Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
November 22, 2010

A Different Blight
In 1845, potato blight ravaged the crop upon which the Irish people had been made dependent by their British rulers. The next seven year period was called an Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, by Irish speakers, the Great Potato Famine by the rest of the world. During that time a million Irish starved to death--and another million launched the first wave of massive Irish emigration that eventually included ancestors on my mother’s side of the family. To this day, the population of Ireland remains less than it was in the pre-famine period more than 150 years ago. It’s about to drop again.

It’s not because of crop failure. The British occupiers long ago fell back to a partitioned enclave of six of Ireland’s 32 counties, leaving the Dublin government to deal with the rest. Not so long ago this government was being praised for an economic miracle–dubbed the Celtic Tiger. Immigrants from around the world started flocking there, reversing the population drain.

But this unaccustomed prosperity had no more substance than the head on a pint of Smithwick’s. It was based on attracting multinational corporations with development incentives, the lowest corporate tax rates in Europe, and–in collaboration with a trade union leadership dedicated to partnership with government and boss–low wage rates. More than 600 U.S. corporations started manufacturing such products as computers and peripherals, Scotch Tape, Lipitor, and industrial chemicals, along with financial services and warehouses for goods destined for the rest of Europe.

But when the U.S. and other major global players get so much as the sniffles Ireland catches whooping cough. The Irish economy shrank 7.1 percent last year. Even though Dublin quickly imposed drastic austerity measures–taxes have been raised and wages slashed for public workers by up to 20 percent–this month the government said an additional six billion dollars would need to be cut from the budget next year. Now a deal with the EU and IMF appears to be set that will bailout Dublin’s creditors but will put the Irish working class in a race with Greece and Portugal for the poorest in the EU.

65,000 left their Irish homeland last year and this year’s number is expected to be double that. Escalating future hardships seem sure to accelerate these numbers for the foreseeable future.

They won’t find things much better in the six counties still occupied by the British. These remnants of Empire will feel the effects of the new austerity being imposed by the English coalition of Tories and Liberals. Unlike during the Great Hunger, America now has quotas on the number of Irish to be accepted each year. Many will wind up in Australia or Canada.

A New York Times article says, “Some economists argue that emigration can be a useful safety valve in hard times, reducing the numbers of the unemployed and avoiding the debilitating effects of long-term unemployment.” But the Irish economy will get nothing in return for this export of well-educated, English-speaking labor to other lands.

The Irish experience closely matches that of most states in the USA who have tried to buy jobs with sweetheart deals subsidized by tax payers. This sooner or later almost always leaves no jobs to show for a massive accumulated debt. Emigration between America’s states is easy enough. Write if you find work.

Deserved Recognition
After some rowdy demonstrations, and notice of a one-day strike, Washington Hospital Center has agreed to recognize the merger of an independent union in to National Nurses United (NNU) as the collective bargaining representative of the hospital’s 1,600 registered nurses. The strike is on hold as negotiations for a new contract resume November 29.

Defacto Recognition
While the strike by workers on the set of “reality show” The Biggest Loser for union recognition continues, producers have started negotiations with Matt Loeb, head of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. According to Richard Verrier’s, blog in the Los Angeles Times,

“Producers attempted to resume production of the series this week, hiring replacement workers, but were met with protests organized by IATSE. The show's two main trainers have refused to cross the picket line and, along with the host, are auctioning themselves off on EBay to raise money for strikers.”

UAW Ranks Plot Strategy
Contracts with Ford, GM, and Chrysler expire next September. UAW militants met in Toledo a couple of weeks ago to discuss strategy for the UAW Bargaining Convention scheduled for next March. In a
Labor Notes report on the gathering Al Benchich, retired president of UAW Local 909 at a GM plant in Warren, Michigan, observed,

“The conference was held at the University of Toledo in the shadow of a large wind turbine generator and adjacent to a solar panel farm—the kind of green products that Autoworkers Caravan has advocated be produced at converted auto plants.”

The main points participants agreed to push at the convention include:

* Full disclosure and fair ratification procedures.
* End two-tier wages.
* Maintain pattern bargaining and the right to strike

Even the Times Is Shocked
It took a while but now that it’s in the New York Times it’s official–union workers are getting shafted by two-tier. Louis Uchitelle opens his article,
Unions Yield on Wage Scales to Preserve Jobs,

“Organized labor appears to be losing an important battle in the Great Recession. Even at manufacturing companies that are profitable, union workers are reluctantly agreeing to tiered contracts that create two levels of pay.”

Uchitelle pays particular attention to three humiliating defeats in Wisconsin we have reported on in the past–Mercury Marine, Harley-Davidson, and Kohler. But the title of his article needs modification. At best, these deals preserve only some jobs. In each, substantial numbers of current jobs were axed and the use of part-time, even casual labor greatly expanded. Probably the most knowledgeable expert he talked to,

“‘This is absolutely a surrender for labor,’ said Mike Masik Sr., the union leader at Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle maker, not even trying to paper over the defeat.”

Finally, Ripening On the Vine
The single biggest obstacle to advances in pay and conditions for Florida’s super-exploited tomato field workers finally caved in last week. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing more than ninety percent of the state’s producers, has agreed to terms with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Starting with the consumer end of the tomato chain, the farm workers group used boycotts against Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway, and others to get a pledge from them to pay growers a penny a pound more that would go to improvements for workers. The FTGE, however, resisted these deals until some of their own members started defecting.

A penny a pound doesn’t sound like much–and it isn’t. But, since workers were generally paid 50 cents per 32-pound bucket, it works out to about a sixty percent raise. You can find out more about this significant victory in a long running struggle by reading Jenny Brown’s Labor Notes article here.

If You Can’t Burn It, Ship It
Headlines from New Zealand and China remind us of the danger in mining coal.

It is undisputed king when it comes to carbon emissions that warm our planet and throws in some generous doses of heavy metals as well. That’s why countries that signed on to the Kyoto Accords have worked to reduce their consumption of the stuff. Even in the USA environmentalists are sometimes able to block construction of new coal-fired power plants.

But many of these same countries bragging about the progress they’ve made in reducing greenhouse pollution have been busily supplying coal to China–who consumes half of the world’s annual mining of six billion tons. To learn more about this duplicitous trade in both cash and environmental destruction check out this New York Times story here.

Eminent Domain
That’s the tool the city council of Taunton, Massachusetts is considering using to take over the Haskon plant which has operated in that town for over eighty years. The plant was shut down by its last owner, Esterline Technologies, in October. The runaway boss is consolidating the aircraft sealant work performed in Taunton at facilities in California and Mexico.

If the eminent domain effort is successful the plant would be sold to former workers, members of UE Local 204, in collaboration with former plant management. A feasibility study shows the operation would be viable in its market niche. You can get earlier background material in an article that appeared in In These Times

Holiday Break
This Thursday will be Thanksgiving in the USA. I’ll be taking it, and the day following, as union holidays. After we post the
Daily Labor News Digest on Wednesday the next update will be Monday, November 29.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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