by Bill Onasch
I was expecting to post the first WIR after Thanksgiving last Monday. Most of it would have been a lead entitled “Missing the Point in Ferguson.” But the Digital Deity punished me for a sin of omission. While I have had a slick new H-P Windows 7 machine for months I continued to do most word processing in WordPerfect on my aging Dell XP. I hadn’t yet backed up the Ferguson piece when the Dell crashed for as yet unknown reasons. If I recover the contents of the hard drive soon I will update and post the Ferguson article. If not, I will strain my little gray cells to start over.
Of course, during this past week there has been a new wave of protests as a New York cop was cleared by a Grand Jury in the chokehold killing of Eric Garner. There have been other similar high profile killings in Cleveland and Phoenix. Rev Al Sharpton has called for a mass protest march in Washington December 13.
Actions against these outrages deserve our support. But the point I argued in my missing article is we should view this overt brutality as just one peripheral aspect of the double oppression of African-Americans. The police are simply the first responders employed by a violent ruling class that profits from racism in many ways.
The rage that sometimes erupts in “riots” is in response to even more fundamental social and economic conditions. By many important measures African-Americans are worse off today than when Martin Luther King and Malcolm X began began their struggles more than a half-century ago. Black youth see a bleak future ahead. As Dr King so ably stated in a speech in Detroit a short time before his murder,
“it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Now that they have got our attention, let’s make this a genuine teachable moment. Workers of all colors need to listen and learn–and offer unity in action that can end not just police killings but also those “intolerable conditions.”
I’ll have more to say when I recover my lost article or re-boot for a new one.
The media reaction to the BLS November Employment Situation report would lead you to believe young people should be dancing, not rioting, in the streets. I was surprised the way even the normally level headed and perceptive Diane Stafford gushed in the opening of a Kansas City Star article,
“A trifecta of numbers like this has been a long time coming: U.S. hiring surged a surprising 321,000 jobs in November, far exceeding all predictions. Average hourly wages scored the biggest gain in 17 months. Unemployment stayed at a six-year low. ‘Finally!’ Dan Heckman, investment consultant at US Bank in Kansas City, said Friday after the U.S. Labor Department released the November jobs report. ‘We’ve finally gotten a series of numbers we’ve been hoping for.’”
But as I continued reading past the obligatory hype I was relieved to find an effort to present a more balanced picture,
“pockets of unemployment and under-employment remain, especially among minorities, young people and mid-career workers whose skills or experience don’t exactly match employers’ current needs. Thursday’s protests by low-wage workers in Kansas City and around the country asserted that millions of U.S. workers aren’t paid enough to live on. That’s partly because the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation and partly because many entry-level retail and service workers don’t get full-time hours. In fact, wages for more than four-fifths of Americans haven’t grown along with the rise in corporate profits and other indicators of an improved economy. Over the last 12 months, hourly pay has risen 2.1 percent, barely topping the 1.7 percent pace of inflation. University of Maryland economist Peter Morici noted that Americans’ average real household income stands at about $52,100 today, markedly down from $56,900 in 1999.”
Fighting for Fifteen
I have to admit a certain degree of local pride when I turned to the New York Times coverage of Thursday’s national strike actions by Fast Food, Home Care, and Airport Service workers demanding fifteen dollars an hour and a union. It was datelined Kansas City and by-lined Steven Greenhouse. Long the dean of them all, in recent years Greenhouse has been the last remaining labor beat reporter for a major U.S. newspaper. (Sadly, he too is now taking a buy-out.)
Thursday’s actions were the biggest and broadest yet with thousands of strikers in nearly 200 cities. They had the usual substantial backing of SEIU, Jobs with Justice, and numerous other union, student, faith and community groups.
The day before the strikes the Chicago City Council passed a new minimum wage ordinance. The present 8.25 will go to 10.00 in mid-2015, 11.00 in 2017, and a final raise to 13.00 in 2019. This inadequate, back loaded measure was the product of Mayor Emanuel who will run for reelection in the spring. Fight for Fifteen activists made clear they consider this a token down payment and will continue the battle for fifteen now.
An Illness Like Any Other
Women made up nearly seventy percent of the unionized workforce at Litton Microwave’s plants in suburban Minneapolis when I worked there, and held various elected posts in UE Local 1139, from 1975-85. Most of these women were of child-bearing age and at any given time several were off work on maternity leave.
But while these women maintained their seniority, their leave was unpaid. The company was adamant in excluding pregnancy from the modest Accident & Sickness benefits in our UE contract. Reluctant to take the dispute to the uncertainty of arbitration, our union instead contacted women unionists in the National Organization for Women–who would later be the core founders of the Coalition of Labor Union Women in the Twin Cities–to join us in pursuing a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission. Their testimony convinced the Commission to issue a ruling that pregnancy must be treated like “any other illness” where there was a paid sick leave policy. This victory applied not only to Litton but all employers in the state of Minnesota.
Initially Litton declared they would challenge the Commission ruling in the courts. We answered this threat with a promise we were prepared to keep—the UE and our allies in the labor and women’s rights movements would expose their anti-working mother agenda to shoppers at Litton sales outlets in communities across the country. Since busy working mothers were the prime targets of their marketing, the company backed off their judicial appeal, complied with the Commission order, and even agreed to incorporate its language in to our contract.
I dredge up once more this bit of what some readers will view as ancient history because this episodic battle in a long, ongoing war suggests a broader selection of tactics than generally utilized today. The headline case of former UPS package driver Peggy Young, argued this past week before the Supreme Court, is an example of why we fought so hard to prevent Litton from going down that road.
First we should note sister Young was carrying her now seven year old daughter when UPS denied her temporary light duty work ordered by her doctor. If UPS package cars moved at such a speed Amazon would be out of business.
Her former employer argued that while they try to accommodate those injured at work they were under no legal obligation to offer special treatment to those becoming sick or injured off the job. Pregnant employees should not be granted “most favored nation” status to acquire privileges to which they would not be otherwise entitled, said the Big Brown barristers. The male Justices who commented thought that sounded reasonable–the women on the Bench not so much. We shall see, but women haven’t fared well in recent decisions by this Court.
It isn’t the least bit demeaning or condescending to offer some special considerations to those accepting months of pain and discomfort to help ensure the continuity of our species. Certainly they shouldn’t be forced to give up their job or any benefits that the temporarily disabled normally receive.
Some working women look forward to having children while others do not. All should be empowered to choose for themselves. That freedom flows from the laws of fair play and solidarity—and those trump the Supreme Court in my book. It’s up to the working class movement to find ways not always taught in law school to enforce our higher code.
* 15 Now reports, “Delta Airlines fired Kip Hedges, a baggage handler for 26 years, simply for supporting a $15/hour minimum wage at the Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) Airport. Delta management told Kip he was being fired for ‘disparaging remarks’ made in a video posted on the page15 Now Minnesota Facebook…All Kip said was: ‘A lot of Delta workers make under $15/hour… a lot of the better paid workers also understand that the bottom has to be raised otherwise the top is going to fall as well.’” You can learn more and sign a petition in support of Kip here.
* The UE Local 279 strike at Weir Valves in entering its third week. You can help the strikers win justice by sending a message to corporate headquarters in Scotland. Click here to email the CEO. Donate to the strike fund at this link. Learn more about the strike in this UE News Update.
* Union federations representing 175 million members around the world have submitted a comprehensive position paper to the COP20 climate meeting in Lima. It’s the most advanced official union statement on climate change yet and is worth checking out. You can find it here.
That’s all for this week.
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