Week In Review October 17

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Oct 172016
 

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

A Teachable Moment In Chicago

CTU President Karen Lewis (at lectern) announces a tentative contract agreement (CTUnet.com)

As I write, a Tentative Agreement with Chicago Public Schools is winding through the multi-layered democratic structure of the Chicago Teachers Union–on the way to a final decision by the 28,000 members. The TA was reached literally just minutes before a Monday midnight strike deadline—and more than a year since the expiration of their last contract.

The union had hardly been lethargic since expiration. In fact, even after settlement of their historic 2012 strike—perceived by most observers as a union victory—they had continued without interruption to mobilize allies in the community around skirmishes over school closings, cut backs in crossing guards, and many other issues.

The 2014 election of the loony right Bruce Rauner as Governor of Illinois presented a new challenge. Rauner declared war on state employee pensions—seriously underfunded after repeated embezzlement by politicians to finance state services without raising taxes.

While Chicago teachers—who have their own pension fund run by the city of Chicago–were not directly affected by Rauner’s attack they knew they would not be immune to the “austerity” onslaught orchestrated by the banks. They helped organize big protests in LaSalle Street.

I happened to be in Chicago for the Labor Notes Conference this past April 1 when the CTU shut down the schools in a one-day strike. But few teachers stayed home on this unscheduled day off. The CTU had reached out to other embattled unions, the Fight for 15, student groups, and activist organizations in the Black and Latino communities to organize solidarity marches and rallies throughout Chicago—culminating in a big demonstration downtown.

This was a live round fired across the bow of the ship of state anchored in the Civic Center. As tense negotiations resumed, while the union followed the legal steps required for another open-ended strike, everyone knew the teachers meant business.

In the end, it was Mayor Emanuel who blinked. During the final bargaining session a surprising press release announced the Mayor was diverting 88 million dollars from the Tax Increment Finance fund—usually used to reward private developers—to the CPS. It was an option demanded by the union that had long been forcefully rejected by His Honor. That supplement completed the package needed to implement the TA.

As with most things, union contract settlements need to be judged in context, how it compares in overall collective bargaining. Was the leadership adversarial or compliant? Did they mobilize the strength of the ranks? Was anything “left on the table” that should have been won?

While not excessively modest, the top leadership of the CTU is remarkably free of the typical hype used to “sell” most contracts. As in 2012, they have been honest about both what was achieved and what they were unable to include in the TA. They readily acknowledge it’s not “the best contract ever.” But they believe it’s the best that can be won—with or without a strike.

The give-and-take negotiations that led to the TA beat back most, and the most serious concessions demanded by the Mayor acting on behalf of the banks. There were even a few improvements over the 2012 agreement. While members will be understandably disappointed that they didn’t win all of their just demands it’s likely a solid majority will vote to approve the TA.

The CTU remains the best model for internal democracy, promotion of membership activism, and practicing as well as preaching effective solidarity. We can’t reward each of them with the proverbial fruit deposited on their desks by grateful students. But for me they are the Apple of My Eye.

Minnesota Nurses End Strike—Continue fight for Single-Payer

Logo for MNA

There is no way Mayor Emanuel could have rounded up 28,000 qualified teachers willing to scab if the CTU again went on strike. But there are temp agencies who specialize in providing sometimes thousands of Registered Nurse strike-breakers. Allina Health—a conglomerate that acquired several major hospitals and clinics in the Twin Cities—spent far more than normal labor costs to bring in “temporary replacements” as 4,800 members of the Minnesota Nurses Association walked out on strike on Labor Day.

The union ranks remained solid and were joined in solidarity on the picket lines by other unions, such as AFSCME and SEIU. They also drew the attention of “friends” in office who didn’t relish a long and polarizing strike during an election campaign.

The Obama administration dispatched a Federal mediator who crafted a settlement that granted important union proposals on patient care and security issues but didn’t budge on the company’s odious demand for a new, inferior health insurance plan for the nurses. The MNA negotiators agreed to take it to the members—but without their recommendation. The ranks voted it down.

At that point the DFL Governor intervened. There was some tweaking to gradually phase in the corporate health insurance plan. That deal was reluctantly approved by the members.

While the ranks are disappointed by having to accept a major concession they needn’t hang their heads in shame. They fought an honorable battle around the most contentious issue in American collective bargaining—made much worse by what the Republicans gleefully credit as ObamaCare. It will never be fully resolved in contract negotiations. It requires a political solution.

National Nurses United—to which the MNA is affiliated—have long been out front on this crucial issue. They are among the main backers of the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Health Care.

Rita Shaw 1930-2016

Shortly after publishing the last WIR, I learned Rita Shaw had passed away. This was not unexpected. She had been in hospice, comforted to the end by her long-time partner—and spouse since the law allowed—Joan Sandler, her children from an earlier marriage, and close friends.

Her many achievements in life merit recognition. A number of readers knew her, or knew of her. To me she was a mentor, comrade, and friend who often offered useful advice as well as generous material support to the KC Labor project. An extensive obituary is online and it also has links to interviews and other material at the Washington History site.

Rita’s first act of rebellion, at age 12, was bold and decisive—she refused to attend Hebrew School indoctrination in her parent’s Orthodox Jewish faith. This was in part motivated by their teaching subordination of women. She suspected she would be subject to an arranged marriage. Fighting for equality for women would remain central to her life work for the next seventy-four years.

Rita soon was convinced that liberation of women was a struggle that could not be completely won in capitalist society. She became caught up in the big upsurge of strikes and civil rights battles that erupted at the end of World War II. While still a teenager, she joined the Socialist Workers Party—known as Trotskyists—and plunged in to activity. That was how she met her first spouse, Ed Shaw who later became a prominent leader in the SWP. Their marriage lasted about twenty years and produced two children—Matthew and Wilma.

After a couple of years, the promising post-war upsurge gave way to a long period of Reaction. Passage of the Taft-Hartley Act was accompanied by the McCarthyite witch-hunt. The entire Left, including the SWP, lost many members, sometimes whole branches.

But Rita and Ed had signed up for the duration. They were part of a team sent to rebuild the Detroit branch—and they did an admirable job under very adverse conditions. Rita was the party’s candidate in several elections including a state-wide campaign for U.S. Senate.

The political climate eventually changed again for the better with the Civil Rights movement, the inspiration of the Cuban Revolution, the ultimately massive movement against the Vietnam war, and eventually a new wave of Feminism. This brought a big influx of radicalizing youth in to the SWP and the newly formed Young Socialist Alliance. I was part of this in 1963.

Rita was later asked to move to Seattle to help the rejuvenation of the party in the Northwest. It was around this time Rita and Ed parted ways. Rita had worked a wide variety of jobs over the years to support her family. In Seattle she was able to get a good, stable position as a railway clerk on the Burlington Northern. She came to be elected to the highest position in her local union and became widely known and respected in the Seattle labor movement.

Rita was involved in the National Organization for Women from its very beginning and mentored many feminists young and not so young. It was in NOW that Rita met Joan Sandler, an accomplished musician and activist in the musician’s union. They would soon become partners and, decades later, would get some media attention for being among the first same sex couples to be legally married in the state of Washington. Rita’s children came to embrace Joan as part of the family.

While Rita remained true to the principles of the SWP she joined in her youth beginning in the Eighties the party itself went through a sea change—largely without a democratic discussion. Real and imagined opponents of this transformation were summarily expelled on specious charges—and ostracized.

Some of those expelled regrouped in new formations and it was in one of those in 1984 that I got to really know Rita. She was, of course, as outraged as the rest of us about our unjust treatment from a consolidating cult. But she urged us not to dwell on our misfortune but to instead figure out realistic tasks for supporting and influencing class and social struggles. She also used her trenchant sense of humor as an antidote to any self-righteousness.

Rita set a very positive example for the rest of us with her involvement in the movement against U.S. intervention in Central America. She was an early supporter of Labor Party Advocates and helped build an impressive Labor Party chapter with official support by important Seattle unions.

The Fourth Internationalist Tendency group to which we belonged dissolved in the early Nineties but it’s magazine Labor Standard continued—and still does today in an online format. Rita remained a part of the editorial board as well as a financial contributor.

In her final years, despite declining health and eyesight, Rita followed with great interest the Fight for 15 movement, the IAM’s battles at Boeing, and the election victories of Kshama Sawant of the Socialist Alternative party. Rita was never a sectarian. She maintained friendly relations with honest fighters of all political currents. I valued her perceptive analysis of the promise and shortcomings of those important struggles in Seattle that have national implications.

I am glad my wife Mary enabled me to defy my personal no-fly rule to visit Seattle earlier this year for a big celebration of Joan Sandler’s birthday organized mainly by Rita and her kids. We got to know Joan better and it was clear Rita was nearing the end.

Rita was one of the last of what for the working class was the Greatest Generation. But her example lives on in subsequent generations that continue the struggles to which she devoted a lifetime.

***

That’s all for this week.


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Week In Review October 10

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Oct 102016
 

onaschoutsmall  by Bill Onasch

In this WIR I take up some issues that received scant, if any attention in the first PG-rated Presidential “Debate.”

As Good As It Gets?

The BLS monthly jobs report–always chock full of useful information about the state of the working class—was released last Friday as the election campaign enters the final month. It was kind of lost in the shuffle between Hurricane Matthew and new outrage about the misogynist Republican nominee. That was just fine with his Democrat opponent.

BLS says, “The unemployment rate, at 5.0 percent, and the number of unemployed persons, at 7.9 million, changed little in September. Both measures have shown little movement, on net, since August of last year.”

That’s the “official” unemployment stat. But also reported, there are an additional 1.8 million long-term jobless now designated as only “marginally attached to the workforce” and another 5.9 million are listed as “involuntary part-time”—both numbers essentially unchanged. Combined as the “real” unemployment, these three measures show a job creation that has become stalled—hardly keeping up with new first-time job seekers–while leaving behind 15.6 million who want full-time jobs but can’t find one.

Most job growth, both in September and year to date, was in business services-ytd 582,000; health care-ytd 445,000; eating and drinking establishments-ytd 300,000; and retail sales added 317,000 jobs so far in 2016. To be sure, these industries have some well compensated professionals and technicians–but the majority of these new jobs are low wage, many part-time.

A lot more could be expected—especially after a record year of auto sales and a rebound in housing. The old vaunted “Middle Class” still exists on a much smaller scale but the dream of younger generations to join it—or middle aged workers to rejoin after being pushed out–is still elusive after seven + years of “recovery.”

In the last WIR, I wrote about how the Middle Class has been in a long decline through automation and cybermation. During the Great Recession, bosses also successfully reduced labor costs through outsourcing, job combinations, and big concessions in union contracts. While this enhanced profits in production, at the same time it reduced the purchasing power of many workers. Readers outside the USA may be shocked by some numbers associated with this contraction.

Disturbing Math

The average work hours per week for private sector “nonsupervisory and production employees”—that includes the majority of the working class—was only 33.5. The average hourly wage for the same category rose 5 cents to 21.68. That works out to an average annual wage of 37,766.

Unlike Donald Trump, this average worker doesn’t earn enough to itemize deductions on Federal income tax. Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes amount to 7.65 percent. Nearly every state also has an income tax and most cities/counties assess property taxes to support schools. Kansas City has a one percent earnings tax. After all this taxation with misrepresentation, our average worker will be lucky to take home 30k. And much of that disposable income will be eaten by sales taxes.

Most average and below workers are renters. While prime mortgage rates remain relatively low rents are skyrocketing. The median annual rent for just a one-bedroom apartment in the 50 biggest urban areas is 14,808.

Single parents and two breadwinner households often have to pay for child care. The Economic Policy Institute calculates professional child care averages 11,666 dollars a year per child. That would devour over a third of the average worker’s net pay—so most must make other arrangements for “baby-sitting” with relatives or neighbors.

With the average price of a new car or light truck around 33k, our average worker is not powering those record vehicle sales. Even a reliable used car may not be in their budget. They learn to make their routine fit the bus schedule.

Annual health care spending per person is 8,223 dollars—and double digit increases are expected next year. Much of this flows through insurance nominally provided by employers–but actually charged to the total compensation package in lieu of higher wages. Even subsidized plans of the misnamed Affordable Care Act leave workers vulnerable to thousands of dollars in out of pocket expenses.

Last year the average cost of just tuition and fees for in-state students at a public college was 9,410 dollars. Private colleges generally charge 3-4 times more. The best our average worker could do for college-bound kids would be to cosign for a student loan, sharing what is sometimes a life-long and beyond burden of debt that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

A Last Generation of Prosperity

Of course, there are still workers who earn far more than this average. They help keep the lines rolling at Ford’s Kansas City assembly plant building F-150 pick-up trucks. They can remodel their suburban houses—granite and stainless in the kitchens, theater seats and giant screen TVs in their entertainment center.

But many of these are still prosperous because of a tiered workforce. They are slated for extinction through attrition. Their replacements earn far less in wages and benefits–and it’s unlikely their kids will ever have the same life-style.

The numbers I’ve presented so far deal only with the private sector. The variety of jobs in government make it difficult to arrive at broad meaningful averages. Public workers are more highly unionized than private—but their collective bargaining rights are usually much more restricted. And they have been under bipartisan “austerity” attack—including from the Oval Office.

The Obama administration has aggressively pursued privatization of public education and attacks on teacher unions. The first African-American President has also pursued privatization accompanied by massive elimination and downgrading of US Postal Service jobs–long a rare opportunity for Black youth to get secure “middle class” employment.

It is clear many, if not most workers are at best treading water. Such a mode can’t be supported indefinitely—sooner or later it must transition to swim–or sink. Some groups are so far under water they have little hope of recovery. Youth unemployment ticked back up a tenth of a percent last month to 15.8.

The Democrat presidential candidate has closely identified herself with the marginally more popular current President’s policies. Many of those trace their roots to the Bill Clinton administration. The one concession she made to the unions giving her whole-hearted support was a change of heart on so-called trade deals initiated by her spouse.

But already serious doubts about the sincerity of her conversion are being raised. WikiLeaks released transcripts of some of her speeches to bankers—for which she received six-digit honoraria–that included remarks about a “dream” she shared with Goldman Sachs about “a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.”

Climate MIA

The domestic economy and globalization are not the only issues Secretary Clinton struggles to avoid. Even the supportive New York Times had to note that since her rival Bernie Sanders endorsed her about the only remarks she has made about climate change is to remind audiences that Trump is a global warming denier.

Unfortunately, that has been good enough for the most prominent climate activist Bill McKibben, and the 350.org network he helped found, to mobilize for turning out votes for the candidate that once gave State Department blessing to the Keystone XL pipeline.

This election campaign began with the major parties selecting not only the oldest candidates to ever make a first run for the White House but also the most unpopular. The so-called “debates” not only lack substance—they have sunk in to the gutter, with one still to go. They personalize the degeneration of American capitalist society.

It’s little wonder that a Harvard University poll, reported in the Washington Post, found 51 percent of Millenials reject capitalism and 33 percent favor socialism.

It’s too late to achieve a different out come to this disgraceful election. Since I’m going to the polls to vote against reactionary ballot questions anyway I will cast a write-in vote for the Socialist Action candidate Jeff Mackler. “It’s better to vote for what you want and not get it than vote for what you don’t want—and get it.” After the bad news on November 8, I’ll return to agitating for a revival of the movement for a labor party.

Gayle Swann

Gayle was a working class feminist. She had to sue to get a job cleaning locomotives for the Burlington Northern Railroad in Northeast Minneapolis. She not only fought for her own rights but also spoke up in defense of her coworkers. That earned her such respect that the mostly male membership of the Fireman & Oilers local union elected her Local Chair.

She also became a staunch, open socialist, joining the Socialist Workers Party in 1976, which is how I came to know Gayle. The SWP nominated her for Mayor of Minneapolis in 1979 and she conducted what proved to be a lively, high profile campaign. In a televised debate, she chastised her DFL and Republican opponents for limiting their program to “curb and gutter” issues while she focused on the Equal Rights Amendment, runaway inflation, and the dangers of nuclear power.

After I moved from the Twin Cities in 1987 I didn’t have much contact with Gayle. I last saw her at the Founding Convention of the Labor Party in 1996. Like me, she was enthusiastic about this effort to launch a new working class party. I admired her honesty, dedication and her underlying personal generosity. I was saddened when our mutual friend and comrade Dave Riehle informed me that Gayle had died from a heart attack in late September at age 69.

That’s all for this week.

——————————————————————————–

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