Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
November 21, 2011

More Energy Than Red Bull
My prolific friend Steve Early was at it again last week, this time with a perceptive look at the synergy of labor and the Occupy movement. He opens an article posted on In These Times,

“Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has given our timorous, unimaginative and politically ambivalent unions a much-needed ideological dope slap. Some might describe this, more diplomatically, as a second injection of ‘outside-the-box’ thinking and new organizational blood.

“Top AFL-CIO officials first sought an infusion of those scarce commodities in labor when they jetted into Wisconsin last winter. Without their planning or direction, the spontaneous community-labor uprising in Wisconsin was in the process of recasting the debate about public sector bargaining throughout the U.S. So they were eager to join the protest even though it was launched from the bottom up, rather than in response to union headquarters directives from Washington, D.C.

“This fall, OWS has become the new Lourdes for the old, lame, and blind of American labor. Union leaders have been making regular visits to Zuccotti Park and other high-profile encampments around the country. According to NYC retail store union leader Stuart Applebaum, ‘the Occupy movement has changed unions’—both in the area of membership mobilization and messaging.’”

The Occupy Movement alone can’t pull off a Lady of Lourdes-like miracle of transforming the top mainstream union leadership from asses leading the lions to prophets ushering the wage slaves to the Middle Class promised land. The impressive OWS spontaneous impulses have raced far ahead of any substantial thought out program or strategy.

The Madison-We Are One-OWS stirring is the product of natural abhorrence of vacuum. In the greatest social crisis since the Great Depression there was no political opposition, no clear working class response. The generations of indoctrination of class collaboration in schools, churches, the mass media--and even union halls--left most ill-equipped to draw on a once proud heritage of American worker struggle. Initially they were more inspired by what they saw happening in Tunisia and Egypt rather than the lessons of the CIO and Minneapolis Teamsters of the 1930s.

Early recognizes this deficiency in education in both the Occupy and union movements. I was pleased that Steve recommended a book that had a great deal of influence on me as a newly elected UE Chief Steward in 1976–Them and Us, a class struggle history of the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers union from its founding until the mid-Seventies, written by a founding leader, Jim Matles.

He also looks favorably on the more contemporary work of Michael Zweig, an educator I got a chance to know in US Labor Against the War. Early says,

“As SUNY professor Michael Zweig argued in his book, The Working Class Majority: America’s Best-Kept Secret, labor’s never ending mantra about the ‘middle class’ leaves class relations—and the actual class position of most of the population—is shrouded in rhetorical fog.”

Instinct has helped the Occupy movement clear away the worst of that fog. The 99 v 1 percent may not be scientifically precise but it is a first step in recognizing the class character of the battle. It needs to be sharpened as pernicious forces such as the parasites of MoveOn.org, and even the Libertarian disciples of Ron Paul, try to subvert it in to dead-end “populist” rhetoric.

The future of the Occupy movement as presently constituted remains undecided. The challenges of police repression, logistics, and workable structures for education and democratic decision making are formidable. But whether through continuity of the present or the rise of new forms, the bottom-up struggle launched earlier in Madison will continue to have a salutary effect on working people–inside and out of our unions.

You should not only read Steve Early’s article but also, if you haven’t already, his latest book that helps set some historical context–The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor

Pope Stepping Down
No, I’m not talking about the Bishop of Rome. Carl Pope will soon be leaving his gig as Chairman of the Sierra Club--and its 200,000+ annual salary. Prior to being installed in that exalted position he had served seventeen years as executive director of the biggest environmental group in the USA.

On Pope’s nearly twenty year long watch, the Club’s membership rolls swelled to 800,000 before slipping backwards in recent years. But he did a lot more than grow the dues base. Pope engineered big changes that took the Club not only far from its 1892 launching to protect America’s wilderness but also ultimately led to internal clashes with those he described in a Los Angles Times interview as, “ people who cut their teeth on the counterculture greening-of-America anti-business stuff of the 1970s.”

In those Seventies, the late Tony Mazzocchi, a long time leader in the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, and later the “founding brother” of the Labor Party, reached out to the Sierra Club and won their support for a tough OCAW strike against Shell. Club members not only promoted a Shell Boycott but at times showed solidarity at union picket lines and press conferences.

Pope, who helped craft the Blue-Green Alliance, a top-level gathering of union and environmental groups, has never shown much interest in strikes and boycotts. The Alliance activities are centered on lobbying in support of policies of the current White House and engaging corporate officials in formats such as annual “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” conferences. Among the good, green corporate citizens kicking in dinero to sponsor the 2011 conference were: Alcoa; Association of American Railroads; AT&T; General Motors Corporation; Goodyear; Honeywell; International Paper; Kaiser Aluminum; Kaiser Permanente; Kimberly-Clark; and UPS.

No, the top down service model Sierra Club, mirroring in many respects the AARP that won seniors the Medicare prescription “doughnut-hole,” could hardly be castigated as “anti-business” during Pope’s reign. Deals are cut with corporate polluters–often reneged later. The reclusive hedge-fund tycoon, math wizard and “clean energy” CEO David Gelbaum has pumped over 100 million in to the Sierra Club. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg–a certified member of the One Percent–recently chipped in 50 million. The Sierra magazine, along with some useful articles and spectacular photos, is chock full of commercial advertising. Club discounts are available for car insurance and vacation cruises.

But a proverbial last straw for the hand-raisers that had kept Pope in charge for two decades was a rather paltry deal. In exchange for a total of 1.3 million over four years, in 2008 Pope granted Clorox the right to display the Sierra Club seal of approval on their bottles of bleach. Apparently after all, there was some beverage served by their bartender the leadership structure would not drink. Pope was first kicked upstairs to Chairman and is now making a soft landing while headed in a new direction. Pope told the LA Times he will now “devote most of his time to ‘revitalizing the manufacturing sector’ by working with organized labor and corporations.” A veritable promoter of class & polluter partnership still--under a new shingle.

Pope’s replacement as executive director, Michael Brune, who had previous experience in more activist groups such as Greenpeace and the Rain Forest Coalition, told the Times,

“Over the next year we will be adding a million members and supporters. In order to get off coal, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse emissions, we'll need an army of well-trained volunteers, as well as lobbyists and lawyers. Our members will be finding new members as tenacious and devoted to finding solutions as they are. We'll be activating and inspiring everyday people who genuinely care about the environment.”

That sounds better. But I’ve been snookered by such promises in the past–even since Brune took over in 2010. Before I stop my revolving door in and out of the Club on the inside, I want to see a forthright “anti-business” strategy. It’s systemic business practices that are destroying our biosphere. We need a new system.

We have precious little time to make needed changes. Four years ago the world’s best known climate scientist, NASA’s James E. Hansen, argued that carbon dioxide concentrations of more than 350 parts per million in the atmosphere would make substantial, unwelcome climate change inevitable. Just this morning, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization announced the present level is 389 ppm and is growing faster than in the 1990s--before the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. We’ve passed the unwelcome marker and are hurtling toward catastrophe–and still have the pedal to the metal. I wish to tell the get-along Chairman Pope–get along.

(Next week I'll deal with another Pope--Sandy--and her race against Hoffa.)

Checks In the Mail?
The comparable worth protections for women in Canadian law are much more comprehensive than U.S. equal pay provisions. But justice is not always swift.

In 1983, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) filed a discrimination claim that women postal workers were being paid less than men for comparable work. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal conducted a thorough investigation–for 22 years–finally upholding the claim in 2005.

But that wasn’t the end. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court who finally ruled last week in favor of the women, awarding a settlement of 150 million Canadian dollars–half of what was asked.

In Brief...
¶ Using new measures that were hoped to show less poverty, new Census figures actually present a somewhat bleaker picture. About a third of the U.S. population falls in to the combined categories of Deep Poor, Poor, Near Poor.
¶ OWS sloganeers better check out Forbes, “Income and wealth disparities become even more absurd if we look at the top 0.1% of the nation's earners-- rather than the more common 1%. The top 0.1%-- about 315,000 individuals out of 315 million-- are making about half of all capital gains on the sale of shares or property after 1 year; and these capital gains make up 60% of the income made by the Forbes 400.”
¶ According to the New York Times, Democrats on the apparently now failed Deficit Super-Committee had offered to slash 500 billion off Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs.

After Wednesday, I’ll take a break from updating the kclabor.org site until next Monday. I’ll be celebrating the U.S. Thanksgiving and Evacuation Day holidays.

That’s all for this week.

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