Dec 052013

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch


The cracked teapots have of late centered their attack on “Big Government” ObamaCare around the website, severely hobbled by self-inflicted wounds from the git-go. Actually, the Feds stay away from building their own websites. Nearly all of this work is contracted out for big bucks to the private sector. Some do a good job, others not so much. In any case, output quality is dependent on input. Schlock in, schlock out.

The product pitched by this website is the Affordable Care Act that does not provide any actual care and is anything but affordable. It is tied to the uniquely American system of private insurance gatekeepers whose lofty premiums have excluded tens of millions from any coverage and their exclusions, deductibles and co-pays are responsible for substandard care for many of the rest.

Inspired by RomneyCare in Massachusetts, the central goal of the ACA is to use subsidies to round up more customers for these robber barons. Insurance company executives were provided to the Democrat controlled Senate Finance Committee to write the legislation—and to later fill in the many blanks inserted in to the law for later determination, such as giving short shrift to Taft-Hartley joint union-employer health plans. High deductibles in the subsidized “metal” plans, and an eventual imposition of a tax on so-called “Cadillac plans,” help insurers and employers to hold down costs by discouraging use of insured services.

The unwieldy deal that became President Obama’s signature accomplishment has been subject to fierce attack by the usually pro-Big Business Republicans primarily because–it is Obama’s signature accomplishment. Where they are in control, the GOP has refused to accept Federal underwriting of expansion of state administered Medicaid for the poor—an action blessed by the Supreme Court. They blocked establishment of state exchanges helping to overload the Federal site. More recently they have organized a sort of Pledge of Resistance by individuals refusing to sign up for mandatory coverage. And they mercilessly exploited the worthless promise made by the President that everyone could keep insurance with which they were satisfied. End—don’t mend—ObamaCare is their mantra.

Certainly the Affordable Care Act should be consigned to the medical waste dump of history. But simply ending it now with no replacement would turn chaos in to disaster for millions.

Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the 165,000 member National Nurses United, recently wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian entitled The Real Fix for Obamacare’s Flaws: Medicare for All. Her union has long been among the most vocal advocates of single-payer health care, inspired by Canada’s Medicare won through the efforts of their labor party. Single-payer has consistently been popular in opinion polls and many unions—and even some doctors—endorse it. It’s not a complete fix for all health care problems like British workers accomplished through socialized medicine. But elimination of the insurance gatekeepers and guaranteeing truly universal and affordable coverage is a reform well worth fighting for.

The fight is continuing, led by forces such as the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer. Unfortunately, most top union officials are reluctant to call for ACA replacement for the same reason the Republicans fight so tenaciously to scrap it—it’s the signature accomplishment of their very good “friend” President Obama. In fact, without labor’s heavy lifting the Act would have never made it through Congress.

It’s no coincidence that the only industrialized country with health care dominated by insurance companies is also the only one without at least one mass working class party, While it is good and useful for LCSP and others to keep the issue alive, we will not win new fundamental reforms such as single-payer in a two-party monopoly that is working to gut our Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, pensions, and even Food Stamps. It’s going to take a party of our own—a Labor Party—to win.

A New Era

Mary Williams Walsh begins a New York Times story, “Someday, Detroit’s bankruptcy may well be seen as the start of an era of broken promises.” Actually it’s not the first but Detroit is far the biggest municipal bankruptcy so far. She continues,

“For years, cities have promised rock-solid pensions without setting aside enough money to pay for them, aided by lax accounting practices, easy borrowing and sometimes the explicit encouragement of labor unions. Officials were counting on rich investment gains to fill the holes; unions and their retirees were counting on legal provisions—like Michigan’s Constitution—that said pensions were unassailable and that benefits would always be paid, whether through higher taxes or budget cutbacks elsewhere. But a bankruptcy judge, Steven W. Rhodes, threw a wrench into that thinking on Tuesday, ruling that pension benefits could be reduced in a bankruptcy proceeding. The decision recast the landscape and gave distressed cities leverage to backtrack on their promises.”

The state of Illinois is not bankrupt but this week the legislature passed a law, that the Democrat Governor will sign, breaking the pension promises made to most public employees outside Chicago. Chicago’s Democrat Mayor said he will now move quickly to renege on city pension guarantees as well. In Illinois the deficit in the pension fund is largely due to politicians using pension money for other projects with no intention of making restitution. I’m not a lawyer but most of us laypersons think that sounds remarkably like the crime of embezzlement.

Many public employees are not in the Social Security system. Their public pension is usually the only regular source of retirement income. The unions in Illinois are preparing lawsuits but justice for workers in the courts is as rare as a boss keeping a promise.

In Brief…

* Bloomberg reports, “South Africa’s largest labor union is in discussions with other workers’ organizations on forming a new labor party. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa will deliberate the matter at a special congress planned for Dec. 13 to Dec. 16 in Johannesburg, according to documents the group released today. An internal survey of Congress of South African Trade Unions shop stewards last year showed 65 percent would join a new labor party.”

* A New York Times story on a National Research Council report, “Continued global warming poses a risk of rapid, drastic changes in some human and natural systems, a scientific panel warned Tuesday, citing the possible collapse of polar sea ice, the potential for a mass extinction of plant and animal life and the threat of immense dead zones in the ocean.”

* From NBC Bay Area, “ BART’s two largest unions filed suit on Tuesday against the agency’s board of directors, claiming ‘illegitimate’ actions regarding their labor contracts – specifically over six weeks of paid family leave that was agreed to, but not formally approved. ‘The remedy is for BART to honor the agreement,’ SEIU Attorney Kerianne Steele said at a news conference at the Alameda County Superior Courthouse. She said the unions have not yet discussed or planned another strike, but added they are ‘not ruling anything out.'”

* Best wishes to Mexican leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on his recovery from a heart attack. The brother must be doing something right in leading mass opposition to plans to sell off Mexico’s nationalized oil industry. Reuters reported, “Mexico’s peso currency rallied after news of Lopez Obrador’s hospitalization, economists said, pointing to the possibility that his health problems could weaken protests against the energy reform.”

On to Chicago

All subscribers to the WIR RSS or Yahoo Group mail should have received our Extra: The Northwest Front Of Class War. Early reader responses have been positive. Clearly there is much interest everywhere in both the attacks and fights back in that region that have great national implications.

One generous reader even offered to help subsidize an extended working trip to Seattle. That is a very tempting offer. But I have obligations on the all important household front that make it difficult for me to get away for more than a few days at a time. Fortunately, I am in touch with some knowledgeable and reliable sources on the ground in the Northwest

The next big trip for me will be the Labor Notes Conference coming up in Chicago April 4-6. About 1400 labor activists from around the country, and around the world, attended the last conference and it’s likely to be even bigger this time. The website has had literature tables at the last two LN events and it’s my goal to also have a bigger presence this time. The table will feature literature and buttons supporting the site’s twin focus of climate justice and the need for a labor party.

 While all the expenses are not yet known, my guess is this grand project might well total up to a couple of grand. That may sound modest enough for the next big thing but it’s more than can be found in the shallow pockets of a Social Security taker. When the going gets tough the tough start asking. If you can help out it would be much appreciated. You can find out how by visiting our donate page.

That’s all for this week.

Dec 012013

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

I had promised in the last Week In Review to take up the issues of the fight at Boeing, and the election of a socialist in Seattle in more depth in the next WIR. As you will see, this effort got out of hand a bit and I’m sending it out as an Extra. Another WIR will follow soon.

A new front in the class war is shaping up in the Pacific Northwest and its General Headquarters is in Seattle.

This combative description may clash with the city’s reputation. Like most stereotypes, there’s a kernel of truth to perceptions about Seattle marching to a less  hurried cadence. They hold the world record for coffee shops per capita and neither customers or staff seem as frantic as their counterparts in other major cities. Many commuters arrive in the city center after a leisurely ferry ride. Even in the Saturday crowds at Pike Place Market nobody tries to rush you. This atmosphere of laid back charm wins the hearts of most visitors–including me.

But the Seattle area is not primarily a tourist draw. It’s also a major center of trade and industry–such big names as Microsoft, Amazon, Costco, Starbucks, T-Mobile,  Weyerhaeuser, have their headquarters there. Boeing no longer has their corporate offices in the region but still employs tens of thousands of blue collar and professional workers in the area. There are hundreds of small company vassals supplying these masters. And metro Seattle remains a bustling port in global maritime trade.

Those who toil for these companies great and small seldom enjoy the stereotypical relaxed environment on the job, even when unionized. The class war–which in 1919 erupted in to the biggest general strike this country has ever seen–has all along remained sleepless in Seattle.

Preliminary Regional Bouts
The Great Recession and Jobless Recovery of the last six years emboldened the class that rules to go on the offensive in the Northwest in sectors where truce had prevailed for  generations.

In 2011, a multinational consortium opened the first new West Coast export grain terminal in 25 years. EGT–built with mostly nonunion labor–is in Port Longview on the Columbia River separating Washington and Oregon. EGT flouted the International Longshore &Warehouse Union’s eighty year history of jurisdiction over such work, signing a sweet heart deal with an AFL craft union.

The ILWU, with support from some other unions and Occupy, responded with mass picketing, blocking trains. Some grain wound up on the ground. Injunctions were obtained by the company and there were many arrests and fines during months of running confrontations with the forces of “law and order”–including the Coast Guard. The ILWU ultimately settled for a substandard contract for a handful of workers at the new terminal. Earlier this year, as the union’s existing grain terminal contracts up and down the coast expired, the bosses locked the ILWU workers out–a struggle still ongoing.

The Main Event
Now the growing hubris of the boss class has led Boeing to pick a fight with the biggest private sector union in the Seattle area. The city was once as dependent on the aviation giant as Detroit was on the Big Three automakers. The local economy is more diversified now but Boeing and its suppliers are still the prime source of blue collar manufacturing jobs. Those workers can’t all go write code at Microsoft.

A few weeks ago, Boeing summoned International and Local officials of the International Association of Machinists to secret meetings. The company wasn’t complaining about the quality or efficiency of their experienced, skilled workforce nor were they pleading poverty. In fact, they explained that their new 777X wide-body was getting an enthusiastic reception from the world’s airlines and they already had received advance orders totaling 95 billion dollars. Management would have to soon decide where this work will be done. They then laid out nonnegotiable conditions the union had to meet in order  to allow Seattle to be considered. They wanted to extend the existing contract, currently covering 33,000 workers, eight years with a number of take-aways kicking in in 2016. These included:

* replacing the current defined benefit pension with a 401(k)
* hefty increases in paycheck deductions for health insurance
* a revised progression schedule that would require new hires to work twenty years to get top rate
* general wage increases of only one percent–every other year

For Boeing, their take it or we leave you demand was win-win. If their IAM leadership “partners” succeeded in selling it, these give-backs would be a seachange in labor relations worth hundreds of millions to the boss over the long haul. If, as I’m sure management expected, the ranks saw it as an offer they could only refuse, the company could blame the union as they seek bids for the work elsewhere.

When Local union officers tried to explain this ultimatum to the ranks they got such an earful they dropped it like a hot knish. The president arranged a photo op of him tearing up the proposal and he declared the company should come back to the table. The International reps knew they had left nothing on the table and pushed for acceptance. But it was rejected by a two-to-one margin.

What Can Boeing Workers Do?
Boeing can not unilaterally change the conditions of the existing contract covering the Seattle area bargaining unit that remains in force for another two years. I don’t know if that contract has any provision for severance pay and benefits for jobs that may be eliminated before 2016. Labor law requires them to bargain over impact of full or partial plant shutdowns–but bargain, not results, is the only guarantee.

A few months ago, a knowledgeable socialist acquaintance from my Young Socialist Chicago days a half-century ago–who I hadn’t heard from for decades–tracked me down. He now follows, and is generally supportive of the WIR and we’ve corresponded about the Boeing crisis. He recently wrote,

“Boeing must be kept from moving. All the laws say it’s OK for them to do it. The laws must be broken. New law must be forged it battle. This is not just a worker’s issue though they are at the center of it and they must provide leadership cadres in the fight. But everyone should be mobilized.  When there is mass picketing at every Boeing factory round the clock Boeing will negotiate. When the money stops rolling in Boeing will agree to stay put and give real guarantees. A General Strike has to be organized. That and nothing less will save the working class of Seattle.”

Adding A Little Extra to Legal
I have no qualms about breaking unjust laws. We wouldn’t have unions today if past generations had not waged battles such as the semi-insurrections in the 1934 Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco strikes, and hundreds of sit-down strikes during the 1930s that challenged fundamental private property and management rights.

I do a workshop on the need for a Labor Party today that includes the screening of Labor’s Turning Point, an excellent documentary about the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes. It’s a graphic presentation of what workers were up against as they not only had to take on the employers and scabs but also the courts, the cops, and the National Guard in sometimes bloody confrontations that led to fatalities on both sides. They did what they had to do to win. That included building strong alliances with the unemployed, family farmers, and college students.

The labor upsurge during the 1930s–which briefly resumed for a couple of years following World War II–was  able to prevail because of widespread class consciousness and active class solidarity among workers with no personal stake in the outcome. That key ingredient is largely missing today. As our unions became mostly bureaucratized during the Cold War they  demobilized the ranks as well. They taught us to think of ourselves as “middle class,” not workers exploited by the boss.

And the American labor movement failed to carry through to the indicated next step of forming a party of our own as unions in Europe, Canada, and Australia did long ago. That’s why we don’t have socialized medicine like the British workers. We don’t have six weeks of vacation like the German workers. Our kids don’t get free higher education like the French workers. And we sure don’t have the threat of substantial government imposed financial penalties that discourage plant closings in many European countries.

But we didn’t just fail to get better laws. We got stuck with the worst laws. Taft-Hartley outlaws every effective union tactic from labor’s heyday–bar none. When we say American labor law is the most repressive of any industrialized country that’s not hyperbole–it’s the literal and painful truth. The ILWU got a fresh reminder of that in their fight against EGT in Port Longview.

We’ll Take That Deal Boss
An odious example of the deterioration of solidarity on the most basic level can be found on the other side of my home state Missouri. An article in the Missouri Times begins,

“Boeing Co., one of the largest employers in the state, is looking for a place to build its newly announced 777X commercial jet. Gov. Jay Nixon and other state lawmakers and business leaders are hoping to pitch Missouri, where 15,000 Boeing jobs already exist, as the home of the new jet.”

That’s to be expected. Continuing,

“Jeff Aboussie, Executive Secretary Treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council says he hoped the opportunity would unite unions with lawmakers who sometimes don’t always agree with them.”

No surprise there either. Trades bureaucrats would be happy to build the gallows for their own hanging. But there’s more, about the union representing Boeing workers in the St Louis area,

“The International Association of Machinists, the same labor union that declined a new contract from Boeing with pension changes that would have brought the 777X to Washington state, represents the Boeing assembly line workers in St. Louis. However, the IAM local 837 has not yet declined any arrangement and has publically supported consideration of the contract. One inside source who asked not to be identified discussing an internal matter says the local is currently considering approving the same package that the Seattle local just rejected.”

The Seattle Boeing workers have been getting support from unions and community in their home town. We should unconditionally back whatever tactics the targeted workers decide to pursue.

It’s also in order to suggest other strategies, such as the one my e-mail correspondent recommended, that have had success in the past and can again–under similar conditions. It doesn’t appear likely those conditions will come together in the short term–but you never know.  The 1934 strikes, and the Flint sit-downs took everybody by surprise.

For now, to prepare the revival of mass class solidarity needed to win big battles, I believe the task of class conscious workers is one of education, patiently explaining our perspective, engaging in fraternal discussion while doing the solidarity walk as well as talk.

That same basic approach is also appropriate to resurrecting the movement to complete the unfinished job of building a labor party. Needed official union support is paltry. That’s why labor party supporters in the Midwest, Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest are trying to regroup Labor Party Advocates.

Old time union organizers used to say–unions don’t organize workers, bosses do. That is if the employers treated their employees fairly the workers wouldn’t rock the boat by demanding a union. That same aphorism can be applied to political parties. During the salad days of Middle Class prosperity for many workers they followed the advice of their leaders in accepting the two official party alternatives as Divine Will. But that’s changed big time.

I opened an article I wrote a few weeks ago for Labor Standard with an excerpt from a Gallup Poll summary,

“Amid the government shutdown, 60 percent of Americans say the Democratic and Republicans parties do such a poor job of representing the American people that a third major party is needed. That is the highest Gallup has measured in the 10-year history of [Gallup asking] this question. A new low of 26 percent believe the two major parties adequately represent Americans. — October 11, 2013 Gallup Poll summary.”

As I argued in Labor Standard, this can give a big boost to promoting a labor party championing the interests of all working people.

There was another more decisive poll confirming this changed sentiment–at the ballot box in Seattle.

Shock and Awe Election
When the newly elected Seattle City Council is sworn in one of their number will be as red as the Sockeye Salmon so highly prized and protected in the region. I’m talking politics here, not skin pigment. Kshama Sawant is the first avowed socialist elected to office in Seattle since the early 1920s. Winning over 93,000 votes, she defeated a liberal Democrat who had held the seat for sixteen years.

She did this without expert political consultants. There were no focus groups. She told her victory rally “When you are challenging the status quo you cannot speak in sound bites. It takes time.” This red college professor confirmed that when you have something worthwhile to say even workers who may fidget in church or union meetings pay attention.

My friend and LPA supporter Ann Montague, a leader in the SEIU state employees union in Oregon, wrote a good wrap-up story in Labor Standard about the Sawant campaign. She was assisted with some on the scene reports by an even older friend and Labor Party Advocate in Seattle, Rita Shaw. Montague writes,

“Her grassroots campaign was rooted in the movement for $15 minimum wage, a millionaires tax to fund public transit and rent control. Sawant teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College and was an organizer for Occupy Seattle. She was arrested during foreclosure fights and supported the mass movement against coal trains and the building of the Gateway Pacific Terminal. She has pledged to give most of her $120,000 city council salary to the social movements in the Seattle area.”

(Voters in the nearby small town of SeaTac, named after the airport that serves the area, voted by a narrow margin to establish the 15 dollar minimum wage there.)

Back to Montague,

“Sawant is a member of AFT Local 1719 and they endorsed her along with CWA local 37083, APWU of Greater Seattle, IBEW local 46, AFSCME/WFSE local 1488. A majority of the King County Labor Council voted to endorse her but 2/3 was required for an official endorsement.“

Rita Shaw was part of the standing room only crowd of more than 500 at the campaign victory rally. She noted the venue was at a big SEIU hall that had not endorsed the campaign. King County Labor Council Executive Director David Freiboth spoke at the event even though he had supported Sawant’s opponent.

Montague again,

“The day after the victory party Sawant sent out an e-mail to all her supporters saying, ‘This is our fight, all of us,’ and calling on all her supporters to stand in solidarity with Boeing machinists at their rally that afternoon. She pointed out the Democratic controlled legislature had recently called a Special Session to offer Boeing $8 billion more dollars in tax breaks while demanding draconian cuts in wages and benefits. At the rally she spoke about the Boeing CEO threatening to leave Seattle. ‘The only response we can have if Boeing executives do not agree to keep the plant here is for the machinists to say the machines are here, the workers are here, we will do the job, we don’t need the executives. The executives don’t do the work, the machinists do. We can retool the machines to produce mass transit like buses.”’

Of course, a lone council member can’t turn things around. Expropriation and conversion of Boeing facilities isn’t going to happen anytime soon. But it is a concept that makes sense, an approach that will be needed for even broader application than taking over abandoned plants. Much of our economy is dedicated to war and/or contributing to the climate change crisis. Our future depends on massive conversion of industries to peaceful, sustainable use. And we need to guarantee suitable jobs and living standards for all during this transition. While we shouldn’t expect that Sawant alone can save Boeing jobs she is to be commended for promoting an overdue public discussion that can have impact down the road.

Sawant’s group, Socialist Alternative, who also ran an impressive runner-up campaign for Minneapolis City Council, said in an election night statement,

“We urgently need a party of working people, connected to social movements, fighting unions, community organizations, Greens and socialists. As a concrete step to get there, we should form coalitions throughout the country with the potential to come together on a national level to run 100 independent working-class candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections. The unions who supported the Moore and Sawant campaigns and many others should run full slates of independent working-class candidates in the mid-term, state, and local elections.”

Such an ambitious project, if it can be pulled off, could be a step forward toward the mass working class party so sorely needed. The grandmother of all labor parties–in Britain–provided for affiliation of movements and groups such as those mentioned by Socialist Alternative, as well as branches in communities open to individuals who shared the party’s goals.

But what made it a Labor Party–and what generated its main power–was that its solid foundation rested on genuine mass organizations–the unions.

The party of the most prominent socialist in American history, Eugene V Debs, once had over 100,000 dues paying members, and elected a number of candidates to office. But even during that high point for American socialism Debs promoted the need for a still broader Labor Party. What he wanted was clear,

“…a party with a backbone and the courage to stand up without apology and proclaim itself a Labor Party, clean, confident of its own inherent powers, bearing proudly the union label in token of its fundamental conquering principle of industrial and political solidarity.”

A lot has changed in technology and communication since the days of Debs. But class relations in the USA remain pretty much the same. The Labor Party question in my view is more relevant than ever.

We should salute the electoral victory of Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant as a rare win for our side. They deserve support in their coming efforts to advance working class interests in Seattle.

The heating up of the Northwest Front also provides a laboratory for testing ideas in action and a forum for discussing broader perspectives.