Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 31, 2010

First, the Good News
It was refreshing to be posting headlines such as “LA Hospital Vote Deals Blow to SEIU,” and “NUHW Wins Landslide Victory Over SEIU at Kaiser.” But I would have substituted “Stern Gang” for SEIU if I had been writing the titles.

For new readers we should review that NUHW–National Union of Healthcare Workers–was formed a year ago in response to an undemocratic takeover of SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers West. The coup was ordered by the union’s top dog, Andy Stern, aka Chairman Andy. Elected officers and most staff of the 100,000+ member mega-local were removed–in some cases physically–from their offices; headquarters and treasury seized. That’s the way internal differences are typically resolved in Change to Win’s largest affiliate.

Not as typical was the fighting response of the disenfranchised workers. Relying largely on volunteer efforts and donations from rank-and-file healthcare workers, and financial contributions from sympathizers in the labor movement, they started building a new union to reclaim their rights on the job.

Even most sympathetic observers didn’t initially give the fledgling union much of a chance. Chairman Andy was determined to give them no chance. The newly installed receivers could fend off NLRB election challenges as long as existing contracts were in force. They used that grace period to flood the old Local with expanded new staff to combat rank-and-file resistance. They threatened labor movement supporters of the new union, and even the state Democratic Party, with retaliation. They mobilized goon squads in unsuccessful attempts to break up NUHW fund raising events in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Chairman Andy’s crowd also circulated a “legal opinion” from an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus that claimed worker benefits would be in jeopardy if they switched unions. This brought a response from the University,

“Mr. Feinstein violated university procedures by improperly using university letterhead in the course of his outside work. This activity was wholly unrelated to his work at the University of Maryland, which has no involvement or stake in this outside matter. He should not have written the material on university letterhead nor invoked his title as a university employee. In addition, he should have disclosed the payment he received from one of the parties in the issue on which he commented.”

The not quite a professor received 240,000 SEIU member dollars for “consulting” fees.

After some small NUHW victories at previously unorganized properties, the first major showdown with the Stern Gang came this past week at three Kaiser bargaining units in Southern California. NUHW’s strongest support came from nurses at Kaiser’s Los Angeles Medical Center complex, winning that unit 746 to 36. In the smaller bargaining unit of dieticians, speech pathologists, and other professionals the vote was 189 to 29. A third vote among psychologists, therapists, social workers and others produced a 717 to 192 tally for NUHW.

Tessie Costales, a 27-year nurse at Kaiser Sunset medical complex in Los Angeles, told Labor Notes’ Mark Brenner,

“SEIU underestimated what we could do. We had no money, no manpower, it was all volunteer. But we have each other’s support. That’s why we won.”

As Churchill described the Battle of Britain, this is not the beginning of the end but it is the end of the beginning. The two unions will go head to head in many more contests this summer, involving tens of thousands of workers. The NUHW got a well earned shot of self-confidence and proved the big purple machine is not invincible. But they still need and deserve the help of all supporters of democratic, adversarial unions in the big battles still ahead.. To pitch in material support click here.

The Houdini Recovery
That’s how economist David Rosenberg at Guskin Sheff + Associates described the news reported Friday that the fourth quarter of 2009 registered the biggest improvement in GDP in six years–an astounding 5.7 percent annual pace. Particularly remarkable when you consider that even with this glowing quarterly report the GDP shrank 2.4 percent for the whole year, its biggest annual contraction since 1946–when the country was in the process of converting back to a peacetime economy.

Mark Davis in the Kansas City Star passed on this,

“Economist Mark Vitner at Wells Fargo & Co. explained it this way: Imagine you got laid off last August as your employer slashed inventories by half. Three months later, the company was cutting its inventories an additional 10 percent. Mathematically, that makes a big difference in the gross domestic product report. ‘But they’re not going to call you back to work,’ Vitner said.”

Inventory reduction, not a big spurt in production, is precisely what drove this rosy report. It, of course, included the Christmas season, always the peak for consumer sales. And virtually everyone expects these initial figures will be later revised downwards.

A revision in 2009 labor costs was also issued on Friday with much less fanfare. Wages and benefits each increased only 1.5 percent for the year meaning even those lucky enough to still be working fell behind in what they have to spend. Since consumer purchases typically account for seventy percent of the GDP this is hardly a hopeful sign for genuine recovery.

In his Saturday radio/podcast President Obama made clear his priority is shifting from job creation to reducing the federal deficit. After one last tax break for small business, Obama wants a three year freeze on discretionary government spending–a return to what was once called Reaganomics.

Hey, We’re Number Sixty-One!
President Obama had little to say about environmental matters during his seventy-minute State of the Union Address. There was no mention of the “historic” deal he had brokered at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. But his few words about wanting to see bipartisan action in Congress packed a punch,

“That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies.”

This was a foot-stomping ovation moment for many on both sides of the aisle in Congress--and for union officials seeing a new lease on life for their polluting employer “partners.”

Safe, clean coal of course does not exist in the real world and most likely never will. Advanced biofuels have their own well known set of environmental dangers. In addition to pollution that comes out chimneys and tail pipes, hardly a week goes by without a major oil spill–such as the 450,000 gallon release of crude from a tanker off Port Arthur, Texas last week.

The day of the President’s speech AP reported on expanded gas drilling in newly exploited shale,

“Air testing over one of the nation's biggest natural gas fields revealed two sites with extremely high levels of cancer-causing benzene and 19 more with elevated levels of the chemical, Texas environmental regulators said Wednesday.”

Nuclear plants don’t stay “new” for long and they are hardly “clean.” While the plant itself produces no significant amount of greenhouse gasses there is an enormous carbon footprint left by mining, refining, and transporting fuel. And, what is left behind after burning remains a deadly threat for centuries. There is not yet, and may never be, a safe long term solution to disposing of spent radioactive fuel.

Manufacturers claim the new generation of nukes are safe. So did the makers of the last generation--that included Three Mile Island. Most current plants were initially granted 30-40 year licenses–what was then considered their useful life span. Now there are moves to renew some permits for another 20-30 years.

Perhaps the most prominent of these is the Vermont Yankee plant, the state’s largest electricity generator. It’s owned by Entergy, a Fortune 500 giant operating forty power plants, ten of them nukes. At least until recently, the company had the support of Vermont’s Governor, and the unions operating and maintaining Yankee, for a renewed 20-year permit. This was despite many structural problems including collapse of a cooling tower in 2007.

Prior to his address, the President could have read Wednesday’s New York Times which reported,

“Levels of radioactive tritium have risen rapidly in recent weeks in the groundwater surrounding Vermont’s sole nuclear power plant, leading both longtime supporters and foes of the reactor to question whether it will be allowed to keep operating.”

There are truly clean, safe, renewable alternatives for producing heat and electricity, even powering vehicles. But they cannot compete in the market with the highly profitable biosphere destroyers promoted by Big Business, bipartisan politicians, and too many labor deniers of the most inconvenient truth. That’s why, far from America leading the way in meeting humanity’s greatest challenge, the USA slipped from 39th place on the Environmental Performance Index to 61 over the past two years.

Howard Zinn
Our side lost the people’s historian, a proletarian playwright, and an indefatigable fighter last week He was one of a precious few postwar prominent academics who defied the Cold War to speak truth to power. His People’s History of the United States woke up a big part of my generation, and those that have followed, to the lies and propaganda that long went unchallenged in our history courses.

But he not only changed our perspective on history; he helped make history, seemingly omnipresent in civil rights, antiwar, and labor struggles for over a half-century–often to the displeasure of his long time employer, Boston University.

Howard Zinn’s combination of intellect, courage, and activism was a rare blend indeed. We will miss him.

The Early Bird Will Soon Leave
Most national labor movement gatherings are tightly scripted, top-down events. Boring speeches by politicians are occasionally punctuated by even more boring speeches by impeccably dressed labor statespersons.

But every two years a different kind of conference takes place gathering those who were either not invited to the more stodgy conclaves or were present as troublemakers. This year’s Labor Notes Conference, April 23-25 in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, is expected to attract more than a thousand labor activists to discuss a rank-and-file recovery. If you register by February 19 you qualify for the Early Bird Special, saving thirty bucks on the fee.

Those of you in the Kansas City area can join in a group registration, and transportation plans, by attending the next meeting of the local Labor Notes Discussion Group. That will take place Noon-2PM next Sunday, February 7, in North Kansas City. For details give me a call at: 816-753-1672.

That’s all for this week.

Video–Send a Nurse to Haiti Narrated by James Gandolfini

Coming Events...
Labor Campaign for Single-Payer National Conference
National Labor College, Silver Spring, MD, March 5-7

Tenth Anniversary Of kclabor.org
North Kansas City Library, March 21

Labor Notes Conference
Detroit, April 23-25

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