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Edited version of a talk presented to Climate Crisis Coalition of the Twin Cities Forum at MayDay Books, Minneapolis, June 28, 2010
by Bill Onasch
In April, 2009 the kclabor.org website hosted a conference in Kansas City entitled “New Crises, New Agendas.” Some of you were present. Christine Frank and Dave Riehle were among the speakers, Earl Balfour set up an impressive MayDay Books literature display. That conference set in motion discussion and collaboration that eventually led to the declaration of the Alliance for Class & Climate Justice.
Dave Riehle and Earl Balfour at KC Conference
The premise of that gathering was that working people in the United States, and in fact the whole world, now face two overarching crises that impact almost every issue we confront.
One is that the global stage of capitalism, while it has swollen the coffers of the super-rich, and even created new layers of wealth here and there, can no longer provide decent jobs to all who need and want them.
The other was recognition that, primarily because of this global economy, unwelcome climate change is no longer a matter of speculation about a possible future threat–it has actually begun and represents the most serious challenge yet faced by humanity.
Christine Frank speaking at KC gathering
We even went a little bit further, maintaining that these crises are so intertwined we cannot satisfactorily resolve just one of them–it’s either both or disaster.
Among the steps that need to be taken to stop climate change short of climate catastrophe is a massive restructuring of our economy away from carbon-fueled to clean, renewable sources. This will mean the elimination of many existing jobs at a time when we already have the biggest long term unemployment since the Great Depression.
Some unions, including those with a proud heritage, such as the United Mine Workers, find themselves supporting the worst carbon polluters because their members presently have no chance of finding suitable work in their communities if the coal mines are shut down–as they must be if we are to save our biosphere for future generations.
Other polluters are more sophisticated than the coal operators. BP stands for “beyond petroleum” we are told. They work closely with their union “partner,” the United Steelworkers, which includes the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers. They were a Diamond-level corporate sponsor of the Steelworkers-initiated Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference that attracted over 3,000 participants back in May.
Unfortunately, Tony Hayward was unable to address his fellow tree-huggers but other corporate CEOs, prominent congressional leaders, cabinet secretaries, the bright lights of the Establishment environmental groups, and some of the better dressed labor statespersons did. The President of the Steelworkers, who is a Canadian subject of the Queen, insisted at every opportunity good, green jobs must be American jobs.
Now his BP partner does have a solar division and they used to have a solar plant not far from the nation’s capital where the conference took place. But on the eve of that conclave BP announced they were closing their Maryland plant and moving the work to China. Tony Hayward himself was quite frank in explaining this move to a Washington Post reporter,
“We remain absolutely committed to solar, we’re moving to where we can manufacture cheaply.”
An inconvenient truth not mentioned by Al Gore is that the employers with whom most union officials and mainstream environmentalists try to partner up with don’t give a rodent’s backside about either the environment or jobs. They are destroyers of both. This is not because they are evil–though some individuals may be. Their destructive ways are unintended consequences of what their class must do in a market economy–maximize profit on investment. And the ones who own and run the corporations and banks pretty much call all the shots not only in the markets but at every level of government as well.
Those trying to work within the system usually advocate a mix of taxes, subsidies, and schemes such as the cap-and-trade scams, as financial incentives for corporations to do the right thing in reducing emissions. All such attempts have failed and will continue to fail. Their commitments to auto and air transportation and urban sprawl are too pervasive to tinker with.
The market gap between fossil and renewables in electricity generation is enormous. Black & Veatch, a Kansas City engineering firm heavily involved in construction and upgrades of electric power plants, recently calculated the cost of various energy sources per kilowatt hour. Coal came in at 7.8 cents. Natural gas 10.6. A new nuke 10.8. Wind was 12 cents, solar was off the chart.
When wind costs fifty percent more than coal unless the taxpayers or consumers readily pony up the penalty the electric company is going to go with coal.
There are no acceptable market solutions to either the climate or jobs crises. If we’re serious, we have to take at least critical sectors of the economy out of the market by nationalizing them so we can proceed along a planned restructuring.
Why that’s communism the polluters will cry, that’s what failed in Russia and China. Actually I don’t think they want to go there. The results of planning were certainly a mixed bag in those countries but there is no doubt that most people were better off under planning than they are in today’s restoration of the capitalist market. But we don’t want to get sidetracked on to a debate about the post-Soviet Union
Actually we have a maybe not perfect model but an instructive example from relatively recent history of the United States. In the spring of 1942 all auto production in this country came to an abrupt, total halt, not to resume for nearly four years. But this was not a job crisis for auto workers. They were retained and retrained, under terms of their union contract, in the conversion of their plants to production of planes, tanks, and jeeps to support U.S. armed forces fighting on three continents and all seas.
And, of course, it wasn’t just auto. The government took control of the entire economy and planned production. And, you know what?–they didn’t fail. It was in fact the greatest industrial mobilization ever seen. Without it, the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union would likely have lost the Second World War.
It’s not a perfect model because war production is now one of the things we need to eliminate, not expand. But certainly climate change is just as urgent a crisis today as the war was perceived as an emergency in 1942.
With the advantage of computers and a better educated workforce we can do an even better job of planning today. The scientists and environmentalists could work out the broad targets while elected worker representatives manage the workplace implementation.
There would be no end of job opportunities under the plan. Conversion of electricity production from fossil and nuke to solar and wind as soon as possible is an immense undertaking. So is reclaiming and restoring land from Urban Sprawl while rebuilding urban cores. We’ll need hundreds of thousands of clean transit bus and rail vehicles so we can reduce car usage. High speed inter-city rail on dedicated new lines to lessen dependence on air travel will keep factories and track builders busy for years to come. Replacing chemical agriculture with organic methods will require more farm labor.
Just like the war-time government, the Climate Public Sector we envision would help place people in suitable jobs. It would recognize existing union contracts and not oppose new organizing. And it would abide by the principle of Just Transition.
Just Transition comes in to play when actions by society deemed to serve the common good result in jobs being eliminated. Society takes care of our obligation to such workers by retraining, and, if necessary, relocating them to find comparable, suitable new employment. During this process maintenance of their standard of living is guaranteed.
I know some of you are thinking, hasn’t this guy heard of the deficit crisis? How does he expect all this to be paid for?
I would guess that all that I have mentioned would probably require no more seed money from the public treasury than was handed out in the various bank bailouts. For sure, it can be done by adding in what’s being spent on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I believe it’s time to bail out the biosphere–it’s too big to fail.
I can hear what’s next, Okay Mr Wisenheimer, you’ve got your grand plan and maybe you can make the money numbers work. But you’ll never get anything like this passed in to law. You can’t even get sixty votes in the Senate.
Well there’s no disputing that at the present. To get a major piece of legislation passed in Washington today requires more than sixty supporters in the Senate–it needs consensus approval by the ruling class who put these clowns where they are--and who have the deepest vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
So, are we doomed? We might be. But I don’t think that’s inevitable. Change does not begin with legislation. The few progressive laws ever passed in this country have been in response to struggles beyond the Capitol.
Legend tells us that the bill called labor’s Magna Carta, the Wagner Act, was a New Deal gift to help unions organize. But it was really in response to an upsurge of labor battles, inspired by victorious, semi-insurrectional strikes in 1934 in Toledo, San Francisco–and right here in Minneapolis. Wagner was passed not to aid organizing but to attempt to regulate and moderate these struggles.
Many attribute the passage of the Civil Rights Act to the courage of John and Robert Kennedy. But this legislation to enforce Constitutional guarantees adopted a century earlier after Civil War came about after a decade of determined mass struggles by African-Americans that along the way also won support of youth of all colors and even sections of the union movement.
There was no significant criticism in Washington of the Vietnam war until a student initiated antiwar movement started resonating among the working class–and even among active duty GIs. Only after millions joined protests, and soldiers effectively stopped fighting, did elected officials move to end that terrible unjust war.
Fear of a similar new movement around ecological issues is what won early environmental legislative victories such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
That’s what it takes to get even modest reforms. To get more fundamental change will require more–a party of our own aiming to win power, not beg for crumbs.
I wouldn’t count on the corporate polluters accepting our plan with good grace. That would be contrary to my experience over several decades in dealing with them. Those that fight tooth and nail over the very last penny in contract negotiations are not likely to shrug off loss of their biggest profit centers.
But there is one force in society that has both the material interest and the clout to take on the ruling class in order to build a sustainable, full employment economy–the working class.
Admittedly, the boss class has done an effective job in confusing many of us about where our interests lie. A lot of workers no longer understand they are part of a class.
Unfortunately, they have done a pretty good job in befuddling most mainstream union officials as well who embrace the employers as “partners” and preach the message of the lamb lying down with the lion.
These are formidable but not insurmountable problems. In the course of likely battles with “partners” ahead workers will come to understand them and us. Once we get that straight there’s no power on Earth that can stop us. Not only are we the big majority–we do all the work. Like the line in the old song tells us–“without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn!”
That’s where those of us in the Alliance for Class & Climate Justice pin our hope for saving an Earth that can continue to sustain our species. Not just those fortunate enough to still have a union job but all who work, or want to work, no matter the color of your collar. We are eager to discuss and collaborate with all who share this perspective.
Thank you for your invitation to speak and for your polite patience in listening to my views. I’ll be happy to hear your questions and comments at the appropriate time.
The webmaster of the kclabor.org website is a paid-up member of UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union. During the 70-80s, while employed at Litton Microwave’s Minneapolis operations, he was elected to various positions in UE Local 1139, including Shop Chairman and Local President. In 1980 he took a union leave from the plant to work on a successful UE organizing drive at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When Litton began shutting down its four Minneapolis plants Onasch was selected to be a worker representative in a Dislocated Worker Project administered by Minneapolis Community College—where he became a member of the Minnesota Education Association. Returning to his home town of Kansas City in 1989, he soon began a 14-year stint as a Metro bus driver. During that time he published a rank and file newsletter, Transit Truth, chaired a union Community Outreach Committee that organized public protests against cuts in transit service, helped organize a privatized spin-off at Johnson County Transit, and served a term as Vice-President of ATU Local 1287. He has also been involved in US Labor Against the War and the Labor Party since those organizations were launched.
Alliance for Class & Climate Justice
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