Week In Review
A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 12, 2011
Takes Shtick To Stix
If Variety had a White House beat that could have been their headline about President Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. This small town, whose compound name recognizes the indigenous Osage and Potawatomie the first European settlers encountered, is best known in these parts for its state mental hospital–the very first established west of the Mississippi. Some also know of its prominence in the abolitionist struggle before the Civil War and its John Brown Museum State Historic Site about an hour’s drive from Kansas City.
But the proud heritage of fighting for an end of slavery by any means necessary is not what attracted the historians assigned to the President’s political theater. They had discovered that Theodore Roosevelt had given a 1910 progressive talk there as he prepared an unsuccessful political comeback as a third-party candidate in the 1912 election.
The Rough Rider who created the country of Panama to build a canal to accommodate his Great White Fleet is inimitable. But like TR, Obama knows how to lure an audience with the sizzle and aroma of steak on the grill–while actually serving pablum about fairness and a Square Deal. His handlers hope this is a needed tonic for an ailing President, down in the polls.
Whether this works any better for the present Nobel laureate in the White House than for his soft spoken, big stick-wielding predecessor of course remains to be seen. Most folks probably think his oft-repeated warning that this is “a make or break moment for the Middle Class” is a bit tardy. Big chunks of the “Middle Class” started vanishing early on his watch--along with Pontiac and Saturn as he “saved the auto industry.” The wage freeze imposed by the President on Federal employees sank many more well below the median. Newt Gingrich’s jibe that Obama is the “Food Stamp President“ rings true with millions of former Middle Class who have had to accept what was long the mark of the poor to keep food on the table. Even tens of thousands of unionized teachers displaced by the Race to the Top attacks on public education are tapping their life savings while pondering what career options remain for them.
There’s some historical controversy about who first said, “There’s a sucker born every minute–and two to take his money.” There is no question this observation has found a rich vein of confirmation within the upper echelons of leadership in the American labor movement. As previously reported, some unions, including the two biggest in the land, had already endorsed Obama’s reelection even before his conversion to prairie populism. After Osawatomie, the rest of the President’s faithful choir sung right along with scripted lyrics beginning in the AFL-CIO Blog,
“In a small Kansas town, President Barack Obama yesterday issued his most populist call to date in defense of America’s middle class, advocating for massive investment in education and job-creating infrastructure-building programs, and for protections for working people from predatory financial institutions. Calling the present economic situation ‘a make-or-break moment for the middle class,’ the president said:
“‘I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them.’”
The blogger gushed about the President’s adoption of the syntax of the Occupy Wall Street Movement–ignoring that in the same breath he negated the budding class consciousness of grass-roots resistance. Obama wants American values. The President’s one hundred percent American values includes slashing “populist” government programs to cut the deficit and debt--as directed by “predatory financial institutions.”
A few days ago, I had a long telephone conversation, touching on a number of topics, with my old friend Chris Townsend. Chris has long been the Washington legislative representative of one of the honorable exceptions in American labor–the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE). When the Labor Party project was going strong, Chris was our Capitol Hill Shop Steward, alerting us to the various bipartisan shenanigans in that venue.
At one point in the call Chris posed a question to me, “Bill, do you sometimes think we’re worse off in Washington now than we were under Bush?”
My reply was I think this is the most reactionary administration in living memory. After watching the once unimaginable scale and hubris of this administration’s attacks on the working class--even when facing an election--I shudder at the thought of what a lame duck Obama may bring. Judging the pitiful assortment of contenders in the “opposition” party, an Obama second term is clearly the preferred consensus choice of the One Percent.
Chris Townsend doesn’t spend all of his time inside the Belt Way. His extensive travels not only bring him in contact with UE locals around the country but also unions involved in coordinated bargaining with UE such as at General Electric. He reports that nearly everywhere he goes unionists on the rank-and-file and shop steward level are beginning once more to say we need a party of our own.
Chris doesn’t think the dormant Labor Party founded in 1996 can be instantly rejuvenated with the flip of a switch. But he does believe it would be worthwhile to probe for interest in reviving something more akin to Labor Party Advocates–the formation that popularized the need for a Labor Party, gained union endorsements, and recruited individual members, before the LP founding convention.
A return to a LPA would of course be a retreat from LP. But a retreat to regroup is better than being MIA. We urgently need a serious discussion for the purpose of moving forward on whatever level seems reasonable in building a working class party.
After surviving 86 years and numerous past death threats the Ford Twin Cities Assembly in St Paul is shutting down for good. It was relatively small as assembly plants go never much exceeding 2,000 workers in peacetime production. But the factory that in recent years built small pick-up trucks, and UAW Local 879 that represented its blue collar workers, played a big role in the community and local labor movement.
When I was an officer of UE Local 1139 in Minneapolis in the late Seventies-early Eighties I got to know some of the leaders and activists in UAW 879. When Tom Laney was Local 879 President you could count on him bringing militant solidarity to everyone’s picket lines. Tom played a particularly prominent role in support of striking Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota in the mid-Eighties and the important Twin Cities P-9 Support Committee met at the 879 hall across the street from the Ford plant.
One unique feature of the St Paul plant was its consumption of electricity had a zero carbon footprint. Its power was hydro, from a dam on the nearby Mississippi. When it became clear that Ford was serious about closing the plant Local activists used this Green asset to argue that if Ford had no use for it the plant–and its workforce–should be converted to another product. They started reaching out to other unions–and environmentalists–for help.
In January, 2007, UAW 879 hosted a Labor & Sustainability Conference endorsed by a wide range of groups. I felt honored to be invited to come back up as one of the speakers at the opening session of the well-attended two-day event. (You can read my prepared remarks here.)
The union and their sustainability allies actually came up with a workable plan. The Twin Cities transit system was in need of a lot of new buses. It was proposed that the local government take control of the physical plant and make it available to a company bidding on the transit order–using former Ford workers to build the buses.
Though the plan gained a lot of popular support it was ultimately rejected by the local Establishment. Perhaps the greenest manufacturing facility in North America, and a source of 2,000 decent paying union jobs are no more. It didn’t have to be this way.
¶ From AP comments on the administration’s veto of the FDA’s authorization to sell the Plan B “morning after” contraception pill over the counter, “The move shocked women's health advocates, a key part of President Barack Obama's Democratic base, as well as major doctors groups that argue over-the-counter sales could lower the nation's high number of unplanned pregnancies....[Health Secretary] Sebelius' decision pleased conservative critics.”
¶ Commenting on the 210 million dollar judgment against the company responsible for the 29 men killed at a West Virginia mine last year the New York Times said, “But for the families of the miners killed in the accident — the worst such disaster in 40 years — the settlement was justice denied. Many were hoping for criminal charges against the people who ran Massey, the company that, according to the federal government’s own review, knowingly put their relatives in harm’s way. ‘Families believe that senior executives should be prosecuted, but they don’t have any great faith that they will be, and that’s what they are afraid of,’ said Mark Moreland, a lawyer who represents the families of two victims.”
Next time I’ll comment on the 2020 climate deal in Durban.
The next WIR will be the last of 2011. After December 19 I’ll be taking a year-end vacation, resuming normal duties on January 2, 2012.
That’s all for this week.
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