Week In Review February 18

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Feb 182018

by Bill Onasch

We Need Our Own Plan

Merriam Webster defines infrastructure as “the ‘underlying structure’ of a country and its economy, the fixed installations that it needs in order to function. These include roads, bridges, dams, the water and sewer systems, railways and subways, airports, and harbors.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers latest report card on American infrastructure gave it a grade of D+. The list of crumbling basic infrastructure is extensive.

More than 55,000 bridges in the USA are “structurally deficient,” meaning they need major renovation or replacement with varying degrees of urgency.

Virtually every American city and town is experiencing frequent failures of aging clean water and sewage pipes, many cited as violating Federal standards.

Riders on New York City’s subways would not be as generous as the ASCE with their report card.

Trump’s campaign pledge to Build America Great Again, jump started by a trillion dollar government infrastructure program, was a vote-getter–especially among workers in the building trades. He upped the ante to 1.5 trillion in his State of the Union. But when this long awaited initiative was finally sent to Congress last Monday it was more sizzle than Big Mac.

It is certainly not anything like transformative projects of the last century such as FDR’s rural electrification, spearheaded by the Tennessee Valley Authority, Bonneville Dam and completion of the Hoover Dam, that connected farmers to the grid. Or Eisenhower’s replication of Hitler’s Autobahns with the 47,000 mile Interstate Highway System that was a big boost to over-the-road trucking and, with its freeways, Urban Sprawl. These big ticket items often did a lot of social and environmental damage but they were vital to the ruling class in recovering from the Great Depression, winning a World War, and backing their claim as a superpower.

Trump’s plan, arriving on Capitol Hill a few weeks after passage of a 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut mainly going to corporations and the rich, was merely an “outline,” heavier on boasting and lies than specific proposals.

First of all, it aims to get that 1.5 trillion dollars of projects out of no more than 200 billion of government spending over ten years. It doesn’t specify replacement of a single shaky bridge or leaky pipe. The best explanation I’ve seen so far is a substantial New York Times article by Patricia Cohen and Alan Rappeport Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Puts Burden on State and Private Money. They say,

The goal is to generate a total pot of $1.5 trillion to upgrade the country’s highways, airports and railroads.

“Those financial priorities are crystallized in the new guidelines established by the White House. The ability to find sources of funding outside the federal government will be the most important yardstick, accounting for 70 percent of the formula for choosing infrastructure projects. How ‘the project will spur economic and social returns on investment’ ranks at the bottom, at just 5 percent.

“In this new competition for federal funds, a plan to, say, build a better access road for a luxury development — a project with the potential to bring in more dollars from private investors — could have a strong chance of getting the green light. By comparison, a critical tunnel overhaul that has trouble getting new money might not be approved.

They quote Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University,

Instead of the public sector deciding on public needs and public priorities, the projects that are most attractive to private investors are the ones that will go to the head of the line. Private investors will become the tail that will wag the dog, because they’ll want projects that will give returns.”

Trump’s outline is not at all vague about obliterating environmental regulations that hamper profit-worthy projects. Capital punishment is also envisioned for union-friendly ones like Prevailing Wage required on most projects using Federal funding.

And, in his budget proposal sent to Congress on the same day, Trump suggests selling off public assets such as Washington DC’s National and International airports and fresh water Aqueduct and the Bonneville Power Administration generating abundant, relatively cheap hydroelectric power in the Pacific Northwest.

While it will have no positive impact on infrastructure, Build America Great Again will promote deregulation, privatization, union-busting, and hand-outs to corporations to subsidize already planned projects. It will boost growing inequality and climate change. Other than that it’s not too bad.

Whether all or any of this scam can make it through the chaotic Congress remains to be seen. We shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of perfidious Democrat “friends” to cave—as they did with the Dreamers. But in any case, with apologies to Naomi Klein–no is not enough. Status quo will mean more bridge failures, contaminated water systems, train wrecks and other infrastructure related disasters.

We need to develop a working class infrastructure program as part of the overall perspective for class and climate justice. I will offer some suggestions about priorities in the next WIR.

‘I Believe We Will Win’

It was rewarding to join hundreds of others in that familiar chant as part of the Fight For 15 and a Union strikes, march and rally in Kansas City last Tuesday. It was one of hundreds of such actions across North America. In my opinion, they remain the leading edge of class struggle unionism in the USA.

This movement that began with Fast Food workers has been successful in winning higher minimum wages in a number of cities and states and has representation and contract victories for low wage workers in home care, airport services, and adjunct professors.

The revived focus on Fast Food this time was important. A few weeks ago the Trump controlled National Labor Relations Board overturned the “shared responsibility” rule briefly in place under the Obama board. It could have required the big corporations like McDonald’s and Burger King to be a party to union negotiations with their franchises. While a major legal setback, the February 13 short strikes and lively demos confirmed the fight continues.

An additional attribute this time was collaboration with the Poor People’s Campaign. This is an effort to revive the project that Dr Martin Luther King was working on at the time of his murder while supporting an AFSCME strike in Memphis. It was initiated by the Moral Monday movement with a track record of mass mobilizations of all colors in North Carolina.

Watch Out For the Truancy Squad

Thousands of teachers, school service employees and supporters rallied at West Virginia’s Capitol in Charleston Friday demanding the legislature restore their drained health fund–and more pay. National officers of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association spoke as did representatives from the state AFL-CIO, United Mine Workers and the union representing state troopers. Following the rally it was announced a strike will shut down every public school in West Virginia this coming Thursday and Friday.

No Worm—But 45 Bucks

Time is running out to take advantage of 105 dollar Early Bird registration for the April 6-8 Labor Notes Conference in Chicago. After February 23 it goes up to 150. You can find out more information and register here.

In Brief…

* After two years of contentious austerity negotiations, and mobilization of public support by the unions, 9,000 Chicago Transit Authority ATU train and bus workers have a new contract through arbitration. It includes 45 million dollars in both retroactive and forward wage increases and maintains the same level of employee healthcare contributions. The CTA has said it will not raise fares. The Chicago Tribune quotes the ATU 241 bus division president as saying it was “probably the best agreement we’ve had in decades.”

* The New York Daily News reported, “Worried about federal immigration policies, a New York labor organization is taking steps to protect its own. Across Long Island and throughout the city, some 120,000 Teamsters are getting prepped to become a ‘sanctuary union.’ In 27 shops, business agents, supervisors and front-line workers are getting schooled on their rights under U.S. law — and when and how to challenge federal immigration agents who show up to search their work sites. The training is complex and technical — hinging on specific types of warrants and the definition of a raid. But in fundamental labor terms, it follows one simple rule: Union solidarity first, immigration status second.”

* I’m grateful to Haymarket Books for providing me with a review copy of Kim Moody’s latest book, On New Terrain—How Capital Is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War. I hope to bring you a stand-alone review soon.

That’s all for this week.

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Week In Review February 12

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Feb 122018

  by Bill Onasch

Can We Fight Climate Change Without Washington?

The most prominent leader of the American climate action movement thinks we can and should. In a Guardian opinion piece Bill McKibben says,

…since global warming is an immediate battle with enormous consequences, we dare not wait for Washington to return to sanity. And happily, we don’t have to. The strategy that’s been evolving for US climate action – and for action in many other parts of the planet – bypasses the central governments as much as possible.”

McKibben doesn’t specify the last time sanity was evident in the nation’s capital. The founder of 350.org shuffled between criticism and praise for Trump’s predecessor. Two years ago, he was a supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders in his quest for the Democrat presidential nomination and McKibben was the principal author of the Berniecrat climate platform language in negotiations with the victorious Clintonites. But, of course, the Electoral College made all that no importa.

Certainly the Trump regime is the most reactionary, as well as bungling, in living memory but McKibben also notes the Democrats didn’t even mention climate change in their rebuttal to the recent State of the Union. While I agree we shouldn’t wait for the Washington two-party cartel to do the right thing on climate, or anything else, neither is there is a bypass around them to a promised land.

McKibben touts 350’s Fossil Free U.S. campaign and identifies its three main components:

* “The first – joining in work pioneered by groups like the Sierra Club – is to persuade towns, cities, counties, and states to pledge to make the transition to 100% renewable energy.”

* “Job two is to block new fossil fuel infrastructure.”

* “And third is to cut off the money that fuels this industry – by divestment…”

While there’s nothing inherently unprincipled about such “resistance” measures, in my opinion McKibben greatly exaggerates their impact and potential. Rather than a flanking action in the battle it’s a retreat from the class positions popularized by Naomi Klein’s landmark 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

The same ruling class Establishment that dominates Washington also calls the shots on state, county, and municipal levels as well. Experience has shown pledges by most of these lesser governments are no more adequate or reliable than those of national ones who signed on to the ineffective Paris Accords. And not a single fossil fuel project has been canceled because of lack of capital due to divestment.

A number of states led by California, along with a few corporations and NGOs, sent an unofficial delegation to the November UN climate gathering in Bonn proclaiming they were “Still In.” They hope to salvage Obama’s executive order—being dismantled by Trump—that enabled the very modest American goals accepted in Paris.

Obama’s Clean Power Plan was based on abundant fracked natural gas, that emits a bit less carbon dioxide, becoming cheaper than coal. It was a profitable market measure used to claim the modest reduction in carbon emissions in Obama’s Paris pledge. While a considerable amount of metallurgical and low sulfur coal is still being mined much of it is being exported to become someone else’s emission problem.

The same fracking process was also, of course, perfected for oil. A great deal of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, is released during extraction–and also remains in the oil, making it highly volatile and dangerous to transport. This surge of oil allowed cheaper gasoline for consumers who have been burning even more of the stuff. As a result, transportation emissions now exceed those in electricity production.

Millions of American jobs depend not only on fossil fuel extraction and refining, and electricity generation, but also many more involved in the fossil-dependent auto industry, airlines, trucking, railroads, petrochemicals, agriculture—and the war machine. Abandoning those workers without offering comparable employment would not only be unjust—it ain’t going to happen.

To restructure a sustainable economy that also can provide jobs for all with a decent living standard requires democratic planning, and sharing of resources and technology on a global scale–not for capitalist profits but for human needs in a secured biosphere.

Maybe you can fight climate change while ignoring Washington. But to defeat the devastation spreading from global warming will require the working class majority of humanity taking power in Washington–and Beijing, Ottawa, Moscow, New Delhi, London, Tokyo, Berlin, and all the other capitals of capital.


We are, of course, a long way from that goal. Victory is not assured. What is guaranteed is the ultimate collapse of human civilization if we fail to win the struggle for Class & Climate Justice.

There are some hopeful signs, especially in the country that launched the Industrial Revolution that got us in to this ecological mess. The British Marxist economist Michael Roberts, who writes a useful weekly blog, was relatively upbeat about a recent Labour Party conference on models of public ownership. Roberts writes,

In many ways, [Labour’s financial spokesperson John] McDonnell’s speech was inspiring in that the next Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn and McDonnell is genuinely dedicated to restoring properly-funded and resourced public services and reversing past privatisations of key economic sectors made by previous Conservative and Labour governments in the neoliberal period of the 30 years before the Great Recession.

“McDonnell and the report emphasised a range of models for future publicly owned assets and services: from cooperatives, municipal services and the nationalisation of key sectors like health, education and utilities like water, energy and transport – the so-called ‘natural monopolies’.”

Jeremy Corbyn and Naomi Klein at a labor rally in Paris during the 2015 climate summit

The self-declared Marxist McDonnell has undoubtedly given many such speeches over the years. But the enthusiastic reception at this conference was nurtured by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy whose British affiliates had won the backing of the Trades Union Congress, the British counterpart to the AFL-CIO, for socialization of energy by the next Labour government—that could take power soon.

Fortunately, McDonnell and Corbyn never rejected the fight for the central government nor did the working class abandon their historic party. To get some sanity in Washington, and win the fight against climate change requires launching a Labor Party in the USA.

Wall Street Down, Armourdale Out

In the final days of the first year in decades of Republican control of both houses of Congress and the White House they finally passed significant legislation desired by all wings of the ruling class. Even in victory, Trump could not resist lying about the size and scope of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act. More disingenuous was the claim that corporations would use most of their windfall to create jobs and raise wages. The promise that economic growth would make it “revenue neutral” was just as bogus. Many bosses chipped in with worker bonuses allegedly made possible by tax relief for business.

Unfortunately for the Trumpites, the very perceived success of full employment and wage increases spooked many speculators fearing inflation. Trump’s bragging about record high stock indexes suddenly switched to other topics as the markets plunged in a massive “correction” that may not yet be over.

Most working class wealth is in home ownership. Relatively few workers have much invested in stocks. Millions don’t even have a bank account. Patricia Cohen writing in the New York Times reminds us,

A whopping 84 percent of all stocks owned by Americans belong to the wealthiest 10 percent of households. And that includes everyone’s stakes in pension plans, 401(k)’s and individual retirement accounts, as well as trust funds, mutual funds and college savings programs like 529 plans.”

In another piece in the Times Cohen debunks the panic about wage hikes fueling inflation,

The recent stock market rumpus has been set off in part by fears that a tight labor market and quickening wage growth are a foretaste of higher inflation and interest rates….A growing preference among employers for one-time awards instead of raises that keep building over time has been quietly transforming the employment landscape for two decades. But it was accelerated by the recession’s intensity, which made employers especially cautious about increasing labor costs….This little-noticed shift in how employers compensate workers could also help explain one of the economy’s most persistent puzzles: why a hot labor market has failed to ignite bigger increases in wages.”

I would add that today’s “full employment” is qualitatively different than past periods of prosperity. It’s been achieved by millions of discouraged workers simply dropping out of the labor market and many more working in low wage part-time and “gig economy” jobs.

So far, corporations have mainly been using their windfall to continue the trend of closing and “consolidating” unionized plants rather than expanding. Recently I commented on the loss of 800 jobs in the closing of Harley-Davidson’s Kansas City assembly and the “creation” of 400 jobs once done at that plant in Harley’s York, Pennsylvania operation. Now I turn to Armourdale.

P&G Armourdale Plant In Hospice

This district in the Kaw aka Kansas River flood plain began as a true company town to house workers at the one-time meat packing giant Armour’s first plant outside Chicago. Soon four more big packinghouses were located in what became an expanded Kansas City, Kansas. And since soap used to be based on animal waste Colgate-Palmolive and Proctor & Gamble also built large plants to be close to their source of raw material.

The packinghouses and stockyards are long gone as the industry restructured in to many smaller plants in rural areas. In 2006, Colgate sold what was left of their plant to a small outfit making small bars of soap found in hotel rooms. But P&G continued to invest, making their Armourdale plant state-of-the-art.

But neither technology nor the Tax Cut and Jobs Act could save the P&G workforce. Last week the company gave advance notice that 380 remaining jobs will be eliminated as they close the Armourdale plant and transfer the work to a new facility in Tabler Station, West Virginia.

A Modest Concession By Me

Many readers have long urged me to utilize “social media” beyond the Google + I’ve used for years. I will never succumb to the lure of FaceBook but I am trying an experiment with Twitter. It will be very low key, mainly announcing new postings of the WIR and other timely events and articles. You can find and follow me, I think, here.

That’s all for this week.

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