Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
October 9, 2007

A Tale Of Two Strike Threats
As this column is written on Tuesday two strikes are scheduled for launching on Wednesday morning.

The historical pace setter for industrial unions, the United Auto Workers, has vowed to shut down Chrysler if there is no tentative agreement by 11AM EDT. The UAW represents 49,000 active and 78,000 retired workers at the smallest of the Big Three.

The California Nurses Association will pull out 5,000 registered nurses for two days at 15 Sutter hospitals, mainly in the Bay Area. The company has threatened a lockout at some hospitals in response to the strike.

There are some superficial similarities between the two. Both are expected to have solid turnout with few, if any scabs from union ranks. Both are well organized in terms of logistical preparations. But, in essentials they are as different as night and day.

The UAW is in surrender mode, trying desperately to satisfy the ravenous demands of their perceived “partners” in management. The give backs will be measured in billions of dollars.

CNA is one of the precious few adversarial unions still on the American scene. They have no illusions about partnership with the boss. They seek–and usually get–improvements for their members. And, because they are dedicated health care professionals as well as savvy to the need for community support in successful actions against mighty employers, they have tied improved patient care to gains in jobs and conditions for their members.

The first UAW strike in this round of Big Three negotiations, at GM, heralded a tragedy–a death watch for defined benefit pensions and a new wage tier getting half pay. The second strike, if it actually comes off, will be more of a farce. Chrysler has already idled a majority of their plants because they aren’t selling enough cars.

Chrysler will accept the historic two tier surrender agreed to at GM but will insist on a lot more. They feel cheated that they never got the mid-contract health care concessions that were granted to GM and Ford. They want a wider second tier and more give backs on work rules. And they will not guarantee the survival of any existing plants.

The UAW team will be flexible in figuring out creative ways of helping their Chrysler partners while pretending there is still pattern bargaining. The danger most analysts see is not UAW militancy but the new strip and flip private equity management who are not familiar with the complicated rituals that make surrender deals sufficiently palatable to the ranks that ultimately have to vote on them.

An American Sacrifice
A palpable threat of union busting bankruptcy in 2003 convinced the three major unions at American Airlines to accept big “emergency” pay cuts. Today American is highly profitable again and handing out huge bonuses to company execs. The workers are anxious to restore their wages to health as well.

Ground workers in the TWU rejected American’s proposal to extend their concession contract. The carrier offered the members of the Allied Pilots Association (an independent union representing only American pilots) more money–but only if they flew more hours, no raise in base pay. Negotiations will soon begin with the flight attendants whose president, Tommie Hutto-Blake, said, “It looks like it's going to be truly old-style confrontational bargaining.”

This is all fresh confirmation of the old adage “once you give something away it’s hell to get it back.”

Brought To You By the AARP
An article in Sunday’s New York Times opened with this paragraph,

“Tens of thousands of Medicare recipients have been victims of deceptive sales tactics and had claims improperly denied by private insurers that run the system’s huge new drug benefit program and offer other private insurance options encouraged by the Bush administration, a review of scores of federal audits has found.”

One of the worst offenders was United Healthcare–the only company officially endorsed by the AARP. This turn coat organization that began as an advocate for senior citizens got lucrative endorsement deals in exchange for their prestige, and their influence with liberal Democrats such as Ted Kennedy, that was indispensable in getting the prescription drug scam through congress to begin with.

If you will recall, everyone was anxious to “do something” for senior drug needs even if “less than perfect.” You’re going to be hearing a lot of that kind of talk about healthcare “reform” in general. The fact is that the present state of the American health care system is so corrupt and incompetent that attempts at incremental reforms usually wind up making things worse yet.

There is no acceptable substitute for replacing this whole rotten set up with a system at least as good as what our Canadian neighbors have. The growing realization of the need for something more than “less than perfect” has led to over 325 union bodies, including 24 state feds, endorsing HR676.

Time For A Cane Mutiny
We’ve carried a lot of commentary about the negative environmental impact of the ethanol scam in this country and elsewhere, as well as the way it has altered food supply and price. Now we’re beginning to see the dark side of the industry’s labor practices in the world’s top producer of ethanol–Brazil.

In addition to providing 30 percent of domestic fuel needs Brazil sugar cane based ethanol exports were up to 900 million gallons last year–most of it to Europe where it’s cheaper than locally produced grain ethanol A major factor in its low price is the labor conditions in the cane fields.

Most cane workers on the ethanol plantations come from the extremely poor northeast region of Brazil. They are lured by the promise of better wages. Paid by the ton, the top cutters in the state of Sao Paulo can earn as much as 400 dollars a month–though few can sustain that pace for long. Twenty years ago, cutters were expected to chop six to eight tons a day. Today, with virtually no technological improvements, the standard is 10-12 tons a day.

This is a brutal pace leading to all manner of occupational injuries and syndromes. Eighteen cane cutters died of exhaustion in the last three years in Sao Paulo state alone, according to the Catholic Migrant Workers Pastoral, which monitors working conditions. Often the quota can be met only by taking kids out of school to help out in the field. As the president of the fledgling cane cutters union says, “Ethanol is making a lot of people in this country very rich. But all the cane cutters have seen are long hours of backbreaking work for very little pay.” Many in the Amazon region are virtual slaves because of debts levied by bosses for food and shelter.

In the USA this “renewable fuel” would not be commercially viable without massive taxpayer subsidies. In Brazil it is a vast pool of impoverished workers with no other options that provides the low cost enabling profits to make a few rich. The only thing green about all this is the color of those ill-gotten dollars.

Campuses A Tough Gig
First there was Columbia University inviting the president of Iran to speak–so they could deliver gratuitous insults to him in their introduction.

Then there was the University of Florida student who got a few rounds of taser fire for being obnoxious while asking a question of Senator John Kerry.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu couldn’t even get on the St Thomas University campus in the Twin Cities. His speaking engagement there was cancelled by administration because they were told by some that Tutu’s remarks might be “hurtful to the Jewish people.” This was apparently referring to past criticisms of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. I guess Jimmy Carter shouldn’t expect an invitation there any time soon either.

Mini-Conference
In place of a normal, routine business meeting the Kansas City Labor Party hosted a Fall Issues Mini-Conference last Saturday and invited the public. While teeming masses didn’t surge into the North Kansas City Library to hear what was said it did attract an interesting mix of single-payer advocates and environmentalists as well as the usual labor movement suspects. There were presentations on the fight for single-payer, the local transit crisis, and a talk on the need for Just Transition for workers displaced by environmental measures by our special guest, Labor Party national organizer Mark Dudzic. It’s a format the KC Labor Party will likely use again and something for other LP chapters to consider.

As promised my talk to the Ohio State Labor Party was posted earlier this week. If you missed it you can read it by clicking here.

That’s all for this week.

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