent is not pleased with this performance. They want a government that works for them—not one that doesn’t work at all. They prefer two reliable parties who can take turns being in and out. Instead the majority is rejecting both parties as never before in living memory.

The latest compromise is likely a modest first step in a long uncertain journey to rehabilitate the credibility of the Establishment parties as fit to govern. When the cracked tea pots tried to again veto the latest bargain even the mild mannered Speaker fired some warning shots across their bow—and majorities on both sides of the aisle sealed the deal.

Now talking heads ranging from Fox News to the Comedy Channel are praising the “adult behavior” of party leaders moving ahead in the tradition of bipartisan compromise. But many coming to the table looking for more than good manners are leaving hungry.

On December 28 extended unemployment benefits for the long term jobless will be terminated. 1.3 million workers will be cut off immediately, another two million axed over the next couple of months.

Mimicking the private sector, the petite compromise takes more money out of Federal worker paychecks to give back to their employer for their pensions—effectively a 1.2 percent pay cut.

The Federal workers will now finally get a raise in January after enduring a wage freeze since 2010—a whopping one percent.

But sequestration is far from dead. These furloughs and job eliminations previously mandated by bipartisan agreement will be reduced by half in 2014, a quarter in 2015. In 2013 92,000 Federal jobs vanished and many more are targeted. Head Start, for example, continues to have a big bull’s eye on their back as does the program to house 58,000 homeless veterans.

If this be the adult approach to government then call me a juvenile delinquent. Had this mature method prevailed last year we would already be taking bigger hits on our few social benefit entitlements. We won’t gain from more honest, efficient, splitting the difference government as long as it is dominated by bosses, bankers, and brass hats. We need an uncompromising party of our own to fight for a government that will serve the interests of the working class majority.

A New Final Offer
Even though Boeing is boasting that they have received attractive bids for their new 777x project from 22 states they called the IAM in Seattle back to the table for a new “final offer.” It is somewhat improved over the first final one rejected by a 2-1 margin in a rank-and-fie vote. The new proposal ups a signing bonus from ten to fifteen thousand dollars, drops the demand to lengthen the time needed to get to the top pay grade in a classification, and adds some new dental benefits.

But the most contentious demand remains—termination of the defined benefit pension. Nor did the company back off take-aways in health coverage. And they are sticking to paltry one percent general raises every other year over the eight year contract extension.

The two sides differ on what was said at the table. IAM Local negotiators maintain the company made the offer contingent on the union leaders recommending approval to the membership—a condition they could not accept. The company denies that contention and insists the union side rejected the offer with no intention of letting the ranks vote.

Regardless of who said what and when, it seems likely the offer will go to a membership vote. Not coincidentally, a three-sided campaign by the IAM International leadership, leaders of the one third in the Local membership who had voted in favor of the first offer, and the Democrat Governor, immediately swung in to action in support of this “last chance” to “save thousands of jobs.”

The pressure on the Boeing workers will be intense. They are fighting to maintain past gains that most unions—including IAM Locals—surrendered long ago. Retirement and health care are seldom part of collective bargaining in most industrial countries—they are instead guaranteed by law, along with other important issues such as standard working hours, vacations and paid sick leave. But the employer monopoly of politics in this country forces a battle around such vital questions over every contract in every bargaining unit.

Boeing’s take-back demands are the ransom demanded for jobs being held hostage. But give-backs in other aviation contracts—not to mention the Big Three automakers, General Electric, Harley-Davidson and many others—have not saved jobs. There’s no good reason to expect that Boeing’s Seattle area workers will get job security in exchange for concessions over the long run either.

Boeing workers need and deserve active solidarity from unions and the working class community in this time of crisis. They are also yet another compelling example of the need for working class political action. They are fortunate to have one genuine ally among public officials—socialist Kshama Sawant recently elected to the Seattle City Council. The labor movement has the potential for a party that can elect a majority of working class advocates to complement and advance mass struggles in the workplace and communities.

I thank our valued though unpaid Northwest correspondent Ann Montague for keeping us up to date on the main front of the class war.

In Brief…
* One of the most popular acts by a President of Mexico was when Lázaro Cárdenas, in support of a 1938 oil workers’ strike, nationalized foreign-owned oil companies and declared all mineral and petro reserves found in Mexico to belong to the Mexican nation. This act has long been commemorated as a civic holiday. This past week, the Mexican Senate completed the last legal step in perhaps the most unpopular act in their country’s post-1910 history—opposed with mass strikes and demonstrations—beginning to sell off the nation’s energy assets to foreign investors once again.
* Meanwhile north of the border what is still technically a Crown Corporation continues to follow the example of their U.S. counterpart in dismantling a once proud public institution. Canada Post/ Postes Canada announced plans to cease delivery to the door of five million residences still served in the traditional way and will cut 8,000 postal jobs. That would be equivalent to about 80,000 jobs in the USA. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers is rallying against the cuts.
* Canadian researchers have found a newly discovered gas known as PFTBA has a greenhouse effect seven thousand times more potent than carbon dioxide and will likely remain in the atmosphere for 500 years. Not found in nature, it has been used unknowingly in the electrical industry for more than a half-century. Fortunately concentrations so far are very low but warrant close monitoring.
* A couple of good news stories on the ethical/sustainable agriculture front. The FDA took initial steps to ban the massive use of antibiotics in livestock that has contributed to mutation of super-bugs that threaten all living beings. From now on antibiotics will be restricted to animals diagnosed as actually needing them—not as a cost effective preventive and body builder. And those of us who drink organic milk were pleased to learn it contains healthier fatty acids than those in cows kept in cramped quarters and fed commercial livestock feed.
* Government Executive reports, “Federal employee unions saw an uptick in membership after the government shutdown, and the number of members has been growing consistently over the last several years…. Overall, AFGE has 284,715 active, dues-paying members, the largest its rolls have been in more than 50 years.”

Wrapping It Up
As has been my custom the past thirteen years, I’m taking a year end break. Barring some unforeseen momentous event, this will be the last WIR for 2013. Our news updates on the Labor Advocate blog will also be suspended until Monday, January 6.

Our household is not religious and the only little ones around have four legs and a tail. But we  try to embrace a secular festive spirit by getting together with friends and family over food, beverage, and gossip.

But not all of my longer than usual break will be fun and games. In addition to completing some hardware and software upgrades I’m working on a much needed renovation of my attic office—things difficult to fit in to my normal routine.

I wish you and yours a happy holiday season and a new year better than this one.

That’s all for this year.


Dec 092013

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

Prosperity—Just In Time For Holiday Shopping
It must be Morning In America again.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported “The upward revision to third-quarter GDP growth to 3.6 percent annualized, from the initial 2.8 percent estimate, certainly adds to the evidence that the recovery is gaining momentum.”

More good news was splashed in headlines about the November BLS employment situation report showing the lowest unemployment during the Obama administration.

But there always seems to be a few Sad Sacks among us. Floyd Norris, writing in his New York Times Economix blog,

“Most of the job numbers, even when they look good, are still not even close to what they were before the Great Recession, which officially began in December 2007. The unemployment rate fell to 7 percent in November, the Labor Department says. It was 5 percent in December 2007. The total number of jobs rose 203,000 to 136,765,000. That is still 1,271,000 less than the peak, reached in January 2008. The number of unemployed workers fell below 11 million for the first time since late 2008. It was 7.6 million at the end of 2007….The number of people out of work for more than six months is 4,066,000. That is down 2.6 million from the peak, but before the Great Recession the figure had never been as high as three million. Through all the recessions of the post-World War II period, the share of unemployed who had been jobless for at least six months exceeded 25 percent once, in 1983, prior to this cycle. Now it is 37 percent, down from a peak of 45 percent.”

As it stands now, the brief meager lifeline of extended unemployment compensation after six months of joblessness, currently due to three million, is set to expire at the end of the year unless Congress acts. The purported “good news” of the BLS report makes it even less likely that will happen.

There are other Dickens-like examples polluting the celebration punch bowl.

According to a story in the pro-Democrat Nation, “On the same day that President Obama eloquently described his vision of an economy defined by economic mobility and opportunity for all, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman [Democrat] Debbie Stabenow was busy cutting a deal with House Agriculture Committee Chairman [Republican] Frank Lucas to slice another $8 to $9 billion from food stamps (SNAP), according to a source close to the negotiations.” This is on top of five billion that was cut from the program November 1.

There’s little to fall back on in the communities. USA Today reports “Shelves are going bare in food banks and pantries as more market demand for food means the federal government is buying less fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products to give to needy families. As a result, food banks and pantries nationwide say they are giving out less food, even as record numbers of families turn to them for help.”

The bipartisan agreed budget sequestration has forced the VA and HUD to scale back efforts to get an estimated 58,000 homeless veterans off the streets and in to permanent housing.

And, of course, many with jobs have been raising a stink, such as at America’s biggest employer and our favorite dining establishments. These ungrateful Big Box and Fast Food workers straining their britches think their labor is worth double what they’re getting. Should they overcome stolid boss resistance to win their ambitious goal of fifteen dollars an hour they would still only be earning 75 percent of the average wage.

Retail and food workers are not the only ones falling behind. Even the blue collars in manufacturing have been taking a hit. A recent Bloomberg article tells us,

“Even with hiring and output robust enough to be dubbed a manufacturing renaissance by President Barack Obama, workers are falling behind. Factory pay hasn’t kept pace with inflation and has fallen 3 percent on that basis since May 2009, while average pay for all wage earners slid only about 1 percent.”

Virtually all increase in income during the recovery to date has gone to the top One Percent.

During the Recession all levels of the public sector were forced by declining tax revenues to curtail services and discharge workers. In past recoveries taxes rebounded with the economy and normal public services restored.

But, as discussed in the last WIR, the public sector is still hemorrhaging and cities as big as Detroit are in bankruptcy. Over ninety thousand Federal jobs have been eliminated over the past year—not counting the rotating furloughs of sequester—and many more have been axed by states, cities, and school districts.

Outgoing New York City Mayor Bloomberg recently said his city needs more billionaires—like Bloomberg. Ignoring the Pope’s reservations about trickle-down economics, His Honor argues  that money spent by his people on penthouses, limos, and yachts has a lot bigger impact than the consumer spending of grill tenders at McDonalds. He ignores the source of the wealth of the elite in the plutocratic capital of the world–the labor of workers of all industries many of whom stick to the Dollar Menu because they can’t afford the Big Mac.

Macy’s had their parade and the Plaza Lights have been lit. Time to do your duty. Ignore Gloomy Gus, vets in camo sleeping in the park, hungry kids crying–and those bills piling up on your dining room buffet. Do your part to keep mo-mentum going. Put the x back in Xmas by going shopping.

No Way to Run a Railroad
As is a growing practice in rail, the engineer on the Metro North commuter train that derailed on a sharp curve in the Bronx December 2, killing four and injuring more than seventy, was alone in the cab. There is no evidence of any alcohol, drugs, or texting involved. While the investigation is far from complete, it appears his attention was otherwise impaired, most likely due to fatigue, and/or a monotony induced hypnotic like trance that can “zone out” even experienced drivers on both rail and road—occupational hazards well known, understood, and preventable.

One simple countermeasure would be to have a second crew member in the cab, just as all passenger flights have a co-pilot. But the goal of the rail carriers is to go to one person crews—until they can get away with total automation.

Technology exists to recognize when engineers may not be effectively monitoring their train. An alert is sent to the cab and if the engineer does not promptly respond the train is shut down and brakes applied. Such a device was installed on the ill-fated Metro North train—but not in the cab where the engineer was working. Because trains can’t be turned around in Grand Central Terminal, Metro North runs engines on both ends—but at least in this case alerters only in one of them.

More comprehensive systems called Positive Train Control have been mandated by Federal law since 2008 with a deadline for compliance in 2015. Amtrak has implemented PTC on their own tracks in the busy Northeast Corridor but most carriers—including Metro North, backed by the Working Families Party Governor of New York–are bitterly resisting what they call an expensive “unfunded mandate.”

In addition to technology, new work rules are needed to tackle the big problem of fatigue in jobs that demand a constant high level of attention.

If railroads cannot afford to maintain acceptable levels of profit while introducing best safety practices then the next step to prevent more tragic accidents is clear: nationalize the rail industry, operate it under worker management in the public interest—with a top priority of safety.

In Brief…
* I’m pleased to present a response by Gordon King, president of IAM 837, to news reports  previously quoted in the WIR about the St Louis Boeing union trying to get jobs belonging to sisters and brothers in Seattle. The NPR affiliate in St Louis said, “The president of the machinists union in St. Louis says Boeing should build the 777X in Washington. And he’s angrily denying reports that his members would accept the Boeing contract recently rejected by Northwest machinists.”
* NNU nurses conducted strikes, pickets, and other solidarity actions at Community Health Systems hospitals in California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia last Tuesday. They were protesting numerous labor law violations as well as raising concerns about patient safety.
* The Chicago Tribune reports, “Five years to the day after a sit-in by workers at an abruptly shuttered Chicago factory drew national attention, its former CEO pleaded guilty today to one count of theft for looting Republic Windows & Doors and was promptly sentenced to 4 years in prison.” The UE workers today are keeping the plant, now known as New Era, open as a worker-owned co-op.
* A Live Science article opens, “Thirty years of shrinking Arctic sea ice has boosted extreme summer weather, including heat waves and drought, in the United States and elsewhere, according to a study published today (Dec. 8) in the journal Nature Climate Change. The new study—based on satellite tracking of sea ice, snow cover and weather trends since 1979— links the Arctic’s warming climate to shifting weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere’s midlatitudes.”
* Reuters alerts us to an ominous threat, “British police are examining whether Guardian newspaper staff should be investigated for terrorism offenses over their handling of data leaked by Edward Snowden, Britain’s senior counter-terrorism officer said on Tuesday. The disclosure came after Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, summoned to give evidence at a parliamentary inquiry, was accused by lawmakers of helping terrorists by making top secret information public and sharing it with other news organizations. The Guardian was among several newspapers which published leaks from U.S. spy agency contractor Snowden about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s eavesdropping agency GCHQ.”
* Referring to number two Senate Democrat leader Dick Durbin this morning’s Guardian says, “A senior Democrat said on Sunday he hoped an emerging deal on the US budget would include an extension of unemployment benefits but added that his party would not necessarily walk away from an agreement that left it out.”

That’s all for this week.

Links to news of interest to working people, updated by 9AM Central Monday-Friday, can be found on our companion blog Labor Advocate

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