Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
November 30, 2008

The Power of Marketing
From time to time we comment on workplace deaths in the USA. Some die by violence on the job, usually victims of “domestic” murders, or during the course of robberies. On occasion livestock and zoo workers have been battered to death by animals. But never before have we seen an incident of a worker being trampled to death by frenzied shoppers.

Undoubtedly the untold number who stomped life out of 34-year old Jdimytai Damour had varying missions in mind after waiting for hours for the Valley Stream Wal-Mart on Long Island to open its doors on “Black Friday.” Many who literally smashed open the doors were lured by the slim chance of getting a Samsung 50-inch Plasma HDTV for 798 dollars. Those with more modest purse may have been looking to grab a Bissel Compact Upright Vacuum for 28 bucks, or even a nine dollar Incredible Hulk DVD. Few showed any interest, much less remorse, about the mortally wounded worker on the floor. When frightened and enraged employees tried to close the store they met bitter resistance from the bargain hunters and only a mobilization of Nassau County police managed to clear the crime scene.

A detective investigating this manslaughter said, “I’ve heard other people call this an accident, but it is not. Certainly it was a foreseeable act.” He would like to pursue the tramplers but concedes arrests, much less convictions, are unlikely. But what about a case of reckless endangerment homicide against Wal-Mart?

Jdimytai Damour, son of a Haitian born Queens bus driver and a graduate of Freeport High School, was not even a Wal-Mart “associate.” A construction worker short of work, he was a seasonal temp supplied by a job shark. Wal-Mart is, of course, 100 percent nonunion in the USA. But the union with jurisdiction over the world’s biggest private employer quickly issued a statement calling the death “avoidable,”

“Where were the safety barriers? Where was security? How did store management not see dangerous numbers of customers barreling down on the store in such an unsafe manner? This is not just tragic; it rises to a level of blatant irresponsibility by Wal-Mart,” said Bruce Both, president of UFCW Local 1500.

Wal-Mart’s loss leader promotions were consciously calculated to build a frenzy of shoppers jostling to get at the dream deals on the biggest shopping day of the year. They were not alone among Big Box merchants. Undoubtedly they didn’t intend for anyone to get killed, which led to negative publicity and forced a store to close for several hours. But they’re not likely to change an overall successful marketing strategy just because of temp worker collateral damage.

This episode confirms that lack of union organization puts Wal-Mart workers at risk in many ways. But it also should be a wake up call for our side. Thousands followed the huckster’s pitch to the point of disregard of human life. I trust that this mob on Long Island is not representative of the working class as a whole. But clearly there are large numbers who no longer feel basic human–much less class–solidarity.

This is an inconvenient truth we cannot afford to deny. We need to put our own house in order. Rebuilding solidarity is essential to any hope of advancement for working people. No blood for bargains!

Like A Two-Minute Warning Without the Time Out
The respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research says that we might have a 50/50 chance of limiting the Earth’s average temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade if we cut greenhouse emissions by eight percent a year. Two degrees would still mean many unwelcome changes throughout the world but ones to which we might adapt.

Right now, emissions are still increasing. Plans by Obama, and British Prime Minister Brown, being hailed by many, could mean a greenhouse average annual decline of about two percent. That would put us on target for a temperature gain of at least four or five degrees of warming--which means the likely collapse of human civilization across much of the planet.

The cost of economic conversion to limit damage to two degrees would be considerable–but not as much as the USA alone has committed over the past few months to bailing out financial institutions. George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, asks,

“Do we want to be remembered as the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?”

We Prefer the Direct Approach
On Tuesday, the government announced two new programs hyped as a godsend to the credit starved. TALF (Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility), is a 200 billion program that will lend to private investors who buy securities backed by student and auto loans, credit card debt and small-business loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. The Fed has also agreed to purchase 500 billion of mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, allowing them to pick up more of the same.

The addition of these two latest projects pushed the total of various “rescue” initiatives, including cash loans, and guarantees, to 8.5 trillion–equaling half of the country’s entire economic output over the past year.

But, as a New York Times article explained about the latest effort supposedly targeting “Main Street,”

“One problem, however, is that whole categories of people may be ineligible. If you are refinancing, you could be out of luck if your mortgage balance is more than your house is worth. And for all kinds of new loans, lenders have raised their standards even as their customers’ credit records are deteriorating because of late payments and other problems.

“And then there is the fact that the government’s efforts may take a while to start working — if they do at all. Once again, the government hopes that the benefits to consumers will trickle down. It is not simply lending to them directly.”

But, instead of pumping more tax payer money in to securities schemes with a poor track record why not directly lend to those who need and deserve it? Instead of bailing out banks why not nationalize them and renegotiate fair mortgages with those in trouble and provide credit for investments and purchases in line with a democratically determined social policy? Surely we could do a lot better job with that 8.5 trillion–and counting.

For a fresh look at this question check out a contribution from Canada, The Financial Crisis and Democratic Public Finance.

They Should Know
In a Washington Post article entitled U.S. 'Not Getting What We Pay For', some big shots in healthcare make some surprisingly candid comments.

Denis Cortese, president and chief executive of the Mayo Clinic: “We're not getting what we pay for. It's just that simple.”

Gary Kaplan, chairman of Seattle's Virginia Mason Medical Center: “Our healthcare system is fraught with waste. As much as half of the $2.3 trillion spent today does nothing to improve health.”

Not only is American health care inefficient and wasteful, says Kaiser Permanente chief executive George Halvorson, much of it is dangerous.

Unfortunately all of this valid criticism is focused on the cost side and various proposals to cut them through “reform” of the present commodity practice of medicine. This is what will be pushed and polished by the new Obama administration. Single payer didn’t rate a mention. For more about the upcoming Labor Campaign for Single Payer conference, slated for January 10 in St Louis, check out this Labor Notes article.

Big Three Back To the Hill
As humbled Big Three automakers go back to meet with Congress this week today’s Detroit Free Press speculates,

“While Congress will begin scrutinizing plans from GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC this week, lawmakers facing deep divides over paying for aid may offer a temporary fix, giving Detroit automakers just enough cash to get through February and prove they can negotiate the cuts they've promised....

“[The GM] plan will include several steps, such as lower executive pay, renegotiated debt payments, elimination of up to four brands and new concessions from the UAW, according to people familiar with the plan. While GM could make many such cuts on its own, renegotiating contracts with the UAW, bondholders and dealers could take months.”

Teamsters Mellow At Yellow
Just a few months after negotiating a contract smoothing the way for YRC to consolidate its Yellow, Roadway, USF Holland, and New Penn operations, the Teamsters have negotiated fresh concessions with the country’s biggest OTR truck carrier. Hoffa said, “I believe our freight members understand the terrible economic conditions that are battering the trucking industry...Failing to act now would be a grave mistake.” No details will be made public prior to a Wednesday meeting of officers of locals representing 40,000 members.

I’ve Still Got It
I’m proud to report I’m two-for-two in winning grievances since my retirement. Both were related to healthcare. As I reported a few weeks ago, my former employer, Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, unilaterally dropped Medicare eligible retirees from group health insurance coverage. Apparently deciding this wasn’t worth the beating their already bruised public image would take they backed off. I extend my thanks to ATU 1287 President Willie Wilson (no, not that Willie Wilson), and Vice-President Fred Ersery, for their work on my grievance.

An Ill-Timed But Unavoidable Appeal
A lot of this column is devoted to the most serious economic crisis in living memory. The holiday gift-giving season is upon us. So, it must be time for another kcabor.org fund appeal.

The timing is somewhat beyond our control. We’re approaching the time of the year when we must renew our server and e-mail service contracts, domain registration, etc. This also coincides with some personal obligations for the webmaster, such as car insurance, property taxes, etc.

We have no corporate or institutional sponsors, no paid advertising, and never charge for content. The shallow pockets of a Social Security pensioner and our readers donations are our sole sources of funds.

Last year your generosity not only covered our technical expenses but also allowed me to attend, and report on, movement events around the country and in Canada. Next April we are celebrating our ninth anniversary by putting on a conference here in Kansas City–for us a costly operation.

We’re not looking for big bucks. But, if you can send something in the 25-100 dollar range we would be most appreciative and promise to put it to good use. Use the PayPal button below or send a check or money order to:

KC Labor
PO Box 30127 Plaza Station
Kansas City, MO 64112

That’s all for this week.

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