Jan 312014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

(Some of our readers abroad may be puzzling over the title of this WIR Extra. It is not a Latin motto; it’s the acronyms for President of the United States and State of the Union. POTUS’s SOTU Address Tuesday night warrants stand alone attention.)

Mission Almost Accomplished
The President took ownership of the Afghanistan war in his first term, soon carrying out an Iraq-style surge and intensifying the ultimately successful hunt for bin Laden–in Pakistan. Even though there have been more GI casualties during the Obama chapter than the seven years of Bush, being a Nobel Peace laureate as well as a presumed Friend of Labor and all good causes, seems to have provided POTUS with a remarkably effective Teflon coating on this life-and-death issue.

Tuesday night the President assured us the mission in Afghanistan–whatever that may have been–will be completed by the end of the year. All U.S. combat forces will be withdrawn by then. His goal is to soon negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement that would keep a relatively small number of GIs in Afghanistan for security and training tasks only.

The real original mission of the 2001 invasion was to “do something” in response to the 9/11 attacks for which bin Laden claimed “credit.” It soon was developed in to a new doctrine–modestly called the Bush Doctrine–serving notice on the world that the only remaining super-power reserves the right to intervene militarily anywhere, any time they please.

There was no expectation of a long drawn-out war that would ultimately last twice as long as America’s Vietnam war. The Taliban government was quickly routed. Victory seemed assured with only some mop-up–and kill/capture of bin Laden–remaining. Bush advisers were so pumped they immediately started planning the next imperial adventure in Iraq.

Their shock-and-awe foray looked initially promising there as well with the quick collapse of Iraqi forces and Saddam Hussein going in to hiding–eventually captured and executed. Most readers will remember the spectacle of President Bush landing on the deck of a Navy carrier under a huge banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.”

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and more than 4,000 Americans were killed after that stunt. As the Iraq war dragged on civil society was destroyed along with infrastructure and homes. Long dormant sectarian rivalries were revived and manipulated by the occupiers. Not a day goes by now in Iraq without sectarian violence claiming dozens of lives. That’s what Afghanistan will face as well when the Obama mission is complete.

The use of U.S. and allied forces made bad situations worse in both countries and their continued presence will not help anyone deserving. There’s no acceptable reason to wait for the end of the year–bring all the troops and contractors home now.

Well over a million Americans served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. One of those proclaimed heros was honored at SOTU. But while veterans are cheered by politicians and exploited by Big Business in television commercials, the fact is these men and women are treated shabbily by the government that sent them in to harm’s way. There was only fleeting, vague mention of this scandal in the President’s speech.

It’s the Economy POTUS
While the President, with the help of the media and too many who should know better, may be getting a pass on war the polls still show a big majority think the country is on the wrong track. Their main complaint isn’t same sex marriage or birth control. As Bill Clinton’s first campaign declared–it’s the economy, stupid.

Actually the President seems a bright guy–but so was Bush 1. As far as it went, POTUS gave a pretty good summary of the state of the economy,

“After four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”

The working class has suffered more than just stagnation. Record numbers depend on food stamps–a program again cut by bipartisan agreement just before the big speech. There are still more long term unemployed than at any time since the Great Depression–and extended unemployment benefits expired at the end of 2013. The Affordable Care Act has barely made a dent in the tens of millions of uninsured. Social Security monthly benefits–the principal income for a majority of retirees–have been frozen most years on Obama’s watch as their medical and drug costs soar. Student loan debt has grown to be bigger than car loan debt–with no guarantee of a job at graduation–as the Obama administration also pushes a privatization agenda in public K-12 schools. There’s a lot of hurt–and little hope–in my class today.

It doesn’t require the Ivy League education the President acquired to know that the appearance of empathy and an imaginative rechristening of worthless promises is the indicated response by the Establishment.

The only truly new proposal was MyRA. To encourage savings, workers not eligible for traditional Individual Retirement Accounts could have their employer deduct modest amounts  from their paychecks that would be used to buy secure government bonds.

Of course, this is a twist on very old, and sensible programs. At one time even kids could buy savings stamps at school to be pasted in to a book. When the book was filled it could be exchanged for a savings bond. My grandmother gave me a quarter every week to buy my stamps. Bonds could also be purchased without a fee at the Post Office. And many employers had payroll deductions for bonds. Buying bonds could be a safe supplement to Social Security and employer pensions in retirement.

All these programs went away with the creation of IRAs. The IRA has to be handled by a licenced administrator and usually they are also used to make investment decisions. The lion’s share goes in to the stock market–which of course can go down as well as up. The only certainty about an IRA are the administrator fees.

The IRA has been a boon to finance capital and the stock market and most employers have used them to not to supplement but to replace defined benefit pensions. The President wants to use bonds as a bridge for the working poor to IRAs–while at the same time advocating reducing Social Security benefits.

One highlight of the speech was the announcement of an executive order that all new Federal contracts with the private sector will require the workers on these jobs to be paid at least 10.10 per hour. The President also urged Congress to adopt this rate as the new Federal minimum wage.

The short-term impact of this will be zero. The executive order affects only future workers and Congressional action before the next SOTU is dubious. It is mainly a tactical maneuver to undercut the popular demand of a fifteen dollar an hour minimum.

While fifteen would be more than double the current 7.25 it is hardly a princely sum. It’s still five bucks below the average wage for nonsupervisory employees. But it would bring dramatic relief to the working poor and their increased consumer spending would be a big boost to the overall economy.

First raised in strikes and demonstrations by fast food and retail workers, there is a growing Fifteen Now movement in communities around the country. Even the Democrat Mayor of Seattle has joined the Socialist on the City Council in working for Fifteen as the minimum for that city. Voters in suburban Seatac established Fifteen in their airport community. More about these efforts can be found at the 15now.org website.

No Climate Surprise
Not so long ago we were reassured by prominent environmentalists that the President was going to make climate change a priority in his second term now that health care reform had been secured. POTUS did acknowledge that climate change is real and must be addressed. That’s a better attitude than expressed by the heads of state in Canada and Australia. But the soup ladled out in SOTU would have been derided as too thin at the Salvation Army.

The President promises to cut red tape to promote natural gas in manufacturing. The market for natural gas is of course driven by fracking, a process harmful to health and environment on many levels that negates any marginal greenhouse emission gains.

POTUS also requested Congress give tax incentives to companies switching heavy trucks to so-called “alternative fuels”–for example, natural gas.

There was no mention of his decision expected soon on the XL short cut to the Keystone Pipeline bringing the world’s dirtiest hydrocarbons from the Alberta tar-sands.

The day following the big speech, documents released by Edward Snowden were published revealing how the NSA spied on delegates at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, supplying valuable information to POTUS in his wrecking any chances for a meaningful agreement there. Even the ever hopeful Bill McKibben was outraged by that revelation.

Wired Up Kids
The President was enthusiastic about a component of his privatization strategy for present public education. The first to benefit from extension of high speed internet access to twenty million more students in 15,000 K-12 schools will be private partners Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon. Many states and local districts are already buying lap-tops or pads for every student to use this new asset.

The long term goal, not yet discussed beyond think tanks, goes far beyond students accessing Google and Wikipedia. They dream of replacing most classroom teachers–maybe even physical classrooms eventually–with national streaming of talented teachers of every subject who made the audition cut to every pupil’s i-Pad.

The leaders of America’s labor movement also like to use the latest technology. The AFL blog carried a live feed of twits from president Trumka and other labor luminaries during the speech.  Their remarks were as insightful as kids in church whispering during the homily.

The official opposition was granted free time by the networks to respond. This was shared by four including a reach out to their weakest voting blocs by a Latina speaking in Spanish.

The highest ranking elected Socialist was not offered any air time but Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant was spot on with a YouTube response following SOTU. You can access both the video and text of her remarks, well worth checking out, here.

I’ve given you some reading material for any gaps in the Big Game Weekend and cleared the decks for the next WIR.

That’s all for this Extra.

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Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Jan 282014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

What Goes Around…
These two stories were posted on our Labor Advocate news updates last Tuesday:

CO2 emissions are being ‘outsourced’ by rich countries
China pollution wafting across Pacific to blanket US

If we were talking about NFL football these might be considered offsetting fouls requiring no penalty. Unfortunately, the topic is actually threat to the air humans breathe and the accumulation of greenhouse gas that is changing the planet’s climate. It’s more a classic case of what goes around comes around.

The rich countries have caught a break because of wind patterns in another big outsource–Beijing’s Bad Air Would Be Step Up for Smoggy Delhi. India doesn’t share their pollution as generously as the Chinese.

Some are in a position to adjust to such unpleasantness creeping in to the countries deemed rich. If the French Riviera loses its charm Russian multi-billionaire Roman Abramovitch can give new sailing orders to the captain of the Eclipse, the world’s largest private yacht–bigger than a Navy frigate. Roman is one of eighty-five individuals identified by an Oxfam study as being blessed with a collective net worth nearly as big as that of fifty percent of the world’s population.

Though I live in the richest country in history, my personal net worth wouldn’t cover the fuel cost to move the Eclipse from Nice to Capri. I suspect most readers are in the same class boat. Our lack of both social and physical escape mobility means confronting the reality of the threat to our biosphere as well as income inequality.

President Obama is expected to take up both issues in his State of the Union Address tonight. I will comment on the action plan of the leader of the Free Enterprise World in the next WIR.

There’s some similarities between recent contract votes at Boeing in Seattle and nationally at YRC Worldwide. Both are extended long term contracts laden with concessions. Both had their initial demands soundly rejected by union ranks. Each company prevailed in a second vote with the assistance of the national union leadership involved.

Boeing is highly profitable and demanded give-backs just because they could. YRC W is a different kettle of fish. The old, stable Yellow Freight headquartered in suburban Kansas City became transformed in to a global conglomerate, acquiring Roadway about ten years ago, and then several smaller American outfits as well as major stakes in two Chinese logistics companies.

Overextended when the Grear Recession hit they were saved from bankruptcy by Teamsters agreement to substantial “temporary” wage cuts.

More recently, the company again warned of new cash shortage that wouldn’t get them past this year. They claimed to have creditors lined up to keep them going–but only if the union signed on to a long term extension with some further give-backs. Like Boeing at first, YRC W presented this as an ultimatum with no negotiation with the union. That was a tactical mistake on the carrier’s part and they lost that round as 61 percent of union members voting said no.

The Teamsters national leadership then encouraged the company to make some minor adjustments and they both campaigned hard among the 26,000 Teamsters for acceptance. On Sunday the vote results were announced: 12,267 in favor to 6,314 against.

A Kansas City Star report by Mark Davis says,

“With the vote, Teamsters workers agreed to extend into March 2019 the 15 percent pay cut they’ve lived with since 2009 as well as reduced pension contributions from YRC Worldwide. The new pact also adds concessions on raises for this year and next, among other changes.”

Reuters quoted Teamsters president Jim Hoffa,

“This was a very difficult vote for our members, but in the end they did what they believe will give this company the best chance to stay in business and protect their jobs….Now we will hold management’s feet to the fire to make sure our members’ jobs are protected.”

The track record of give-backs saving jobs is not good. For example, the Teamsters and other unions tried for years to prop up Interstate Bakeries (Wonder/Hostess) with deep concessions only to eventually face bankruptcy liquidation and loss of all union jobs.

A better option would be to nationalize this trucking giant before it gets sucked completely dry and turn it around under worker management.

Maybe They’ll Get Left Overs From Davos
I don’t know how they dispose of any fish eggs or truffles remaining when the Mountain Few of the annual Swiss conclave of the rich and famous, aka World Economic Forum, go home.  I’m sure the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, DC would appreciate anything they could send their way. Executive director Nancy Roman told the New York Times,

“We are going to increase our efforts to get more donations and try to serve as many people as possible, given our resources. But make no mistake, if the food stamp program is cut, we’re going to see much longer lines of people seeking help with their food budgets, and we can’t help them all.”

Food stamps, or SNAP as they are now known, got cut by an average of 38 dollars a month last November when Congress allowed a stimulus bill to expire. A new bipartisan deal between the House and Senate Agriculture committees announced Monday would trim another one percent off the food safety net–but its fate is uncertain in the House where the cracked tea pots are demanding much greater slashes.

Meanwhile the other end of the safety net–unemployment insurance–is unraveling at alarming speed. After Congress allowed funding for extended benefits beyond 26 weeks to expire at the end of 2013 the states, as expected, followed suit.

North Carolina went farther earlier by capping the benefit at 20 weeks and reducing the dollar payments. Those wielding the hatchet in Raleigh point to a big drop in the unemployment rate. But BLS figures show that for every worker getting a job two are dropping out of job search.

President Obama recently visited North Carolina to announce a plan. It didn’t feature a promise of jobs or even restored unemployment insurance. But the state is going to get a public/private venture “manufacturing research center.” Perhaps when they figure out how to make things they will share their findings with he rest of us.

Size Matters
Teachers in British Columbia have long battled attacks on wages and conditions by Liberal provincial governments. One law of particular outrage banned them from negotiating the number of students in class. They fought back both through “illegal” strikes and court action. They have just won a second major judicial victory. From The Canadian Press,

“B.C. Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin ruled the government didn’t negotiate in good faith with the union after a court decision struck down the original legislation in 2011. In a ruling released Monday, Griffin said the government’s strategy was to provoke a strike by the union, giving the government support for imposing legislation on the B.C. Teachers Federation. The judge says Monday’s decision means the deleted terms in the teachers’ collective agreement, such as class size, have been retroactively restored and can also be the subject of future bargaining. Griffin said it was appropriate to award damages of $2-million against the government in relation to its unlawful actions in extending the unconstitutional prohibitions.”

This award will also be cheered by teacher unions south of the border. It will be of particular interest to the Chicago Teachers Union who are barred by the Illinois legislature from negotiating class size in Chicago Public Schools.

That’s all for this week.
Free digital subscription to the Week In Review is available through RSS and Yahoo Group Mail.

Our sole source of income is reader contributions. If you can help please visit the KC Labor Donate page.

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member