Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
November 28, 2011

Shortly after I put last week’s WIR to bed, the Deficit Reduction Super-Committee formally announced that they had failed to reach a grand bargain they were tasked with under the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA--the debt ceiling deal) passed back in August. That deal, negotiated by President Obama and congressional Republican leaders, did some initial budget cutting for this year and set rigid overall quotas for slashing trillions more over the next decade.

Knowing who they were dealing with, the August negotiators anticipated failure of the bipartisan committee they created. Mandated cuts calculated to leave no ox herd unharmed were also inserted in August as backup to finish what the timid could not.

Under the terms of the BCA, Congress renounced their Constitutional power to avoid slashing programs through revenue enhancement--granting the Super-Committee the sole right to make such proposals. But, after agreeing in principle to slashing much, Republican intransigence on taxes was a Committee deal breaker.

Immediately after the Committee’s surrender liberal commentators seemed joyful. They argued this proved the BCA was unworkable and Congress would have to go back to the drawing board. This delusion was shattered within hours by the White House. President Obama told the nation “a deal is a deal” and promised to veto any attempt by Congress to overturn it. In another “eat your peas” moment he implored Congress to get to work on the unpleasant job to be done.

He also urged prompt Capitol Hill action to continue what he cynically calls a “middle class tax cut”–actually the expropriation of a payroll tax solely dedicated to support the workers’ Social Security. Not collecting this tax can have one of two consequences. Either Social Security benefits will have to be greatly reduced or the missing money will have to be repaid from the general treasury–adding to the deficit.

Right now the August deal the frustrated Chair of the House Black Caucus called “a sugar-coated Satan sandwich,” has been sketched only in the broadest strokes. Congress must still work out the details. Among the items nearing bipartisan consensus in the Super-Committee was a plan described by Robert Pear in the New York Times,

“Though it reached no agreement, the special Congressional committee on deficit reduction built a case for major structural changes in Medicare that would limit the government’s open-ended financial commitment to the program, lawmakers and health policy experts say.

“Members of both parties told the panel that Medicare should offer a fixed amount of money to each beneficiary to buy coverage from competing private plans, whose costs and benefits would be tightly regulated by the government.”

Once privatization of Medicare is accepted, subsidized Private Savings Accounts to replace Social Security for the younger generations–as the latest GOP presidential front runner Newt Gingrich has resurrected in his campaign-- are probably not far behind.

In a special WIR on August 2 I wrote about the deal then being finalized,

“Too often, ‘historic’ is hyperbole to spice up the mundane. This time, for once, Chutzpah in the face of a defenseless foe did produce a victory for the ruling class of genuine historic proportions.”

Regrettably, I’ve seen nothing over the past few months to cause me to alter that judgment.

Who Will Learn From This Teachable Moment?
This phrase used by such diverse figures as the President and Steve Early speaks to drawing lessons from crisis. There’s no doubt that gloom and doom is palpable in America today. All polls show widespread discontent with the present and anxiety about the future. Congressional approval has hit a historic low and is still dropping. The President isn’t doing much better. There is no hope, much less enthusiasm, being generated by either boss party.

As noted in the last WIR, the one bright spot has been semi-spontaneous bottom-up actions, beginning with the exemplary occupation of the state Capitol in Madison earlier in the year, continuing through the current Occupy movements across the USA and Canada today. Some union leaders have found it prudent to show sympathy, sometimes even mobilizing support, for these actions.

But even in this greatest teachable moment in generations slow learners are being left behind–and are holding the rest of us back. While virtually all union officials are unshaken in their opposition to the attacks on the working class spearheaded by the deficit swindle most continue to cast this as a battle almost solely against the Republicans. Not only have they muted criticism of the chosen representative of the ruling class occupying the White House; the two biggest unions in the USA–the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union–have already jumped the gun and endorsed the “deal is a deal” President for reelection.

These two unions are in fact facing some of the harshest blows of the President’s austerity deal, also being emulated by Democrat allies in state houses, school districts and city halls across the country. Yet their leaders are eager co-conspirators in framing a likely choice next November between the current axe-wielder in the White House versus a yet to be selected Republican who will be promising a return to prosperity if more “job-killing” taxes and regulations on bosses are eliminated. Defeat Romney/Gingrich/Cain or whoever at all cost will be the new old slogan of those who have learned nothing and obfuscate much

Just as there are three basic essentials to powering an internal combustion engine–fuel, air, spark–the working class needs organization on three levels in its struggle with the employer ruling class:

* In the workplace, where tactics such as strikes, and daily control of the flow of work, can win us decent wages and working conditions.

* Community actions, such as the Occupy movement, and demonstrations around issues.

* A party of our own contesting the boss class for political power.

In the first category, in the USA we still have partial organization in the workplace though our unionization density has long been in decline and give-backs dominate contract negotiations. The most contentious issues in bargaining–health care and retirement–clearly need social resolution and will never be satisfactorily settled in individual workplaces. While, with a few honorable exceptions, our unions today are not very inspiring they can learn from a proud history and the millions of workers, along with considerable material resources, they still have, represent a potential for great things once again.

Labor history has documented the key role of the second category–community–in enabling the establishment of our unions to begin with. Mass unionization during the Great Depression years would not have been possible without the active support of workers and the unemployed who had no direct personal stake in the outcome of such victories as the 1934 Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco battles or the later waves of sit-down strikes such as those in Flint. It’s too soon to tell whether the present Occupy movement is the precursor of a revival of such a community-labor action alliance–but that should be our goal.

But in the all-important third category of pursuing working class political power we’ve got bubkus. The once promising Labor Party project launched in the Nineties has long been dormant. With no credible working class political opposition we remain helpless not only in the face of the deficit decimation of our useful government services but also in endless wars to advance the corporate agenda, new trade agreements spurring a global working class race to the bottom and, above all else, destruction of our very biosphere.

Supplying the missing third component is indispensable to tackling the historic challenges we confront today. The top teachable lesson in our crisis curriculum is the need to build the Labor Party now.

Trans-Atlantic Honorable Exceptions
The Conservative-Liberal coalition government in Britain is following the lead of American bipartisan attacks on public sector worker pensions. Despite a stereotype of polite understatement, British workers are not taking this with the good grace too often shown by unions in the country I call home. At least two million are expected to strike on Wednesday and it will probably not be the last such shutdown.

Even though the strike will cause massive disruption in people’s lives, a BBC poll shows 61 percent of the public supporting the walkout. Eighty percent of young workers in the 18-24 range–far removed from retirement–back the action.

One of the few “honorable exceptions” in the American labor movement is demonstrating solidarity with the Brits in rallies in several U.S. cities. National Nurses United has issued a call,

“Join nurses from across the United States on Wednesday, November 30 for rallies at 12:00 noon as we stand in solidarity with British nurses and public workers...Like their U.S. counterparts, British officials want to slash public worker pensions to cut public deficits - even though, like Social Security in the U.S., British pension funds are financially sound.”

You can learn more about the British pension issues on the UNISON union website. For more information about the U.S. solidarity rallies click here.

Tough Times For Closer Neighbors Too
Canada’s economy has been generally thought to be stronger than the U.S., experiencing a shorter recession and producing more jobs in recovery. But this better performance hasn’t been apparent in wages. The CBC reports,

“Canadian workers are failing to keep pace with the rising cost of living as average real wages continue to shrink dramatically, according to new data from Statistics Canada. Real after-inflation wages have been dropping since the summer, and in September the average paycheques of Canadian workers declined outright — by 0.3 per cent to $872.75. That means less money in Canadian pockets for Christmas gifts, but also for other necessities as workers cope with an uncertain economy, rising business pessimism and government restraint.”

A Sickening Reminder
As the privateers of both parties plot to rid themselves of Medicare, Robert J. Samuelson in the Washington Post cites some measures of our for-profit health care system,

“U.S. health spending (about $7,960 per person in 2009) is in a league of its own. It’s 50 percent higher than Norway’s ($5,352), the next costliest. U.S. spending is more than double Britain’s ($3,487), France’s ($3,978) and the OECD average ($3,233). Despite this, Americans aren’t notably healthier than people in other advanced countries, the study reports. Life expectancy in the United States (78.2 years) lags behind Japan’s (83 years) and the OECD average (79.5 years). It roughly equals Chile’s and the Czech Republic’s, says Mark Pearson of the OECD. Americans don’t have much to show for their system’s enormous cost...”

Urgent Issues But Low Expectations
That New York Times headline is an apt description of the international gathering in Durban, South Africa this week to chew some more fat over climate change. More next time.

Congratulations Sandy
Last week I promised to say something this week about Sandy Pope’s campaign for Teamsters president. But I’ve used more than my voluntary quota of pixels already so far now I’ll just congratulate Sandy on a vigorous, principled, civil campaign, keeping more extended remarks on hold.

That’s all for this week.

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