by Bill Onasch
The Lion and the Lamb
In the late Seventies-Early Eighties many unions were eagerly buying in to Quality Circles and other such gimmicks for labor-management collaboration. At a UE convention I heard the General Secretary-Treasurer, the late Red Block warn the delegates of the inherent dangers of such cozy relations. In his inimitable way he revised somewhat a fable widely misattributed to Isiah, “after the lion and the lamb lie down together– it’s the lion who gets up and burps.”
In light of a stunning proposal from the hydrocarbon barons of Alberta, I urge the new NDP provincial premier Rachel Notley to heed Red’s version of the parable. A CBC story headlined Big Oil to Rachel Notley: Bring on a carbon tax begins,
“Big Oil is urging Alberta’s new government to toughen up the province’s environmental policies. To hear an oil industry chieftain advocate for a carbon tax, as Suncor’s Steve Carbon Williams did in front of a downtown Calgary crowd on Friday, may feel incongruous, but consider who those comments were directed to—the NDP—and the situation takes on a tinge of the surreal. It’s the latest sign of how much the political landscape has shifted in Alberta, as well as the global discussion about climate change. ‘We think climate change is happening,’ Williams, Suncor’s chief executive, told reporters. ‘We think a broad-based carbon price is the right answer.’”
Carbon tax is an idea as fresh as the “priced to sell” meat bin at our neighborhood Thriftway Market. It’s been around, and actually in place in various forms in many industrialized countries, since the 1997 Kyoto Accords. The only thing new from an Alberta perspective is insistence on making it “broadly based.” That means spreading the tax burden mostly over the commercial and individual customers of Big Oil & Gas.
Carbon tax, a kissing cousin of “sin taxes” on alcohol and tobacco, is a market measure aimed at modifying destructive behavior generating profits for other market sectors of the capitalist economy—with less than universal success. While addiction can be tough to overcome drinkers and smokers have the option to simply quit. But there are presently insufficient viable alternatives to using fossil fuels for generating electricity, heating and cooling our homes, or powering our transportation. All of the various taxes and cap-and-trade schemes over the past eighteen years have failed to prevent our planet from heating up at an alarming rate.
Instead of making nice with the friendly lions, I would recommend that Premier Notley find guidance in the perspective laid out in a Nation article, How Climate Protection Has Become Today’s Labor Solidarity, by Jeremy Brecher. Brecher, cofounder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, begins with a mass action outlook,
“Under banners proclaiming ‘Healthy Planet & Good Jobs,’ thousands of trade unionists from 75 local and national unions, highly visible in their red, blue, green, and white union uniforms, joined the People’s Climate March in New York City last September—a quantum leap from labor’s previous participation in climate actions. The march’s organizers are now working to launch a People’s Climate Movement. They are planning a series of major mobilizations leading up to the Paris climate summit this December. According to Phil Aroneanu of 350.org, activists have started meeting with unions to plan labor-focused events along the way. ‘It is incumbent on the climate movement to lay out plans that leave nobody behind in the transition to a climate-safe economy,’ Aroneanu says. Meanwhile, labor action on climate change has proliferated. In New York, according to Matt Ryan, executive director of ALIGN (New York’s Jobs With Justice affiliate), ‘There is a growing surge of labor unions engaging and activating their members and their members’ communities around a climate, jobs, and justice agenda. I see it at CWA, SEIU, the Teamsters, New York State Nurses Association, and many others.’”
Last September’s massive march was a good first step. In an effort to be broadly inclusive its theme was vague. So is a rally for Climate Justice at the Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford next Sunday, May 31, that will march to join an Earth Festival. It has some official labor backing including the Ct Education Association, Ct State Council of Machinists, and the Greater Hartford Central Labor Council.
I recently heard from a friend in the Twin Cities that a big march is being planned by 350.org in St Paul June 6. 350 is continuing its singular focus on the Alberta tar-sands. There are no labor groups listed among the march sponsors.
For sure, the tar-sands are a high profile carbon polluter. 350 did a commendable job in mobilizing an impressive protest against the Keystone XL pipeline that has so far stopped that project. Unfortunately, this tentative victory has become grist to the mill of traditional environmental groups promoting their delusion that President Obama is struggling against the forces of evil to do the right thing and is deserving of our support.
A lot of folks aren’t buying that in Seattle. After getting White House approval for “exploratory” drilling in the distressed, thawing Arctic Ocean, Royal Dutch Shell chose Seattle as the home base for its giant drilling rig. The vessel’s arrival was met by determined climate activists on shore and in kayaks. One actually boarded the Shell ship and as this is written is still chaining herself to the superstructure.
Of course, climate activists in the region should join the march in St Paul and any similar actions elsewhere. Broad unity should be sought. But especially as we reach out to working people it seems high time to go beyond purely defensive responses to various and sundry outrages. We need to also develop and popularize a comprehensive program for how we can convert to an ecologically sustainable, full employment society that will guarantee a quality living standard for all. Brecher offers a start to a needed course correction,
“Working with Ron Blackwell, a former chief economist at UNITE and the AFL-CIO, the Labor Network for Sustainability has developed a Labor Movement Plan to Address Climate Change. It proposes a government-led mobilization on the scale of the economic mobilization seen for World War II and calls for public investment to produce a full-employment economy, whose growth would generate the resources necessary to convert America to renewable energy and provide a just transition for workers, communities, and carbon-dependent regions. Drawing on the World War II experience, it describes the fiscal, labor, and governance policies needed to make this happen. A more detailed follow-on plan is in the works.”
This is the basic strategy needed by a lambs-no-more working class majority to lead a movement to take power from the climate wrecking lions. It should become the policy of the Alberta NDP government and unions on both sides of the border. It can be the centerpiece of a clarion call for a new labor party in the USA–where the decisive battles must be won.
These objectives may seem to be wishful thinking to many. Certainly they will not be easily achieved. But who would have believed even five years ago that the working people of unoccupied Ireland would have defied the state supported Church by casting a landslide vote for same sex marriage? I don’t have Faith but I do have supreme confidence in American and Canadian workers to reclaim our class identity, remaster solidarity, and fight to the finish to bequeath to our progeny a living planet to support work for a living.
‘We Want Change—And We Don’t Mean Pennies’
Though I often sign them I generally don’t get excited about the plethora of petitions powered by broadband Internet. Only rarely do they garner enough signers to have some real impact. I did give a favorable mention a few weeks ago to a campaign by The Guardian calling on philanthropic institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to divest their enormous holdings in fossil fuels. It has so far attracted 211,000 signatures from around the world. But even that impressive effort pales in comparison to a petition submitted to a McDonald’s stockholders meeting last week. A Workday Minnesota story reports,
“Less than 24 hours after 5,000 workers marched on McDonald’s corporate headquarters, the burger giant’s cooks and cashiers returned to Oak Brook [Chicago suburb] Thursday morning to bring their call for $15 and union rights directly to the company’s shareholders at their annual meeting. Armed with 1.4 million petition signatures from everyday Americans calling on the fast-food giant to pay $15 and respect workers’ right to form a union, the workers marched up to the gates of McDonald’s suburban campus outside of Chicago, chanting ‘We Believe That We Will Win’ and ‘We Want Change And We Don’t Mean Pennies.’”
At about the same time as the workers were delivering the massive petition to McDonald’s corporate meeting I was among dozens of supporters of a Kansas City 15 dollar minimum wage rallying on the steps of City Hall prior to a Noon City Council meeting. The Council had received a petition signed by 4,000 Kansas City registered voters to put the minimum wage on the ballot. Speakers included a minister in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; a Fast Food worker; the head of SEIU Local 1 KC office; and the Director of Labor Education at UMKC. They had been assured that the Council would approve putting the minimum wage up for a vote in an August election. We were urged to go upstairs to provide a visible but polite and silent presence during Council deliberations.
I didn’t go up to the hallowed Chamber. While I didn’t promote a rowdy disruption this time around I wasn’t sure that I could remain stoic and mute if any likely shenanigans developed. While mostly Democrats, the Mayor and Council are hardly labor friendly. Hand picked representatives of the local Establishment, their main task is to use City Hall as a cash cow for development schemes while maintaining “law and order.” Among their number is a one time boss of mine, former Area Transportation Authority general manager Dick Davis. He is advising them on a privatization attack that would eliminate forty percent of union transit jobs. This Council imposed a wage freeze on all blue collar and clerical city workers—many of whom earn little more than McDonald’s cooks and cashiers. There’s a Mayor and Council election coming up in June–but there’s not a single name on the ballot that I would waste a vote on.
When the question of a city minimum wage was first raised they told our side it was forbidden by state law. But it didn’t take much digging to discover that’s not true—yet. Following the ALEC playbook chapter and verse, the reactionary Missouri legislature did indeed pass a law with such a restriction. But it doesn’t take effect until late August and can’t be applied retroactively. That means a narrow time frame remains for establishing a local minimum wage.
Mayor Sly James was wildly cheered by several hundred at a 15 and a Union rally April 15 when he pledged his support for a KC 15 minimum wage. But the other side of his mouth dropped in the shenanigan-laden Thursday meeting. The Council first decided to toss out the perfectly valid petition and not let the voters decide in August or any other time. Instead, the Council will “consult” with all sectors in the community to try to reach a unique “Kansas City solution.” In place of their broken promise they made a new one—the Council will make a final decision by July. The Mayor told reporters that on reflection he now believes 15 is too rich for Kansas City. He currently leans toward a top rate of 13, to be phased in over several years.
I can’t fault the ad hoc coalition that petitioned for the new wage floor. They had to publicly accept the ultimately reneged promises of deceitful politicians at face value. Had it not been for their efforts building on the growing success of Fast Food worker mobilizations the Council would never have devoted a New York minute to discussing improvement of the conditions of the working poor. Some new minimum short of the 15 goal may yet be granted.
I have no doubt that the Fight for Fifteen movement will continue to grow stronger in Kansas City workplaces and streets—as it is throughout the country. But the watering down—perhaps even drowning—of the minimum wage that would have meant substantial raises for tens of thousands of low wage workers in my city has to be acknowledged as a setback. We will continue to face many more obstacles erected by boss politicians down the road until we have a party of our own.
That’s all for this week.
Free subscription to the Week In Review is available at 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.