Week In Review March 12

 Week In Review  Comments Off on Week In Review March 12
Mar 122018
 

  by Bill Onasch

A Great Victory Shared With Others

The “illegal” strike by 35,000 West Virginia teachers and other school employees didn’t get an immediate permanent fix to the underfunded state worker health insurance scheme they had sought–but they did win a freeze on insurance premiums as the legislature works on a new insurance structure.

When the boss politicians branded the teachers as “selfish” for wanting bigger raises than other state employees they had an appropriate response—give all state workers a five percent raise—and that’s what they settled for. When the Governor announced the new tentative agreement to hundreds of teachers maintaining their daily vigil at the Capitol a spontaneous chant broke out—put it in writing. They in fact didn’t return to work until an expedited session of the legislature approved the deal and the Governor signed it.

A union that I was once part of expressed thanks for this solidarity in a statement by the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE) who represent–but cannot legally bargain for–some public workers who will benefit,

We are grateful to the determination and solidarity shown to us by our fellow public workers,’ said Jamie Beaton, President of Local 170. ‘Coupled with the commitment to secure full funding for PEIA, the action of school district employees represents an historic milestone. For too long the politicians have tried to pit the interests of school employees against state workers,’ added Beaton. ‘From now on, both county school and state employees will act together to advance the working conditions that we have in common. Fixing wages and health benefits will no longer be deferred by dividing us, and we have the rank and file members of WVSSPA, ATF-WV and WVEA to thank for changing the game.”

As the schools reopened, 1400 members of Communications Workers of America Local 142 walked off their jobs at Frontier Communications, a major Internet and TV provider in West Virginia.

My friend Ann Montague, a long time leader in a state employees union in Oregon, sent me a link to a story in the Tulsa World, headlined Schools Will Stay Closed Until We Get What We Are Asking For, Oklahoma Teachers Union President Says. West Virginia had been 48th in state teacher salaries—Oklahoma is dead last. The State NEA has given the legislature an April 1 (no fooling) deadline to come up with an acceptable raise to keep the schools open.

In Arizona, rank-and-file teachers sported red shirts as part of a #RedForEd movement that is discussing a possible strike.

There was a “walk-in” action in Minneapolis where MFT teachers impatient with seven months of contract negotiations, rallied outside their schools before marching as a body in to their classrooms.

The inspiring West Virginia strike victory that was in the national headlines over its duration took place in a most hostile union environment. West Virginia has no public employee labor law but does have a “Right-to-Work” law banning union shop agreements in the private sector. The state voted for Trump and has a Republican Governor and a GOP controlled legislature. Too many unions feel helpless in RtW states and some public sector ones appear ready to throw in the towel when the Supreme Court Janus ruling is announced, perhaps as early as this week.

The AFT-NEA success shows unions can still win if they fight. And while strikes have been in decline for decades they remain a powerful weapon in the workplace arsenal long overdue for revival.

Most lawyers retained by unions focus on warnings of what’s illegal. Since the USA has the most oppressive labor laws of any major capitalist country that usually doesn’t leave much. But some attorneys are more flexible.

The lawyer used by UE Local 1139 in Minneapolis when I was local president during a series of strikes in the 1970s had a wry sense of humor. He would assure us that if we were arrested on the picket line he’d get us out of jail even if it took twenty years. But he was dead serious and effective in helping us defy injunctions and maintaining spirited picket lines.

Joe Burns is a special kind of labor lawyer. He is a skilled negotiator who is a firm believer in the strike weapon–even when forbidden by law in the public sector. He wrote a valuable book, Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today. Perceptive comments by Burns while the West Virginia school strikes were still in progress were cross-posted on Jacobin and Labor Notes. After acknowledging the “illegality” of the state-wide strike he goes on to write,

During the high point of the 1960s and ’70s public sector strike wave — when millions of government workers were involved in work stoppages — unionists had a slogan: ‘There is no illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one.’ Lawmakers could impose draconian penalties, courts could issue injunctions, and the corporate media could fulminate endlessly. But if the strike was strong, if the cause was just, and if community support was robust, harsh penalties were rarely imposed.”

Both the article and book are worth reading. I expect Joe Burns will be at the Labor Notes Conference in Chicago April 6-8. For sure some of the heroes of West Virginia will be among the 2000+ in attendance. I’ll be there and I hope you will be too.

Careful What You Ask For

At a 1847 Free Trade Conference in Brussels a young Karl Marx declared himself a supporter of Free Trade, with some caveats, as opposed to protective tariffs. With some additional reservations in the present era of Globalization, that remains the view of most socialists today.

Marx noted workers in protected industries received no better wages and the ability of workers in all industrializing countries to improve their conditions would be enhanced in the long run by economic growth accompanying free trade. This internationalist class perspective is what separates socialists from pro-capitalist Free Trade economists whose mission is to serve their own national ruling class.

Of course, capitalism is not always in growth mode. There are cycles of recession and at times depression. In the 1930s the Great Depression hit virtually all major industrialized countries at the same time and lasted a decade. Only the Soviet Union, with its nationalized planned economy and state monopoly of foreign trade, continued to grow. In desperation, national ruling classes established protective tariffs. This led to “trade wars”—which were a major contributing factor leading to the most bloody war in human history.

That war produced full employment in greatly expanded industrial capacity in the USA and Canada while much of basic industry was destroyed in Europe and Japan. That made them captive customers for North American factories as they rebuilt during the first two decades of the postwar period.

American companies cranked out goods for foreign and domestic markets with aging plants while their European and Japanese competitors—later joined by a restored capitalist China–rebuilt with the latest, far superior technology. Nowhere was this more apparent than in steel. That couldn’t be long sustained.

Beginning in the 1970s, the American steel industry went through a massive restructuring. The old open hearth mills were finally closed, replaced with new technology, and major companies went bankrupt. Currently there are only eight U.S. plants—some “foreign” owned–producing steel from iron ore. There are another 100 or so “mini-mills” that recycle scrap steel in electric furnaces. Between them they produce about as much steel as ever—but with far fewer workers.

The United Steelworkers couldn’t resist new technology any more than coal miners, rail workers or longshore unions could. But they adapted some of their “fair trade” arguments raised in the fight against NAFTA to use against Chinese imports. They had some success in winning relief from the World Trade Organization on Chinese “dumping” of cheap tires. The Obama administration had filed a similar WTO complaint about steel. Recently Steelworker president Leo Gerard and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka asked Trump to pursue this action more vigorously.

But appeals to Trump for help are as effective as requests to my wife’s cats not to jump up on the table while we’re eating breakfast. President 45 used the union complaints as a wedge for his America First appeal to dissatisfied workers. Instead of a penny-ante WTO complaint involving only about a 2 percent slice of the American market he ignored all advisers and slapped a 25 percent tariff on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, applying to almost every exporting country. Tentative dispensation was granted to Canada and Mexico pending outcome of Trump’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, along with some staunch allies like Australia and the new right-wing regime in Chile. To cover his backside in the WTO, he declared steel to be vital to America’s security.

Far from denying this was a trade war, Trump reveled in bombast that such wars are “easy to win.” He quickly assembled a few lads and lasses dressed in blue collars to witness his calligraphic flourish on his declaration of war.

Europeans quickly prepared retaliation with punitive tariffs on orange juice, peanut butter, blue jeans and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. China growled about unspecified counter-measures.

But perhaps most upset of all was the mainstream American ruling class. They were prepared to ignore Trump’s often irrational behavior as long as he followed through on tax cuts—though now revealed to be plagued with numerous errors and contradictions–deregulation, and didn’t screw up economic recovery. They see nothing to gain and much to lose in trade wars.

To achieve fair trade requires cross-border collaboration of workers—not with our employers or “our own” capitalist governments. This topic, including a fresh look at trade and investment zones like NAFTA and the European Union, will be explored further in future editions of the WIR. And I believe this naturally ties in to issues like Just Transition and a deferred but not forgotten working class infrastructure policy.

That’s all for this week.


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Bill Onasch is a paid up NWU member

March 4 Week In Review

 Week In Review  Comments Off on March 4 Week In Review
Mar 042018
 

  by Bill Onasch

What We Can Learn From These Teachers

Class struggle has returned to a region once known for militant unionism. Today it’s not the coal miners but 35,000 who teach, transport, and feed students in every K-12 public school in West Virginia. They are fighting for principles that go beyond their just demands for wages and benefits and deserve our solidarity as we absorb the lessons of their conflict.

A surprising New York Times editorial spoke some truth,

Union battles have a deeper role in the history of West Virginia than that of perhaps any other state. Coal miners there fought bloody battles with mine owners who cared little for the sacrifice of life and limb that workers made to haul their coal from the earth. But unions have been broken there as they have throughout the country. Fewer than 5 percent of miners are represented by unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Public-sector unions have been the last bastion of worker strength.”

The very existence of their unions is an act of defiance. Public sector collective bargaining is outlawed in West Virginia. They may soon be hit by strike-breaking injunctions—nothing new in coal country. What would be unprecedented is unlikely compliance with such orders.

The leaders of the two teacher unions reached a tentative agreement with the Governor on the fourth school day of the strike. It included a bump from an initial offer of a one percent raise to five, a one year freeze on health insurance premiums, and a “task force” to study the state’s collapsed public employee insurance system. The bureaucrats declared a “victory” and directed the school employees to return to work.

But the TA amounted to no more than a handshake. There was no guarantee the Democrat turned Republican Governor could sell it to the GOP majority in the legislature. Voting in the state Senate in fact proved chaotic.

In any case, while the workers whose last raise was four years ago welcomed the promised 5 percent boost they considered the out of control health care costs to be even more important. They wanted action, not another study. The teachers overwhelmingly rejected the tentative agreement–and continued an “illegal” strike–to try to get some permanent relief from soaring out-of-pocket health care costs.

This battle is also a vivid reminder of the impact of the health care crisis on organized workers. The need to bargain for health insurance in every contract is a major contributing factor in American wage stagnation among unionized workers. Most unorganized have even less adequate insurance plans—or no plans at all. It is a dilemma that doesn’t exist in any other “industrial democracy.”

Resolving Our Dilemma

Nearly all other major countries have legislated health care covering everybody. In Britain all medical, dental, optical services and devises, along with prescription drugs and mental care are free to users through the National Health Service.

A central demand of the now defunct Labor Party was Just Health Care, a much improved version of Canadian style single-payer, closer to Britain’s socialized medicine. A watered down single-payer bill first introduced in Congress in 2003 by now “retired” John Conyers, rechristened last year as Medicare for All by Senator Bernie Sanders, continues to haunt the Capitol like a harmless ghost. State versions have been attempted without success in California and other “blue” states.

These are promoted by groups like Physicians for a National Health Program, Health Care Now, Labor for Single-Payer and more recently the rapidly growing Democratic Socialists of America—all honest committed folks, some once part of the Labor Party. After years of hard work they finally won the endorsement of last year’s AFL-CIO convention.

Their current strategy is to inject Medicare for All in to the Democrat “resistance” going in to the November midterm primaries and elections. But they are finding resistance by many of labor’s “friends” to single-payer.

A recent e-mail blast from Healthcare Now began,

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did some internal polling last year on healthcare, and came out with a clear message to their candidates: stop talking about single payer. The establishment has declared war on single payer – help fund the resistance!”

The same message announces a new Stand Up For Single-Payer Campaign. I am willing to back the flawed Medicare for All proposal as a step toward the superior NHS model. But they go on to say,

The primary season is a fantastic opportunity to push our candidates towards finally representing their constituents on single payer. Please donate to help us fight the pushback from our large political parties!”

Of course, they are only talking about one of two “large parties.” That would be the perfidious one that has a great track record of co-opting progressive mass movements to place them in hospice until they are ready for the graveyard. Bernie Sanders’ popular 2016 “Political Revolution” primary campaign was the umpteenth such effort. At the end of the day the “revolutionaries” got on board the neoliberal Hillary Clinton bandwagon–that managed to lose an election where she received the most votes.

I didn’t sign up for that “revolution” and I’m sure as hell not supporting its 2018 redux. In the tradition of Eugene V Debs and Tony Mazzocchi, I remain a Labor Party Advocate.

Another Triple Anniversary Coming Up

This Thursday, March 8 marks

* Since 1911, International Women’s Day. This annual event was institutionalized as the result of a resolution by the 1910 Women’s Conference of the Socialist International. The idea was inspired by actions of the American Women’s Trade Union League who first used the March event in 1908 to promote organization of garment workers, as well as demanding the right to vote. IWD was also briefly embraced by the new feminist movement that developed in the late Sixties. Last year saw the most and biggest IWD actions in decades.

* In 1917, the IWD demonstration in Petrograd (later Leningrad, now St Petersburg), triggered a revolution that toppled the last Russian Czar and led to the establishment of the soviets.

* In 2000, the KC Labor web site was launched.

I, of course, don’t claim the third is in the same league as the first two. But there are relatively few websites that have been in continuous operation for eighteen years. In 2000, dial-up was still common, Netscape was the browser of choice, Wikipedia had not yet been launched, and Google was just getting started.

From the start, I received valuable help from Doug Bonney, a labor and civil liberties lawyer who contributed a number of Know Your Rights articles. My wife Mary Erio, a Certified Industrial Hygienist as well as an environmental engineer, set up a Labor Safety page.

Mary Erio

We blended a lot of original content with topical directories of useful links. In various formats we have always provided links to news stories of interest to working people, currently through our companion Labor Advocate blog. Since 2004, the Week In Review has been a regular feature. Along the way we’ve hosted several educational conferences and donated web pages to local Labor Party and US Labor Against the War chapters.

April 2009 New Crises, New Agendas Conference sponsored by KC Labor

With no formal training, the technical side has for me been trial and a lot of error. Since Microsoft stopped supporting their proprietary Front Page software used to build the site it’s been a challenge to keep everything updated. Open source WordPress has enabled me to continue the WIR.

On our first day online we recorded eight visits—all through personal invitations. Today we average about 220,000 visits a year. We expected mostly local traffic from the Kansas City area. But results have been just the opposite. Nearly a quarter of our visits come from outside the USA and we have verified they originate from at least 84 countries.

Tradition recommends Porcelain as a gift for eighteenth anniversaries. I already have a tea set and I own nothing to put in a jewel box. But since I have no paywall around content, do not seek grants, and don’t accept commercial advertising, a gift of 18 U.S. dollars through our donate page would be a nice way to help us—Medicare willing–make it to number nineteen.

March Is Women’s History Month

I will pass along other items but, of course, a good place to start is the always ambitious schedule of monthly events at St Paul’s East Side Freedom Library.

That’s all for this week.


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Simply send your name and e-mail address to billonasch[at]kclabor.org

Follow Bill Onasch on Google +

Powered By Blogger Our companion Labor Advocate news blog posts articles of interest to working people by 9AM Central, Monday-Friday.

Our sole source of operating income is reader contributions. If you can help please visit the KC Labor Donate page.

Privacy Policy. We don’t share any information about our readers with anyone else—period.

The original content we provide is copyrighted and may not be reproduced by commercial media without our consent. However, labor movement and other nonprofit media may reproduce with attribution.