Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
November 4, 2012

Some Dare Call It Climate
environmental correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg recently interviewed participants in a previously undisclosed meeting three years ago between White House strategists and carefully vetted leaders of what I call the Pale Green environmental groups. This was a time when there was much optimism around the world about an upcoming UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen. The Obama camp wanted to make crystal clear to those who rallied around si se puede that when it comes to talking about climate change–no se puede. Such alarmism is not “a winning message” they were told. Talk about clean energy, and especially clean energy jobs, but global warming is strictly verboten.

The Pales faithfully followed their marching orders. As a result, public discussion about global warming became monopolized by deniers retained by corporate polluters. This included eventually refuted bogus attacks on the integrity of individual climate scientists, some based on stolen correspondence. Obama made a cameo appearance in Copenhagen where he wrecked any chance of meaningful international action around climate. Still, even today in this election year, the Pales accept the confines of the Pale erected around them by their buddy in the White House.

As I wrote again just last week, a growing number of workers have become alarmed–through no fault of the Sierra Club–about the palpable changes in seasons and the new frequency and severity of a variety of weather disasters. They know something big is happening, it’s getting worse, something should be done.

Aptly dubbed a “SuperStorm,” Sandy has heightened not only that gut feeling among workers. This time the most prominent–though far from the sole--disaster area was not poor Black neighborhoods in New Orleans, or the depressed former mining town of Joplin. No, it is the financial capital of the world where many of the most rich and infamous work and play. Climate change has literally intruded in to the clubs and board rooms of the movers and shakers--and it’s got their attention.

Admittedly, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not your typical billionaire Republican. While he firmly runs his city like the banker he once was, the tenth richest man in America has annoyed many of his peers by giving big contributions to the Sierra Club and endorsing President Obama for a second term. But some of his remarks about SuperStorm Sandy will be seen as nothing less than treason by his fossil and nuke class colleagues,

“Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

We’re not accustomed to such talk from prominent office holders. We certainly didn’t hear a peep out of the two official presidential candidates–including the one endorsed by Bloomberg. But this is not just one of the Mayor’s sometimes quirky spoutings. When the new Business Week hit the stands Thursday it’s cover shouted, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!” Reporters across the land are suddenly seeking out climate scientists and some of the alarming truth about the severity and urgency of the climate crisis is beginning to seep in to mainstream media.

How long this window remains open is anybody’s guess but, for now, those with something intelligent to say have a chance of being heard. I’m not suggesting that the likes of Bloomberg and Business Week have any acceptable solutions--merely that we should take advantage of this opening.

On our side, Jenny Brown has a good short article, Workers in the Northeast Come Face to Face with Climate Change, on the Labor Notes site.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing like that from official union or Pale Green media The Sierra Club focus on Sandy is limited to a fund pitch for the scam-artists of the Establishment’s American Red Cross. Labor sites remain silent on climate as usual.

My friend Traven in Vermont forwarded me a piece about remarks made a couple of weeks before Sandy by the world’s most prominent climate scientist, James Hansen. He spoke to a group of union leaders at a gathering organized by the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University. His talk was entitled We Have A Planetary Emergency. He noted among the symptoms, “The frequency of extreme weather events is changing because the planet is getting warmer. It was exceedingly hot this past summer, and the frequency and area covered by these events are both increasing.”

Hansen went on to say, “It's hard to communicate with people if they feel their job is threatened, but the jobs associated with clean energy technologies would be good jobs. Workers will get much better opportunities. We need to have cooperation and understanding between labor and environmental organizations and people who are concerned about the future of their children.”

That is indeed the crux of the matter. We have to have a plan in place that guarantees no worker gets left behind by conversion to clean, renewable energy.

That seventy-five union leaders from several countries listened to Hansen’s talk and participated in a lively discussion after, is all well and good. But such discussion–and proposals for action–need to go beyond academic symposia. Even rogue billionaires are going farther than that. Climate change belongs on the agenda of every union while building a working class movement to meet the planetary emergency manifesting itself in such dramatic fashion through Sandy.

Final Report Rates An F–And We Don’t Mean Forward
For a while, it looked as if Sandy might prevent the last monthly employment report scheduled before the election meeting its Friday deadline. But the unionized lads and lasses at the BLS toiled with Post Office-like dedication to bring us the numbers. The White House probably would have preferred they hadn’t gone to all that trouble.

The AFL-CIO Blog immediately declared, “Workers Gain Confidence as Jobs Continue to Grow.” They joined Democrats in the spin that the 171,000 new jobs created in October is the twenty-fifth consecutive month of job growth. They can also cite a separate report issued a day earlier showing worker productivity grew at just under two percent for the Third Quarter. We’re moving Forward, the incumbents proclaim. But the underlying facts show a more appropriate f-word is Failure.

The number of workers searching in vain for full-time work still exceeds the population of the state of New York–with Connecticut thrown in for good measure. Two million long term jobless will, as the result of a bipartisan congressional deal blessed by the President, lose extended unemployment benefits before the end of the year--and they will be followed in to destitution by many more as time goes on.

The Romney campaign will certainly exploit these numbers. They attribute the widespread misery and anxiety among workers to failed Obama policies. While the current administration’s policies have been at best ineffective and usually damaging from a working class point of view, Obama does make a valid point in his oft-used excuse–he inherited this mess from the previous administration of Romney’s party.

The truth of the matter is that the real culprit is the class of private sector “job creators,” who have manipulated the Great Recession and Austerity to fortify their rule and transfer enormous amounts of the wealth we produce from our pockets in to their offshore accounts. They’ve made so much they don’t know what to do with the mountain of cash they sit on. But they’re not done yet. The Republicans are used as the Hard Cop, the Democrats historically a tad softer. Our class can expect no justice from either.

When the Glass Is Half-Empty
Part-time work has been around as long as anyone can remember. Sometimes it is convenient for the worker. Many parents of grade school kids, and college students, couldn’t work any other way.

In some industries all new hires begin as part-time with the assurance of a path to full-time. I hired on as a part-time bus operator with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority in April, 1990, receiving no paid benefits of any kind and limited by union contract to 25 hours a week. Because it was a time of service cuts, my turn to go full-time didn’t come until January, 1993. Benefits kicked in then but seniority started all over for job bidding, vacation time, and pension credits.

But the explosion of part-time work over the past decade hasn’t been tailored to worker convenience or used as an entry level to full-time. It’s become a preferred option for many employers looking for workforce flexibility with no benefits or guarantees. The latest BLS employment report not only shows an official unemployment figure of 12.3 million, along with 2.4 million long term jobless now classified as “marginally attached to the workforce;” it also lists 8.3 million working involuntarily part-time. These workers want and need full-time employment but, not finding it, have taken part-time trying to survive.

In what is somewhat of a complementary update of his excellent 2008 book, The Big Squeeze, New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse examines the plight of these mostly low wage workers on reduced, and often irregular shifts.

Greenhouse looks at several case studies. One is the Jamba Juice shop at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue in New York. Technology hasn’t much altered the job content of those serving customers there but customized software developed by Kronos determines when they work and for how long. Because weather is important to customer demand the program incorporates a link to the Weather Channel. When peak crowds are expected Jamba brings in seven workers for an 11-2 shift. When lighter demand is anticipated only five workers are used and fifteen minutes is shaved off of their shift.

Another example is the Fresh & Easy grocery chain of 150 California stores. Owned by the British grocery giant Tesco, Greenhouse describes it as a cross between Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Virtually all employees other than managers are part-time and their work schedules and tasks are highly flexible, changing week to week. Because Fresh & Easy asks customers to do most of the labor through “self-checkout,” one worker can be assigned to take care of as many as seven checkout lanes. The company pays a top wage of 10.90 per hour.

This Greenhouse article, A Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and Shift is well worth reading.

Mainstream unions have shown little interest in organizing small units of part-time, low-wage workers though the IWW has done some commendable work at chains such as Starbucks and Jimmy John.

Other corporations, such as Walmart, have distanced themselves even further from any responsibility for those working for them by using job sharks to handle warehouse labor needs. Warehouse Workers for Justice has made some modest gains for these day-by-day workers in the great logistical belt in the Chicago area.

In past columns I have noted how contingency labor has moved beyond traditional strongholds to penetrating even unionized manufacturing. Contracts with the IAM and Steelworkers at Harley-Davidson’s Kansas City plant enshrine a pool of workers who stand by, with no guarantees, awaiting a short notice call to work any shift, any number of hours.

The only essential difference between these trends in the USA and the moves to destroy the “social model” in Europe is that we never had a real social model. Workers in Europe are fighting to defend themselves through strikes, demonstrations, and working class political parties. The AFL-CIO is bragging about their 128,000 foot soldiers hustling votes to retain the administration that has nurtured a just-in-time disposable workforce.

American workers have few contemporary experiences comparable to the class battles spreading across Europe. But we do have an inspiring heritage from more class aware days. We can’t use history like a cookbook but we would be well-advised to absorb, update, and apply the lessons of what worked in the past before less pleasant parts of history repeat.

KC Meeting Reminder
There will be a meeting starting at Noon next Sunday, November 11, in North Kansas City about relaunching Kansas City Labor Party Advocates. If you’re interested, give me a call for more information at 816-753-1672.

That’s all for this week

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