Week In Review February 23

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Feb 232015

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

Oil Booms
The term oil boom took on a more literal character this past week. On Monday, a CSX train hauling fracked Bakken crude from North Dakota to an East Coast terminal derailed in West Virginia. With conventional oil the main danger would have been a spill fouling soil and water. But because of the higher volatility from methane residue of this shale oil, at least fourteen cars exploded in to flames that burned for days. One reportedly went in to a river supplying drinking water to nearby towns while another crashed in to and destroyed a building. These cars were of the new “safe” design built specifically for such hazardous cargo. Investigators confirmed the train was moving well within the posted speed limit for that section of track at the time of the accident.

On Wednesday morning there was an explosion that registered like a small earthquake, followed by fire, at the Exxon-Mobil refinery in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles. Aljazeera America reported,

“Trade publication OPIS, citing an unidentified source, reported that an electrostatic precipitator (ESP), which reduces fluid catalytic cracker particulates, exploded as contract workers were doing maintenance on the nearby fluid catalytic cracking unit, or FCC.”

Four contract workers were injured. The Torrance facility was not among those then on strike by the USW. But the fact that there were nearly as many outside contractors as regular employees working in Torrance underscores the primary strike issue–safety. Oil refineries and chemical plants are intrinsically dangerous places. While the contractors may be skilled in a craft they often don’t have enough training or experience to be sufficiently aware of all the hazards. They are often responsible for—and victims of—high profile accidents. Among other safety and environmental demands, the union wants more maintenance work done in house by well trained, well rested, adequate numbers of regular employees.

If I were as religious as most of the tea pot global warming deniers, I would say it was a miracle that there were no fatalities in either West Virginia or Torrance. But regardless of views on Higher Authority, most reasonable people don’t count on divine intervention to save us from human folly. Mortals created a big oil mess that goes far beyond refinery or rail safety —and it’s up to us to clean up after ourselves or suffer dire consequences.

Lump of Clay
More long lasting danger to humans and other living things begins when oil—and its fossil relatives coal, natural gas, and bitumen—is consumed by end users. That’s when greenhouse gas emissions that are the principal cause of global warming are released.

This process was first postulated by scientists in the late nineteenth century. The United Nations has been organizing gatherings to discuss it for nearly three decades and UN scientists have issued successively alarming reports about the early warning signs of resulting climate change. A global treaty with goals for reducing carbon emissions was adopted in 1997 in Kyoto.

But last year was the warmest ever recorded. This may seem counter-intuitive to those living east of the Rockies in North America where snowfall is often measured this year in feet and two of the three Niagara Falls have been turned in to ice sculptures attracting cliff climbers. But this severe cold and precipitation that is usually the lead story on television news is more than offset by heat waves and drought elsewhere. California is turning to building desalinization plants to obtain drinking water from the ocean and the water supply of the largest city in South America is literally being tapped out.

With overwhelming scientific consensus identifying fossil fuels as the main culprit in the climate change crisis, it doesn’t require Vulcan logic to conclude we should stop burning them post haste. There are energy alternatives—both good and bad.

Nuclear power doesn’t emit greenhouse gases but the mining, refining, and transport of the fuel sure does. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are examples of the potential for catastrophic accidents. And there are still no known proven methods for safe, secure disposal of waste that can remain dangerous for centuries.

Once hailed as the next big thing, corn ethanol additives proved ineffective in reducing carbon emissions and actually increased other forms of harmful pollution.

But there are clean, renewable and free sources of energy available wherever the sun shines, winds blow, oceans tide. These alternatives are now used on a modest scale on every inhabited continent. The technology for using them to produce electricity is constantly improving as is developing storage batteries that can power transportation off the grid.

In the last WIR I promised this time to look at the results of the latest, specially scheduled UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gathering that took place in Geneva February 7-13. An informative AFP story explains,

“Ever since the 2009 Copenhagen conference failed to deliver a world agreement, the 195 nations gathered under the UNFCCC have been working on a new project for adoption by the end of this year. The pact must enter into force by 2020 to further the UN goal of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Scientists warn that at current greenhouse gas emission trends, Earth is on track for double that, or more — a recipe for catastrophic droughts, storms, floods and rising sea levels.”

So will Geneva go down in history as the place where world leaders finally took decisive action to restructure the global economy around clean renewables, leaving the fossil menace—and uranium–in the ground?

Well, first of all, it wasn’t that kind of meeting. It was added to the schedule only because the government, corporate, and NGO leaders who jetted in to Lima last December essentially dumped in to the hopper a lot of raw notes and outlines wholly unsuitable for developing a discussion, much less an action plan. The lower level bureaucrats in Geneva were charged with “streamlining” this mess to frame the debate in Paris this December.

After six days of due deliberation they released a svelte new draft of a mere eighty-six pages. It included much science fiction about geo-engineering, pipe dreams of carbon capture/sequester for clean coal, a place at the trough for nukes, and continued life support for moribund carbon tax and cap-and-trade schemes left over from Kyoto.

One participant characterized this draft as a “lump of clay.” A lump no doubt. But clay might be more appropriate in a metaphor about the feet of the world’s movers and shakers. And, further mixing the image, what ever happened to holding their feet to the fire?

Last Fall, on the eve of the UN annual General Assembly, there were mass Peoples Climate Marches around the world. Particularly impressive was the 400,000 strong march in New York that included thousands of workers mobilized by their unions. But there has been nothing near that scale of action since—even after the utter failure of the Lima Climate Summit.

The civil rights movement did not abandon the streets after the 1963 March on Washington. Opponents of the Vietnam war didn’t rest our feet after the first SDS-led march against the war in April, 1965. Ongoing visible mass protest around clear aims has been essential to every successful movement for substantial social change.

350.org, then led by its founder, the prominent environmental commentator Bill McKibben, played a valuable role in spreading the word about the People’s Climate March through social media. Since then, McKibben has taken a sabbatical to work on other projects leaving 350.org to others. Certainly it is the duty of veterans to train, and ultimately step aside for, younger leaders. But I am concerned about the direction 350 may be heading.

In an e-mail to the 350 list from Jason Kowalski praise is heaped on “our friends at MoveOn.org” for a video hailing an expected “one-two punch” veto of legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline. While the symbolic victory of defeating KXL is worth celebrating the credit goes not to the Fracking President but to mass pressure in part mobilized by 350.

Let me be brutally frank about MoveOn.org. They certainly move alright, latching on to whatever is trending among progressives. They do this not as movement builders but as exploiters of initiatives of others. They act as a Judas Goat marching the naive in to the Democrat slaughterhouse of independent mass movements. I sincerely hope this message from Jason is a passing mistake of inexperience and not the beginning of a disastrous detour.

Transforming the world economy from a base of destructive fossil-nuclear to sustainable clean renewables will not be easy by any means. But the needed science, technology, and reserves of wealth are available. It is a realistic, achievable goal. It is our only viable alternative.

Much harder is taking power away from the climate wreckers determined to hang on to the present system that has made them the richest ruling class in history—even at the risk of permanently destroying civilization as we know it. This makes climate a political fight, a class fight—a fight we cannot afford to lose. Expect ongoing news and commentary in future editions of the WIR.

In Brief…
* From the St Paul Union Advocate, “More than 100 activists gathered in a Minneapolis union hall Sunday night to begin the work of raising the minimum wage within city limits to $15 per hour. Lest anyone suggest tempering expectations, 15 Now organizers invited Kshama Sawant, the city council member who spearheaded Seattle’s successful fight for $15 just over a year ago, to recount how labor, faith and community activists there turned an improbable goal into a reality for working people. ‘Minneapolis is one of the cities that is poised to win $15 this year,’ Sawant told activists. ‘Let the fight for $15 in Seattle be your guide, that with only one member of the City Council (initially supportive), we were able to get this done.’”
* My old friend Jerry Gordon, who has taught me a great deal about the labor and antiwar movements over the past fifty years or so, asked me to inform readers about a Labor Fightback Network conference at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, May 15-17. You can find out all about it here.

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

Week In Review February 16

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Feb 162015

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

A Striking Comparison
The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released their annual report on major strike activity in the USA. It opens,

“In 2014, there were 11 major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers and lasting at least one shift, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The 11 major work stoppages beginning in 2014 were down from the 15 major work stoppages beginning in 2013, and equaled the second lowest annual total (11 in 2010) of work stoppages since the series began in 1947. The lowest annual total was 5 in 2009.”

Since I doubt this is a new era of worker job satisfaction, these numbers sound and are grim. 2009 was the low point of the Great Recession but last year saw the biggest job growth since the Clinton administration. This strike stagnation during recovery is contrary to historical trends.

Important core components of America’s unions were forged during the Great Depression that was marked by mass unemployment from 1930 until the government directed war mobilization of the economy took hold in 1942. But it was not a flat line. Within the Depression were several ups-and-downs and the ebb and flow of strikes—with an initial primary objective of union recognition—closely followed these curves.

Last July I attended an impressive series of events commemorating the eightieth anniversary of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes. Along with similar concurrent semi-insurrectional battles in Toledo and San Francisco, these “three strikes that paved the way” were the first high profile labor victories in a modest economic upturn during tough times. They revived the confidence of a demoralized working class and also spurred a section of the officials in the conservative craft union dominated American Federation of Labor to launch a new dynamic federation that became known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

This past week I received an e-mail message from the UAW reminding members it was White Shirt Day. During another uptick in 1937, workers occupied key sections of the then vast General Motors complex in Flint. After forty-four days of the most famous of the sit-down strikes GM agreed to a six-month national contract and a ten cents an hour raise—justly considered a big victory to build upon. On their first day back at work UAW members wore white shirts to demonstrate they were now on an equal footing with their white collar foremen on the shop floor.

Flint inspired a wave of copy-cat sit-downs not only in manufacturing and meat packing but waitresses in diners, and sales clerks in dime stores as well. Many of these were spontaneous, with the workers contacting a union only after they had occupied their workplace. These powerful challenges to the private property rights of the boss were defused only by a Supreme Court ruling that effectively outlawed them.

At the onset of the labor upsurge during the Depression union density was no greater than the paltry share claimed today. Even during the relative upturns, real unemployment remained much greater then than now and few states provided unemployment benefits or welfare. Most workers had considerably less formal education in the Thirties and, of course, didn’t have television or the Internet.

With so many obstacles more formidable than those we today confront how did they accomplish a sea change in living standards and dignity on the job?

Certainly there are many factors involved but the overarching advantage of our ancestors was their much higher awareness of class and the need for class solidarity. The seminal victories in Minneapolis, Toledo, San Francisco, and Flint were led by class conscious radicals of various persuasions. They gave the unions a broader character of a social movement fighting for the class as a whole. This enabled them to break down the color, gender, religious, language, and craft divisions cultivated by the bosses. And they were able to win the sympathy, sometimes even active support of the unemployed who just a decade earlier might have been likely recruits as scabs.

The continuing validity of this strategy is confirmed nearly every day. Class inequality is greater now than at the depths of the Great Depression. But most of the bureaucracy that sets atop the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and the very independent Carpenters and NEA, go to great lengths to avoid even uttering the words “working class.” Altering our baptismal records we are rechristened “working families” or “middle class.” While sometimes divided over shooting wars abroad nearly all of these labor statespersons abhor class war. They seek peaceful junior partnership with the employer class and the political parties and government bodies controlled by the bosses. They promote non sequitur “win-win” solutions.

In my opinion, reclaiming our stolen class identity is a precondition for substantial enduring advancement of the interests of those who work—or seek work–for bosses. This will require more than the patient pedagogy offered in the Week In Review. It will mostly be learned in action. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

While most union bureaucrats try to ignore class struggle that struggle doesn’t always ignore them. Appeasement of the class enemy only postpones combat. Dissatisfaction with concessions sometimes leads to changes in leadership promising to battle.

The undeniably gloomy big picture BLS report while accurate is somewhat incomplete. The potential power of the working class is our ability to control the flow of production of goods and services. The BLS restricts its findings to conventional walkouts of a thousand or more.

There is currently one such strike in progress that will be counted next year—eleven USW-organized oil refineries that was a major topic in the last WIR. This important strike is so far a departure from the norm for two reasons. It is an “offensive” action seeking to break new ground on health and safety issues. And it has won allies from environmental activists—including those who want to replace oil with clean renewable alternatives. It deserves our active solidarity and, if not soon settled will likely escalate to a total shutdown of all union facilities.

(There is also a major strike by Canadian Teamster engineers and conductors on the Canadian Pacific. Though outside the province of the BLS, it will have a major impact on both the U.S. economy and American rail unionists.)

But the BLS radar failed to detect hundreds of smaller, shorter strikes last year carried out by Fast Food workers fighting for Fifteen and a Union. Big Macs may not carry the same weight as oil in our economy but the Fight for Fifteen, sponsored by the Service Employees International Union and supported by Jobs with Justice, is the most inspiring example of mobilizing class solidarity in worker communities in quite some time.

Neither a strike nor a lockout has yet been declared in the 29 West Coast ports represented by the ILWU. Yet, somehow, there is gridlock on the docks and long lines of ships anchored at harbor limits impatiently waiting for a berth. The President can’t issue a Taft-Hartley back to work injunction because no one has walked off the job. But he has sent his Labor Secretary to try to get goods moving again. Another example of a permutation of conventional strikes that don’t get counted.

While we shouldn’t shrug off the bad news from the BLS neither should we buy the assertions in the boss media that the strike tactic is good as dead. Nor should we accept their wishful thinking that our unions are also mortally wounded. The decisive battles lie ahead.

A Grand Alliance
President Obama has long sought a Grand Bargain with the Republicans to impose austerity measures that would slash social benefits and useful public services. He used his executive authority to begin on his own to gut the US Postal Service.

This past week American Postal Workers Union president Mark Diamondstein, who I came to know in the Labor Party, announced the launching of a Grand Alliance—to save and support our Postal Service. You can learn all about it and how you can help at the Alliance website here. And be sure to watch a powerful two minute solidarity video by Danny Glover here.

Brownback Mountain
There are blogs dedicated solely to the reactionary, mean-spirited antics of loony right Governors. There’s currently a lot of them, some with ambitions of taking up residence in the White House East Wing. I find them as stimulating as Methodist punch and am happy to limit my exposure to video clips on the Daily Show. It takes something truly outrageous to get a mention in the WIR.

It is the Governor of Kansas, the state where I was born and spent my early childhood that’s broken away from the pack. Oh he’s done all the usual like running up a state deficit of over 400 million dollars after tax cuts for business and the rich. He champions putting creationism on an equal foot with natural selection in Kansas schools. He’s slashed unemployment benefits and refused Federal money to expand Medicaid. A late convert who became more Catholic than the Pope—especially the current one—he has waged unrelenting holy war on birth control and sex education. But it takes more than this ALEC boiler plate to tip the scales for me.

A previous Governor, Kathleen Sebelius—also a practicing Catholic, though pro-choice—issued an executive order banning all forms of discrimination against LGBT state employees. Last week Governor Sam Brownback revoked that order. The net effect of this move is to signal open season for hunting by homophobes, targeting open or suspected LGBT workers. Top that, Scott Walker!

This unique twist of bigotry from the top should also be a warning to workers without papers considering the narrow tortuous path to citizenship touted in President Obama’s executive order approach to immigration “reform.” “Coming clean” today might well put you on the round up list for no return transportation across the border on the next President’s watch.

There were many other stories that were posted on our companion Labor Advocate blog that were worthy of comment. I plan to say something next time about the latest UN climate action draft document.

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