Feb 252014

onaschoutsmall by Bill Onasch

Shock Treatment For Denial
A map prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the eastern United States was in the grip of one of the coldest deviations from average January temperature on the entire planet. That will come as no surprise to most readers–and February is on a similar track.

But NOAA also reports that on a global scale this January was the fourth warmest ever recorded. It also marked the 347th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th-century average.

England has been experiencing the worst flooding since they started keeping records there.  Heavy rains in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay have caused the overflowing of rivers, displaced thousands of habitants from their homes, destroyed crops and killed people and animals.

But no relief is in sight for parched California. The entire state is suffering varying degrees of drought and desperate farmers can’t get irrigation water for crops and pasture. There’s a big sell off of cattle due to dried up grazing land and almond growers are felling and plowing under their groves. The Central Valley that attracted environmental refugees from the 1930s Midwest Dust Bowl, chronicled in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, is now seeing farmers and farm workers beginning to leave in search of greener pastures, or new occupations, elsewhere. As a result of this disaster food prices are already spiking across the country.

A similar drought in Brazil has made soybeans more expensive and driven the price of coffee up forty percent this year.

All of this is consistent with the predictions and warnings of climate science. Our climate is in distress; it is changing; the changes are unwelcome–and this is mainly caused by burning fossil fuels. Those who continue to deny this despite accumulating evidence do so out of ignorance or fear–or because they profit from this destruction of our biosphere.

Secretary of State Kerry last week blasted the global warming deniers–in remarks made in China. The Chinese regime does not deny global warming and have in fact been a leader in developing alternative energy such as solar and wind. But they use all energy available to them to support their vast and growing economy–fueled in large part by work offshored by American manufacturers. Several years ago China overtook the USA as the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions. My country must now be content to run neck-and-neck with Australia as the top per capita carbon polluter–with Canada trying to break away from the pack to go for the Bronze.

Secretary Kerry is in a position to do something both substantial and dramatic about global warming. He can reject the rubber stamp approval of the Keystone XL pipeline granted in an environmental impact study by his State Department. We shall see.

After a first term that featured loosening restrictions on off-shore drilling and promoting the ethanol scam, President Obama has talked more about climate change in his second. On Thursday, using a duplicitous excuse of reducing carbon emissions, he approved  a 6.5 billion dollar loan for Georgia utilities to build the nation’s first new nuclear power reactors in more than three decades.

There are, of course, good reasons why there have been no new nukes here for over thirty years–and Germany is phasing out all nuclear power there. Three Mile Island is what soured Americans and since then we have seen Chernobyl and Fukushima. There was a new leak of 100 metric tons of highly radioactive water at Fukushima just this past week. It is no where near under control.

Besides the threat of catastrophic reactor accidents is the fact that there are no known methods of safe, secure storage of waste that can remain dangerous for centuries. This brief AP dispatch was buried in papers yesterday,

“More airborne radiation has been detected in southeastern New Mexico from a leak at the nation’s first underground nuclear waste dump. The federal Energy Department said Monday that the results were from samples collected last week at air monitoring stations at and around the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. Last week, federal officials confirmed the first-ever leak at the facility. It stores plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other government nuclear sites. Officials say there is no public health threat. Waste shipments to the site were halted this month after a truck caught fire underground. Officials say they did not think the incidents were related.”

And–in a reminder that nuclear energy is not renewable–the Navajo nation is mobilizing against plans to open a new uranium mine on their sacred ground in New Mexico.

German nukes are being shut down in response to a mass movement against them. Had a Republican subsidized a resumption of this both profitable and dangerous source of energy there would have been a massive outcry from those who drive hybrids and go on nature hikes. But complaints from the Pale Greens about this green-washed Democrat they helped elect have been as muted as Miles Davis’s trumpet.

While climate change is overarching, we can’t afford to neglect other impacts of fossil fuels on our environment.

Strip mining is not as vulnerable to catastrophic accidents as underground but that doesn’t mean it’s free from serious health threats to miners–and their families and neighbors. Ken Ward Jr, in his excellent Coal Tattoo blog in the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette, cites a peer reviewed study published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology,

“People who live in Appalachian areas where coal mining is prominent have increased health problems compared with people in non-mining areas of Appalachia…. Coal mines and related mining activities result in the production of atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that is associated with human health effects.”

These problems include respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Even after the coal is burned it’s still nasty stuff. Pollution controls on smokestacks concentrate  arsenic, heavy metals and other dangerous things in the ash left behind. A small portion of this hazardous waste is recycled in to products such as asphalt but a lot of it is simply dumped in to storage ponds.

On February 5, a pipe at one such Duke Energy pond in Eden, North Carolina ruptured, dumping 82,000 tons of ash in to the Dan River. More spills have since followed and more than seventy miles of the river bed and banks was coated with a grey toxic mess.

Chances are there is such a pond near you. There are at least six hundred of them in the USA.

And here’s a little update on those Alberta tar-sands blessed as kosher by the State Department. The CBC reported last week,

“New federal research confirms that Alberta’s oilsands are polluting ground water and seeping into the Athabasca River. The industry has maintained that toxic chemicals are contained safely in tailing ponds, but new research shows this isn’t the case.”

The polluters lied–what a shock.

Collectively, these incidents and trends over just the past few weeks that I have cited point to a climate/environmental  emergency. But don’t bother to call 911. The abusive custodians of our biosphere are prospering from a fossil based economy. They dominate not only industry and commerce but all things political, the mass media, and have made universities and churches dependent on their generosity. They are not going to voluntarily abandon their unprecedented wealth and power to do the right thing. Somebody has to take them out.

Looking around, I don’t see anybody with the power to do that except us–the ones who do all the work. The working class can no longer afford to be passive or even content with playing a supportive role. We’re going to have to build a working class-led environmental movement to save the day.

The long established Blue Green Alliance, a loose formation of the top bureaucratic echelons of a few unions and Pale Green groups, hasn’t done much and likely won’t. There are unions, such as National Nurses United, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and SEIU, who have contributed significant official support to the movement against Keystone XL.

There are some other initiatives in the union movement that show promise. One is Trade Unions for Energy Democracy who describe themselves, “a global, multi-sector initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and the repression of workers’ rights and protections.” They have an impressive list of union affiliates from around the world, including the USA.

The Labor Network for Sustainability, whose slogan is “making a living on a living planet,” say, “Labor Network for Sustainability is dedicated to engaging trade unions, workers and our allies to support economic, social, and environmental sustainability. LNS provides a community for those in the labor and sustainability movements and their allies who care about economic justice, ecology, and equality. Our members are helping labor become a force for advancing worker interests – while advancing the broader social good.”

I’ve participated in a more modest network of climate savvy labor activists in the Midwest, the Alliance for Class & Climate Justice. All of these forces will undoubtedly be represented at the April 4-6 Labor Notes Conference in Chicago. It should be a good opportunity to start to take the next indicated step–a worker-led environmental movement for a sustainable and full employment society. I hope to see you there.

In Brief…
* AFT organizer Dawn Tefft reports in Labor Notes on a two-day strike by both tenure and adjunct faculty at the University of Illinois Chicago campus. They are seeking a first contract to cover both units.
* There have been some additional good articles on the UAW debacle in Chattanooga by Steve Early, Mike Elk, and Sam Gindin.
* The NLRB has certified the California Nurses Association to bargain for 800 RNs at the Bay Area’s biggest private hospital, Sutter’s California Pacific Medical Center’s Pacific campus.
* The UE reports, “By a margin of nearly 2 to 1 over the incumbent company union, Renzenberger rail crew drivers at more than 30 rail yards covering the length of California have voted in a mail-ballot election to be represented by UE. Like Renzenberger drivers who have previously joined UE in Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey and Ohio, these workers suffered from low wages, outrageously unfair work rules, abusive bosses, and lack of benefits.”
* It only took 38 years but the writers for the self-described pro-labor In These Times are now members of the CWA Newspaper Guild. The primarily grant-driven employer did not oppose the organizing effort.

That’s all for this week.
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Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Feb 202014

onaschoutsmall by Bill Onasch

Retro Cool
Long dissed by promoters of “light” rail, streetcars are now being widely marketed as cool and Green. I don’t have any credentials for designating cool but I have some strong opinions, based on study and personal experience, about the conditions that could make streetcars useful today. While this article focuses on Kansas City, I think the basic issues and arguments are applicable throughout most of North America.


After decades of studies; voter rejection of several past light rail proposals; voter approval of a loony tunes light rail proposal by a gadfly skilled in gathering signatures that was later tossed out by the City Council; actual construction has begun on a 2-mile “starter” streetcar line running through downtown Kansas City. Tracks are being laid at great expense on streets well served by buses. This streetcar to nowhere in particular is identical to an earlier light rail plan that the then Mayor accurately characterized as “touristy froo-froo.”

The fact that this project has been taken on by City Hall rather than the transit agency designated for the metropolitan area is a telling clue that its mission is one of tax payer supported “development” favoring the rich and famous rather than improving shamefully neglected transit service. The decision not to use ATA unionized workers to operate and maintain the new streetcars is the opening salvo in a war already declared on the Amalgamated Transit Union by the City Manager.


This devious return of the streetcar as stalking horse for greed also signifies a return to crisis for Kansas City area transit. It needs to be countered by explaining the truth to the public–and mobilizing transit workers and riders, the rest of the labor movement and environmentalists, students and senior citizens, to force the politicians to back off. Once we secure what we have, these same forces can compel action to greatly expand and improve genuine transit. 

Before going further I think it would be useful to put our present predicament in some historical context.

Getting to the End of the Line
As well as being the country’s number two rail center, as it remains today, by the beginning of the Twentieth Century Kansas City already featured an extensive electrified street railway and Inter-Urban system.

At the time this considerable capital investment was undertaken there were no motor buses and the streets themselves were of poor quality. Steel wheels running on steel rails were the only viable option for urban mass transit.

Much of Kansas City’s streetcar network utilized long stretches of private right of way, involving innovative bridges, tunnels, and elevated sections.  Some of this was still in use as I was growing up in the Fifties. As a kid I always looked forward to riding on the elevated span across the stockyards where “cowboys” could be seen herding livestock to their demise.

A few lines offered 24 hour “owl service” while others used the wee hours to move freight. Electric switch engines took loads of lumber and furniture from the Frisco Dodson yard to customers along Wornall and, across the old Trolley Bridge, to Westport. They also moved cement from Lone Star in Bonner Springs,  via an old Inter-Urban line connecting with Kansas Avenue, to building contractors in Armourdale.


In 1938, the Public Service Company started converting some lines that ran only on streets to trolley buses. These combined the numerous advantages of electric power with much of the flexibility of a bus. The heavily used Prospect line had a dual set of wires that allowed rush hour express buses to pass up local service.

Most lines ran around the clock during the wartime industrial mobilization and ridership for the whole system peaked in 1948. About that time the last new track was laid extending the Troost line from 55th to 63rd.

But in less than a decade it was all gone. On a sad Saturday in June, 1957 I spent several hours riding the Country Club and Dodson lines on the last day that Kansas City streetcars ran. The following year the plug was pulled on the trolley buses as well. The impressive electrified system that had worked well to the end was finally completely destroyed, totally replaced by diesel and propane powered buses.

The Public Service Company didn’t last much longer. In 1960 it changed hands and name to Kansas City Transit. In 1969, the assets of the virtually bankrupt KC Transit became the catalyst for today’s quasi-public Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. The new ATA was a special bistate compact, including seven counties in Missouri and Kansas, created by Congress under the umbrella of the recently passed Urban Mass Transit Act.

A Costly Arranged Marriage
The decimation of a once thriving transit system was not unique to Kansas City. From the 1950s on it became the norm in all but a handful of U.S. cities. Only the passage of the Urban Mass Transit Act during the Nixon administration, providing some Federal capital and operating assistance, saved many areas from a complete loss of transit service. What survived was usually pretty bare bones.

The Establishment’s explanation of a far greater decline in transit than in any other industrialized country is “America’s Love Affair With the Car.” But this was not monogamous  love at first sight. Cars coexisted with streetcars in to the Fifties. What blossomed then was not romantic fidelity but a carefully orchestrated car dependency.

One component of the plan was the takeover of dozens of local streetcar companies by a consortium–including General Motors, Firestone, and Philips Petroleum as silent investors– for the sole purpose of wrecking them. In this they were highly successful. The remnants of the remaining systems bought buses, tires, and fuel from them. But this conniving was only a segue in to a grander scheme that has had a wide range of adverse impacts on society–Urban Sprawl.

Abandoning the Core
When Europe started rebuilding after the devastation of World War II most cities opted to replicate what had been lost, maintaining their urban density and devoting considerable resources to their transit systems. Postwar America took a much different route.

The U.S. homeland hadn’t suffered damage during the war but returning American GIs, who would soon launch the Baby Boom, nevertheless found an acute housing shortage. During fifteen continuous years of Depression and War little new housing had been built and much existing had fallen in to disrepair. But instead of building and renovating in existing urban cores speculators used war profits to buy up cheap “undeveloped” land surrounding cities with the aim of building new suburbs of single-family houses with lawns and flowers.

Some of the “undeveloped” land acquired had supplied the city with fresh milk, eggs, and vegetables. Today these products usually come from sources hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

The developers also cleared away natural forests and wetlands not knowing, or not caring that this would bring unwelcome ecological changes.

Their new projects were far beyond existing streetcar and bus service but this they saw as a bonus, not a problem.

The national trend of Sprawl could not have succeeded without politicians providing enormous tax payer subsidies that included affordable VA and FHA mortgage loan guarantees, extension of freeways and tollways off the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System to the new housing, and state and Federal assistance for establishing new schools, police, and fire departments.

Kansas City tried to avoid the situation St Louis faced–sealed off from expansion by a solid ring of suburban towns–by carrying out a series of vast annexations to the north, east and south that increased the city’s area by a mind-boggling 500 percent. But population density plunged so much that the 2010 census showed an increase of less than one percent over the 1950 count.

Of course, it wasn’t just construction contractors and banks that reaped big rewards from Sprawl. In the Fifties working class households typically had one car at most. Today there are more cars and light trucks registered in this country than there are licensed drivers. The dearth of public transit outside the now largely depleted urban cores has established a new goal of a personal car for every individual of driving age.

Along with this car dependency, induced not by love but Sprawl, has come enormous consumption of gasoline leading to not only increasingly frequent ozone alerts but, most importantly, greenhouse gas emissions producing climate change.

Ultimately, to meet the challenge of climate change, the curse of Sprawl needs to be reversed by rebuilding liveable urban cores. That’s a big task beyond the scope of this article. But an important component is expanding the scale and quality of mass transit–and that’s doable now.

Are Streetcars Green?
Electric propulsion is superior in every way to diesel–including greatly reducing greenhouse emissions. Where streetcars have remained in service–such as Philadelphia and San Francisco–they should be kept running. If new lines are projected to run primarily over private right-of-ways–such as the highly successful MetroLink in St Louis and Hiawatha line in Minneapolis–they will be worth every penny of the considerable capital investment and maintenance involved. In both St Louis and Minneapolis these achievements were planned and are directed by the local equivalents of the ATA and the work is done by members of the same ATU Locals representing bus operations.

Trackless Trolleys
But for routes projected to run on streets there is a better and far less costly electric option–the trolley bus. As I mentioned earlier they were once effectively used in Kansas City. They are common in Europe, used in most major Canadian cities, and are key parts of transit in Philadelphia, Dayton, Seattle and San Francisco.

Trolley buses would be ideal for high volume routes in Kansas City such as on Main, Troost, Prospect, and Independence Avenue. But since they don’t fit the image of touristy froo-froo they have not even been considered by the transit experts at the Chamber of Commerce or their branch office at City Hall.

A Plan of Our Own
So far, official transit proposals in Kansas City have always been presented in take it or leave it form, to be either approved without prior input or possibility of change–or rejected. So far, they have been rejected–and that’s what voters should do again in August when the vote comes up to authorize new taxes in a new tax district to pay for expansion beyond the done deal “starter” streetcar line.

But this time rejection should be followed by a positive initiative from the grassroots. Instead of schemes to assist the monied interests who are represented so well at City Hall a plan for expanded, environmentally friendly, secure mass transit, that can get people where they want to go, when they want to go, at an affordable cost should be pulled together.

Transit riders and workers whose common interests are visibly reaffirmed every day can initiate  such efforts but will need to reach out to allies who can be won over throughout the community. In fact, there is no reason to wait until the outcome of the August vote to start this process leading to a transit alternative to development scams.

But Wait, There’s More
Unfortunately, the streetcar boondoggle is not the only threat in the revival of the Kansas City transit crisis. Kansas City, Missouri is by far the biggest user of the ATA’s Metro bus service.  At an interest (contract) arbitration hearing between the ATA and ATU Local 1287, City Manager Troy Schulte announced his intention to cancel City contracts for forty percent of Metro routes. The City would replace this service with a new workforce and management and most likely second-hand buses. He claims to have the full support of the Mayor and City Council. One Council member was a long time general manager of the ATA.

This would be a debilitating blow to a Metro already shrunken by numerous service reductions.  It would mean the loss of about 250 middle class jobs, many held by African-Americans who would face tough prospects for finding similar pay and benefits. It’s a union busting outsourcing pure and simple. They may be mostly Democrats at City Hall but their attitude toward working people is no different than the Tea Party.

ATU 1287 is preparing to mobilize against this attack on vital public service and public service workers. They have even stirred up some of us retirees. It’s a fight ATU members can’t afford to lose–and neither can the working class community.

Bill Onasch is a retired Metro bus driver and a former Vice-President of ATU Local 1287.


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