Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
November 16, 2010

An Aptly Named Show
We don’t watch a lot of television and, with the exception of my wife Mary’s favorite, What Not To Wear, virtually none in the “reality show” genre. But these are the darlings of the networks because they don’t have to pay professional actors or creative writers. Many have tried to make their entire sets wall-to-wall nonunion.

Recently the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) has pursued organizing these skinflint operations more aggressively, primarily around the need for health and pension benefits. They signed up everyone working on NBC’s The Biggest Loser and asked for recognition. When the producers told them to get lost a hundred percent solid strike for union recognition followed. That’s when the bosses decided to replace them with scabs.

The picket line has been vocal and includes those in other crafts walking in solidarity. This has put a crimp in reality for the biggest loser union busters. Stay tuned.

Food Insecurity
That’s the term the USDA uses to describe households who encounter times when they don’t have enough food because they lacked money to buy it. The agency is just now releasing their figures for 2009 and, like the previous year, it’s the highest since they started tracking such numbers in the 1990s.

More than seventeen million households, representing over fifteen percent of the U.S. population, went hungry or cut their food intake at some point because of money. Not surprisingly, food insecurity rates were substantially higher among low-income, single-parent, African-American and Latino households.

Hunger in the richest country in the world would have undoubtedly been much worse were it not for food stamps used by 42.4 million and free breakfast and lunch programs for the neediest kids in schools. The future of this food safety net in Congress is uncertain. Meanwhile, extended unemployment benefits for long-term jobless workers are set to expire November 30.

At Least the Government Wasn’t Running It
The Economic Policy Institute recently released a report on the state of health care last year. They show that for the ninth consecutive year the percentage of workers with employer-based health insurance dropped--58.9 percent in 2009. Over the same period the six biggest insurance robber barons saw a 22 percent boost in their profits.

A Crisis Without Hope Of Recovery
I’m not talking about the Great Recession. There is always a potential for putting even the long term unemployed back to work in the future–and I’ll come back to suggestions for doing this later.

Likewise with our literally crumbling infrastructure. Delay in renovation will lead to needless deaths and injuries–and added expense--but steel-and-concrete can always be erected or laid in the future

But the most serious crisis humanity has yet faced is not so forgiving. The fragile biosphere needed to sustain human life as we know it is in mortal danger from climate change. While there have been some occasional successes in reversing other environmental dangers–such as cleaning up water and the hole in the ozone layer–it would take millennia for the greenhouse gases causing global warming to naturally dissipate. There is no known technology for reversing this accumulation resulting from human economic activity since the launch of the Industrial Revolution.

For all human intents and purposes the damage cannot be undone and we are experiencing alarming consequences already. Worse yet, the greenhouse emissions are not only continuing but increasing. We are living beyond our irreplaceable ecological means, the party is over, and no amount of menudo will cure the hangover.

So far, the reaction of labor and other progressive social movements, to the new austerity drive whacking away at all levels of government has been to protest its impact on jobs, education, social programs, and day to day basic public services. Defending such past gains under massive attack is certainly necessary.

Mostly overlooked to this point, however, is how austerity and deregulation will pull the plug on even the milquetoast gestures in the works for alternative energy, mass transit, discouraging urban sprawl, etc, and will instead allow the corporate polluters, free from regulatory fetters, to take new giant leaps toward total collapse of our biosphere.

We cannot afford to be as short sighted as those who only think in terms of the bottom line. A strong public sector won’t mean much to our progeny if our coastal cities are under water, if our corn belt has turned in to desert–both likely inevitable if effective countermeasures are not soon taken. We simply do not have the time to relegate global warming to the back burner.

We are not ever going to see a “recovery” from the climate change crisis that will allow us to continue the goal of a homestead for every family, its lush green lawn regularly mowed with a two-stroke gasoline engine. Nor can there be an entitlement of at least one internal combustion powered vehicle for every individual’s normal daily transportation. We can never afford to count on coal to power a TV set in every room

Changing individual behavior alone is insufficient to reverse this destructive course. But, one way or another, there are big changes in store for society’s life style. The changes will be disastrous if we try to consume and pollute along present lines.

But there are viable alternatives to this marketing-driven self-destruction. We can still have a quality life style by rebuilding livable urban cores, serviced by clean, frequent mass transit, powered by renewable energy alternatives such as solar and wind. This is science, not science fiction. The technology exists right now.

A few short years ago many were hopeful about the possibility of a big breakthrough on tackling climate change. Former Vice-President Al Gore starred in an award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, that raised public awareness among a broader audience than ever. In 2008, the global warming deniers of the Bush administration were swept from office and President Obama pledged that science would be at the forefront of government policy. The Steelworkers initiated conferences drawing together unionists and environmentalists with corporate “partners,” academics, and “friends” in government, to promote the idea of green jobs. And the whole world was looking to the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen last December, expecting at least the beginning of an international agreement that would slash emissions.

None of these promises materialized. The Democrat Congress passed no legislation. The EPA sent mixed messages. Crooks stole personal e-mail exchanges to manufacture “Climategate,” a sleazy attempt to tarnish and intimidate climate science. President Obama’s behind the scene negotiations with the world’s biggest emitters left Copenhagen in shambles. The Deepwater Horizon disaster demonstrated how the Obama administration has continued cozy relations with Big Oil. And substantial numbers of long-term green jobs never panned out.

There is another UN conference coming up November 29 in Cancun. Expectations there are essentially zero. And the Republican deniers now have their most seats in the House since they overrode Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. These dismal prospects, combined with understandable preoccupation with jobs, have dropped the climate change issue below the radar line.

Instead of ignoring this problem that will not go away, or sticking green issues at the end of a list of nice things to have someday, we urgently need to integrate a working class program for the climate change crisis in to a plan for economic recovery. It may start as an uneasy courtship but it better end in at least a marriage of convenience.

The two are much more compatible than our fossil based rulers would have us believe. The scale of restructuring needed to meet the grave challenge of global warming–new and retrofitted housing in the urban cores; mass transit systems and high speed inter-city rail; manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines; building a vast new energy grid and more--would require tens of millions of jobs. This is how to put America–and all countries–back to work.

It is not a task that can be left to the “free” market. I just finished reading an article with a most puzzling title, Oil will run out 100 years before new fuels developed: study. It turns out the study, at UC Davis, drew this pessimistic conclusion from comparing the present and projected stock values of oil and their upstart competitors to judge their capital potential. Oil’s capital was predicted as adequate until they get the very last recoverable drop (which they reckon will occur around 2041) whereas the others would not have a chance until oil was gone–and then would take a century to raise enough capital to satisfy market needs!

Earlier this year, I joined six other Midwestern trade unionists concerned about climate change in signing a Call for an Alliance for Class & Climate Justice. Our goal was not to compete with any existing formations but to encourage a discussion aiming to replace the failed approach of market-based measures in partnership with polluters with a working class program for whatever it takes. We propose adapting many of the effective measures used during the emergency World War II economic mobilization–which finally ended the Great Depression--to today’s needs. We have a web page on the kclabor.org site. We distributed several hundred copies of our Call at the Labor Notes Conference. We’ve held public meetings in Kansas City and the Twin Cities. I was interviewed by Traven Leyshon on Equal Time Radio in Vermont and we got a favorable mention by Ian Angus in his popular Climate & Capitalism blog.

Like most progressive initiatives in recent years, we have generally been well received–but the masses have not been beating down our door. But we signed up for the duration and remain undeterred. In the course of our participation in ongoing labor and other activities we will do our best to keep this issue live as well. We are open to comments–and eager for collaboration.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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