Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
October 15, 2007

And Then There Was Ford
I found it is hard to keep up with Ron Gettelfinger. I was surprised to hear the UAW chief had called a strike at Chrysler. I dutifully responded quickly with a blog post, and a message to our e-mail list, urging support for Chrysler strikers. I might as well have taken a nap. Second shift starting time had barely passed before the troops were ordered to stand down. It was the shortest strike over a national contract in American labor history.

The deal at Chrysler is similar to that winning membership approval at General Motors. (For an excellent analysis of the GM deal see Sam Gindin’s One Sided War.) Although no details have been made public in advance of a meeting with Chrysler Local officers today reliable sources have reported it contains:

* A VEBA buyout of company obligations for retiree healthcare. Chrysler will contribute about ten billion toward their estimated 19 billion obligation. Those hired from this contract on will have no right to retiree benefits from either the company or VEBA. Chrysler also belatedly got the same givebacks granted GM and Ford in 2005 to offset retiree costs. That concession, which included diverting cost-of-living raises to healthcare, barely passed a membership vote at Ford and was considered too vulnerable to defeat to put to a vote at Chrysler. This catch up giveback is estimated to transfer an additional 340 million a year out of UAW pockets into the Chrysler coffers.

* A half pay second tier for new hires in “non-core” jobs–currently numbering about 11,000. As at GM, new hires will be placed in a 401(k) instead of the traditional defined benefit pension.

* Signing and annual lump sum bonuses that don’t get folded into the wage rate.

* A murky “job security” promise from the company to maintain about 80 percent of current jobs for the life of the contract.

Partly because of special deals already made by the UAW in places such as Toledo and Belvedere, Chrysler was in relatively good financial shape. They were hardly in position to make a credible argument for major deviations from the “pattern” set at GM. That won’t be the case at the last of the Big Three coming up–Ford.

Ford lost over 12 billion last year, is trying to sell its Jaguar and Volvo units, and has mortgaged virtually all of their plant assets. They have shown the union their books–something rarely done in the auto industry. They will be pleading for help and Gettelfinger–a former Ford employee and leader of the UAW Ford department–will be trying to assist them. That’s why Ford is going last. GM and Chrysler may scream bloody murder if Ford gets a sweeter deal but it will be too late for them to say “me too.”

Ford has already negotiated “competitive operating agreements” with all but two UAW locals that have slashed labor costs an estimated 800 million. They will look for more of the same along these lines and are proposing to replace the long standing profit sharing program with “productivity bonuses” tied to four factors–profitability, market share, cost performance, and quality.

“Job security” will be even more problematic with Ford seeking to get much leaner and meaner. They’ve already idled six plants and plan to close at least ten more by the time the new contract expires. They want big breaks on the job bank and a Delphi-style buyout of the former Visteon workers they had to take back.

And they want to contribute quite a bit less to VEBA than their Detroit competitors.

Ford will be the final, bloodiest act in Surrender In Detroit But expect the same plot to be imitated by other authors and producers around the country. Already AT&T and Verizon are telling the CWA they want VEBAs. The IUE unit of the CWA is stuck with accepting a VEBA at a GM plant they represent. Such a show inspired by the UAW/Big Three partnership will probably be coming soon to a location near you.

An Industry Marching to a Different Drummer
There’s at least one industry left in America where both unions and bosses forego the “partnership” pageantry that precedes worker surrender–nursing. There’s a whole cottage industry providing professional strike breakers during nurses strikes. They were brought on the scene during a two-day strike by 5,000 members of the California Nurses Association at 15 Sutter Hospitals in the Bay Area last week–and the company kept them around for at least an additional two-day lockout after the strike.

Appalachian Regional Healthcare has been herding scabs in to nine Kentucky and West Virginia hospitals since October 1 when 800 members of the United American Nurses hit the picket lines.

Issues in both these struggles are similar–too big a patient load and employer demands for concessions on health care and retirement. Both unions are prepared for a long struggle. Both are getting support from the local labor movements.

In Bangor, Maine an October 17 strike deadline helped get a tentative agreement for 850 RNs represented by the Maine State Nurses Association at Eastern Maine Medical Center. The Maine union is an affiliate of the National Nurses Organizing Committee arm of CNA.

Threat Stopped At the Border
There’s been a lot of justified concern about consumer health safety issues regarding products imported from places such as China. Getting overlooked are the problems with production here in the USA. A Washington Post story on produce safety is a case in point. They looked at a 6,000 pound batch of lettuce grown in California for Dole. It went through its processing plant in Springfield, Ohio, where a company inspector looked for defects before sending it along a conveyer belt. There it was washed three times, dried and deposited into half-pound packages of Heart's Delight salad mix. Most wound up on Midwest supermarket shelves but some were shipped to Canada. The Canadians tested the green leafy stuff--and rejected it for E. coli contamination. An embarrassed Dole wound up ordering a nine-state recall.

Are the Canadians smarter than U.S. inspectors? Do they have more advanced technology than what’s available in America? No, but they take food safety seriously and commit sufficient resources to do the job right. In this country all government agencies–including OSHA, MSHA, FDA–primarily rely on corporations to voluntarily do the right thing.

A Big Dam Problem
China’s Three Gorges Dam was billed on a History Channel special as the biggest human engineering feat of all time. It may soon be a candidate for another program on that cable TV network, Engineering Disasters. The Chinese government has announced the need to evacuate 3-4 million additional people–about the number in Chicago–because of polluted water and unforeseen landslides. More than a million peasants from small villages were initially relocated before their ancestral homes, and many historic artifacts, were submerged under hundreds of feet of backed up water.

The dam was built to supply the huge and growing demand of Chinese industry for electricity. Hydroelectric was touted as a clean alternative to the high sulfur coal that is the primary fuel for their power plants. While the dam may not contribute to greenhouse gas pollution it has created other enormous social and environmental problems. Heavy metals are collecting in the vital Yangtze river. Its banks are eroding and silt is accumulating on the bottom at an alarming rate–enough to ultimately threaten the structural integrity of the dam itself. And now millions more refugees.

Many respected Chinese scientists and engineers have warned of these problems from the beginning. Nor is the dam an isolated threat.

Ground water levels around China’s booming industrial cities are dropping at a dangerous rate.

Lake Tai, the centerpiece of China’s ancient “land of fish and rice,” is now choked with a cover of fluorescent green pond scum created by unrestrained dumping of agricultural and industrial waste. Two million people once depended on the now noxious lake for their drinking and cooking water. A local farmer, Wu Lihong, who led a crusade against this ecological destruction is now in jail.

The environmental catastrophes shaping up in China are not due to over population or ecological ignorance. They are the result of Chinese economic development being tied in to the global capitalist market. They are part of the enormous human price paid for the cheap goods reaping unprecedented profits for not only the Wal-Marts but the off-shored industrial production of American based corporations.

Showing them An Inconvenient Truth won’t help much. A common struggle of Chinese and American workers against the evils of globalization is the fundamental prerequisite for environmental as well as social and economic progress on both sides of the Pacific.

That’s all for this week.

KC Labor Home

Daily Labor News Digest 

 Past Weeks In Review

  Site Meter