Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 24, 2006

My Favorite Christmas Story
Even though I am not religious, and disdain the pervasive hucksters dominating the air waves this time of year, it’s hard not to feel something special in the air around Christmas time. Maybe I was corrupted early on by all those presents and edible treats good little kids like me got during this season. I fear my wife Mary may have been even more spoiled because she drags out an artificial holiday “tree” every year and scolds the cats for batting around the hanging decorations.

But such Norman Rockwell feelings are not part of my favorite story. Instead it’s about men huddled in muddy trenches spending their first Christmas away from their loved ones. It was 1914 and they were dug in on the Western Front in France during what became known as the First World War.

Pope Benedict XV proposed the two warring Christian sides call a truce for Christmas celebrations. The Germans agreed but the British said no way.

The British commanders were in fact already upset about wide spread examples of fraternization. It was not uncommon to stick a white board in front of the trench at meal time, a sign of informal agreement that for the next hour or so we won’t shoot at you if you don’t shoot at us—let’s eat. Occasionally there would even be exchanges of goods—eggs for cigarettes, potatoes for a bottle of schnapps.

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, wrote,

“The Corps Commander, therefore, directs Divisional Commanders to impress on all subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging the offensive spirit of the troops, while on the defensive, by every means in their power.

“Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices (e.g. 'we won't fire if you don't' etc.) and the exchange of tobacco and other comforts, however tempting and occasionally amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.”

But General Sir Horace’s chain of command experienced some broken links at the level of the grunts in the trenches. On Christmas Eve there were reports of unusual lights appearing along the German lines. Reconnaissance finally determined that these were improvised Christmas Trees set up by their soldat counterparts across the way. Then the Brits started hearing familiar Christmas music being sung—in German. Not to be outdone Tommy answered Fritz with English language versions. Discipline broke down fast after that.

On Christmas day troops emerged from their respective trenches to meet in the narrow strip separating them known as “No Man’s Land.” A British soldier wrote,

“Soon most of our company, hearing that I and some others had gone out, followed us . . . What a sight — little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front!....Where they couldn't talk the language they were making themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”

There was also a more somber task to be performed during the mutinous truce—burying the dead bodies that couldn’t earlier be recovered in the No Man’s Land. Some had been out there for months. In some cases German and British soldiers held joint brief memorial services for those buried.

The brass on both sides recognized how reluctant and unreliable these troops could be for killing human targets they could see. Emphasis was shifted to massive artillery barrages (often killing as many of their own as enemy), aerial bombardment, gas attacks, and armored vehicle assaults. Millions perished in these then new high tech applications—though little land changed hands. When America entered the war in 1917 that finally tipped the balance in what was essentially a war of attrition.

This small example of ordinary working people striving to find any excuse, even if fleeting, for not blindly following orders of their masters to kill one another helps fortify me with a faith I never found from listening to clergy. It is a faith that despite all the formidable challenges our humanity may survive.

Regardless of your faith, or lack thereof, I wish you peace and goodwill.

Goodyear Tentative Settlement
It appears likely that Goodyear strikers will approve a tentative agreement announced by USW leaders on Friday. While full details are not yet available to the public it seems clear that the new contract extracts more take-backs from the workers—though not as much as the company’s final pre-strike offer.

That the deal finally hammered out after close to three months on the picket line contained concessions to the company will shock no one. That has been the typical result of most contract settlements in the USA over the last couple of decades. The key issues in the Goodyear strike—health care and job security—will not be won today through collective bargaining alone.

Does that mean the strike was ill-advised? By no means. The company agreed to double the amount of their final contribution to retiree health care; the Tyler, Texas plant will be kept open for an additional year at least; and Goodyear pledged more capital investment in USW plants.

But, more important than incremental cutting of losses in those areas, was a reminder of the power organized workers still have at the point of production. With the partial exception of Fayetteville, the strike has been solid. The mix of salaried employees and temporary scabs management assembled can’t get the job done. The company is hurting and had to negotiate. Goodyear may win this match on points but there will be no gloating over a knock out. That’s also going to make other employers think twice about forcing future strikes.

Of course, the strike could have been even more effective were it not for the restrictions of the Taft-Hartley Act. Mass picketing to block plant entrances is illegal. Secondary boycotts of those selling scab products are illegal. Appeals to transportation workers to refuse to handle scab cargo are illegal. There was even a threat of a Taft-Hartley injunction to order those strikers normally making Humvee tires in Topeka back to work. To have the punch of the strikes that initially brought unionization to the rubber industry requires either mass defiance of the law—or changing the law.

Health care, pensions, and job security issues also require legislative change—as workers have done in other industrialized countries and as the Labor Party promotes for America. The only bargaining alternative today is to try to buy these benefits by reducing our wages and retreating on working conditions.

The Goodyear workers should feel proud of their strike—just as every class conscious worker is proud of them. They deserve better. Their courageous struggle in fact prepares a better future outcome for us all.

Just Like For Your Car
Yet another phony “universal” health care plan has been introduced by Democrats in congress. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has a particularly complicated scam called the “Healthy Americans Act.” It has been enthusiastically endorsed by the CEO of Safeway—and SEIU president Andy Stern.

Wyden doesn’t attack the blood sucking insurance companies who extort tribute from most of us needing health care. Quite the contrary, he enshrines them as an institution receiving payroll deductions and tax payer subsidies from the federal government instead of employers. All would have to pay—that’s what makes it “universal,” like car insurance.

Employers currently providing insurance plans would pay present plan costs to their workers in wages for two years. In turn the workers would have to buy in to a private insurance pool. Those presently uninsured would be eligible for government help to pay the pool premiums.

This plan does nothing to provide health care, which would still be a commodity, not a social entitlement as it is throughout most of the world. It merely stabilizes and regulates the health care market. Our bosses wriggle off the hook, unconscionable profits for insurance companies become guaranteed, and the working class as always pays the price.

Fortunately, not all have followed Chairman Andy’s abandonment of the single-payer alternative needed to get us out of this mess. Physicians for a National Health Plan, the California Nurses Association, Black Commentator, among others continue the fight. And the Labor Party not only has a detailed plan but a realistic budget put forward in the Just Health Care proposal. Anything less is an insult, not a solution.

A New Debate On the War
The Democrats took control of congress. The Iraq Study Group said it was time to wrap the war up. The chief architect of and apologist for the war was fired . Many became optimistic about peace finally being at hand.

Instead, the terms of debate about the war have shifted completely. Now the argument is about whether there should be a “surge” of more GIs sent to Iraq. The President indicates that’s where he’s leaning. So does Senator McCain—and the new Democrat senate majority leader said that was okay by him as well as long as you get them home within a couple of years.

Meanwhile, Secretary Rice has rejected any talks with Syria or Iran—called for in the Baker/Hamilton recommendations. More naval forces are on their way to the Gulf . The Pentagon has requested an additional 99.7 billion dollars for Iraq operations and is drawing up plans for adding tens of thousands of new recruits to the overall payroll of the Army and Marines.

Some are not observing a honeymoon waiting for the “peace” Democrats to take the initiative. Hats off to the Washington-Orange-Lamoille Labor Council in Vermont for implementing policy adopted at the recent US Labor Against the War Assembly with a resolution pledging them to “communicate its opposition to continued war funding - except to bring our troops home safely, and take care of them when they get here - directly with Representative Peter Welch and Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy by joining delegations to discuss the issue of ending war funding in order to bring the troops home now.”

Space/Time Continuum
Once again, new events and my loquacity have combined to give transit worker commentary short shrift. I promise to make amends with a stand alone article dealing with the lessons of the fiasco driven Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York; a contrasting look at CAW bus drivers in British Columbia; and why transit workers should be in the front lines in the fight against Global Warming. However, this will have to wait until after my vacation (see below.) In the meantime check out how CAW Local 111 in Vancouver is building public support for their just struggle.

Down Mexico Way
From time to time there are breaks in updating this site when I go out of town to cover labor movement events. Now, however, we’re taking two weeks off just for a vacation. My partner Mary is self-employed and therefore has to pay her self for any vacation time. This will be the first real vacation we have taken in about six years. It will also serve as the long deferred honeymoon following our 2005 decision to get married for the best of reasons—health insurance.

In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Day we’ll be hitting the road for a two day drive to El Paso. There we will join a tour of the Copper Canyon region of Mexico. Unlike my “business” trips, I will not be taking along my laptop or cell phone. Please be patient if you send me a message.

The next Week In Review is planned for January 7. We will start updating the Daily Labor News Digest again on Monday, January 8.

That’s all for this year—a Happy New Year to you all.

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