Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
October 30, 2005

Scooter and Harriet Take One For the Team
Scooter Libby learned at least something from his hero, Ronald Reagan–it pays to have a faulty memory. Reagan couldn’t remember a darned thing about selling advanced weapons to the Axis of Evil Iran in exchange for them sending illegal arms to the Contras trying to overthrow the democratically elected Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Inadequate recollection appears to be Libby’s defense against charges of perjury and obstruction in a grand jury investigation of his role in revealing to the press that an administration critic’s wife was a secret CIA employee. Before booking, he promptly resigned his day job as Vice-President Cheney’s chief-of-staff and will try to minimize embarrassment for his employers.

Some liberals have complained that insufficient media attention has been paid to the fact that this incident was based on retribution against a former public servant who opposed the war. They too evade the main point–the administration lied about the stated reasons for invading Iraq and the "opposition" leaders to this day refuse to nail Bush, and his faithful partner Blair, on this illegal, immoral deceit. The Democrats still let them off the hook by accepting secondary fibs that Bush was misled by "faulty intelligence," and that sleazy characters such as Libby, and the as yet unindicted Karl Rove, are out of control rogues--rather than the well groomed hatchet men they were picked to be.

Presidential Counsel Harriet Miers, far from sleazy, looked as bewildered and congenial as ever as she "requested" that President Bush withdraw her name from consideration for the Supreme Court. Remarkably no senator had ever pointed out that this small time lawyer who forgot to pay her dues to the Bar Association was patently unqualified to serve on the highest court in the land. What sank her nomination was a high powered campaign focusing on the right to choose. But it wasn’t the efforts organized by feminist defenders of Roe that did Miers in. Just the opposite–her colleagues in the religious right didn’t trust her to do the Right thing and they showed no mercy in forcing her out. It seems if her poor boss didn’t have all this bad luck he would have no luck at all.

Ultimately Bush will get an appointment to the court approved. It will probably be bad news for women’s rights, and much more. But focusing on trying to influence senate votes on appointees is misguided. As Howard Zinn recently wrote, "It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice." As usual, this people’s professor is right on the money.

Their Rosa Parks and Ours
Zinn’s reminder about how rights are won is also timely on the occasion of the passing of Rosa Parks. Looking for any good will he could get in his time of need the President arranged all the trappings of a state funeral for the departed civil rights hero. As they have done in the past with figures such as Martin Luther King, the rulers have again tried to convert a fighter against the system into a harmless icon confirming, they claim, that justice is won because the system works.

Several years ago, around a celebration of the MLK holiday, I wrote in a union newsletter article,

"Rosa Parks didn’t just happen along and spontaneously decide to challenge the rules. She was Secretary of the local branch of the NAACP. But, like a number of other members, she was dissatisfied by that organization’s go-slow-and-work-through-the-courts approach. She was part of an informal group of mainly Black trade unionists who were looking for faster and more effective tactics. Their union experience had taught them organizing skills, and familiarized them with activities such as picketing and boycotts.

"Their main strategist was E.D. Nixon, an activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union who also had contacts with Black unionists around the country. These connections later proved valuable in not only spreading the word about the boycott throughout the nation, but also in raising money to send a fleet of station-wagons to Montgomery to provide some needed transportation....

"Nixon worked up an outline of a boycott campaign. But he felt it was important to involve better known and ‘respectable’ leaders as public spokespersons. Several prominent clergymen were approached but turned them down. Dr King, after some initial hesitation, agreed to take charge of the campaign that launched him into national prominence.

"Dr King proved to be a capable organizer, an effective spokesman, and showed great personal courage. During the boycott he was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. But it in no way detracts from the appreciation of Dr King’s accomplishments to also acknowledge the indispensable contributions of ‘ordinary’ working people such as E.D. Nixon."

Rosa Parks was a heroic individual to be sure. But she was also a part of a determined, organized team, rooted in both the fight for racial equality and in the labor movement. That team was a vanguard that sparked a mighty mass movement that won some important victories in tearing down the formal legal obstacles of Jim Crow.

But de facto racism remains embedded in American society today. While the Establishment tries to usurp some of the glory of Rosa as an icon we honor the Rosa who was a proud and brave fighter for her people and her class. That fight continues and the best way to honor her legacy is to advance it.

Unfortunate Timing
Last Monday Wal-Mart grabbed headlines with statements supporting an increase in the minimum wage and promising to expand health care coverage for their own workers. But by Wednesday The New York Times was publishing an internal company memo that showed they were actually chiseling away at the meager benefits of America’s biggest private employer workforce (1.33 million.)

Among their cut-backs: requiring employees to pay more for spouse health insurance; reducing company 401(k) contributions from four to three percent of earnings; and slashing life insurance coverage from a year’s salary to 12,000 dollars.

The memo expressed the belief that too many of their "associates" are fat and sickly and proposed to weed them out by building in some physical exertion demands to each and every job. For example, check-out cashiers would be expected to retrieve shopping carts from the parking lot.

The confidential report was also concerned with seniority–"the cost of an associate with seven years of tenure is almost 55 percent more than the cost of an associate with one year of tenure, yet there is no difference in his or her productivity. Moreover, because we pay an associate more in salary and benefits as his or her tenure increases, we are pricing that associate out of the labor market, increasing the likelihood that he or she will stay with Wal-Mart."

Wal-Mart workers earn an average of about 8.40 per hour. The company spends about 220 dollars a month on health insurance per covered employee–an extremely miserly figure. Less than half have health insurance. The memo proposes to reduce that even more by creating more part-time positions. 38 percent of those that have insurance coverage spend up to a sixth of their income on health care.

Wal-Mart’s American operations are, of course, one hundred percent nonunion.

Raising the Bar on Competition
It seems the "last chance" contract to make shirts for the military that management and workers at Fechheimer Brothers' shirt factory in Jefferson, Pennsylvania had been counting on to survive has instead been awarded to some tough competition–prison labor. A competitor, Woolrich, will be outsourcing the sewing to federal inmates. 108 UNITE members will loose their jobs as a result.

I Will Get Back to You
If you are among those who sent me an e-mail message over the past week or so and have received no reply I apologize and promise to get back to you soon. My article, UAW Capitulation Leaves All Of Us Vulnerable In Class War, got linked on a Delphi workers Yahoo message group, at least a couple of UAW rank-and-file web sites and message boards, as well as on LabourStart, Labor Net, and Labor Standard. This generated several hundred hits on the site, new sign-ups on the e-mail list-- and a number of e-mail messages addressed to me. I’m working my way through and will respond to all.

As usual, much of the material for this column was taken from the Daily Labor News Digest.

That’s all for this week.

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