by Bill Onasch
Maybe I’ll Get There Yet
Ever since as a Junior in high school, when I watched live television coverage of the final mop-up of the bloody Batista dictatorship by the July 26 Movement, I’ve wanted very much to visit Cuba. Not so much for the white sand beaches, or the magnificent hotels built by the mafia when they were welcomed and nurtured by Batista—attractions appreciated by my likely travel companion and many tourists from Canada and Europe. Above all I want to see for myself what this revolution I have always admired and defended has been truly able to accomplish—as well as the serious challenges to its completion the Cuban people today face.
There have been periods when I had both the time and money to make such a trip. In 1977 I encountered no problems being part of a trade unionist tour of the Soviet Union—then often branded the Evil Empire. But I was prevented from visiting Cuba by a travel ban–that along with the much more serious hostility of an embargo on all trade and transactions with Cuba–was imposed by the government that speaks in my name. As I observed my 72nd birthday earlier this month I was pretty much resigned to never being able to break bread with a Cuban working class family, or visit a facility providing world class health care free to all–or take in a street scene dominated by 1950s American cars still running, often better than new.
But then came Wednesday’s dramatic announcements by Presidents Obama and Castro. Evolving out of a prisoner exchange deal, the two countries are resuming diplomatic relations for the first time in more than a half-century. There will be some loosening of restrictions on monetary transactions and more accommodation of family visits. It will probably take a while to understand all of the ramifications and limitations of this shift.
While these are welcome changes as far as they go, the mean spirited embargo launched during the Kennedy administration—after he sent staff out to buy up every Havana cigar they could find–remains in place. Only Congress can repeal it. The incoming Congress is even more ideologically right than the outgoing and a vocal component of these reactionaries are progeny of counter-revolutionaries who fled to Florida after the Batista dictatorship they supported bit the dust. Ending the embargo will be a tough fight.
But it’s one we should support—and not just so I can take my dream trip. 1400 American union activists at the 1998 Labor Party convention understood the importance of this obligation when they approved this resolution,
“That the Labor Party Convention join with millions of working people around the world and in the U.S in opposing the blockade of Cuba; demanding that it be lifted immediately, and support legislation to end the blockade and to normalize relations with Cuba; the women and children of Cuba are hit the hardest by the blockade, which results in shortages in medicines, food, school supplies, soap, clothes, raw materials and other necessities.”
Unfortunately, that statement remains as timely as it was sixteen years ago. Despite their short supply of material resources, Cuba never hesitates to use their volunteer human resources of doctors, engineers and teachers to lend a hand to earthquake relief in Haiti, responding to the Ebola epidemic in Africa, assisting literacy campaigns in Venezuela, to name just a few examples. They have earned a right to expect much less demanding solidarity from us to work to lift the U.S. embargo. Right now is the best chance we’ve had in a long time.
The Sap In Montpelier Will Never Be Sweet
I first learned of the untimely preventable death of a state single-payer health care system in Vermont through an e-mail blast from my old friend Mark Dudzic. It was the independent, sometimes socialist, caucusing with the Democrats, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who negotiated a state waiver as the price for his crucially needed support of the Affordable Care Act. Since then, single-payer supporters have largely focused on state efforts. Vermont has by far been the most promising. Mark, who I came to know in the Labor Party, is now coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer. He wrote,
“On December 17, Vermont Governor Shumlin announced that he was suspending his efforts to implement Green Mountain Care (Act 48), the 2011 law that makes healthcare a right for every Vermonter. He had been scheduled to submit a financing proposal and plan design to the state legislature when it convenes in January. The final plan would then have been submitted to the federal government for approval under state waivers available through the Affordable Care Act beginning in 2017.”
It seems the Democrat Governor came to a sudden realization that Act 48 was just too darned expensive—a view not shared by his economic advisers who were given no advance warning. Nor was it accepted with good grace by indispensable political allies. More from Mark,
“In the November gubernatorial election, Shumlin, a Democrat, won a bare plurality of the votes. The Vermont Progressive Party—a substantial statewide political party with five elected State Representatives and three State Senators—chose not to run a candidate, largely because of Shumlin’s support for Green Mountain Care and other initiatives. His Republican opponent charged at that time that single-payer was ‘dead’ and that Shumlin was ‘going to wait until after the election to tell you.’ After the election, Shumlin reassured a number of single-payer advocates that he was still on track to release a financing report in time for the legislature to act in January. Reaction from state health care justice activists to his December 17 announcement ranged from disappointment to outrage.”
Certainly outrage is in order. But clearly those disappointed are being condemned to relive a history they never learned, or at least never absorbed. Major party politicians are as deserving of trust as those late night TV commercials offering hair restoration miracles not available in stores. Every movement of lips should be suspected of uttering a lie. Any rare exceptions who honestly try to do the right thing don’t survive long in mainstream politics.
I’m not suggesting that we go against the stream. We need to divert the stream—away from monopoly control of the bosses, bankers and their minions in to the custody of the working class majority. The big job of digging a new channel requires the revival of a movement once attracting thousands, including Mark Dudzic and me—building a working class party of our own, a labor party.
No Fracking Way
I wouldn’t trust the Working Families Party Governor of New York any farther than I could throw him either. Andrew Cuomo has stuck it to the workers in many ways in the past and can be counted on to do more of the same in the future. But sometimes mass public pressure can move office holders to reluctantly do the right thing–and this week Cuomo yielded big time. Aljazeera America reported,
“The news took even the most seasoned environmental activists by surprise: After years of review, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that New York state would ban hydraulic fracturing…. New York state’s decision comes two years after the state Department of Health initiated a review of the possible health effects of hydraulic fracturing, a process in which thousands of gallons of water is mixed with chemicals and sand and pumped deep into the earth to break up gas-rich shale rock formations. The process has been approved in dozens of states across the U.S. and has often been touted by supporters as an economic boon to struggling regions, including next door in Pennsylvania….Several activist groups—from Pennsylvania to Colorado to California—said the decision would breathe new life into their anti-fracking campaigns. Pennsylvania activist Stephen Cleghorn said he would submit a request to Gov.-elect Tom Wolf to issue a point-by-point response to New York’s health study.”
If Keystone XL is the environmental Gettysburg maybe stopping fracking in New York can be our Stalingrad. We can never undo the terrible past and ongoing damage of extracting gas and oil from shale but with each new threat we can invoke the precedent of New York to say—no fracking way.
Victory on the Fast Food Front
Ned Resnikoff writes on Aljazeera America,
“Fast-food chain McDonald’s illegally retaliated against workers who participated in union organizing activities, the general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleged Friday. The labor board attorney said the fast food company engaged in practices such as ‘threats, surveillance, interrogation, promises of benefit, and overbroad restrictions on communicating with union representatives or with other employees about unions’ in restaurants across the country….Crucially, the general counsel argues that the McDonald’s Corporation is responsible for the alleged mistreatment of employees at franchised restaurants. In labor complaints filed with the NLRB back in March, workers alleged that the corporation was a ‘joint employer’ with the proprietors of individual McDonald’s franchises, making both McDonald’s and its franchisees responsible for any labor law violations that may occur within those franchised restaurants.”
If upheld on inevitable appeals, this potential sea change in ambiguous workplaces could have impact far beyond fast food. As Amy Dean notes in an opinion piece on the same site,
“A globalized economy has changed the nature of employment in the modern economy, and it has created ambiguity about who is responsible for labor conditions in a given workplace. Today a huge number of people—whether entry-level office temps or more highly paid software developers, real estate managers and accountants—work in jobs that are temporary, freelance or outsourced. Like fast-food workers at a franchised chain, they are likely to encounter situations in which their direct employer is a subcontractor or intermediary agency. While these intermediaries may take marching orders from the bigger fish that are their clients, the larger corporations deny any accountability for front-line employees’ working conditions.”
These are the obstacles that confront campaigns like the UE supported Warehouse Workers United in Chicago’s Logistics Belt.
New Owners, New Energy, New Name
Decades ago, a small monastic teaching order built a campus on some vacant land in the DC suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. When the brothers decided to move elsewhere they sold it to the AFL-CIO. Starting out as a training center and a home for archives it eventually evolved in to the National Labor College, accredited to grant degrees. Wings were named to honor such labor “heroes” as long time AFL and AFL-CIO president George Meany who once boasted on Meet the Press that he had never called a strike or walked a picket line in his life.
The NLC prospered for a number of years but fell victim to circumstances beyond its control. Declining federation membership that reduced discretionary funds reached crisis proportions when former SEIU president Andy Stern led an unprincipled split of several large unions. In an austerity move, the AFL-CIO leadership shut the campus down and put it up for sale with high hopes for a big cash infusion.
But the property languished with no adequate offers until they finally accepted a reasonable bid from the Amalgamated Transit Union. That union will put a revamped training center to good use as well as moving the union headquarters there, selling their old one in central DC. The central strategy of the current ATU leadership is to train thousands of members to mobilize transit riders and community allies in the big battles to save and expand public transit—and transit unions–in the USA and Canada.
This past week a new name for the renovated Silver Spring facilities was announced. They didn’t pick a union bureaucrat. It’s now the Parks-Douglass Center. ATU president Larry Hanley said,
“Rosa Parks was the most effective transit passenger organizer in the history of our nation. America is a better place today because of the singular stand she took on a bus against segregation. But the struggle is far from over, and we call upon all Americans to demonstrate the same determination Rosa Parks did in fighting injustice today.”
The ATU is one of the few truly international unions still around with a substantial Canadian membership. Tommy Douglass, the “founding brother” of Canada’s NDP labor party, was described in the ATU announcement,
“A Baptist minister and champion boxer, he left the pulpit for a political platform. A powerful orator and tireless activist, he was elected to serve as a Member of Saskatchewan’s parliament, and later, premier of the province – an office he held for 17 years. He introduced the continent’s first single-payer, universal health care program; a program that would eventually be adopted across Canada.”
These heroes are well chosen. But their honor needs to be advanced beyond naming rights to success in keeping the trains and buses rolling, operated and maintained by union women and men. That’s no small task. But nobody ever promised Parks, Douglass, or us that it would be easy.
(Full disclosure: I am a 24-year member, now retired, of ATU Local 1287.)
Long winded to the end, this is the last WIR of 2014. I’m also taking a break from posting daily news updates on my companion Labor Advocate blog. I plan to return to normal news schedule on Monday, January 5 and a WIR around the same time.
Regardless of your faith or lack there of I wish you and yours Happy Holidays.
That’s all for this year.
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