Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 17, 2011

Celebrating the Man, Not Their Icon
Today is the observance of Martin Luther King Day in the USA. Dr King was not only the foremost leader of the mass civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s that won great gains while also leaving much to be done. He was also an outspoken opponent of war, a facilitator of struggles by people of all colors against poverty, and he was murdered while in Memphis to assist an AFSCME strike at the workers’ request. I refer you to a
substantial appreciation of his accomplishments and heritage written in this column two years ago–when his holiday was rolled in to the inauguration of America’s first Black President.

A Revolution Begun...
One of the big stories that got short shrift in this country because of the shootings in Tucson took place in North Africa. A few seconds of footage were occasionally shown of live rounds being fired in to mass demonstrations of unarmed workers and students. But these strikers and protestors in Tunisia meant business. They had had enough. By the end of the week Tunisia was fronting the third government in as many days.

While we didn’t hear much about all this, these events are being followed closely and approvingly by workers throughout the Arab world. In Jordan 3,000 trade unionists staged a sit-in in front of parliament protesting austerity as well as showing solidarity with Tunisia. Worker struggles that have long been percolating in Egypt will likely be rejuvenated as well. While it’s hard to tell at this stage how this revolution will unfold, David Gardner writing in the Financial Times seems spot on,

“The ignominious demise of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ has put a dent in the armour of the Arab national security state that will set tyrants trembling across the Middle East. The idea that Arab autocracies, with their backbone in the military and their central nervous system in the security services, are uniquely resilient to popular pressure has evaporated in the smoke of Tunis.”

...And A War Not Over
Nobody in Iraq thinks they are living in peace. The U.S. invasion and occupation stirred up long dormant sectarian and ethnic rivalries between Sunni, Shia, Christian, and the mostly Sunni Kurds that are still bloody today. Oil rich regions in the north and around Basra are threatening secession. Nor have the GIs still stationed there in “non-combat” roles found peace either. Three more were killed Saturday–by Iraqi forces they were assigned to train. Along with Afghanistan, we need to continue to include Iraq in the demand to Bring All the GIs Home Now!

King of the Evil Empire No More
After threatening Asian and European carmakers operating in the USA with exposure as “human rights violators” for their tough–and successful–opposition to unionization, UAW president Bob King appealed to their Ferengi nature, as cited in the Detroit News,

“‘They spend millions of dollars trying to keep the UAW out of their facilities," King said of the automakers, arguing that it would be cheaper for them to work with the union. ‘We just have to convince them that we're not the Evil Empire that they think that we were at one point,’ King said. ‘The UAW has learned from the past.’”

King has already set up preliminary discussions with some of the Transplant employers. This approach is similar to that used by former SEIU president Andy Stern. With no input from workers involved, Stern would attempt to sell top management on how SEIU could bring “value added” to their business. Kept in reserve for doubters was the threat of embarrassing corporate campaigns that could tarnish brands. When there was acceptance, contract “templates” would be agreed on and the company would not oppose union “organizing.” Tens of thousands of low wage private sector workers were enrolled as SEIU dues-paying members in this way. In many cases they are still low wage workers.

King’s value added claim can be empirically verified. Because of give-back bargaining–assisted by White House intervention at GM and Chrysler–the gap in labor costs between the unionized Big Three and nonunion Transplants has dropped dramatically over the past few years. According to the Center for Automotive Research, Ford’s labor costs, including wages and all benefits, plunged more than twenty percent and is now about 59 dollars an hour--compared to 56 at Toyota. King sounded almost proud when he told a gathering in Detroit that the union estimates each Big Three UAW member sacrificed between 7-30,000 dollars in annual compensation, either in pay or benefits, since 2005.

King has shown he is, in the interest of a “level playing field,” prepared to do even more for his Big Three “partners.” Last year he tried very hard–but failed–to convince workers at GM’s Indianapolis Stamping Plant to accept sale of the plant to a supplier that would have included further wage cuts of up to fifty percent. This year he has to seek approval of the 118,000 UAW members still working at the Big Three for a new four-year contract. Early indications are the employers will insist on forms of merit pay to keep them “competitive.”

King’s approach is the logical next step in the “partnership” perspective carried out by the Solidarity House regime for more than thirty years. While claiming concessions to their partners were necessary to save jobs the UAW lost eighty percent of its membership numbers over the same period.

If King runs in to problems similar to Indianapolis around the national agreements a White House-imposed condition of bailout/bankruptcy at GM and Chrysler provides for compulsory arbitration of economic issues. Only Ford workers–through a stunning rejection of King’s predecessor’s deal to give Ford the same give-back--retain the basic human right that King champions at the Big Three’s competitors.

Agents of Mass Disruption
Government spies/provocateurs sent in to disrupt mass movements were exposed on both sides of the Atlantic last week. It began in Britain where
Mark Kennedy has now acknowledged he had been employed by security services to spy on the environmental protest movement for the past six years. He denies charges made by others that he also acted as a provocateur but does admit the authorities withheld evidence that would have exonerated six activists facing criminal charges. Two other spies have also been publicly identified and Kennedy claims to know of at least fifteen others.

In the USA, Nick Pinto writes in the CityPages (Twin Cities),

“The Twin Cities activists who had their homes raided by the FBI last September are starting to learn more about why they're being investigated by a Chicago grand jury in relation to material support of terrorism. Lawyers for the activists have learned from prosecutors that the feds sent an undercover law enforcement agent to infiltrate the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee in April 2008, just as the group was planning its licensed protests at the Republican National Convention. Going by the name ‘Karen Sullivan,’ the agent blended in with the many new faces the Committee was seeing at meetings in the lead-up to the RNC. But she stayed active afterward, attending virtually every meeting.”

“Sullivan” has now disappeared. Infiltration and disruption–such as the infamous COINTELPRO from 1956-71--has at times been common in the USA. Even Dr Martin Luther King was subject to not only surveillance but vicious FBI slander campaigns. It was recently revealed that even King’s official photographer was on the G-Man’s payroll. Now the Obama Justice Department is reviving what Nixon and J Edger Hoover practiced during my youth.

The Committee to Stop FBI Repression is calling for demonstrations at Federal Buildings, FBI offices, and other appropriate places on Tuesday, January 25. That is the day when the current victims must appear before a Grand Jury. They deserve our support.

In Brief...
¶ There was some good news on the home front and, as usual, it comes from nurses. CNA/NNU negotiated an agreement for 17,000 Kaiser Permanente RNs and nurse practitioners that includes more than 20 important professional and economic enhancements and no reductions in patient care protections or economic or professional practice standards.
¶ Speaking of nurses, check out a rare rational voice in the current stage of national debate:
Let’s stop pretending it was a government takeover of healthcare by CNA/NNU co-president Deborah Burger.
¶ Twin Cities Jimmy John’s thought they had pulled a freaky fast one on the Industrial Workers of the World when they secured a two-vote win over the union in an October 22 NLRB election. Instead their illegal actions freaked out the Board who worked out a settlement nullifying the results and awarding merit pay denied a worker because of union activity. The IWW is seeking to negotiate a contract now. If that fails another election will likely follow soon.
¶ Fellow retiree Steve Early has another book, The Civil Wars In U.S. Labor, due out February 1. I’m going through advance text and will have some comments next time.
¶ We keep hearing e-mail and package delivery companies have made the U.S. Postal Service irrelevant. The latest available figures show that letter carriers delivered a “mere” 175 billion pieces of mail in 2009. That is down from a peak in 2006 but there has been a little thing called the Great Recession since then. Despite this robust volume the new incoming Postmaster General is pledging to eliminate 7,000 postal jobs.
¶ The New York Times reports on another example of the market solution to the climate crisis, “Aided by at least $43 million in assistance from the government of Massachusetts and an innovative solar energy technology, Evergreen Solar emerged in the last three years as the third-largest maker of solar panels in the United States. But now the company is closing its main American factory, laying off the 800 workers by the end of March and shifting production to a joint venture with a Chinese company in central China. Evergreen cited the much higher government support available in China.”

That’s all for this week.

The KC Labor Forum
Launching February 13

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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