Year-End Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 21, 2012

Like most readers, I’m preparing to take a traditional holiday break. While I am not religious, I won’t be mad if you wish me a merry Christmas. I try to join in seasonal celebrations of comradeship and good will–especially when accompanied by good food and beverage. Unless there is some dramatic, unforeseen development, my next posting will be the first weekend of the New Year. I wish you and yours Happy Holidays.

It’s my custom to use this final column of the year to step back from the weekly news cycle focus to judge where we are in the longer haul. Here’s my brief take on the relationship of forces in the class war between Them and Us.

Ending With A Bang
After a string of some hopeful signs of rejuvenation in the labor movement–the Chicago Teachers strike, Walmart actions that reached in to every community, the fast food strike and demonstrations in New York, the ILWU clerical local strike that shut down for a week the two biggest ports in the USA–boss politicians delivered a painful sucker punch to labor in the cradle of industrial unionism.

We should never forget that the other side retains some pretty smart people to learn from both their own mistakes--and especially ours. After the union-sponsored Prop 2, which would have codified some basic union rights within the state constitution, was defeated in the November election, a section of the Michigan ruling class thought the time was right to do what was once unthinkable–pass a so-called Right-to-Work Law.

They quickly lined up their legislature lame ducks in a row–and a lot more. Remembering the unpleasantness of Madison in 2011, they took steps to secure the Capitol from a spontaneous occupation. Mindful of Ohio labor’s success in overturning antiunion legislation through a voter referendum, they attached appropriations measures to the twin RtW laws for both private and public sector to exclude them from a voter repeal.

On short notice, 12,000 workers were turned out for a respectable demonstration in Lansing. But it was too little too late to stop the blitzkrieg.

Union officials sometimes exaggerate the impact of RtW as an excuse for not doing any serious organizing in those states. When I was involved in a 1980 UE organizing campaign at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota most other unions told us we were crazy. They were convinced that we couldn’t win over the mostly women of rural background workforce and that, even if we won an election, we’d never be able to collect dues.

But those women and men voted for UE representation and, when they finally got their first contract, most paid their dues without any pressure. Nevada, with RtW, has a union density equal to that of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. RtW Iowa’s union rate is a bit higher than Missouri--where Jerry Tucker led a labor campaign thirty-some years ago to defeat a RtW ballot proposition.

But while not exaggerating the impact, we have to recognize Michigan as a significant labor defeat. More time and energy will be diverted from organizing and contract enforcement to internal administration in an effort to maintain dues revenue. And--it is a humiliating loss when unions cannot defend their basic rights in the home of the Flint sit-downs.

Joe Burns, who describes himself as a labor negotiator and attorney, and is author of an excellent book on the tactic of the strike, writes in a perceptive article,

“Our enemies are constantly thinking bigger thoughts. They plot and they scheme and they focus on changing ‘the rules of the game’ relentlessly. Even when we are down and barely breathing, they have the sense to try and exterminate us. That is the difference between us and them, and in reality, why they are winning....labor’s problem is not one of money or resources. Certainly, for the unions involved the loss of the dues involved will likely hurt representation, as free riders will no longer be required to pay for the benefits of unionism. But in terms of labor’s future, our problem is not the lack of resources....Our bigger problems are really ones of ideology and overall strategy.”

***

Also in Michigan, as we transition in to the new year workers at Chrysler’s Warren stamping plant are seeing the latest mutation of UAW give-backs to the Big Three–Flexible Operating Patterns. The form FOP is taking in Warren is called “3-2-120,” with three crews staffing two ten-hour shifts six days a week. The “A” crew works Monday through Thursday on day shift, a long weekend which may hold some attraction for senior workers despite the longer workday. But the “B” crew works Wednesday through Saturday on evening shift. The “C” crew works Monday and Tuesday on evening shift, Friday and Saturday on day shift. Since the eight-hour day was surrendered, this imitation of fast food-style work assignment allows the company to get their 120 hours of production without paying a penny in overtime premium. They also chisel a little paid break time as well. Watch for a FOP coming your way soon whatever industry you may toil in.

***

As I write, the scam Fiscal Cliff doomsday clock continues its relentless advance making a last minute reprieve unlikely. Earlier it appeared that a less than Grand Bargain was within reach. The President was willing to accept many of the draconian cuts in government programs mandated by previous bipartisan deals if no broader action is taken. He also defied the positions of his party, and party congressional leaders, by proposing a shift from the current Consumer Price Index to a “chained” CPI that would reduce not only Social Security benefits but many others as well. Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner representing the Republicans in private negotiations, came close to reaching agreement on raising tax rates for the rich, differing mainly on just how rich.

In a stunning miscalculation, Boehner tried to save some face with his base by breaking off further dickering at the White House. Instead he offered his Plan B to be passed by the House. His plan would have restored Clinton era tax rates on the uber-rich. The merely wealthy would have wound up paying less tax than now. Since the scheme also eliminated many present deductions and earned income credits, nearly all workers would be paying more in taxes--the poor proportionally most of all.

But Plan B turned out to be dead before arrival–not in the Democrat controlled Senate as calculated but in Boehner’s own congressional caucus. The cracked tea-pots would have nothing of any new tax penalties on the “job creators.” Their rejection destroyed Boehner’s credibility as a negotiator and he may not be able to hang on to his Speaker job when the new Congress assembles.

Barring a Frank Capra style miracle, it seems likely our slippery slope ends with a plunge in to the abys. While the Cliff is fraudulently contrived the damage to every worker will be real. The increased tax burden on those still employed will be substantial and immediate. The termination of extended unemployment benefits will withdraw the last life line from the long-term unemployed. Many government programs will be ended or greatly reduced leading to significant and cascading job loss in both public and private sectors.

In any case, Deal or Cliff, better make seltzer your bubbly on New Year’s Eve–the champagne days are over. The rare past examples of bipartisan agreement seem to guarantee a lose-lose outcome one way or another.

***

In addition to these straight forward attacks by Them on Us, even after SuperStorm Sandy, even with polls showing four out of five Americans believe global warming is real, human-caused, requiring action, the White House envoy to the climate talks in Qatar again blocked any meaningful action on this over-arching crisis.

Is There Any Hope?
Well, if I didn’t think so I wouldn’t be wasting your time and mine with these weekly rants. Our destiny is not predetermined. We have options--and power--that can not only extricate ourselves from the various crises we face–we can save the world and change it for the better. Of that I remain convinced.

Among some hopeful signs I mentioned earlier one stands out like a 3-D projection–the Chicago Teachers Union. They have given us a current example that genuine union democracy is not just an abstract ideal–it’s what works best for collective working class action. Through patient discussion the big majority of their ranks committed to a protracted fight with City Hall and the local power structure over not only traditional contract objectives but also a broader defense of quality public education under attack. In the process, they were able to win active allies among students, parents, civil rights and immigrant rights groups, other unions, and wide sympathy throughout the working class of Chicago.

No bargaining struggle ever wins all of the worker objectives. That includes the Chicago Teachers Union strike. But there is no question that battle is perceived by workers and bosses alike as being an impressive rare victory for our side. There is no doubt their action inspired a wave of other teacher strikes throughout the Chicago area and beyond. Their social foresight contrasts sharply with the “partnership” self-imposed tunnel vision that prevails in American labor today. They help keep our hope alive in these tough times.

They are not the only ones, of course. National Nurses United, who have never shirked from speaking truth to power, have continued to win impressive organizing victories and are militantly defending the combined issues of nurse working conditions/adequate patient care with a variety of tactics–including strikes. The UE remains true to their proud heritage. There are some exemplary local unions here and there.

There are also labor coalitions doing useful work around specific issues such as the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer and US Labor Against the War.

Sandy Pope ably represented Teamsters for a Democratic Union in her election challenge to Hoffa. The goal of inter-craft unity in action–pursued since the days of Eugene V Debs–is being revived once more by Railroad Workers United.

There has even been some movement around climate change. While one transportation union, the UTU, now submerged in to the Sheetmetal Workers dba SMART, is still a champion of coal and all things fossil, the two biggest transit unions–ATU and TWU–have allied with environmentalists in protests against the Keystone XL pipeline and agitation for expanded, free mass transit.

Paradoxically, the recent acknowledgment that the Labor Party no longer has sufficient union support to continue has reminded some of the need for such a party. Of all the shortcomings of the working class movement today none is more glaring than our political marginalization. Our most urgent issues require political solutions but we still don’t have even one mass party of our own. Any heroic victories won through collective bargaining or mass action will be tentative and temporary until we break the political monopoly of the boss class.

Here in Kansas City we hope to keep the labor party movement alive by reviving the old Labor Party Advocates structure. We aim to educate around the need for a party of our own, sign up individual members, develop a plan for gaining union endorsements, and sponsor some public meetings about the important issues of the day–and how a labor party could address them.

We are open to other ideas along these lines and collaboration with others around the country. If you live or work in the Kansas City area I hope you will attend our first public meeting (information below.)

2012 has been another rough year for American workers. 2013 won’t start any better. Not many of us will hit the PowerBall jackpot. I know of no attractive, affordable emigration destinations. In the long run we have no options other than to reverse our retreat and fight--or surrender. I remain confident in the resilience of our class, our ability to overcome the lies, myths, and prejudices that have kept us ignorant, the capacity to use our class solidarity for a fight to the finish for our fair share and justice.

On New Year’s Eve let’s drink a toast to next year finishing better than the last.

That’s all for this year.

Save the Date—Sunday, January 13, 2013, 1PM
Meeting to Re-Launch Kansas City Labor Party Advocates
North Kansas City Library, 23rd & Howell, NKC

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