Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 10, 2006

This week we’ve got a fortnight to review because of my road trip to Cleveland for the US Labor Against the War Assembly and Conference. In case you missed it, I earlier posted an informational article about that gathering, along with remarks I delivered to a workshop there. We’ll be back on our regular schedule for another two weeks until I take a two-week break for a long deferred honeymoon trip to Copper Canyon in Mexico.

Our Number One Health Problem
I would argue that our number one health problem in the United States is not heart disease, not cancer, not obesity. It is greedy corporations who stand between us and access to health professionals and modern medical technology. The only way for most working people to get past these obstacles is to be part of an employer plan to pay tribute to the insurance companies, and their partners in provider services—such as the Frist family HCA—and the drug companies charging astronomical prices for their patented cures. Since the huge and growing cost of health care mainly is paid through workplace compensation packages this has become the over riding issue in collective bargaining today.

1900 IAM workers are on strike at Raytheon’s guided missile plant in Tucson. The principal issue?—health care. While health care costs to the company are projected to rise six percent they want union workers to match the paycheck deductions imposed on unorganized salaried employees— amounting to an 87 percent increase. “The company needs to change the way it pays for health coverage to remain competitive in the industry,” said Raytheon spokeswoman Sara Hammond. She didn’t explain just who is competing to produce Tomahawk cruise missiles for the U.S. military.

15,000 USW workers at Goodyear plants have been on strike since October 5. 12,000 of them are in the U.S. where retiree health care is a top issue. (About 3,000 Canadian workers walked out in solidarity and have a different contract—and have single-payer health care coverage.) Goodyear wants to hand the union a few hundred million dollars set aside for supplements to Medicare as a final company contribution. The USW and Goodyear retirees would be on their own forever after.

Ford has implemented a buyout plan that will eliminate half of the current union workforce. This is more than needed to meet planned reduction of North American production. Many of the parting workers will be replaced by “temp” workers who will receive none of the costly benefits that have made auto jobs so attractive historically.

The managing director of health policy economics for PriceWaterhouseCoopers shrewdly observed, “Generally, the costs of providing benefits have been growing faster than general inflation and faster than wages as well. Workers end up with less money in their pocket.”

“I see health care as the pivotal issue, and it's the issue in a lot of national negotiations these days,” said James McBrearty, perceptive professor of economics and industrial relations at the University of Arizona.

While we support the valiant efforts of the Raytheon, Goodyear, and many other workers to defend what they have through the only way possible in the short term, there is no way over the long haul that runaway cost hikes, reduced benefit levels, and general insecurity can be satisfactorily resolved through traditional collective bargaining. And, of course, we cannot afford to forget that nearly ninety percent of the American working class are not represented by a union and have no control over their benefits. 45 million have no health care plan at all.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Workers in every other industrialized country have dealt with this problem by successfully fighting for universal, not for profit, health care. Be it socialized medicine such as in Britain and Italy, co-op insurance plans as in France and Germany, or single-payer like our Canadian cousins, affordable, quality health care is a right for all, supported by modest taxes on workers and employers similar to the way we finance Social Security.

Organized labor spent 300 million dollars, and mobilized millions of hours of volunteer efforts to elect the Democrat congress that is supposed to be our friend when they take office next month. What can we expect from them on the issue of health care?

So far the sole proposal that has emerged is to rescind the Bush administration’s ban on Medicare negotiating prescription prices with drug companies. Of course, any relief for hard-pressed seniors would be welcome but this simple gesture will hardly turn around the health care crisis—nor is it yet a done deal.

The victories of workers in Europe, Japan, and Canada came only because they had parties of their own to fight for needed legislation. Despite the fraudulent claims of the donkey politicians, and the pathetic hopes of most union leaders, the Democrats are not such a party. The Dems are in fact beholden to the insurance companies, drug companies, and provider corporations.

Only one party has a realistic plan that can make health care a secure entitlement for all—the Labor Party with its Just Health Care proposal. If we’re serious about taking care of our health then our unions better get behind this party and work toward putting not “friends of labor” in office but putting our own in power.

Well, Maybe A Little to Celebrate
Today is International Human Rights Day. It is hardly an occasion for celebration. In addition to all the usual suspects of repression in Europe, Asia, and Africa we’ve seen new erosions of human rights closer to home.

This morning’s papers report the gunning down of an Indian activist in Oaxaca. This is the latest fatality in a long running uprising against tyranny in that part of Mexico.

Our friend Rod in Vancouver writes, “Bill, your not alone--the right wing is alive and growing in Canada too! At least this time the government is caught with its pants down.” He was referring to an article about Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was born in Syria. Arar was stopped at a New York airport on his way home from a vacation in September 2002. U.S. officials accused him of links to al-Qaeda and deported him to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured for months.

The U.S. holds on to the dubious distinction of having the most people per capita in jail of any nation.

Still, there was a little mixed news on this solemn day. Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who made Saddam Hussein look like a Boy Scout, cheated justice by croaking today at age 91. Unlike their overthrow of the dictator in Iraq, the U.S. government actively assisted Pinochet’s bloody overturn of a democratically elected government on 9/11, 1973. Thousands were killed, thousands more “disappeared,” and tens of thousands were jailed or forced into exile. Labor unions and political parties were repressed. Today’s Chilean President’s father was killed by Pinochet and she was imprisoned and tortured in 1973 as well. While undoubtedly disappointed they will not have the opportunity to take care of him themselves thousands of Chileans spontaneously took to the streets today to celebrate Pinochet’s overdue departure. Perhaps I’ll have a glass of the Chilean wine we boycotted so long to join them in spirit.

About That Inconvenient Truth....
Earlier this year it appeared some progress was being made in expanding awareness of the crisis of Global Warming. In addition to a host of irrefutable scientific studies two popular films, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car?, advanced the consciousness of hundreds of thousands of viewers. Municipal governments started not only passing resolutions but even taking some modest steps to powering down pollution of our environment. Even the Governor of California started talking like a tree hugger.

Then came an icy interlude—the midterm election. Just as they benefitted from antiwar sentiment, the Democrats put environmentalists in their hip pocket and then proceeded to become as silent as a Trappist monk on the issue. What can we expect from Democrat “friends” in congress in this area?

The BBC’s Nick Miles says, “As in other areas of legislation, the Democrats are emphasizing bi-partisanship.”

“If you stake out an extreme position you'll pass nothing,” cautions Raymond Kopp, an analyst at Resources for the Future, a environmental think-tank.

A top polluter’s lobbyist, Myron Ebell from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, doesn’t seem too worried. “We've already heard that the Democrats are going to have lengthy Congressional hearings into global warming,” says Mr Ebell. "There'll be a great deal of rhetoric and that will gain them a lot of support in suburban constituencies, but in terms of passing major environmental legislation I don't see them going anywhere.”

Fortunately, there are some impatient folks in the labor and environmental movements who are not hesitant about staking out the kind of extreme positions needed to save our planet from an extreme crisis. There will be a Labor and Sustainability Conference in St Paul January 19-20. Hosted by UAW Local 879, and endorsed by the Minnesota AFL-CIO, Minneapolis Central Labor Council and St Paul Trades & Labor Assembly, the gathering will examine how the labor movement can become part of an emerging emphasis on environmentally sustainable development that includes decent paying jobs.

I’m planning—climate conditions permitting—to attend and would like to hear from others who are interested in going. We’ll provide further details as they become available.

Think of Us Like the Paper Carrier
Many people use the Christmas season to give a little token of appreciation to the mail carrier, hair dresser, or the person who delivers the morning paper. It so happens this is also a time of year when we get hit with some annual fees for web hosting, domain registration and our e-mail list service. If you find this web site and our e-mail Week In Review column useful perhaps you’d like to help out with a ten buck contribution. It’s simple to do with the PayPal button below and it would be much appreciated.

As usual, much of the material for this column was taken from stories posted on our Daily Labor News Digest, appearing Monday-Saturday by 7AM Central.

That’s all for this week.

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