Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 2, 2012

The Working Poor...
After hearing personal recollections of CIO Packinghouse struggles in Kansas City from my Dad and uncles I developed a life-long interest in labor history. When I first came in to the labor movement in the early Sixties I started asking when we would again see some inspiring battles, on the order of those fought during the Thirties and Forties.

Most of the old hands were of the opinion that because the working poor were intimidated, and were concentrated in high turn-over jobs, they would not be taking the initiative. But, if the bosses ever dared to try to take back the gains already won by unionized workers there would be a hell of a fight that could again mobilize the working class as a whole.

Of course, a different scenario played out instead. Most unions became content to consolidate gains made by my father’s generation and made little effort to organize those left out of “Middle Class” prosperity. And in the late Seventies, when the bosses started demanding give-backs in order to remain “competitive” with “foreign” competition, with only a few honorable exceptions labor officials collaborated responsibly with their employer “partners.”

A combination of class collaboration union strategy, punctuated by some high profile union-busting assaults, eliminated millions of good union jobs. At profitable companies concessions began by selling out the sons and daughters of the Middle Class through multi-tier agreements. By now in most cases, all union members share in give-backs that are steadily sinking them toward the level of the working poor.

The exemplary fight by the Chicago Teachers Union, numerous strikes and job actions by National Nurses United, and ILWU port workers, such as those now shutting down the nation’s biggest port, give some hope for revival of Middle Class unionist struggles.

In a way, even more inspiring are recent actions by and for the working poor. Though gains are as yet still more symbolic than substantial, these efforts show some credible potential at long last.

Back on Gray Thursday and Black Friday there were highly visible protests at Walmart stores in most communities around the country. In a few locations, significant numbers of “associates” joined the crowds of union members and sympathizers. It was a courageous move by workers on the inside who are fed up with the low pay, paltry benefits, and, above all, disrespect by their employer.

It also showed there is still a labor movement with deep roots and many members anxious to fight back.

Last week an impressive new organizing front was established in the fast food industry. This sector employs nearly two million workers–far bigger than the auto industry. There are fifty-thousand just in New York City. Most are paid around minimum wage, work irregular shifts, and have virtually no benefits. Until very recently only the feisty IWW had devoted serious attention to organizing among these downtrodden workers, mainly at local stores in the Starbucks and Jimmy Johns chains.

But last Thursday a coalition of union and community groups in New York City assisted workers at Burger King, McDonalds, Wendys, Taco Bell, and KFC in a wave of one-day strikes and demonstrations throughout Manhattan. They are demanding a doubling of their wage to a more liveable fifteen dollars an hour. And they want union recognition to address their many complaints about hours, working conditions, and respect on the job.

Organizing Walmart and fast food will be neither easy nor fast. But the myth that such workers are not interested in unions can no longer be sustained. It is high time for our unions to devote major efforts to improve the miserable condition of these working poor, building union rolls and density in the process. It would also have a salutary impact on those already unionized.

...And the Working Rich
Marvin Miller died last week at the age of 95. To those outside North America, or under the age of fifty, his name is likely unknown. But during the Sixties and Seventies he was often in the headlines as this remarkable, unorthodox, and highly effective union leader turned a feeble fraternal group in to the tightest union of all, and with the highest paid workers in history--the Major League Baseball Players Association.

For nearly a century every major league baseball player contract had what was known as the Reserve Clause. He could not offer his services to any other club. He could be traded or sold to another team without his consultation, much less consent. His salary was take it or leave it. Trouble makers found themselves sent to the minor leagues. Most players had to take part-time jobs during the off-season in order to get by. Their off-season conditioning program was often moving furniture. During the Golden Years of Willie and the Duke in the Fifties the average player earned six-thousand dollars a year–about the same as my Dad made as a butcher.

Miller was educated as an economist at NYU and the New School. He put in a number of years at the Steelworkers before Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts asked him if he could help this super-exploited group. It turned out he could.

Miller knew how much the owners were raking in and was a tough negotiator. But he also knew the real power of any union was in the ranks--and he understood well the power of the strike which the insurgent union has used on several occasions during and since Miller’s watch.

Their first big breakthrough was establishing salary arbitration. An arbitrator later greatly modified the Reserve Clause, leading the way to Free Agency that allowed senior players to negotiate with any interested club.

The union contract sets minimum salaries and benefits. Individual salaries, which greatly vary, are hammered out by players and their agents. Bidding wars between clubs for the most talented players soon drove salaries through the roof.

I recall a 1970s television interview of the great slugging outfielder Reggie Jackson by the pompous Howard Cosell. Cosell said, “Reggie, your new contract pays you not just more than a college professor, you get more than a brain surgeon. How can you justify this?” Reggie replied, “Howard, I can’t justify that but I know if I wasn’t getting this money it wouldn’t be going to any professors or brain surgeons. It would still be in the pocket of [New York Yankees owner] George Steinbrenner.”

Reggie learned a lesson in class relations from Marvin Miller. It’s too bad so few union leaders today promote that understanding.

The owners had no kind words about Miller even in death. Despite his impact on the game he will never be elected to the Hall of Fame. Comfortable in his adversarial role, this spite never bothered Marvin Miller. More than once he cautioned his members, “If the owners ever start talking nice about me–get rid of me.”

Cliff Dancing With the Stars
The President is a lame duck with four more years to go. These are the final days of the session of Congress elected two years ago but most of the players are staying in place when the new session convenes in January. Past efforts of the President to reach a “Grand Bargain” with the other boss party have had little success and the two sides deferred decisive action on fiscal policies until a doomsday deadline set for the end of the year--dubbed by the media as the Fiscal Cliff. Some economists have disparaged this contrived crisis as the Fiscal Bluff.

The major sticking point is White House insistence on a modest increase in income tax rates for the wealthy. The Republicans swore an oath to a loony right ideologue they would never ever do such a despicable thing. Even though some billionaires have urged the GOP to put this foolish grandstanding pledge aside for the greater good of the ruling class that may be insufficient to warm enough cold feet.

What is the President offering in return for Republican embarrassment? Among other cuts in useful social programs, agreement to begin slashing the so-called entitlements starting with Medicare and Medicaid–two programs that provide health coverage to one/third of all Americans.

This has long been an objective of this administration but they won’t take the first bold step without bipartisan support. Of course, this shifts the embarrassment to the liberal Democrats who ran on a platform of Hands Off Medicare, further complicating the prospects for a pre-Cliff bargain.

The President appears prepared to wait until after the plunge in to the abyss as the ball comes down in Times Square ushering in the New Year. He may be betting that public outrage over higher taxes and slashed services will bring skittish Republicans and Democrats together to accept the Grand Bargain after all. The bluffers can split the pot. The only losers will be us.

In Brief..
¶ From the Wall Street Journal, “The National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday notified both sides in the 5-month-old Palermo's strike that it had found that the company acted lawfully when it terminated 75 workers as part of an immigration audit and did not use the audit as retaliation for the workers' efforts to form a union.”
¶ Shortly after President Obama’s “historic” visit to Burma the BBC reported, “ Police in Burma have used water cannon and tear gas to break up a protest against a vast Chinese-backed copper mine in the north-west of the country. Protesters said dozens were injured and their camps set alight in Monywa town. Local farmers, monks and activists have been protesting against what they say are forced evictions to allow for the expansion of the mine, Burma's largest.”
The Guardian noted, “Barack Obama has signed a law excluding US airlines from the European Union's carbon trading scheme, delivering a blow to campaigners' hopes for stronger climate action during the president's second term. Environmental campaigners had urged Obama to veto the aviation bill as a sign of his commitment to fighting climate change in his second term.”

The results of cataract surgery on my left eye exceeded my expectations so I am doing the right eye this week. During recovery computer time will be reduced and slower so I am again suspending the normal news updates on the Labor Advocate Blog until December 11. I hope to have the next WIR out around December 10.

That’s all for this week.

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