Week In Review August 6

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Aug 062017

  by Bill Onasch

Nissan Part One

I’m sure all readers have heard about the 2to1 UAW loss in a NLRB election to represent a unit of 3500 workers at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi. The union has filed charges and is contesting the outcome. That’s an important story I will pursue. But to better understand it I want to first deal with its historical context this week and return to Canton in the next WIR.


In competition with other unions, the United Auto Workers has long had thousands of members in the aircraft and farm equipment industries. More recently they have organized university grad students. I pay dues to UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union.

But their bread and butter has always been the most important manufacturing industry in the world’s biggest economy—auto. The UAW was forged in the 1930s as part of the CIO’s turbulent organization of mass production industries that had been largely ignored by AFL craft unions.

This was a time of mass unemployment and success depended on winning sympathy—and often active support–of the jobless. An early turning point in auto industry organizing was the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike initiated and largely led by socialists in the Lucas County Unemployed League. Unionism during that period took on the character of a broad social movement that could advance the interests of all workers.

Often attacked by police and National Guard, they used bold tactics like sit-down strike occupations of the workplace and mass picketing to block plant gates, to compel employer recognition and negotiation. Those tactics were later outlawed by the Supreme Court and the Taft-Hartley Act.

The UAW’s one-time domination in this industry made them arguably the most important U.S. union, a pace-setter in collective bargaining that created the semi-mythical Middle Class. At their 1979 peak, the UAW had nearly 1.5 million members—the lion’s share in auto. Now they have a little more than 400,000.

Today, coming off record sales in the U.S. market, there are only about 900,000 American jobs directly related to the auto industry. There are a number of factors for these dwindling numbers—technology; imported vehicles; and offshoring being the biggest.

From World War II to the late Sixties, the Big Three automakers—General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—were the dominant domestic producers of cars and light trucks and there were very few imports. The UAW had national contracts covering all of their production as well as some white collar and professionals. With a wage formula of three percent annual productivity raises plus cost-of-living adjustments secured, the union concentrated on expanding “fringe benefits” such as good pensions with “thirty-and-out” early retirement; comprehensive health insurance including families and retirees; and supplementary unemployment benefits to maintain 90 percent of pay during lay-offs.

Beginning in the mid-Sixties Japanese imports began to fill a niche long neglected by the Big Three—smaller, more fuel efficient cars. Belated initial attempts by American companies to compete in this market were plagued by design, quality, and safety problems.

Soon major Japanese companies like Toyota, Honda, Mazda, and Datsun (later rebranded Nissan) started offering a full line of cars and light trucks. And they began opening so-called “transplants” to build them in the U.S. and Canada. More recently, Korean-based Hyundai/Kia have opened U.S. operations and have become major players. German owned Benz, BMW, and Volkswagen also now build in the USA.

While these “foreign” companies were all unionized in their home countries they were determined to remain “union free” in North America. With the sole exception of a small group of maintenance workers at VW’s Chattanooga factory (more about this later), the UAW has not organized any of the transplants since VW’s short-lived plant producing Rabbits in Pennsylvania in the late Seventies.

The UAW’s early strategy was to defend the Big Three both by promoting Buy American and adopting a Partnership approach to make these global giants “competitive.” This included new working conditions emulating so-called “Japanese” quality production—actually borrowed from 1920s methods at General Electric.

Soon UAW plants started competing with each other to keep jobs—so-called “whip-sawing.” The Big Three began spinning off their parts divisions from the national contracts and even outsourcing work to nonunion companies. And when NAFTA was launched in 1994, the union’s American “partners” began a massive transfer of both parts and assembly work to Mexico. This led to General Motors having more workers in Mexico than in the USA.

That only accelerated the UAW’s concession bargaining—leading to debilitating historic give-backs in the 2007 Big Three national contracts. To relieve the companies “retiree burden,” the union agreed to accept lump sum contributions to establish a retiree insurance trust to be managed by the UAW. Current active workers would keep their wage and pension benefits but all new hires would be paid at half the “legacy” wage and would be enrolled in a much inferior retirement plan. Hardly more than a year later, the new Obama administration dictated further give-backs and plant closings in “managed bankruptcies” at GM and Chrysler. Italian based Fiat acquired ownership of Chrysler.

All this certainly made the Big Three more competitive. But the flip side of the give-back coin was that it made the UAW very noncompetitive in trying to organize the transplants. For eight years, the starting pay for Big Three UAW members was less than what new hires got at foreign owned rivals.

When Volkswagen opened its new plant in Chattanooga the UAW, with some support by the German union at VW, tried to work out a pre-arranged basic agreement and get the company’s consent not to oppose recognition. Anti-union forces in the plant used this to claim that the union was cutting a sweetheart deal without membership input. State politicians threatened to quash promised subsidies to VW if they tried to short-circuit the NLRB process. In the end, the UAW lost the election.

[More on Nissan next week.]


The WIR rarely makes recommendations in local elections. I’m making an exception for a special election this Tuesday, August 8, in Kansas City, Missouri both because we have a number of readers in my hometown–and it also involves issues of national importance.

There are three propositions on the ballot. Two of them concern using legitimate needs for transit improvement to mask “development” schemes by the local ruling class. This is a continuation of scams I dealt with in some depth in a special transit edition of the WIR three years ago.

Question One would prohibit any launch of new streetcar/light rail projects without voter approval. I strongly urge a Yes vote on One.

Question Two would authorize and renew sales taxes to be used for projects like the latest hare-brained scheme of perpetual political gadfly Clay Chastain—a 22-mile rapid rail line from Swope Park to Vivion Road. Two deserves a resounding No.

Question Three is a vote on a city minimum wage ordinance that would incrementally top out at 15 dollars an hour. Like a similar one in St Louis, it would conflict with a bill passed by the Missouri legislature forbidding municipal minimum wage laws. It’s a fight that will ultimately be resolved by the Missouri Supreme Court–and that Court ordered the City to put it on the ballot. It’s important to win a solid majority to advance this Fight for 15—Vote Yes.

In Brief…

* Baseball is the only professional sport I follow but all of us know of the remarkable Williams sisters feats on the tennis courts. Serena’s social perception and sense of solidarity is also revealed in a Guardian article that begins, “Serena Williams, one of the highest paid and most successful athletes in the world, has issued a stirring call for Black women to demand equal pay and spoken about the racism she has faced ‘on and off the tennis court.’ In a personal essay published by Fortune to coincide with Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, the tennis superstar said the gender pay gap ‘hits women of color the hardest,’ as they suffer from both gender and racial financial disparity. For every dollar earned by men in the US, Williams said, Black women earn 63 cents, and 17% less than white women.”

* Safer in Dubai than London. I wouldn’t have chosen the name Torch Tower for the residential skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building in Dubai, UAE. The photos of flames appearing to engulf it were horrifying reminders of the Grenfell Tower in London. Like Grenfell, the Torch’s facade was cladded with the same panels that fueled the London blaze killing dozens and leaving hundreds homeless. But unlike Grenfell, the Dubai building was equipped with sprinkler systems and pressurized fire escape stairs that prevented any injuries and mostly limited damage to the exterior. Meanwhile in Britain, 111 high-rise buildings using the Grenfell cladding have failed tests conducted by an independent safety panel.

That’s all for this week.

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Week In Review July 29

 Week In Review  Comments Off on Week In Review July 29
Jul 292017

  by Bill Onasch

Good While It Lasted

Our partially working, mini-vacation trip to the Twin Cities was sweet but too short. I’ve already posted my Forum presentation on Britain that was the impetus for our visit to the place I called home for twenty years. The Forum was well attended and there was a good discussion. It was also recorded for a future broadcast on KFAI Community Radio. And I was glad to again touch base with Craig Palmer, the indefatigable defacto CEO-Factotum of MayDay Books, proudly “Not Making a Profit Since 1975,” who provided the meeting venue.

Craig Palmer

I also got a guided tour by Peter Rachleff of the East Side Freedom Library in St Paul. I came to know Peter when he pulled together an effective Twin Cities P-9 Support Committee in solidarity with UFCW strikers at Hormel’s main plant in Austin, Minnesota in 1985. Then a history professor at Macalester, Peter later wrote the definitive account of the Hormel struggle, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland.

Peter Rachleff

Now “retired,” Peter, along with his spouse Beth Cleary who is still a Professor of Theater and Dance at Macalester, founded the Library. A succinct statement of their mission is on their website–“East Side Freedom Library inspires solidarity, advocates for justice, and works toward equity for all.” Starting from scratch, they recruited many volunteers who transformed a former St Paul Branch Library that needed a new roof and boiler in to a well used reference library and meeting place.

Based on the public events at the ESFL advertised on their website, I have often praised the project in the WIR. Peter’s tour revealed a broader perspective. An important component of the project is to follow the history and culture of the various waves of immigrants who arrived on St Paul’s East Side from the early Germans and Irish to the more recent from Southeast Asia and East Africa. An impressive, growing collection of literature in their various languages has been assembled.

But there’s more to do than reading. In addition to frequent lectures, films, music and poetry readings Karen refugees from Burma conduct classes in weaving. A basement wall supports a mural. The Library has hosted two Union Job Fairs. One volunteer even developed a board game based on the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes. Just this tour, and a chance to talk to my old friend Peter, more than justified the thousand mile round-trip car journey.

My wife Mary peddled a lot of miles on a rental bicycle including a stop at a “modern” art museum she knew wasn’t my cup of tea. But my old comrades Dave and Bud also took both of us to an interesting museum of Russian art that included an exhibit of Realism in the Soviet Era—right up my alley. Friends also generously made sure we didn’t go hungry—including our first pleasant exposure to Kurdish food.

Mary and I can’t both be gone without our good KC friends Jeff and Tony caring for Mary’s cats and garden. Now suitably inspired and refreshed, it’s time to pay the price of “catch-up.” The struggles for class and climate justice take no breaks and it’s back to work on the keyboard.

Not Just Our Imagination

A cogent article in the New York Times was headlined—It’s Not Your Imagination. Summers are Hotter. I won’t have any problem selling that to Kansas City readers. We’ve experienced wretched heat waves occasionally punctuated by violent storms and torrential rains–leading to massive power outages, significant wind damage to homes and vehicles, and flooding that destroyed a number of small businesses with accompanying job loss.

But our woes in the Midwest don’t compare to the massive wildfires in the western USA, Portugal, Corsica—and now the south of France from the port city of Marseilles to Nice on the Riviera.

Nor are we suffering the extreme prolonged droughts that have led to deadly famine in East Africa and water shortages in Italy sparking demands to turn off the magnificent fountains in Rome—some that have been running for millennia.

Hot summers are common in most of Pakistan—but not the life-threatening 130°F temps recently recorded in a land where air conditioning is as rare as an honest politician.

Greenland has always appeared in satellite photos as almost solid white because most of its surface has been snow covered deep ice. Now it has a greenish tinge reflecting the presence of algae as the ice shelf melts in to the sea.

The Times article is largely based on data analyzed and graphed by the most prominent climate scientist—James Hansen, more or less forced to retire from NASA, now a professor at Columbia University. He effectively argues these hotter summers are the opening stages of palpable global warming that threaten dangerous, irreversible climate change. He started predicting these trends decades ago and warning the principal cause of this phenomena is the release of greenhouse gases proliferating through the capitalist mode of production since the Industrial Revolution.

Prevailing science recognizes that the greenhouse gas doing the most long term damage to our biosphere is carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels. This is disputed by deniers who insist that any change in climate is “natural,” beyond our ability to do anything about it.

But scientists have adapted a method long used by geologists and archaeologists to determine the age of things to now identify differences separating burned fossil fuels from carbon dioxide emitted by all other sources.

As explained in a NYT Op-Ed piece by environmental journalist Hillary Rosner, scientists can search CO2 for the presence of a rare heavy radioactive isotope known as Carbon 14. It decays over time and after being buried for millions of years no longer exists in fossil fuels. CO2 found with no Carbon 14 certifies it is the result of human economic activity. That was the method used in setting the goals of the Paris Climate Accords.

Of course, such analysis is a formidable task. Two-liter air samples are collected by volunteers from all over the planet and delivered to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a few similar institutions elsewhere. A 12-ton piece of equipment known as a high-precision accelerator mass spectrometer searches for any traces of C-14. More of them are needed to precisely track sources of fossil emissions that could, and should be eliminated.

But the title of the informative Times piece is The Climate Lab That Sits Empty. It refers to a locked facility at the University of Colorado Science Center in Boulder that was slated to join the C-14 project. Instead it has remained without a spectrometer or scientists for five years awaiting approval of a piddly five million dollar appropriation from Congress—chump change in expenditures—that won’t come any time soon.

Most people don’t read the Science or Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. The agenda for political discourse is being dictated by a wide range of attacks on the working class by a White House as ruthless as it is incompetent as our planet grows hotter, and our options diminish.

Still, some progress on climate awareness and action has been registered. Beginning last year several important unions joined climate activists in solidarity with Tribes trying to block construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. In April the March for Science and a week later, the March for Climate, Jobs and Justice, brought hundreds of thousands in to the streets around the world and in the USA. When Trump reneged on the paltry Obama goals submitted in Paris polls showed about sixty percent were opposed.

Just over the past few weeks, 350.org and the Labor Network for Sustainability collaborated on a short series of Webinars to educate activists on both climate science and the Just Transition strategy for creating good jobs as we fight global warming. Those trained need to train many more at union gatherings, on campuses and community meetings.

We have many battles ahead but none are more important than saving our biosphere. Climate justice is a working class struggle on behalf of humanity’s future. This is not the first such appeal I’ve made and as long as I remain cognizant and capable of two-finger typing it won’t be the last. It is one battle we cannot afford to lose.


This Monday, July 31, I’ll resume posting links to stories on our companion Labor Advocate news blog and until further notice will return to a regular weekly schedule for the WIR.

That’s all for this week.

If you’re not already signed up you can get the Week In Review free of charge in one of the following ways.

http://www.workdayminnesota.org/sites/workdayminnesota.org/themes/workdayminnesota/images/social/large/rss.png Really Simple Syndication (RSS)

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.