by Bill Onasch
Some Expectations Exceeded
As the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly convenes in New York, with dozens of heads of state attending, they can hardly claim that the climate change crisis had slipped their mind. The Time website estimated there were four hundred thousand reminders greeting them in the streets of the Big Apple Sunday–the main arena of a global Peoples Climate March. Hundreds of thousands more demonstrated in solidarity in cities on every inhabited continent.
Every major news outlet in the English speaking world–except the Kansas City Star–gave prominent coverage to these actions, some noting their breadth and diversity as well as impressive numbers. This included unprecedented participation by organized labor. In a Labor Notes piece posted on the eve of the actions Jenny Brown wrote,
“The labor support is unparalleled for a U.S. climate action. Sixty labor organizations have endorsed, including six international unions. Several big locals in New York have been engaging their members for months. Building Service workers union SEIU 32BJ has been phonebanking members and holding meetings in neighborhoods where members live. New York nurses have been holding meetings at hospitals. 1199SEIU, representing hospital workers, translated materials into Russian, Spanish, and Chinese. Public workers with AFSCME have been fliering members and the public. A coalition of New York unions called ALIGN sent mail to 50,000 people living in Zone A, the city’s designation of flood-prone areas most affected by Sandy. They followed up with calls, said ALIGN’s Tomás Garduño, and identified 3,800 new supporters—‘activated, we hope, beyond Sunday,’ he said….’As labor, we’re very late to the party,’ said John Lyons, chair of the Transit Workers (ATU) in New York, representing bus drivers in Queens and Staten Island. ATU has been outspoken in support of a ‘Green New Deal’ and even took a stand against the Keystone XL pipeline, incurring the wrath of the building trades unions that signed an agreement with the pipeline company to do the work. The pipeline would carry carbon-intensive tar sands slurry from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico for processing and export. Transit jobs are green jobs, Lyons pointed out. ‘Safe, fast, reliable, clean public transit gets people out of their cars, greatly reducing emissions,’ he said.”
This labor mobilization that swelled the numbers of assorted footwear on the ground warrants praise and gratitude. More than that, it is a reminder of the inherent power of our only class-based mass organizations, weakened and disoriented as most may presently be. The positive lessons of labor’s prominent role in making the Peoples Climate March an inspiring success can and should be a harbinger of better days ahead for a reviving working class movement on other fronts as well.
Mass demonstrations do make a difference and are sometimes decisive in forcing change–but it usually takes more than one. I attended a New York demonstration of similar size as the Peoples Climate March in April, 1967 calling for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. But, even though there were at times even bigger protests to come, direct U.S. intervention went on for nearly seven more years after that.
Some got “tired of marching” and opted for trying lobbying or civil disobedience instead. There’s no one tactic that is right for all occasions but periodic organizing around mass, peaceful protests helped win over an increasingly visible and vocal majority against an unjust war. Unions and civil rights groups started getting on board. And most important of all–so did veterans and even active duty GIs in harm’s way. That movement played a powerful role in convincing the American ruling class they could do no better than the French in “pacifying” Southeast Asia–or dissent at home.
Those who made the magnificent parades the world watched Sunday possible are entitled to some joy. But it should be clearly understood that the world leaders gathering for the annual pilgrimage to New York have not been napping through the dire warnings by UN climate scientists. They need more than a wakeup call. Many of them–including the rulers in our land–have a vested interest in a highly profitable status quo. They will not do the right thing without a fight.
I hope the fledgling climate action movement can achieve some meaningful victories more quickly than antiwar movements have done. Except possibly nuclear war, there is no greater threat to our planet than climate change already well under way.
Those victories are not likely to begin with the climate summit U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon–who was at the head of the march–is trying to pull off today. As this is written no details have been disclosed about initiatives to be announced today by President Obama. It is known none will exceed what he is capable of doing through executive order. Since only Congress can appropriate new funding little of substance can be expected.
The only other climate summit briefly attended by the President was in Copenhagen in 2009. There he vetoed proposals from poor nations most immediately threatened by climate change and instead offered vague promises of money–mostly never delivered. He is clearly more focused today on winning some coalition partners willing to put troops on the ground in his new war on the Islamic State.
To paraphrase a war monger of the old British Empire, history will look back at the Peoples Climate March not as the beginning of the end of capital’s menace to our biosphere but perhaps the end of the beginning to put together a mass movement to fight back. And that’s a good piece of work.
* The Labor Campaign for Single Payer held its largest ever strategy conference August 22-24 in Oakland, CA. Over 300 attendees packed the joint session at the historic ILWU Local 6 Hall, which was co-sponsored by Healthcare-NOW! and One-Payer States. And California labor was in the house with 88 delegates and messages of support from the Bay Area Labor Councils and leaders of CNA, CSEA, CFT, CTA, ILWU and NUHW. You can find out what happened there on the Campaign website here.
* A New York Times story datelined Kansas City, where what the locals here call the bomb factory is a major employer, opens, “A sprawling new plant here in a former soybean field makes the mechanical guts of America’s atomic warheads. Bigger than the Pentagon, full of futuristic gear and thousands of workers, the plant, dedicated last month, modernizes the aging weapons that the United States can fire from missiles, bombers and submarines. It is part of a nationwide wave of atomic revitalization that includes plans for a new generation of weapon carriers. A recent federal study put the collective price tag, over the next three decades, at up to a trillion dollars. This expansion comes under a president who campaigned for ‘a nuclear-free world’ and made disarmament a main goal of American defense policy.”
* Preventable work related death was taken up by James R. Carroll in the Louisville Courrier-Journal, “Coal miners in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia are contracting serious cases of black lung disease at rates not seen since the early 1970s — just after preventive regulations were enacted, according to a study published Monday. Only 15 years ago, progressive massive fibrosis — an advanced form of black lung for which there is no cure — was virtually eradicated, health researchers say. But now, the prevalence of the disease in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia is at levels not seen in 40 years….Black lung is caused by the excessive inhalation of coal dust.”
* More bad news about workplace hazards in a LiveScience article that begins, “Workers who handle livestock may carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their noses after they leave the farm. A small study of hog workers in North Carolina found that many carried staph bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus) and some carried drug-resistant strains of the bug, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. Over the past several decades, it’s become standard practice for farmers to give animals, such as chickens and pigs, regular doses of antibiotics. This is not done to fight bacterial infections, but rather to promote the animals’ health and speed up their growth. However, the increasing use of antibiotics has encouraged the evolution of drug-resistant strains of bacteria.”
* After a nineteen year effort the Communications Workers of America have won bargaining rights for 9,000 customer service agents, mainly in southern state call centers, at the new American Airlines. The election was triggered by American’s acquisition of US Air.
* From the NNU site, “National Nurses United today announced that it has received a major donation from Kappler Incorporated, an Alabama-based garment manufacturer, of 1,000 Hazmat special protective suits for embattled nurses, doctors, and other health workers heroically fighting to stem the Ebola crisis in West Africa. NNU, the largest U.S. organization of nurses, is now working with international relief organizations on delivery of the critically needed suits. Lack of protective suits is a major problem slowing efforts to contain the spread of Ebola as thousands of nurses, doctors and other health workers have been infected, and many have died, in what has been called an ‘unprecedented’ rate.”
That’s all for this week.
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