by Bill Onasch
Recognizing rare commodities when I see them, I like to lead with promising developments. Since I have two, I’ll judiciously hold over new directions in the Fight for Fifteen until next time.
So Far, Looks Good
While not all details of the tentative agreement for a new USW national oil contract have been made public every indication is that it is a solid win for workers after a partial strike that began January 31.
Over the coming four years there will be annual wage hikes exceeding the projected inflation rate and the present cost sharing ratio for health insurance will be maintained. This is a welcome departure from the debilitating trend of give-back bargaining—including many USW deals.
But wages and benefits were not the main concern of refinery and chemical plant workers whose average pay is in the 33 dollar an hour range. Improving safety in some of the most dangerous of all work environments was.
Writing for the semi-official Press Associates Mark Gruenberg explained,
“The union made safety improvements its top goal in the talks, after at least a decade of weekly refinery fires, explosions and related disasters. The pact was reached on the eve of the 10th anniversary of one of the worst of the blasts, the March 23, 2005, explosion and fire – due to lack of safety measures – at what was then the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas. That blast killed 15 workers and injured 180 other people. And on the anniversary, the former Texas local judge who handled 4,016 damage claims from survivors and families wrote an op-ed for the local paper in the Galveston area describing the families’ misery and backing the strike. The tentative pact calls for ‘immediate review of staffing and workload assessments, with USW safety personnel involved at every facility,’ the union said. It also addresses ‘daily maintenance and repair work in the plants.’ There will be ‘joint review on the local level of future, craft worker staffing needs,’ said union Vice President Tom Conway. That includes new hiring plans ‘to be developed in conjunction with recruitment and training programs.’ One big union goal in the talks was to ban the oil companies’ increasing use of temps, especially for safety measures.”
While these are clearly not iron-clad guarantees they give the union more leverage—especially if they continue to mobilize public support that was also a factor in winning an agreement that will likely be ratified.
This settlement covers the national master contract, initially forged by the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers. OCAW was a unique union that through the efforts of leaders like Tony Mazzocchi put an unusual emphasis on safety and environmental issues and helped launch a once promising Labor Party initiative. They wound up in the Steelworkers through a couple of mergers. Though somewhat tamed the old legacy still survives.
Shell was the lead negotiator for all of the company parties. But there are also local agreements over work practices that need to be concluded. It’s possible local strikes could continue, or begin, even after a national ratification.
All in all, a tentative good job.
You Have the Right to Remain Silent
That, and the dubious freedom to be a freeloader, about sums up the misnamed state “Right to Work” laws sanctioned by section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act. RtW undermines the democratic principle of majority rule by workers in collective bargaining and can rob union treasuries of funds needed to represent all workers for whom they negotiate and grieve. Last week Wisconsin became the 25th state to outlaw union shop agreements in the lion’s share of the private sector. (Agricultural, rail and airline workers are not covered by Taft-Hartley.) The Badger State follows Michigan and Indiana in the recent period and they may not be the last. There are serious RtW threats in at least West Virginia—and my home state of Missouri.
Labor Notes aptly dubbed the Wisconsin drubbing as Round Two with excellent articles by Barbara Smith, and Glenn Schmidt. These two authors were in the thick of both bruising rounds and show how the top union bureaucrats learned nothing from their mishandling of the initially promising fight against attacks on the public sector four years ago. The even more timid Building Trades leadership of Round Two bet all their chips on winning over a few moderate Republicans in the state Senate. In the end there was only one GOP defector and RtW passed with a two vote margin. Though protests continued through the lopsided House vote and Walker’s signing, the battle was clearly lost.
The impact of Governor Walker’s 2011 “reform” of public sector unions has led to a loss of 45 percent of AFSCME membership in the state. A friend in the teaching assistant union at the University in Madison reports the AFT hardly exists outside Milwaukee, Superior, and Madison. There have been significant private sector losses in Michigan and Indiana.
Make no mistake about it—RtW is a serious blow to organized labor. But it doesn’t have to be the “nuclear option” desired by the far-right ALEC brigade in the class war. Next time I’ll discuss some proven alternative strategies for defeating RtW as well as surviving and thriving where already in place.
Our last, unusually lengthy, special WIR was devoted to the fifteenth anniversary of KC Labor—a milestone of interest mainly to our audience and contributors. But the same date is also a holiday dedicated to the majority of humanity—International Women’s Day. The day is an official holiday in Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Macedonia (for women only), Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan.
Like May Day, IWD is a holiday of American origins mainly observed elsewhere. The biggest event in the USA I’ve seen reported this year was a march of about 500 in Los Angeles. In past years I’ve often outlined a little IWD history. This year I recommend an article by Marisa Taylor on the Aljazeera America site that begins,
“Rights groups worldwide celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) on Sunday, as they commemorate women’s achievements and call for equality. But for an event championed by international nongovernmental organizations and major global corporations, it may surprise some that IWD was born out of the U.S. socialist movement in the early 20th century.”
The Socialist Roots of International Women’s Day, which includes a photo slide show, is a short piece well worth the read.
There were, of course, also other commemorations over the March 7-8 weekend. Thousands lined up behind President Obama to march across a bridge in Selma, Alabama where marchers led by Dr King in 1965 had been brutally attacked by cops in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday.
Selma was a pivotal point in the movement that won big civil rights gains. But those important achievements in breaking down formal barriers of segregation and exclusion have not brought equality, or even substantial general improvement of living standards for African-Americans, north or south. Police—now equipped with armored vehicles and machine guns donated by the military—still sometimes attack protests as well as shooting down unarmed Black youth. And recent Supreme Court rulings have rolled back even some of the past victories on voting rights.
At the same time we honor the brave marchers on the bridge we need to revive a mass movement for both civil rights and economic justice.
Another 1965 milestone not so widely reported that weekend was the arrival of the first U.S. combat troops in Vietnam. There had long been U.S. military “advisers” to the Saigon dictatorship but after a staged Tonkin Gulf incident Congress gave President Johnson a blank check for all out war.
I recall hearing the news about both Selma and Vietnam on a transistor radio in the national office of Students for a Democratic Society then located in Chicago. I was there as a low level Young Socialist Alliance liaison to work on the first national demonstration against the war, called by SDS in Washington the following month. That initial effort drew about 25,000. There were to be many more over the next eight years—some numbering in the hundreds of thousands—all done without texting or tweeting.
This coming weekend there’s another day of remembrance of note—the twelfth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by Bush II and his ever loyal sidekick, Her Majesty’s New Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair. At least LBJ took the trouble to arrange an incident with North Vietnamese PT Boats. The lazier B&B boys simply told the doubting world and a gullible Congress an outright lie about Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The last combat troops left Iraq in December, 2011. All along since, the U.S. Has provided drone support to the Baghdad regime. The dramatic military advances of ISIL last year spurred President Obama to cobble together a new “coalition of the willing” to stop ISIL from finishing off the failed Iraqi state left behind after the U.S. war. American boots are now on the ground once more as well as Navy fighter planes carrying out air strikes. The most effective ally recruited for the fight against ISIL has been Iran. In a further irony the Prime Minister of Israel imitated Bush by telling a cheering bipartisan American Congress his own sheker about imminent nuclear danger from Iran—refuted by his own spy agency.
If you find all of this confusing I recommend the always clear perspective of the great Eugene V Debs. Even though it earned him hard time in the Atlanta Penitentiary, he declared during World War I “For us, there is no war but the class war.”
* From a KC Jobs with Justice e-mail blast: “Join Stand Up KC on Tuesday March 17 at 4:30pm at Linwood & Lister (in front of VA Hospital) for a march and rally to demand safer working conditions for fast food workers.”
* No Boehner Bump for Bibi? Polling in advance of tomorrow’s parliamentary elections in Israel are not promising for current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despite his standing o’s from Congress.
* A reservist in the Israeli Defense Force running for reelection as Mayor of Chicago may be reconsidering whether chutzpah alone will get the job done. Since Rahm Emanuel was forced in to an April run-off some unions are reviewing their options. The SEIU Illinois State Council has decided to endorse challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. The SEIU reversal under pressure from below may be important in the internal dynamics of this union but Democrat Chuy’s sole asset seems to be–he’s not Rahm.
Thanks and Apologies
After our Anniversary Special I received an unusual number of e-mail messages from readers—a good thing. Unfortunately, this coincided with catching some kind of “bug” that slowed my normal snail’s pace in replying to that of a sloth. Like the economy, I now seem to be well on the road to recovery and promise to answer all deserving a reply soon.
That’s all for this week.
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