Week In Review May 26

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May 262015
 

onaschoutsmall  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.

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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 May 18

 Week In Review  Comments Off on Week In Review May 18
May 182015
 

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

Criminal Indifference
It may take some time for investigators to confidently explain the circumstances leading to the tragic Amtrak derailment at Frankford Junction in Philadelphia that killed eight and injured over 200. But the Mayor of the City of Brotherly Love didn’t have to wait for such formalities. He immediately placed all blame on a worker—Amtrak engineer Brandon Bostian. The media backed up the Mayor’s reckless class bigotry with a pack of lies and half-truths.

Initial reports asserted that Bostian had refused to give a statement about the accident and was not cooperating with authorities. The truth is that while still waiting for treatment of head injuries, that included the need for 15 stitches, Bostian immediately consented to an alcohol/drug blood test and voluntarily surrendered his cell phone. He told his questioners he couldn’t remember the actual crash—not at all unusual for someone who likely suffered a concussion and certainly was in a state of shock. Had he been a Baltimore police officer involved in the death of a Black man in custody he couldn’t have been questioned for ten days. Transportation workers are held to a higher standard—and Bostian and his union representation are meeting all obligations.

Eventually some in the media got around to reporting that long available technology—in place in some areas—would have probably prevented the Frankford Junction disaster. Both Congress and the White House have delayed its implementation. These culprits warrant exposure of their criminal indifference to life while promoting the interests of the rail carriers.

My friend Michael Schreiber, a retired transit worker and frequent Amtrak rider now living in Philadelphia, posted an excellent informative piece last night on the Socialist Action site. It’s worth a read.

The Great Grass Roots Filibuster
I lost count of the number of self-congratulating e-blasts hailing the heroic filibuster by our Democrat “friends” stopping Fast Track for TPP. They heard our petitions and letters from the Grass Roots and did their duty.

TPP—Trans-Pacific Partnership—has been accurately characterized by labor and environmental opponents as “NAFTA on steroids.” It is wanted badly by most sectors of Capital—and our pal in the White House. Fast Track would give the President authority to negotiate an agreement that Congress could only vote up or down—no amendments. Had the filibuster been an actual coup de grâce for TPP a genuine celebration would be in order.

But, of course, it was no such thing, merely a choreographed stunt. By the very next day the President offered a couple of “concessions”–some gibberish about currency manipulation and vague promises of help for workers who could prove they lost jobs because of TPP. Claiming they had “fixed” the problems, more than enough filibusterers declared they were ready to support a bipartisan vote. Those dependent on union support were given dispensation to vote their “conscience.”

Since then even more bad news about what’s being negotiated in TPP has been leaked. An e-blast from 350.org reports,

“The Trans-Pacific Partnership is so bad, it’s hard to believe — but this stunning part of the deal has been independently confirmed:

The TPP would eliminate environmental reviews of fracked liquid natural gas export facilities, which could be used to move half of the gas drilled in the US overseas. These massive, multibillion dollar fossil fuel projects would make fracking companies a fortune — and be completely exempt from federal environmental review.”

Even Ireland
When we heard news accounts that 26-county Ireland was holding a referendum on same sex marriage my wife Mary wondered what Sinn Féin would do. Well, I soon received this message from them,

“Ireland will get the chance to take a huge leap forward in our republican vision of inclusion and equality this Thursday May 22nd with a Yes vote in the Marriage Equality Referendum.
A Yes vote will mean all Irish citizens living in the 26 Counties, gay or straight, will have an equal right to civil marriage. This is an opportunity to do right for all of our people.”

A Tale of Two Upsets II
The Alberta provincial election produced the exact opposite results of the British general election reviewed in the last WIR. The NDP labor party ousted a Tory machine that had held power for 44 years. Rachel Notley, the new leader selected by the party last year, now becomes the first ever NDP Alberta Premier.

Notley, 51, was raised as an orange diaper baby, the daughter of a former NDP provincial leader. Her husband, Paul Arab, is a communications staffer for the Canadian Union of Public Employees and a key NDP strategist. Since graduating from law school she has worked for unions and public agencies in British Columbia as well as Alberta as a labor lawyer specializing in worker compensation. She was first elected to the Alberta Legislature in 2008.

This is a solid pro-union resume but not particularly radical—which would be a good description of the NDP as a whole. But as moderate as the politician generating “Rachel-mania” may be, an NDP government in Edmonton is uncharted territory–raising great expectations among many workers and environmentalists and deep suspicion among extraction capital. This past week a convention of the Alberta Federation of Teachers served notice they are hopeful that the NDP will provide much needed increases in spending on schools.

Most Americans identify Alberta with the infamous tar-sands—or as capital prefers, “oil-sands.” I heard a Canadian trade unionist and climate activist explain at a Labor Notes Conference workshop that the region contains no tar, no oil, and not much sand. It does have an abundance of a gooey hydrocarbon known as bitumen that can be synthesized in to oil and gasoline. This process is 4.5 times more carbon intensive than conventional oil, making it arguably the dirtiest of all fuel sources. That’s why opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline became the central focus of the fledgling U.S. climate movement.

Notley and her party oppose KXL and an even more environmentally disastrous proposal for a pipeline across British Columbia to the Pacific. She has hinted at higher royalties and taxes from extraction industries as well as upping tax rates on the wealthy. But she has distanced herself from a more ambitious climate program of the Federal NDP, has said she is open to some new pipeline schemes, and has assured the extraction capitalists that she’s not their enemy. She recently gushed, “Things are going to be just A-OK over here in Alberta.”

But not many are likely to buy in to Notley’s Morning in Alberta pep talk for long. The working class voters who elected Notley expect some substantial change and Alberta capital will resist every move.

Some Canadian leftists whose views on many questions I’ve come to respect dismiss the significance of the Alberta victory. Herman Rosenfeld gave one of the more perceptive and measured of these to a Jacobin interviewer,

“One would have to be pretty cynical and hard-boiled not to feel good about this election. On the other hand, there is little reason to think that Rachel Notley’s NDP won’t end up reinforcing the neoliberal status quo over time. …The Canadian left cannot move forward through the NDP. It represents a component of the left that accepts the precepts of the current system, austerity, the transformation of the state and labor markets that go along with neoliberalism, and the mantra of competitiveness. The left has to operate independently, working to build a socialist movement — which implies creating a working-class base, developing orientations in and through struggles that challenge capital and its logic.”

Before responding I want to say that it has been my privilege over the years to collaborate with many Canadian unionists, and socialists both inside the NDP and out. The union that I have belonged to for 25 years has a substantial Canadian membership that played an indispensable role in the reform movement that has begun to transform the ATU for the better. My views are offered in the spirit of internationalism—not hectoring from a bossy Yank, a character type I know so well.

Most of Rosenfeld’s critique of the NDP is spot on. While I seldom say “never” I agree that it is unlikely that the NDP will eventually become a party dedicated to the fundamental social and ecological changes needed in Canada–and throughout the world.

But the left on both sides of the border is small and fragmented. At least some of its components can undoubtedly gain future mass influence, justifying the need to maintain their political and organizational independence. But for now they are not a major pole of attraction. Workers and allies prepared to challenge the Establishment are initially turning to the historic First Responders—the trade unions and labor’s NDP.

Contrary to brother Rosenfeld’s assertion, in my opinion the left can best move forward by being inside the NDP as well as out. They need to share the experiences of radicalizing workers, students, climate campaigners, and activists in national, feminist, and antiwar movements who “feel good” about the Alberta victory. They can reinforce the growing Socialist Caucus in the party, helping to educate and mobilize a new generation fighting for Class and Climate Justice throughout the Canadian state.

I can assure our Canadian sisters and brothers that there are many of us Yanks who would be happy to have a labor party even with the serious flaws of the present NDP. Our unions—and even much of the left–in the USA are still mired in lesser evil ruling class politics. One of the tools we used in the failed attempt to launch a Labor Party was that classic short animated film accompanying the Tommy Douglas Mouseland parable–so clearly explaining class.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the new NDP Alberta government will undoubtedly provide valuable lessons for class aware workers in both of our countries.

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

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member