Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 27, 2008

Rush To Judgment
One of the most unpleasant tasks for a columnist is to admit you’ve screwed up on a major fact, so let me get this out of the way first thing. In my last WIR, commenting on the Amtrak settlement, I said the deal, “also makes some substantial changes in work rules to benefit the carrier.” That was dead wrong. In a rush to include coverage of a major agreement I relied on an erroneous early newspaper story and neglected best journalistic practice of confirming through multiple sources.

One source I had available was the BMWE lead bargainer in the negotiations, Jed Dodd. We’ve worked together in Labor Party bodies over the years and I know how to reach him. He knows how to reach me too and promptly set me straight. First came a terse message, “There were no work rule changes in the tentative Amtrak agreement. That was the point and that was the victory.” A second message elaborated somewhat. “...Wage increases, minus cost of living, minus health and welfare cost sharing for this ten year period equals zero. Of course that is projecting inflation for 2008 and 2009 at 3 percent. You could say the contract was no improvement or you could say in a period where all of labor is making substantial concessions we held the line. Restoring the buying power of real wages to 2000 levels is ok given the crumbling foundations of our movement all around.”

Properly humbled, I wrote back to Brother Dodd that, in the absence of work rule changes, I agreed that the deal was a victory in today’s bargaining climate and promised to make a suitable correction. I appreciated his response, “Don’t beat yourself up too hard, you write a great column.” I guess I’ve beaten myself up the appropriate amount but, more importantly, corrected the factual error.

This past week the UTU finally, three years after contract expiration, reached a tentative national agreement with the major freight carriers covering 46,000 rails--but, before I comment, I’ll consult with my friends in the UTU.

Are We Stimulated Yet?
Who says partisan bickering and red tape prevent anything from getting done in Washington? The White House and Speaker Pelosi moved at warp speed to put together a stimulus package with hopes of a soft landing rather than a crashing recession. When Asian and European investors started panicking at the prospect of sharp downturn in the center of the world economy, the Federal Reserve Directors took the unprecedented step of meeting outside banker’s hours to decree an emergency, record breaking slash in interest rates.

The labor supported Economic Policy Institute had no objections to the modest “rebates” targeting the middle class with hopes they’ll buy something. Overlooked by EPI and many was the fact that old folks like me, living on Social Security with insufficient income to owe taxes, get no stimulant under the Bush-Pelosi plan. The Senate, bristling with presidential wannabes, does want to add seniors and more money for unemployment comp, and perhaps they shall.

But EPI was right on the money about the business share of the package: “It is scandalous, however, to throw about $50 billion at businesses for investments that have already been made. It is common sense and established economics that businesses invest and hire when they have customers—not when they get tax subsidies for equipment to make things they can’t sell.”

The piddly individual rebates will largely be eaten up by price rises for day to day necessities. It’s not just fuel prices that are skyrocketing. An article in today’s St Louis Post-Dispatch notes that the price of a gallon of whole milk, which stood at 2.57 last year, is now 3.95. Grain prices skewed by ethanol production have produced similar hikes in the cost of meat, and even bread.

The pumping of more cash availability into the economy by the Fed action will–to the extent it does anything--encourage inflation and expand already overextended credit.

These twin threats–massive uncollectible debt and Seventies-style stagflation--are like a mostly submerged iceberg about to strike the flagship of the global capital fleet below the water line. Like on the Titanic the Captain’s first response is to order the ship’s orchestra to play soothing music.

We favor rescue measures for passengers and crew. But we should also start planning to build a new ship--as well as replacing the captain.

Bad Chemistry In Jersey
Mitsubishi Chemical Holding Company is a Japanese based global outfit whose slogan is “Good Chemistry For Tomorrow.” Mitsubishi has pledged to respect the right to collective bargaining in a UN global compact they signed on to with great publicity. But their operation under the name Hishi Plastics in New Jersey tells a different tale.

Five years ago, by a ninety percent margin, Hishi workers voted to be represented by UE. Company lawyers then used every trick in the Taft-Hartley book to delay certification of the union’s landslide victory for four years. Since the Bush NLRB eventually certified a year ago the company has stonewalled negotiations for a first contract, hoping that demoralized workers will abandon their union.

These UE workers are appealing for help in bringing public pressure on Mitsubishi to honor their commitment to accept collective bargaining. You can find out more–and how you can help–by clicking here.

A Healthy Labor Response
An impressive coalition of big unions has come together to oppose the Schwarzenegger-Nunez bipartisan “universal” healthcare scam in California, where all would be required to have health insurance. Included are the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Communication Workers of America, California School Employees Association, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Office and Professional Employees, and, of course, California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee. They have also involved other allies such as League of Women Voters, and the Gray Panthers.

As CNA/NNOC legislative director Donna Gerber explained in opening a press conference called by the new coalition Schwarzenegger-Nunez is “an insurance company bill, a bill that benefits insurance companies over everybody else. For the first time Californians will be required to buy a product with no price limitations or no definitions of what they get for that price.”

“This is a bad bill,” said Chuck Mack, President of Teamsters Joint Council 7. “Individuals will pay more and more and get less and less healthcare. We will do everything we can to stop it.”

George Landers, executive director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Western State Council, talked about the bill’s effect of subsidizing health care costs for giant corporations such as Wal-Mart.

Schwarzenegger-Nunez is unfortunately not a California aberration. Some states already have such plans and this approach is at the heart of the healthcare “reform” pitches of all remaining Democrat contenders for president. A labor answer to the healthcare crisis is well presented on the CNA-sponsored web site, Guaranteed Healthcare.

More Of Us, Maybe
A sample survey of households by the BLS projects a U.S. union membership growth of over 300,000 in 2007, a “density” gain of about one-tenth of a percent. This is the biggest gain recorded since 1983.

Does this mean organized labor has turned the corner and is again organizing substantial numbers of workers? Clearly some significant new real organizing was done by unions such as SEIU among janitors, UNITE-HERE among hotel and casino workers, and CNA among nurses. But nearly 100,000 childcare and home healthcare workers paid by states were “organized” by unions such as SEIU and AFSCME through negotiating deals with state legislatures--while having little or no contact with the workers. Much of the overall growth came through expanded payrolls in the public sector, where the unionization rate is nearly 37 percent.

Private sector unionization remains bleak at only 7.4 percent. Union membership in factories dropped by about 100,000, reflecting a loss of over 300,000 such jobs in the economy.

New York remains the most unionized state. California had the most new union members–over 200,000. Illinois suffered the biggest loss, 89,000 members. Missouri fell by 9,000 and is now below the national average of 12.1 with a 10.7 percent density.

While a mixed bag, with a possibility of statistical error, it’s nevertheless welcome news that the labor movement apparently didn’t lose any more members last year. But, especially with a recession upon us, we can hardly expect to hold our own another year unless ways can be found to organize–especially the low wage, few or no benefit jobs prevailing in the private sector.

That’s all for this week.

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