Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
December 5, 2011

Softest COP
The President was on the fund raising circuit; the Vice-President was experiencing a bittersweet moment turning over Camp Victory to Baghdad; the Secretary of State was making nice with the brutal military dictatorship in Burma. So it was left up to Todd Stern to represent the World Cop at COP 17–the annual conclave of governments and NGOs currently in Durban talking climate change

Who’s Todd Stern you ask? The Special Envoy for Climate Change is a former. partner at the A-List law firm WilmerHale whose clients include AT&T, Boeing, Chrysler, General Electric, and Goldman Sachs--to name just a few. The Hale predecessor of the present firm was the one that sent Robert Duvall to successfully defend Beatrice Foods against John Travolta in the nonfiction film A Civil Action about Beatrice and WR Grace poisoning a town’s drinking water.

Stern helped President Clinton in several capacities as administrative assistant and liaison with the Treasury and Justice departments. Drawing on his expertise in international law, he also served as then Vice-President Al Gore’s factotum in the 1997 negotiations leading to the adoption of the soon to expire Kyoto Protocol–never ratified by the USA. Secretary Clinton recalled this pleasant fellow from her days as First Lady and sought an encore performance from Stern.

Unlike his political masters, Stern doesn’t promise very much. Talking to the New York Times about the prospects for a new legally binding protocol to drastically reduce carbon emissions,

“Todd Stern, the chief American climate negotiator, said he was flexible as to the form such a future agreement would take and even the time frame for reaching it, though he expects it will be after 2020, once the various Kyoto and Cancún agreements have run their course.”

Such a calm, leisurely approach can be expected from a legal mind shaped at Dartmouth and Harvard, honed in resolving disputes over such matters as intellectual property rights. It’s not shared however by scientists producing a bevy of alarming reports leading up to Durban. Here’s a small sample of those from stories we linked to on KC Labor just over the past couple of weeks.

* A new report from an agency of the same government that pays Stern Esq his salary was summarized by AP, “U.S. officials say the Arctic region has changed dramatically for the worse in the past five years. It is melting at a near record pace, and it is darkening and absorbing too much of the sun's heat.” This sets off all kinds of feed back loops of releasing trapped carbon and methane deposits that generate even more warming. It reaches as far south as Greenland where just last year 430 billion metric tons of ice melted–and the thawing rate is on the rise. AP notes, “The Arctic acts as Earth's refrigerator, cooling the planet. What's happening, scientists said, is like someone pushing the fridge's thermostat much too high.” Leaving this thermostat untouched until after 2020 will likely mean perishables will spoil.

* Forests are a major “carbon sink,” temporarily absorbing greenhouse gases heating things up. A UN report says that global deforestation is accelerating at an annual rate of 6.4 million hectares. This means not only losing the sink–the previously absorbed carbon gets released as well.

* Marlowe Hood of AFP writing about a World Meteorological Organization report, ‘“Our science is solid and it proves unequivocally that the world is warming and that this warming is due to human activities,’ WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a statement, adding that policy makers should take note of the findings. ‘Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached new highs and are very rapidly approaching levels consistent with a 2 to 2.4 Celsius rise in average global temperatures.’ Scientists believe that any rise above the 2.0 threshold could trigger far-reaching and irreversible changes over land and in the seas.”

* Just this morning, the New York Times reports, “Emissions rose 5.9 percent in 2010, according to an analysis released Sunday by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking the numbers. Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003.”

Even the mainstream environmental groups who have been among the most apologetic supporters of the Obama administration have had to clear their throats. Neela Banerjee writes in the Los Angeles Times,

“Weakened by reversals in Congress and the ailing economy as a presidential election looms, the U.S. delegation has staked out a position that has confused and frustrated environmentalists and other nations. Doubts have arisen about Washington's willingness to cut emissions more substantially and its commitment to follow through on helping developing countries already battling climate change.

“On Wednesday, the chief executives of 16 major environmental groups sent U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton a blunt letter asking that the United States abandon its negotiating positions.

‘”America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change but as a major obstacle to progress,’ said the letter, whose signatories include the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Environmental Defense Fund. ‘U.S. positions on two major issues — the mandate for future negotiations and climate finance — threaten to impede in Durban the global cooperation so desperately needed to address the threat of climate change.’”

Thousands rallied outside the conference in Durban. Their protest differed in both substance and style from those complaining on the inside. Getting noticed with those ear-splitting vuvuzelas that left their stamp on the World Cup hosted in South Africa, they advanced slogans such as Climate Justice, Not Climate Apartheid. In addition to the mainly South African component there were delegations from worker and farmer organizations around the world. A photo in the LA Times showed a sign with the kind of demand needed as a first step to stop climate disaster–“Socialize Land, Mines, Banks, Oceans, Air, Forests.” The COP may not pay attention to those in the streets of Durban–but we should.

Cooper Treads On USW
Cooper Tire & Rubber, a venerable, American-owned Fortune 500 company, has been profitable--and generous in their executive compensation. But, after workers at their flagship plant in Findlay, Ohio rejected a tentative give-back agreement the employer unexpectedly locked out 1,050 members of United Steelworkers Local 207L

Some of Cooper’s demands are straight forward enough such as freezing new hires out of the pension plan and shifting more health insurance costs to the workers. But they also want flexibility in changing work rules, classifications, and production quotas. USW District 1 Sub-director Patrick Gallagher is quoted by Mike Elk in In These Times, “They want to give us a new wage structure, but they won't tell us what the pay scale of that structure will be. They won't tell us what the minimum standards are to even get a bonus or for a worker to keep his classification in his job.”

Cooper already has “temporary replacements” ramping up in the plant and is promising customers they’ll have full production going within thirty days. The company’s hard ball tactics also serve notice on the union at their Texarkana plant where a contract expires in about two months.

The union ranks have been organizing human chain solidarity actions, building on community support. This could be a rough one.

Mail Fraud
When I was in morning session kindergarten the postman would come as I was finishing breakfast–and then again as I was getting ready for my post-lunch nap. During this era of twice a day mail deliveries (just once on Saturday), the cost of a first-class stamp was three cents–equivalent to about 27 cents today. (Current first-class postage is 44 cents.)

But that was when the Post Office was run by the government. Today it is a not-for-profit corporation, receiving no tax payer subsidies–but subject to congressional supervision. Congress created an artificial crisis, that threatens the US Postal Service with bankruptcy, by demanding an unreasonably rapid set-aside of funds to guarantee future pensions.

This is now used as an excuse to drive many satisfied USPS customers to private sector profit centers as it’s announced first-class mail as we have known it will be discontinued. Current overnight deliveries will take 3-4 days. The impact of this service degradation will be harsh on newspaper subscriptions, small businesses dealing in mail orders, and residential customers who can’t afford to use FedEx.

It will be harsher still on USPS workers as the process of eliminating tens of thousands of jobs begins along with demands to renege on current contract wages, benefits, and working conditions. African-American postal workers will be particularly hard hit as they join a Black unemployment pool that grew even in the recent report that claimed the overall jobless rate declined.

There was a time when this would have been unthinkable. Politicians used to fear messing with the postal service as much as they dreaded taking on Social Security. But with the White House and Congress so far getting away with sharpening their long knives to go after our most sacred entitlements–anything goes.

In Brief...
¶ After eight years of give-backs from their unions, and only weeks after concluding new union deals, American Airlines decided to go for more yet by filing for bankruptcy. The Washington Post reported, “The bankruptcy filing by American Airlines could saddle the obscure federal agency that insures company pensions with a $9 billion loss, officials say, raising the financial pressures on the debt-laden government fund and the possibility it could need a taxpayer bailout. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is already facing a $26 billion deficit, the largest in its 37-year history, after being staggered by company failures across the country during the recession.”
¶ UE Local 222 won a small scale but still
impressive victory as the Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations ruled outsourcing of janitor jobs by the Woodbridge public school district was illegal and awarded some job reinstatements and back pay.
¶ Labor historian and activist David Montgomery passed away at age 84. You can read an appreciation of his remarkable life, written by Jon Wiener in The Nation,

That’s all for this week.

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