Mar 162014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

 Behind the Hype and Outrage
It will be a long, tortuous process, likely downsized along the way, but the President’s executive order that the Department of Labor overhaul overtime rules brought cheers from the House of Labor and fighting words from the Chamber of Commerce. It was also denounced by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives as “an end run around Congress.”

The last changes in overtime rules also came through executive order evading a divided Congress. In 2004, President Bush II expanded the definitions of “professional” and “managerial” to reclassify millions of low wage workers. The same order lowered the minimum income line for “salaried” worker exemption from the overtime premium of the Fair Labor Standards Act to 455 dollars a week–23,660 dollars a year.

After a period of “public comment,” the DoL will raise the bar for exempting employees to a yet to be proposed new limit. California has the highest state cut-off, presently 640 dollars a week, scheduled to go up to 800 in 2016. New York is currently  600, bumping up to 675 in two years. Millions of fast food, retail, bank, call center, and computer technician workers could benefit but the New York Times cautions, “…it is possible that strong opposition could cause Mr. Obama to scale back his proposal.”

Why is this fix coming only in the second year of Obama’s second term? The President explained it would have been wrong to move while the country was in recession but now that job totals have returned to pre-recession levels (more about that later) it is appropriate to make such adjustments. In his Saturday morning radio address, labor’s White House “friend” also lamented that employers trying to do the right thing by paying time-and-a-half for over forty face unfair competition from those who don’t. These motivations will undoubtedly be twisted by the GOP to support the Chamber arguments that raising wages kills jobs.

Of course, bosses don’t hire just because labor is cheap. They expand their workforce when they need more work to be done to enhance their profits. But they certainly take advantage of mass unemployment and worker anxiety to reduce wages and benefits–and they’ve done an effective job. Complete figures for 2013 are not yet available but in 2012 worker wages were only 42.6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product–an all-time low–while profits set new record heights.

Floyd Norris has an article in the Saturday New York Times entitled Private Employment Slowly Reclaims Pre-Downturn Peak. He duly notes,

“In February, the government reported last week, 115,848,000 people were employed by the private sector, just 129,000 fewer than the peak set in January 2008, just after what became known as the Great Recession began. That is well below the average gain in recent months.”

Norris makes some good points about the length of this recession and weakness of rebound compared to past postwar downturns and includes some useful charts. He acknowledges one important caveat–public sector employment is down 2.4 percent from 2008.

With the destruction of the US Postal Service just getting started, growing municipal bankruptcies, and even proposed cuts in the traditional employer of last resort, the US Army,  it seems likely the public sector will decline further, not recover.

This claim of restored employment levels also ignores other important factors such as population growth over the past six years and the surge in part-time and temporary work. Even if the quantitative 2008 level is reached it is a qualitatively different labor force and labor market that will leave our class with a lower living standard and less job and income security. Bush II was the captain who initially steered us in to recession but it’s been on Obama’s watch that the qualitative, long run damage to the working class has been done while the ruling class has never had it so good.

The Fair Labor Standards Act needs major reform–in both hours and wages–going far beyond the tinkering of the executive order or the President’s 10.10 minimum wage proposal.

The FLSA does not reflect the ongoing exponential growth of worker productivity since its enforcement began seventy-four years ago. A fair standard today would be a six-hour work day with no reduction in present pay–as well as four weeks of guaranteed paid vacation, and full pay for health related absences.

Because the minimum wage has not kept anywhere near the pace of inflation it is today poverty level. Even 10.10 is still inadequate. We need a minimum wage of at least fifteen dollars an hour–indexed to the inflation rate.

These reforms would not put the Job Creators out of business but it would force them to create jobs. This would also provide us with more time for “what we will,” and offer most of today’s working poor a better life.

The richest ruling class in history, who doggedly oppose even the President’s milk toast executive order, will, of course, fight such a perspective tooth and nail. These objectives cannot be completely won piecemeal through isolated workplace battles, even by the minority of the working class presently organized in unions. We need to cover all workers by law to achieve these goals.

Since there is no significant sector of the present Twin Party Establishment who would touch  such needed comprehensive reforms with a ten-foot pole, the only viable option is a mass working class party of our own. In our present situation, the logical launching pad for such a party is our only class-based mass movement–our unions. Reviving the labor party movement is essential.

Certainly we should not neglect more limited struggles. One of the most important and high profile is the determination of super-exploited fast food and retail workers fighting for Fifteen and a Union. If you are in the Kansas City area, I hope I will see you at a support action called by Jobs with Justice at a McDonald’s this Tuesday, from 11:45-12:30. We’ll gather in the parking lot of the Walgreens at 39 & Broadway. There is also a vibrant movement for a fifteen dollar minimum wage in Seattle. Other important local battles are being waged to defend public education, our Postal Service and public transit. Some of our unions are involved, even initiating such actions in a new spirit of revival.

The kind of labor party envisioned by Labor Party Advocates would build these struggles–and in so doing would build itself. We need a coordinated class struggle in the workplace, community, and political arenas.

I am certain that the upcoming Labor Notes Conference will provide much information and inspiration about the workplace and community fights. That alone makes it well worth attending.  It is my hope that the political challenges can be part of the plenary, workshop, and interest group discussion generated there as well.

In Brief…
* The British workers movement lost two historic figures last week. Tony Benn, who renounced his entitlement to a peerage to remain a leader of the socialist left within the Labor Party passed away at age 88. Bob Crow, militant general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, died unexpectedly from a heart attack. He was only 52.
* International Viewpoint reports that 50,000 participated in a March for Peace in Moscow Saturday–ten rimes bigger than a prowar demonstration. Other antiwar actions took place in Peterburg, Ekaterinburg and Nizny Novgorod. Among the speakers at the Moscow rally were a Ukrainian peace activist and Nadya Tolokonnikova from Pussy Riot.
* From the Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune, “Police and state health officials are investigating the illegal dumping of radioactive filter socks in an abandoned gas station in the tiny remote town of Noonan in Divide County….Socks used to filter oil production fluids are banned from disposal in North Dakota because they concentrate naturally-occurring radiation.”
* An AP dispatch from Aliceville, Alabama, “Environmental regulators promised an aggressive cleanup after a tanker train hauling 2.9 million gallons of crude oil derailed and burned in a west Alabama swamp in early November amid a string of North American oil train crashes. So why is dark, smelly crude oil still oozing into the water four months later? The isolated wetland smelled like a garage when a reporter from The Associated Press visited last week, and the charred skeletons of burned trees rose out of water covered with an iridescent sheen and swirling, weathered oil. A snake and a few minnows were some of the few signs of life. An environmental group now says it has found ominous traces of oil moving downstream along an unnamed tributary toward a big creek and the Tombigbee River, less than 3 miles away. And the mayor of a North Dakota town where a similar crash occurred in December fears ongoing oil pollution problems in his community, too.”
* It wasn’t the roasting chestnuts that prompted a New York Times dispatch that opened, “Parisians taking public transportation to work on Friday were surprised and delighted to find free subways and buses for the next three days, but the reason was a bit less cheerful: Air pollution had reached an unusually high level and was expected to continue unabated through the weekend.”
* Thanks to my old friend Peter Rachleff for drawing my attention to a Madison Capital Times  story that began, “The solidarity singers who gather daily at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison have a pair of surprise guest musicians joining their chorus — Pussy Riot. Two members of the notorious Russian female rock group known for their outspoken protests, Nadya Tolokonikova and Masha Alyokhina, make a surprise appearance in a new video extolling Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to drop the state’s prosecution against the singing protesters.”
* The White House was very pleased with Affordable Care Act enrollment progress. The percentage of uninsured Americans plunged from seventeen percent–to a mere 15.9. One possible problem that they hope is not a trend is that a significant number of those who signed up for plans failed to pay their first month premium.

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

Mar 102014

onaschoutsmall by Bill Onasch

Solidarity Shown, Solidarity Needed
Between the demands of my wife Mary’s home-based business office–and her online shopping–we see a steady stream of UPS drivers at our front door. Not only are they reliable in their pickups and deliveries; they are invariably courteous, even cheerful. This is remarkable given the stories they tell when they are off duty. The challenges of serving a sometimes less than courteous and cheerful public are nothing compared to the treatment by their employer they, along with those who load and unload the brown package cars and otr trailers, endure. Every once in a while this constantly simmering labor relations pot boils over–as it did two weeks ago at Maspeth Queens, New York.

The Teamsters contract with UPS has an “innocent until proven guilty” provision that, except in extreme circumstances, guarantees workers slated for discharge remain on the job while their grievance is processed. Local 804 representing Maspeth workers summarizes the incident,

“On Feb. 26, UPS fired a Maspeth driver and long-time union activist and denied him his ‘Innocent Until Proven Guilty’ rights. What should have been a routine disciplinary matter exploded into a full-blown crisis, because UPS once again violated our basic rights under the contract. 250 drivers walked off the job in protest. Local 804 has been in talks with UPS management to try to resolve the dispute and address the underlying  problems that led to it. We held several meetings and we were making progress toward an agreement. Instead of completing these talks, UPS unilaterally announced it was firing 250 drivers. Continuing down this road does not serve UPS, its brand, or our customers. Local 804 remains committed to resolving this dispute through negotiations.”

The protest by the 250 drivers was relatively brief and all their packages got delivered. They are working now but will be fired later unless they get a just resolution to their grievance. The Teamsters for a Democratic Union site reports,

“In response, elected officials and labor-community supporters are rallying behind the drivers. Political leaders are contacting UPS and a online support petition has been launched by community supporters. Click here to sign the online petition to support Local 804 members who face termination.”

Third Class Transit In a World Class City
I don’t apply the World Class label to my hometown but you often hear it from the boosters of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and officials ensconced in the world’s tallest City Hall. Recently, our Mayor Sly James–once part of a band that did an opening act at a Jefferson Airplane concert in his youth–sang “Goin’ to Kansas City” to an RNC committee selecting the site of next year’s Republican convention. (The smart money is on Las Vegas.) Not wishing to tip their hand to seven competing cities, KC bidders have refused to disclose how many millions of dollars in walking around money they have promised the GOP in addition to a suitable venue, thousands of hotel rooms, police security, and delegate transportation. Should this dark horse finish first it would likely bring us an economic bump on a par with what this year’s Super Bowl did for East Rutherford, New Jersey.

But if you’re going to buy chips to sit at the table with the Big Boys and Girls, you sometimes have to economize on more mundane expenses–like transit for example. For sometime, the City has been diverting money from a 1/2 cent sales tax, that voters were told would go to support transit, for things like parking garages to serve downtown development. Finding that insufficient, Sly and his City Manager now aim to pull the City’s contract for forty percent of Metro bus routes and award them to a as yet unidentified private entity that can do it cheaper.

We often refer to this as privatization but this is not precisely accurate. Since there is no profit to be made in transit no private company wants any part of it in the free market. Multinational corporations take public money to operate buses and streetcars on a cost-plus basis–socialized expenses, privatized surplus. The only variable that allows them to offer cheaper service while making a profit is labor compensation. Such companies usually offer few if any benefits and wages and hours that keep their drivers in the ranks of the working poor.

Since City Hall emulates Calvin Coolidge in making the business of the City business, I am not shocked by this union-busting scheme that downgrades quality of transit service along with transit worker living standards. I’m not even surprised our city’s second Black Mayor is so insensitive to the fact that the majority of the Metro jobs that would be lost are held by African-Americans and that the Metro in general has been one of the few employers recently offering “middle class” jobs to Blacks–especially as the first Black President wrecks the US Postal Service.

But I am disappointed in the reaction of some environmentalists who in the past were allies with ATU Local 1287 in fighting cuts in transit service and helped us save at least a second class system. Since the City Hall outsourcing would not initially eliminate service, some Pale Greens think it’s good if the City can cut costs–even if it’s at the expense of destroying middle class jobs.

This attitude is not only heartless; it also cuts across efforts of environmentalists to make common cause with working people on other issues. In recent years the ATU has fought nationally for expanded transit as an effective way of cutting climate changing emissions and  also linked up with other environmentalists and unions around issues such as opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. The Austerity Greens are an obstacle to such collaboration. Hopefully this will prove to be a minority sentiment within the environmental movement and we will again be able to count on support from groups such as the Sierra Club.

For our environmental as well as economic future we need to keep transit public–and union.

And, before moving on from this topic, I’d like to recommend a good article from Vancouver, BC entitled How cities can fight climate change: Public transit.

More From BC
In 2001, the Liberal controlled British Columbia Provincial Legislature stripped teachers of their right to negotiate class size and staffing levels–much as the Illinois legislature did to Chicago teachers. After a twelve year legal battle, the BC Supreme Court last year declared the legislation unconstitutional and fined the BC government two million dollars.

Now the CBC reports,

“Public school teachers in B.C. have voted overwhelmingly yes to taking potential job action following a three-day strike vote that ended Thursday. More than 29,000 teachers headed to the polls between March 4 and 6 to take the strike vote, and 89 per cent voted in favour of job action. ‘We do not consider job action unless it’s absolutely necessary,’ said Jim Iker, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. Iker insisted there will be no immediate job action, and that the first phase of action will be ‘administrative in nature and will have no impact on students’ learning. Teachers now have 90 days to activate the strike vote with some sort of action. There is no set timing for when we will begin. It will depend entirely on what is happening at the negotiating table and whether or not the government and employers’ association are prepared to be fair and reasonable…’”

Also in the location of Da Vinci’s Inquest, from the CBC,

“Unionized container truck drivers at Port Metro Vancouver have voted to reject a tentative deal drawn up Thursday by veteran labour mediator Vince Ready, and are set to go on strike Monday. Gavin McGarrigle, B.C. area director of the Unifor-Vancouver Container Truckers’ Association’s, said 98 per cent of the more than 300 unionized members voted to reject the tentative return-to-work agreement. ‘The immediate economics of the situation for our members is just intolerable. That’s why they gave us the result they did today,’ he said….Paul Johal, president of Unifor-VCTA, says the truck drivers are concerned about long lineups and wait times at Port Metro Vancouver’s facilities, which he said is costing the drivers money and leading to longer days.”

The Labor Front In Afghanistan War
Investigative reporting entitled Fault Lines on Aljazeera reveals,

“A year and a half after President Barack Obama issued an executive order outlawing human trafficking and forced labor on U.S. military bases, a five-month investigation by ‘Fault Lines] has found compelling evidence that these abuses remain pervasive at U.S. facilities in Afghanistan. ‘Fault Lines’ traveled to India, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan to trace the journey of a typical migrant worker seeking a job at a U.S. military base. We found Department of Defense subcontractors and their recruiters colluding to profit directly from exorbitant fees charged to job candidates, who are sometimes left with no choice but to work for six to 12 months to recoup those costs. Over the past decade, the U.S. military has outsourced its overseas base-support responsibilities to private contractors, which have filled the lowest-paying jobs on military bases with third-country nationals, migrant workers who are neither U.S. citizens nor locals. As of January 2014, there were 37,182 third-country nationals working on bases in the U.S. Central Command region, which includes Afghanistan and Iraq — outnumbering both American and local contract workers.”

I’m Ready–Are You?
On Friday, I gave my favorite union print shop, Almar Printing in Waldo, material for literature and buttons for the literature table at the Labor Notes Conference coming up in Chicago April 4-6. Having previously paid my conference fees, reserved my hotel room, and booked my round-trip Amtrak ticket, I’m pretty much set. If you’ve been thinking about attending this important gathering but haven’t yet taken care of the basics I urge you to move without further delay. The conference hotel is already full but some rooms remain at nearby hotels. Transportation costs aren’t getting any cheaper. If you wait until the very last minute you probably won’t be able to get a seat at a Saturday night banquet table. So procrastinators–click on the link and take care of business.

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.

Visit the KC Labor table at the Labor Notes Conference

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member