Week In Review
A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
November 17, 2012
Correction. In our section on Hostess below we repeated an inaccuracy we had picked up from a wire service report. The Teamsters are in fact the largest union, the Bakery Workers who went on strike are the second biggest.
On her blog, my friend Ann Montague captured the essence of Howard Wallace’s life well– Socialist, Union Activist, LGBT Icon . Howard became well known in California as a long time staffer with SEIU Local 250 who tirelessly promoted union solidarity.
He also distinguished himself helping to organize high profile campaigns against homophobia in the workplace. One was the Coors Boycott, called to protest, among other issues, the union-busting brewer’s use of lie-detectors to eliminate the “immoral” among their workforce. Another was the defeat of the 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have banned Gays and Lesbians from working in California public schools.
Howard worked hard as well in the successful effort to gain recognition of Pride at Work, representing the interests of LGBT unionists, as an official constituency group by the AFL-CIO. He passed away as a President Emeritus of P@W.
I came to know Howard through his dedication in helping to launch US Labor Against the War. I found him to be as gracious in personal contact as he was tenacious in advancing his principles. Howard was a one-of-a-kind, not likely to be replaced by a single individual. But over his more than a half-century of activism he started countless others down the road to doing the right thing. None of us can expect a better tribute than that.
This Thursday is Thanksgiving in the USA. In my youth, Thanksgiving was billed a family gathering at Grandma’s focused on a gut-stuffing feast. That was true enough in our family. The following day was the official opening of the Christmas shopping season. (Our Jewish friends were encouraged to exchange gifts during Hanukkah, usually falling somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas.)
Of course, there are many workers who need to work on Thanksgiving. Hospitals can’t take the day off. Some people depend on restaurants for their food. I spent many a Thanksgiving--and Christmas too-- driving a transit bus. But now we are seeing less than essential work being required for millions.
Over the years, the day after Thanksgiving became known among retail merchants as Black Friday. There are no racial overtones to this label and it certainly is not a metaphor for Doom. It refers to the color of ink on account ledgers, a day upon which profit depends.
Gorging a huge Thanksgiving meal is still encouraged today. But competition between Big Box and department store rivals has led to steadily earlier launchings of Black Friday, recently often at Midnight. This year some of the biggest will be opening with “door busters” at 8PM on Thanksgiving Thursday.
There has long been tut-tuting about these events diverting eager shoppers from the family holiday spirit. But little attention has been paid to what this greed does to the low wage workers who must open up early to face an often surly, sometimes violent gang of door busters, psyched up to get the biggest possible bang for their buck A few years ago a Walmart guard on Long Island was literally crushed to death by a crowd stampede as he opened the doors.
But now some of these workers are saying basta and are resisting the growing obliteration of their family time. A story in the Guardian reports,
“Strikes and protests aimed at disrupting the retail giant Walmart during next week's Black Friday sales events began on Thursday with walk-outs at a number of stores and the promise of more actions in the lead-up to what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. The news comes amid controversy about plans by Walmart and other large chains to open on Thanksgiving evening, kicking off Black Friday a day early. It also comes as another strike has hit part of Walmart's warehouse supply chain in southern California.”
These workers as yet have no union contract, no grievance system, no union recognition. It’s a bold move against the world’s largest private employer.
Late Friday afternoon, Reuters reported Walmart had filed an Unfair Labor Practice Charge against the United Food & Commercial Workers. The global corporate giant said they were taking the step “because we cannot allow the UFCW to continue to intentionally seek to create an environment that could directly and adversely impact our customers and associates [low-wage workers].”
The UFCW does not have bargaining rights for any Walmart workers. They have been supportive of the OUR Walmart group coordinating the actions at Walmart’s retail outlets and CtW and UE have been helpful to warehouse workers handling Walmart’s distribution. The company’s Labor Board effort is a clear attempt to nullify legal protection for nonunionized workers to act collectively in their own interest.
It’s hard to say how far this particular struggle will go. But as I sit down Thursday to my wife Mary’s traditional Thanksgiving pasta fazul, I plan to give thanks that there are still American working class heros who are not afraid to stand up to even the biggest of the “job creators.”
It’s Capitalism, Not the Food,
On Friday, the current mis-management of bankrupt Hostess Brands announced they are liquidating the 82-year old company that under various names was long the General Motors of the baking industry. They blamed this job destruction on a strike of the by far the largest of their twelve unions, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union, that had shut down all 33 plants employing 18,500 workers.
Those that baked and packaged Wonder Bread, Hostess Cupcakes, and, of course, Twinkies, are being vilified as kamikaze crazies in an economy with few equivalent jobs. With more measured syntax that’s the position of the second-biggest Hostess union. The Teamsters Ken Hall said, “When you have a company that’s in the financial situation that Hostess is, it’s just not possible to maintain everything you have.”
Well Ken, Hostess workers, some under your guidance, are way beyond “keeping everything.” In their second bankruptcy in less than a decade, Hostess workers had already agreed to 100 million dollars in concessions. The latest non-negotiable company ultimatum demanded further wage and benefit cuts ranging from 27-32 percent–including eliminating pensions.
Bakery workers president Frank Hurt explained, “They [his union’s members] decided that they were not going to agree to another round of outrageous wage and benefit cuts and give up their pension only to see yet another management team fail and Wall Street vulture capitalists and ‘restructuring specialists’ walk away with untold millions of dollars.”
It was a mix of just anger and dignity that led to the bakery workers last stand. These victims of junk capitalism deserve our respect and sympathy. They mastered a lesson too many labor leaders fail to acknowledge–give-backs don’t save jobs, they only prolong the agony.
The workers now will likely go to the back of a long line of unsecured creditors. Some attractive brands, such as Twinkies, may be sold to other companies–but it’s unlikely that any of the workers who made snack foods in to cultural icons will be offered jobs in any such spin-off.
Bankruptcy has become a major tool of the “job creators” in sticking it to the workers. Companies with long-range viability–such as General Motors and Chrysler–use the law to make fundamental, permanent changes in wages, benefits, and working conditions. Those on shakier ground–such as Hostess–are raided and stripped by vulture capital before liquidation.
Our unions can still fight proud battles. But we need to have a party of our own that can change laws like bankruptcy that leave workers with only lose-lose choices.
Transporting the Transporters
Most U.S. railroads outsource the transportation of crews between terminals and lodging. Most of the drivers involved are unorganized and low wage. UE Local 155 is doing some serious organizing of these workers and is negotiating a first contract for Renzenberger rail crew drivers in the Norfolk Southern and Contrail yards in New Jersey and Ohio. But, as usual, the company is stone-walling. UE is asking for support in an online petition campaign to put pressure on the boss. You can help by signing on by going to this link.
We’re For Change–Got Any to Spare?
All of our talk about Black Friday reminds me of the annual Fiscal Cliff coming up for the KC Labor online project that includes the Week In Review. Year’s end brings due our hosting and domain name fees at a time when the webmaster also must pay substantial personal property tax and car insurance bills. This year there are some additional medical expenses as well. And our aging hardware and software isn’t in much better shape either.
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¶ An ATU streetcar operator who pursued an assailant who had attacked a woman passenger–and got suspended by the Toronto Transit Commission for abandoning his car–has been reinstated.
¶ From the NNU, “In contrast to other Sutter hospitals where decisions by management to withdraw concession demands led to rapid contract settlements with nurses, Registered nurses at eight Sutter corporation hospitals are on strike Tuesday, November 20 and Wednesday, November 21, to protest employer demands for sweeping cuts in nurses’ and patient care standards. The strike affects 3,300 RNs and several hundred respiratory, X-ray and other technicians who work at Alta Bates Medical Center facilities in Berkeley and Oakland, Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, San Leandro Hospital, Sutter Solano in Vallejo, Sutter Delta in Antioch, and Novato Community Hospital.”
¶ A November 11 meeting of Labor Party supporters in Kansas City decided to re-launch ourselves as Kansas City Labor Party Advocates. The motivation for this action, and announcement of the group’s first public meeting, can be found on our revamped web page here.
¶ The Guardian reported, “Hundreds of thousands of Europeans mounted one of the biggest coordinated anti-austerity protests across the continent on Wednesday, marching against German-orchestrated cuts as the eurozone is poised to move back into recession. Millions took part in Europe-wide strikes, and in city after city along the continent's debt-encrusted Mediterranean rim, thousands marched and scores were arrested after clashes with police.”
¶ From the BBC, “Ikea has said it ‘deeply regrets’ the use of political prisoners as forced labour in communist East Germany by some of its suppliers. The Swedish furniture giant asked accountants Ernst & Young to look into the matter, dating back 25-30 years. The study indicates that political and criminal prisoners were involved in manufacturing for Ikea suppliers. It also said that Ikea representatives at the time knew that political prisoners were possibly used.”
¶ Also from the Guardian, “Two people are missing, feared dead, after a fire broke out on an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana, the US coast guard said on Friday. Four other workers were seriously injured in the fire on the Black Elk Energy rig in the Gulf of Mexico. A total of 11 were taken to hospital. Reports of the fire immediately recalled the April 2010 blowout of BP's well in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 men and unleashed one of America's worst environmental disasters.”
¶ In the New York Times, “The Environmental Protection Agency declined on Friday to relax its requirement on the use of corn ethanol in gasoline, rejecting a request from several states related to a steep decline in the nation’s corn production. A summer drought that withered crops led to a spike in prices, hurting the livestock industry and others that depend on corn for food. Estimates indicate that as much as half of the nation’s crop will be used to produce ethanol this year to meet the federal renewable energy standard for transportation fuel.” Most scientists reject the claim that corn ethanol has any benefit in reducing global warming.
¶ Increases in Medicare Part B premiums next year will amount to about a quarter of the average 2013 raise in Social Security monthly benefits.
Before closing this early and long WIR, I want to let readers know that some personal tasks before the holiday break mean there will be no news updates on the Labor Advocate Blog this coming week. By the following week all should be back to normal.
That’s all for this week.
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