Apr 142014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

It’s always hard to decide what not to write about in these weekly reviews. An anti-Semitic motivated murder of three in my home town by a founder of the White Patriot Party certainly stirs outrage and will warrant further comment as more facts become available. Thousands of workers marched in Europe against austerity and in Las Vegas demanding a new culinary contract, over the weekend. UPS backed down and reinstated 250 Teamsters they had fired in New York over a job action protesting the unjust discharge of a driver. The Kansas legislature outlawed tenure for teachers. The news stories posted on our companion Labor Advocate news blog are overflowing. But I finally chose climate change as the focus of this WIR.

We Can’t Afford Not to Be All In
Only a few weeks after a second of three parts of a UN benchmark report on climate change was approved in Yokohama, the final installment of the trilogy has been released in Berlin. Justin Gillis writes in the New York Times,

“The countries of the world have dragged their feet so long on global warming that the situation is now critical, experts appointed by the United Nations reported Sunday, and only an intensive worldwide push over the next 15 years can stave off potentially disastrous climatic changes later in the century.”

Some governments fought hard to pull some of its punches, with partial success. Says Gillis,

“Some developing countries insisted on stripping charts from the report’s executive summary that could be read as requiring greater effort from them, while rich countries — including the United States — struck out language implying that they needed to write big checks to the developing countries. Both points survived in the full version of the report, but were deleted from a synopsis meant to inform the world’s top political leaders.”

The economies of “developing” countries are increasingly intertwined with a global capitalist economy still very much dominated by the ruling class in the historical “rich” countries. China leads today’s climate wreckers spewing fully one quarter of the world’s carbon emissions–and much of the result of that production is to be found bearing American brand names on the shelves of North American retail outlets. The USA is runner up in current volume with seventeen percent. India (6.6 percent), Russia (5.1 percent) and Japan (3.7 percent) round out the present top five. 

However, as an AP story notes,

“If you count back to when the Industrial Revolution started in the 18th century, the U.S. is the undisputed No. 1, accounting for nearly 28 percent of the world’s cumulative emissions from energy and industry. China’s share is 9.9 percent, Russia’s 6.9 percent, Britain’s 5.9 percent and Germany’s 5.6 percent. Western countries rank high because they have been burning coal and oil for much longer than the rest of the world.”

In terms of today’s per capita emissions it’s a tight three-way race between Australia, Canada, and the USA.

Clearly we cannot give the “developing” countries a free pass on greenhouse gases. But it seems a just demand to refund some of the wealth amassed from fossil fuel use, that both created the crisis and made rich countries richer, to assist the rest of the world to advance beyond carbon.

The climate science of this concluding report is the strongest and plainest yet. But it was not prepared for an academy of their peers. In a diplomatic gesture to the world’s Power Elite, the report offers various options–some very dubious–but no mandates for governmental action to rapidly reduce carbon emissions.

Among those acknowledged to be “unproven” are sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, carbon capture/containment (the pipe dream of “clean coal”), and expansion of nuclear power with guaranteed safe disposal of waste (no one has a clue of how to do that.) They acknowledged biofuels at best marginally reduce emissions while creating other environmental problems and driving up the cost of food. With a tip of the hat to gas-rich superpowers, even the natural gas fossil fuel was seen as a possible downsizing of carbon pollution though it too regrettably would have to be ultimately eliminated as well. There is still talk of carbon tax market measures–the failed central strategy imposed by Al Gore on the expiring Kyoto Protocols.

There are, of course, proven clean, renewable energy alternatives to fossil and nuclear–solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal and others–already in place in many parts of the world. The new report correctly emphasizes the need to embrace and expand these sustainable alternatives.

But the defenders of this indispensable energy restructuring felt compelled to appease the Establishment mantra of Austerity in all things other than corporate profits and CEO compensation. Because of declining costs of renewables they seek to sell them as “affordable.”  They present arguments showing that expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars on moving away from carbon dependency would only result in a slight slowing of world economic growth.

I have several problems with this approach.

First, how does one determine whether or not we leave a sustainable biosphere for our grandchildren is “affordable?” Is it a matter of priorities? What trumps the continuity of human civilization? Is it availability of resources? Along with accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere the Industrial Revolution has also produced enormous wealth in our world–largely controlled by a few hundred families. Our planet is not cash poor even if most of its seven billion plus residents are.

When competition for markets and resources led the rulers of Japan to bomb Pearl Harbor there was no debate about whether the USA could afford to go to war. Nor did the Pentagon patiently wait for an unregulated free market to hopefully decide to tool up for producing enormous quantities of planes, ships and tanks urgently needed for war on six continents and all oceans.

Instead the U.S. government took control of virtually the entire American economy and directed it according to a plan–dictating product lines and production quotas, imposing rationing of most items, establishing wage and price controls, deciding where people would work or fight–all while running up an enormous budget deficit and debt. It was the biggest and most successful economic mobilization in world history. Postwar economic activity generated more than enough tax revenue to quickly retire the debt.

I recognize this is an imperfect analogy for the present climate crisis. We don’t want war nor do we want war profiteers that are still draining our national budget. But the urgent priority, need for centralized planning, and conscription of needed resources that were key to winning a war are relevant and essential to stopping climate change short of irreversible disaster.

It’s going to take more than a few hundred billion bucks to overcome two centuries of deferred maintenance of our fragile home world living space. Crisis resolution will be more than a hiccup in steady economic growth. We have to change the way we work and live. If we act soon enough, through an intelligent planned restructuring of energy, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, along with reversal of urban sprawl to reclaim forests, wetlands, and farm land destroyed by irrational “development,” we can keep a quality standard of living in the “rich” countries while raising the standards of the billions of destitute around the world. We collectively have the science, technology and material resources to do that.

It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap. But the main challenge is not convincing people to return to urban living and riding public transit, as most working people once did. The countryside can prosper with a shift to more human nurturing through organic methods rather than chemical pollution. Workers displaced from climate wrecking occupations can have greater job satisfaction and security in a sustainable economy.

The most formidable obstacle to such an acceptable outcome is the class that has grown richer than Midas  as their golden touch destroys the ecological balance we humans need to thrive. It’s not just the Koch brothers and others in the energy industries that cling to fossil like a barnacle to hull. Those corporations big and small building, selling, maintaining and insuring cars and trucks see a vested interest in the status quo. So do the construction companies still spreading urban sprawl through housing and commercial development and the roads delivering residents and customers. And the chemical industry would undergo far-reaching transformation. Society can and should guarantee a Just Transition for displaced workers in these industries as they prepare for suitable new jobs–but not the mega-profits of the Fortune 500.

This class has never been hailed for its long term vision and they are more focused than ever on the current bottom line and low hanging fruit. Tempted by deregulation to cut corners they  sell millions of defective cars, and millions of tons of tainted food to consumers. Presently running the governments and economies of the world, they are not changing their climate wrecking ways either despite the dire warnings of science. We have no reason to believe they will do so in time to make a difference. If these bosses, bankers and brass hats are allowed to continue to call the shots then future generations will be vulnerable to an unnatural selection leading to reverse evolution of our species.

There’s only one force that has the power and interest to oust this greedy class as crazy and indifferent as the emperor Nero was purported to be–the working class majority. The economy doesn’t require owners–usually seldom seen–to function but nothing gets done without workers.

The ruling class in the USA has done as effective job as the dreaded Heartbleed virus in stealing the class identity of American workers. This has allowed them to ride roughshod over us in many ways. On the climate front, in too many cases they have enlisted workers and their unions to promote ecological destruction for a promise of jobs. Just this past week, the mis-leaders of the Laborers’ union threatened to work for the electoral defeat of any congressional candidate that does not support the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to transport the dirtiest of all fuels from the Alberta tar-sands.

Attacks on wages, working conditions, and job security can be reversed through union and other struggles. But we have just this one biosphere and if it’s lost it will be forever. 2014 is the eightieth anniversary of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, a battle fought and led by class conscious workers, that has been called Labor’s Turning Point. We have a dual task of educating, agitating, and organizing to reclaim our class identity–and launch a working class climate movement that can win an even more crucial turning point in human history.

Are you in?

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

Apr 092014

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

The Biggest and Best Ever
I’ve been to a number of Labor Notes Conferences over the years. These gatherings don’t pass motions on anything. They don’t elect anybody to any post. The focus is on education that can help us “put movement back in the labor movement.” Respectful debate over ideas for action is allowed, even encouraged, in workshops and interest group meetings but any effort to impose a “line” on the body as a whole would be doomed to failure and is wisely not attempted.

The diversity and democracy of these conclaves set them apart from typical mainstream union events–and that makes some officials nervous. One was picketed by the Solidarity House staff of the United Auto Workers. Another was physically assaulted by SEIU bureaucrats bringing bus loads of rank-and-filers told they were breaking up a meeting of union busters. But even such incidents of intimidation and disruption failed to stop the completion of the agenda and all I have attended were educational and inspiring–including the most recent.

This reflects the nature of the magazine that sponsors these biennial conferences. Labor Notes has a perspective of energizing and democratizing the labor movement. They are an excellent source of labor news and resources for working class activists. They are declared partisans in struggles between workers and bosses, between union ranks and bureaucratic officials who sap the movement’s potential strength. But they also usually fairly present contending views about strategic and tactical questions within the activist movement.

Such a balancing act is not easy and they have not always pleased everyone–including me. But they deserve commendation for playing a crucial role in maintaining continuity in adversarial unionism for generations resisting class identity theft.

Early conferences numbered in the hundreds and largely revolved around rank-and-file formations in unions such as the Teamsters, UAW, TWU, and others. Of those only TDU still lives and prospers. The unique independent United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE) was also always present, along with sections of the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers and Communication Workers. They were a choir anxious for both preaching and singing.

Over the years these gatherings grew incrementally bigger and broader. Recently growth has accelerated. In the first to be held outside the state of Michigan, the 2012 Chicago conference drew 1500 participants. As I write, the official attendance figures for this year’s Conference, also in Chicago, have not yet been announced but it certainly was in the 2000 range–nearly double the number in 2010.

Chicago may be a better location but I don’t think that alone explains this upsurge in attendance. I believe more are turning out because more are looking to do something. We are seeing the early stages of recovery of fighting spirit among American workers after being beaten down by recession, concession, and austerity.

Perhaps more impressive than the growth in numbers was the presence of opposition movements who had been elected to office and, remarkably, were pursuing what they had pledged to do.

In 2012 attention was focused on the new leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union and the exemplary job they were doing in mobilizing their members and community allies in anticipation of a likely strike against school closings and contract concessions. Of course, that strike did become necessary and it was one of the best organized in living memory. The CTU couldn’t completely avoid take-backs–some imposed by the state legislature–but most on all sides viewed their strike as a victory for teachers.

The CTU welcomed us back to Chicago this year and played a prominent role once again. And, no doubt inspired by the CTU success, they were joined by other local teacher unions winning allies in the fight for quality public education as well as fair pay and conditions for teachers.

A keynote speaker in 2012 was Larry Hanley, in his first term as International President of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Part of his remarks were devoted to explaining why the ATU was one of the few unions actively participating in the fight against Keystone XL.  Now retired, I’ve been a member of the ATU for 24 years. After brother Hanley’s talk, once the culture shock subsided, I could feel proud rather than defensive to proclaim I am ATU.

Larry Hanley, having won reelection to a second term, was back this year–along with about 500 friends. He shared a panel about austerity with teacher, nurse, and letter carrier unionists. Hanley noted that transit usage was up dramatically and still growing. But at the same time, bipartisan austerity has imposed widespread cuts in service and higher fares on riders while demanding give-backs from transit workers–and sometimes contracting out to private, nonunion companies promising to do the work cheaper yet.

Hanley explained that traditionally our union was mainly involved in litigation, fact finding, arbitration–mostly moving mountains of paper. Today the ATU is taking a different approach. Instead of moving paper, like our members the union tries to move people. The International is encouraging and assisting all Locals to, after first educating and mobilizing the membership, develop active alliances with passengers and other allies in the community to fight transit austerity.

After the 2012 Labor Notes Conference I wrote a mainly praising article that also raised a couple of criticisms. I cited a lack of attention to “incorporating education and discussion in some conference format about two over-arching issues that must be urgently addressed by the working class movement if future generations are to have any hope: environmental destruction–above all, climate change, and a Labor Party to challenge the presently uncontested political rule of bosses and bankers.”

There was this year, for the first time, a workshop dedicated to climate change. But it was not a “featured” one and the small room allocated could barely accommodate the dozens who squeezed in. The facilitator, Sean Sweeney, director of Cornell’s Global Labor Institute, knows a great deal about climate change as well as navigating the treacherous currents of organized labor and did a fine job of handling the discussion.

The panel presentations by Dave Coles from Unifor, Canada’s biggest blue collar union; Elizabeth Lalasz, National Nurses United; and ATU Vice-President Bruce Hamilton; were pretty good. All of them agreed that the bosses and bankers will resist the measures needed to stop climate change short of climate disaster. Brother Hamilton stressed the need for a Just Transition as the workforce shifts from fossil to sustainable. Their approach was a good example of how to introduce the issue to a working class audience but we adjourned without much perspective for what to do next. I appreciate this modest first step by the conference organizers but much improvement is still needed.

There was a more promoted featured workshop entitled “Labor and Independent Politics.” It included no mention of what happened to the once promising Labor Party or the prospects for reviving a labor party movement. Three of the four panelists reported on local electoral coalitions involving some unionists with progressives, Greens and liberal Democrats and, in one case the faux labor Working Families Party. None of the first three speakers had any suggestions for what to do on a national level.

The other speaker, Kshama Sawant of the Socialist Alternative Party, who was elected to the Seattle City Council last November, had a clear class approach to combining electoral work with mass movements in the workplace and communities. The predecessor of her party had been quite active in the early days of the Labor Party and they still speak of the need for independent labor candidates to challenge the boss parties across the country–though they appear to be still thinking through what base and format is needed. I dropped by a well attended reception for Kshama to wish her well and offer my support. Without hesitation, she suggested I get endorsement of the Seattle fifteen dollar minimum wage campaign from my ATU Local–and I will indeed try.

Music was, as usual, an important component of the affair including Tech 22, the Seattle Solidarity Chorus, and, of course, Anne Feeney.

There were numerous international guests. I got a chance to talk to visitors from Bangladesh, China, France, Sweden, and, of course, Canada.  

No one could attend all of the more than 140 meetings, films, workshops, and receptions over three days in three hotels. Only three hundred could get on the buses going to a nearby Staples store that was the target of a lunch hour protest against post office work being contracted out to that store’s chain. There wasn’t room for everybody at the banquet and late registrants had to dine elsewhere.

I spent much of my time at the kclabor.org literature table. You can view a text version of the free handout distributed there by clicking here. Three buttons–“Labor Party Advocate;” “For Class & Climate Justice;” and “Keep Transit Public & Union”–were offered for a dollar a piece. Twenty new folks signed up to subscribe to the Week In Review.

The frank criticism I’ve made is intended to be constructive. I’ve always been a supporter of the Labor Notes project and this conference was indeed the biggest and best yet–and that’s saying something.

I want to welcome Labor Notes editor–and a Founder–Jane Slaughter to the labor activist retirement community. It doesn’t have a golf course or many other amenities but you’ll be in good company and find things to occupy your new free time. And I wish her successors well.

Last week I expressed thanks to those who provided funding to enable the kclabor.org presence at the Conference. This time I want to show gratitude to my old Chicago friend Adam who not only agreed to receive a package of literature table material so I wouldn’t have to schlep it on the train; he also treated me to good food and beer at a very noisy Munich-style beer hall. I also want to thank my friend Anne from Salem for both watching the literature table and giving me her insights on the conference. And I would be remiss not to acknowledge Kansas City fellow-travelers Cris, Dennis, Molly, and Judy who went out of their way to make sure a very tired, hungry, and grumpy old man didn’t get stranded at Kansas City Union Station.

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