Labor Advocate Online

The First Ten Years Were the Easiest
Prepared Remarks To the Tenth Anniversary of kclabor.org March 21, 2010 Meeting At the North Kansas City Library
by Bill Onasch

Sisters and Brothers

Let me begin by thanking you for sharing this Sunday afternoon with us. The relationship of our hemisphere to the Sun tells us that it is Spring but Winter is not relinquishing its grip with good grace.

Our tenth anniversary exceeds the average life span of a website, especially one like ours--independent, volunteer-driven, with no subsidies, charges for content, or paid advertising. We haven’t lasted because of a cool look. When I ventured into this webmaster job I had no training in HTML programming and no talent or aptitude for graphic design. These limitations remain painfully apparent ten years later. Luckily, most visitors come for the content and are prepared to overlook our technical and artistic shortcomings.


The site safety editor and webmaster, circa 2000
I was fortunate to find some expert collaborators early on. I didn’t have to look beyond my home for one–my wife, Mary Erio. Mary not only has an impressive string of initials after her name; she also has worked as a consultant on workplace safety, health and environmental issues for twenty years and has long done the monthly feature Safety First on the Heartland Labor Forum radio show. She graciously agreed to be the site safety editor.


Site law editor Doug Bonney
Doug Bonney, who was a top notch labor lawyer before assuming his present job as counsel for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri has so far provided 23 articles on labor law issues that are grouped together on our Know Your Rights page–among the most visited sections of the site.

Between these two pillars we started building a wide range of what we call our resource pages--essentially link directories with some introductory remarks of our own, on topics such as unions, solidarity campaigns, Globalization, health care, Social Security, immigrant rights, labor history, labor culture and more.

We were not content to be just a library however, valuable as libraries may be. We had a more ambitious, and not so hidden agenda. We sought to revive the understanding of how our society is divided in to classes.

Since March 8, 2000 we have dedicated this site to the interests of the working class. Not a Middle Class subset, not Working Families--a term applied by our leaders to dues paying members to avoid class identification--but the entire class described in our anthem, Solidarity Forever, that can proudly and truthfully proclaim, “without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn!”


Eugene V Debs
In the past the class struggle between workers and bosses was more widely understood. During the first two decades of the Twentieth Century the Socialist Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World, led by the likes of Gene Debs, Big Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, were mass movements to be reckoned with.


Again during the Great Depression of the 1930s class solidarity led to an upsurge of adversarial social unionism. 1934 saw the earliest major victories of striking workers uniting with the unemployed in semi-insurrectional battles in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. There were numerous sit-down strikes, the most prominent at General Motors in Flint in 1937, but also at Ford and Armour here in Kansas City. Those victories defied the sacred property rights of the employers.

After World War II, when the bosses tried to repeat their successes in union busting after the First World War, American workers responded with the greatest strike wave in our nation’s history. Over three million hit the bricks–and won. Resolutions were adopted throughout the union movement calling for the formation of a labor party.

But no labor party was launched. Instead the dominant officials in the labor movement used the Cold War, and even the rise of McCarthyism, to carry out a witch-hunt against radical minded workers. Whole national unions were expelled from the CIO and ostracized as “subversives.” This bureaucratic layer eventually asserted their supremacy and steadily transformed the only enduring mass organizations our class has yet built--our unions–in to what we see today.

It’s not a pretty picture. With a few honorable exceptions--such as the new National Nurses Union, the UE, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and some local unions here and there–union officials are dedicated to the concept of “partnership” with the boss in the workplace, and have become glorified precinct captains for one of the boss parties at election time.

The fruit of this class collaboration has been bitter and poisonous. For more than thirty years, collective bargaining in this country has been marked with give-backs to the boss. Union density in the private sector has declined to less than when Debs and Haywood launched the Socialist Party and IWW in the early 1900s.

It wasn’t long ago that many labor statespersons were acknowledging that we had serious problems and attributed them to Bush. So our leaders went out and spent over 450 million dollars, and mobilized tens of thousands of union members to staff the phone banks and walk the neighborhoods, to put the Democrats back in the White House and control of Congress.

At our New Crises, New Agendas conference last April there were some participants who were almost euphoric about our prospects under Barrack Obama. They looked forward to peace instead of Bush’s wars; an opportunity to replace the health insurance robber barons with single-payer; fair immigration reform within his first year; and at least some tinkering with the Taft-Hartley Act to give unions a better shot at organizing.

My experience told me something different. The labor movement tends to lose what little remains of independence and mobilization whenever “friends” are in office. But I have to admit that even I have been shocked at how brazen this administration has been in attacking the working class–doing things McCain would never have attempted–and just how craven is the response of our leaders.

In each of these examples I cited and more, those Obama enthusiasts have seen their dreams twisted in to nightmares. Yesterday, thousands marched against Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan now expanded in to Pakistan. Single-payer has been literally excluded from the health care debate, sometimes by jailing its advocates, as the Obama plan is about to further enrich the insurance and drug companies while taxing worker benefits. As we meet, tens of thousands are marching in Washington, protesting the upsurge in deportations and “no match” firings of immigrant workers on Obama’s watch. And enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act is as likely as both the Royals winning the World Series and the Chiefs getting Superbowl rings this year.

But that wasn’t all. Let’s don’t forget what labor’s White House buddy did to the workers at General Motors and Chrysler–also indirectly impacting many more in the parts industry, transportation, and dealerships. As the price for bailout money, the Administration forced agreement to a prepackaged bankruptcy, rewriting the UAW contracts, directly eliminating tens of thousands of good paying jobs. And, just in case there is some kind of recovery in GM and Chrysler sales, the union had to accept a no-strike pledge for not just the current contract but the one after as well.

What did our labor statespersons have to say about that? They profusely thanked the President for saving the auto industry!

This undoubtedly encouraged the Administration to take the same “tough love” approach to the most highly unionized sector of all–education. A few weeks ago the firing of the entire faculty at the Central Falls, Rhode Island high school made national headlines. The President went out of his way to endorse this union-busting move not once but on two high profile occasions. The message is loud and clear: the unions have to get with the new program for education reform, which includes extensive privatization, and longer teacher work days with no increased pay. If they don’t they will be treated the same way Reagan handled the air traffic controllers–fire the lot of them.

We soon learned Central Falls was no isolated example. We’re seeing the same approach unfolding in Detroit, and Kansas City--and soon everywhere.

Now the AFL-CIO Executive Council met the week following the Central Falls Massacre. Mark Gruenberg, a semi-official reporter for the fed, wrote, “The labor movement is pissed off...” But, after a few days of fussing and fuming, the Wall Street Journal could report,

“The AFL-CIO plans to roll out its biggest political campaign ever... to try to avert a repeat of the 1994 midterm election when Democrats lost a majority in Congress.”

Just think what the Labor Party–which showed so much promise in the late Nineties before being put on minimal life support by unions after the 2000 election--could do with 450 million dollars, and tens of thousands of foot soldiers. Maybe we wouldn’t have won on the first try but there would be a whole new game in town.

Bad as these attacks I have described are, they are not the worst. We may suffer from them now but at least the possibility of eventual recovery exists. But there’s no such guarantee for an overarching crisis that presents the biggest challenge humanity has yet faced–climate change.

The burning of fossil fuels, along with deforestation, has already done much irreparable damage to our biosphere. Models created by scientists at MIT suggest that if drastic countermeasures are not soon taken the average temperature of our planet will rise by nine degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. On either side of that average, large swaths of present temperate areas, such as where we are, will become transformed in to either frozen tundra or unbearably hot desert. Melting ice from polar regions and Greenland will raise sea levels, wiping out the homes of hundreds of millions.

Even though climate change has already begun, none of us in this room, and probably not even our children, will live to see such extreme results of today’s pollution. But our grandchildren would inherit a world where human civilization as we know it could no longer be sustained, where the very survival of our species would be called in to question.

This is no secret. Scientists have been sounding the alarm for some time. Why then is not only no effective action being taken but much of the Establishment tells us this is all a job-killing false alarm?

The answer is simple. An exhaustive study by a top accounting firm of the world’s 3,000 biggest corporations found annual profits from environmentally destructive practices exceed two trillion dollars. Granted, a trillion isn’t what it used to be, but this kind of money for the bosses bottom line today far outweighs for them any consideration of future generations.

We can no more rely on the captains of industry, finance, and commerce to be allies in the fight against climate change than we can as our partners in the workplace. Their class is wrecking what we need to live; only our class has both the material self-interest and the economic and political clout, to do whatever it takes to stop this destruction.

Far from being a job-killer, restructuring our economy to preserve a liveable planet can provide decent jobs to all who want them. That was the theme of our conference last April. Out of that gathering dialogue opened up among some environmentally savvy unionists scattered around the Midwest. Starting today, we are advancing this discussion to a public level with the launching of a new formation we call the Alliance for Class and Climate Justice. Our initial statement is available on the literature table and we will take it to the table we will have at the Labor Notes Conference. Tomorrow we will light up an Alliance web page on kclabor.org.

So far my remarks have been more gloom and doom than is customary at a gathering billed as a celebration. I don’t want to leave an impression of despair. I remain confident that our class, after decades of detours and defeats, can and will be rejuvenated for future big battles. Even in these bleak times there are premonitions of what’s ahead.

While the top layers of our union hierarchies may be brain dead the unions themselves still show occasional vitality. When the UAW tops tried to convince their members at Ford to voluntarily accept many of the take-aways Obama extracted at GM and Chrysler they encountered an overwhelming and vocal rejection. The sisters and brothers at Claycomo played an important role in that shocker.

Campus unions have forged an alliance with students throughout the University of California system, carrying out an impressive series of strikes, mass demonstrations, and sit-ins and others across the country are beginning to emulate them.

Formations such as US Labor Against the War and the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer are doing less visible but quite important work.

KC Labor Party
And a core of stalwarts within a presently dormant Labor Party remains committed, searching for every opportunity to break out of isolation.

The best source of information about such struggles is the monthly Labor Notes and we post most of their stories on our site’s news page. We’ve also encouraged a local discussion group that meets monthly to discuss Labor Notes articles.

Next month a thousand or more labor and social movement activists will gather at the Labor Notes Conference in Detroit. The presentations, workshops, and interest group meetings will be a valuable opportunity to learn from, and contribute to, the discussions about how to move our class forward. And it will serve as a powerful antidote to any feelings of depression.

I’ve stood in the way of our anniversary cake long enough. Let me close by saying even though these past ten years have been demanding, they have also been richly rewarding. While I have no plans for now to retire from this labor of love I won’t be so foolish as to promise another ten years. But I’m confident when I have tweaked my last code there will be other pro-working class websites, with even more talented and energetic webmasters, to carry on.

Once more, thanks for coming today and thanks to those who could not make it for this meeting but sent greetings, which are printed in our four-page Program that you received when you came in.

About the Author
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 and represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council.
 

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