January 12 Week In Review

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Jan 122015

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

Writer Solidarity Knows No Borders
Everyone defends the right of expression of views they support. The litmus test for those purporting to favor democracy is whether they also fight for the rights of those with whom they differ, maybe even detest. I join my sisters and brothers in the National Writers Union, journalists spanning the ideological spectrum around the world, and millions who rallied in the streets of Paris, declaring

Je Suis Charlie

The formulation “I am,” or “we are all,” connected to individuals or groups under attack is more common in Europe than North America. There have been mass, diverse past demonstrations proclaiming We Are All Muslims, or We Are All Jews for example. It’s a way of saying “if you come after them you have to go through us first.”

In the same sense, I am Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger condemned to ten years in prison, and a thousand lashes—essentially a sentence of protracted, agonizing death–for allegedly insulting the state’s theocracy.

And I stand with Al Jazeera English journalists Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste who are starting their second year of imprisonment by the Egyptian military dictatorship for doing their job as reporters.

Just as every life is precious regardless of the character it supports every hard won freedom is just as dear and merits our vigilant defense.

Marred Record
Closing out the biggest year of job growth since 1999, the BLS monthly employment situation report for December released Friday announced 252,000 more new jobs were created last month.

Sounds pretty good but, being a glass mostly empty kind of guy, I always look at the caveats dutifully included along with the hype. So does the Wall Street Journal who noted it had been a year “marred by softer wages and a rise in workforce dropouts.”

When you add the official unemployed numbers to those listed as “marginally attached to the workforce,” along with those “involuntary part-time,” there are still nearly eighteen million workers who want full-time jobs but can’t find one. And that doesn’t include millions more who have simply given up looking for work and are no longer being tracked. It was only these “dropouts” that have brought the official unemployment rate to 5.6 percent—down from the Recession peak of ten percent.

But it isn’t just the job numbers that are disturbing. Even with retailers sometimes staying open around the clock, and UPS and FedEx workers putting in enormous overtime during the holiday season, the average work week for private sector production and nonsupervisory employees edged up only one-tenth of an hour to 33.9—reflecting the effect of part-time jobs.

For the second time in 2014, average wages for the same category actually declined, falling six cents an hour in December to 20.68.

But few of the 44,000 new hires in food and beverage, or the nonprofessional majority of 34,000 new jobs in health care, nor the 7,000 added in retail (following 43,000 in November,) will see anywhere near 20.68 an hour and most won’t get close to 34 hours a week either.

The work may not be subprime but the reward sure is. At least a third of these new jobs don’t pay enough to live on. The more sympathetic of the Job Creators—including the world’s biggest private employer—explain to their working poor how they can sign up for government low income assistance programs like Food Stamps and Medicaid.

David Cooper and Lawrence Mishel put together a useful analysis of the decline in wages for the union backed Economic Policy Institute, The Erosion of Collective Bargaining Has Widened the Gap Between Productivity and Pay. They show that from 1948-1973 productivity increased 96.7 percent and wages went up 91.3. It’s been a far different story since. From 1973-2013 productivity still soared 74.4 percent while hourly pay gain was an anemic 9.2 percent over those four decades.

The conclusion to their updated analysis is not ground breaking but retains some validity,

“Any effort to reestablish a link between pay and productivity growth will need to promote policies that enable workers to once again join unions and bargain collectively. This conclusion is central to any debate about how to address ongoing income inequality or limited income mobility. It is only once workers have the ability to bargain for higher wages that we will see the broad-based wage growth necessary to remedy these problems.”

It is still true that unionized workers earn more than the unorganized in any industry you care to compare. That’s a big reason why bosses want to be union-free while we want to organize the unorganized.

But we can’t ignore the inconvenient truth that wages have been stagnant—often even slashed—for unionized workers as well.

The gains of 1948-73 were based on kinetic energy lingering from the great adversarial union upsurges of the Thirties and the immediate postwar period. The decline from the Seventies on results from the consolidation of a union bureaucracy seeking “partnership” with employers and ever increasing dependence on perfidious “friends” in the two boss parties. While there are a few honorable exceptions to this class collaboration there has been no positive movement at the mainstream top—even by one time reformers.

The release of the EPI study was timed to coincide with last week’s Summit on Wages initiated by the AFL-CIO. The participants cheered the featured speakers Senator Elizabeth Warren, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, and actress Piper Perabo. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka–who thirty years ago led some militant struggles by coal miners—boldly summed it all up at the end,

“I am announcing that the AFL-CIO is launching an ambitious Raising Wages Call to Action. The foundation, and first call to action, is simple. It’s something I said earlier – Raising Wages is the single standard by which leadership will be judged. That means accountability, and it starts with something we all understand – presidential politics. In 2015, the AFL-CIO and state partners will hold Raising Wage Summits in the first four presidential primary states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. And we’re not waiting around. The first State Summit will be in Iowa this spring.”

Wow, doesn’t that sound like a battle about which stories will be told and songs sung for generations to come? Or, some cynics might put it another way–a new format for the time honored attempt to get a friend nominated by the Democrats. Senator Warren would be their first choice though it is unlikely that she will seek nomination and much more unlikely that she will be sworn in as the first woman President in 2017. But rest assured, who ever gets the nod at the Donkey convention next year will be certified by brother Trumka as accountable and a friend.

Most national level union bureaucrats accept salaries qualifying them for membership in the One Percent. But—again with some honorable exceptions–in return they offer a vision, strategy and motivation that is as meager as the the take-home pay of a Walmart associate.

If that’s all there was to today’s labor movement I would take my retirement to the next level and dig in to that stack of unread books in my office and catch up on movies I have missed on Netflix.

But there are real, potentially game-changing fights going on to raise wages that are not relying on marching orders from Trumka’s Summits. Around the demand of Fifteen Dollars and a Union, thousands of fast food workers are learning how to carry out selective strikes; gain public attention and sympathy through dramatic marches, rallies, and civil disobedience, and even win some legal battles that have included monetary awards and reinstatement of unjustly fired workers.

The fast food example has rekindled a similar strategy among retail workers and inspired fresh efforts among home care, airport service, and warehouse workers. And the exploited in higher learning—the adjunct faculty—are also beginning to stir.

Since the stunning victories of grass roots movements in winning local minimum wage of fifteen in Seatac and Seattle, 15 Now efforts involving both unionists and community allies have spread across the country, some registering important achievements.

The catalyst for the formation of the CIO and the rapid spread of union success in the 1930s was early victories of the low wage, unskilled workers of that period who had been long ignored by the AFL. I’m not predicting we’re on the eve of such a revival—but I wouldn’t exclude the possibility of an upsurge using innovative tactics in the foreseeable future either. The 1934 strike victories in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco were only recognized as Labor’s Turning Point retroactively. Our class can be painfully slow in getting our act together—but once in motion we’re hard to stop. A shove from the bottom may be the push needed to start rolling.

In Brief…
* The Rev. Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson passed away early Sunday at age 70. Fuzzy was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City for decades. He played a major role in making the Kansas City celebration of Martin Luther King Day one of the largest in the nation and was a stalwart in the local peace movement as well. He will be missed.
* Now assured of heat, the East Side Freedom Library in St Paul has begun assembling its book collections. They also have a free film showing tomorrow, January 13, 6PM—Freedom Writers. They say, “This feature-length dramatic film tells the story of a class of supposedly ‘low achieving’ Los Angeles high school students who discover their voices and become empowered through a journal-writing project inspired by reading Anne Frank and a the journal of a Serbian teen, Zlata Filipovic. These monthly films and discussions are intended to bring teachers, parents, students, and community members together to discuss the challenges — and possibilities — of public education.” If you are one of our readers in the Twin Cities, drop by for the free flick—and maybe volunteer to help catalog the book collection. The Library is at 1105 Greenbrier Street in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.
* 29 Vermont single-payer health care advocates were arrested for disrupting the inauguration of Democrat Governor Peter Shumlin who reneged on his pledge to implement a state single-payer plan.
* Like said in the last WIR, a Guardian story begins, “Vast amounts of oil in the Middle East, coal in the US, Australia and China and many other fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground to prevent dangerous climate change, according to the first analysis to identify which existing reserves cannot be burned. The new work reveals the profound geopolitical and economic implications of tackling global warming for both countries and major companies that are reliant on fossil fuel wealth. It shows trillions of dollars of known and extractable coal, oil and gas, including most Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil and gas and much potential shale gas, cannot be exploited if the global temperature rise is to be kept under the 2C safety limit agreed by the world’s nations. Currently, the world is heading for a catastrophic 5C of warming and the deadline to seal a global climate deal comes in December at a crunch UN summit in Paris.” More follow up next time.

That’s all for this week.


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Check out our digest of news stories about working class and climate issues, posted Monday-Friday by 9AM Central. on our companion Labor Advocate blog.
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Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Week In Review January 4

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Jan 042015

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

Let the Good Times Roll
The stock market is soaring
the gasoline is cheap
the job market is roaring
from inflation not a peep

Sorry, I’m not a poet and I know it, but I couldn’t resist a little quatrain spoofing of the mass media end of year optimism hailing the robust American economy. A recent AP story opened,

“The United States is back, and ready to drive global growth in 2015.”

Like in any good hustle, there are grains of truth in the Let the Good Times Roll pitch I parody. But unless you are in the One Percent the promised return of Happy Days is probably more sizzle than steak or soy.

The stock market alternate universe is a poor indicator of the health of our reality.

That roar in American quality job creation is as mighty as that of the Peter Sellers cinematic duchy of Grand Fenwick. High tech Sprint is in the midst of mass layoffs and it’s uncertain whether the telecommunications giant will survive. In the public sector, the Washington Post reported on New Year’s Eve,

“The U.S. Postal Service next week plans to begin a new round of plant closings and consolidations that will affect dozens of mail-processing centers, despite calls from more than half the members of the outgoing Senate to postpone the changes.”

Even the New York Times has taken their past downsizing of production and distribution workers to the next level in the news room with a combination of buy-outs and pink slips.

Nor are American corporations doing much to overcome anxiety about a triple dip recession in Europe. Reuters said on December 21,

“Two car plants closed this month as companies sought cheaper labor elsewhere…The final production day at Ford Motor Co’s plant in the eastern Belgian city of Genk came barely two weeks after General Motors closed its Opel Bochum factory across the border in Germany”

These closings affected more than 10,000 workers.

There has never been more emphasis on the necessity of a college degree to get a decent job and never has there been a better educated generation than the so-called Millennials—those currently age 18-34. But Census Bureau reports show even fewer Millennials are gainfully employed at all than the same age group during the stagflation days in 1980. And twenty percent of them today are living in poverty—many with crushing student loan debt.

The official inflation rate has remained low and stable. But it doesn’t adequately reflect sharp rises of such necessities as food and health care. Part of a national trend, Kansas City Power & Light is seeking approval of big hikes in utility rates—15 percent in Missouri, 12 percent in Kansas. Only presently cheap gasoline is a hardy motivation for exuberant expectations.

The serendipitous plunge in oil prices superficially resembles the frequent Gas Wars back in the Fifties when I started driving. During the “Wars,” pump prices sometimes sank below twenty cents a gallon and full service filling stations lured customers by offering premium gifts—such as sets of then popular aluminum tumblers that my Mother fancied for cold beverages on a hot summer day. There were two components to that price strategy.

* The top echelons of the ruling class understood cheap gasoline was essential to fulfilling their postwar master plans of Urban Sprawl and Car Dependency. For decades, American fuel prices were less than half of those in Europe and Japan.

* The free market competition of fifteen or so major oil companies fifty years ago meant slim profit margins. The biggest and most ruthless were prepared to sell their product below cost for long stretches to drive the weakest in to favorable mergers—or out of the market. Today just five major players—Exxon/Mobil; Conoco/Phillips; BP/Amoco; Chevron; and Shell—command the lion’s share and can call the shots.

With more registered vehicles than licensed drivers, the need for the original goal of cheap gasoline long ago went the way of full service and aluminum tumblers. Ever since OPEC was established in the Seventies oil prices have, with ups and downs, climbed.

It was predictably high market prices that led to the introduction of hydraulic fracturing—fracking–to extract oil from once unprofitable shale deposits. Led by the fracking boom in North Dakota, within a few short years domestic production began to match consumption and it looked like America might become a net exporter of oil and refined gasoline.

The current price depression is a different kettle of piranhas than the domestic Gas Wars of the Fifties. It comes from global competition. Russia, heavily dependent on export of fossil fuels, has denounced it as an American plot to undermine them. But this isn’t another example of Cold War redux. Evidence points to the real culprit—Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have become increasingly concerned about the “energy independence,” and export potential, of the USA due to fracking. The last time the Saudis did battle with America they led OPEC in sharply reducing oil supplies. This forced unpopular conservation measures of gasoline rationing and imposition of a national 55mph highway speed limit. OPEC won that contest of endurance.

Today the Saudis are taking an opposite approach. They seem prepared to continue to offer their benchmark light sweet crude at bargain prices the frackers can’t profitably match. This flip side of the Seventies Oil Shock has to be seen as a major destabilizing worry for both American and Russian capitalists.

For now at least, a large part of the working class has more discretionary money to spend because of the free fall in pump prices. This can be a boost to consumer spending. Since I can’t afford a Tesla, I too may gain some chump change. (Of course, there are millions of urban poor who don’t have a car. They get no more benefit from fuel bargains than they do from low capital gains tax.)

But there are countervailing factors that should dampen our enthusiasm for even this ballyhooed win-win. The petroleum that fuels and lubricates cars, trucks, farm equipment, motor boats, recreational vehicles, and those ubiquitous dirty two-stroke lawn mowers, is a prime source of greenhouse emissions causing global warming–as well as a host of other deadly forms of air pollution. Fracking adds even more nasty results to the mix. Science and common sense tells us we need to find alternatives quick–and leave the oil in the ground. Lower prices that can stimulate greater oil consumption is in fact a lose-lose proposition for working people—and all humanity.

The bizarre, likely temporary twist of cheap oil exposes yet another colossal failure of global capitalist markets. To protect our class interests, not to speak of our biosphere, we need to take control of the entire energy and transportation industries through nationalization and restructure them through planning under worker management. Our future depends on converting to clean, renewable energy and greatly expanding electric powered passenger and freight rail and urban mass transit. As we do that we will create good jobs for all who want them here—and truly spur global sustainable growth as well.

In Case You Missed Them…
There were some perceptive year-end retrospects published during my holiday break including,

Organized Labor — Year 2014 in Review in the NorthWest Labor Press
Deep Trouble But Stirring Troublemaking by Jenny Brown, Labor Notes
Dangerous year for journalists as 2014 death toll reaches 60 in The Guardian
The Year in Inequality: Racial disparity can no longer be ignored Aljazeera America
The Strategic Significance of the Fight for $15 Common Dreams

Thanks For a Job Well Done
Robin Alexander has retired after 27 years of service with the UE, first as General Counsel and then for the last couple of decades International Affairs Director. The latter post plays a far different role in UE than in most unions. There’s no coordination with the State Department and CIA, or promoting sale of Israeli bonds, as has been the case in too many labor bodies.

The UE has focused their international work on global worker solidarity. They have a formal alliance with the Frente Autenico del Trabajo (FAT), an independent union movement in Mexico. Even though there is no UE presence here, Cross Border activists in Kansas City have received much assistance from Robin on her watch. She will be missed.

Leah Fried, who played a prominent role in the sit-down strike at Republic Windows in Chicago a few years ago, is the new International Affairs Director. Best wishes to both old and new in this changing of the guard.

Paid Up For Fifteen
I’m not likely to make 27 years as webmaster of kclabor.org but 15 is coming up soon. I was reminded of this this morning when I got a confirmation from PayPal that my recurring expense for web hosting has been paid up for another year. March 8 will be our actual fifteenth anniversary online—a long life for a labor oriented site with no institutional or advertising support.

We will probably have some low key celebration in March. In the meantime if any of you have any kind words about this project that you wouldn’t mind saying in public your greetings would be most welcome. If you have any spare change left over after the barrage of year end fund appeals from worthy causes donations are also appreciated.

Tomorrow, January 5, daily news link postings will resume on our companion Labor Advocate blog.

That’s all for this week.


Free digital subscription to the Week In Review is also available through RSS
Check out our digest of news stories about working class and climate issues, posted Monday-Friday by 9AM Central. on our companion Labor Advocate blog.
Our sole source of operating 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