Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 9, 2012

Don’t Shoot the Messenger
Heidi Shierholz at the union-funded Economic Policy Institute usually does a good job explaining economic news in lay terms. She was probably mindful of the challenge of reelection of the man labor helped put in the White House when see entitled her useful commentary about the
BLS December jobs reportA Solid Step in the Right Direction for the Labor Market .The wish here may be mother to the thought. While adding jobs is the way to go it seems likely that we are witnessing one of those relatively brief and shallow up ticks, such as occurred several times even during the Great Depression, rather than the beginning of a robust recovery in jobs.  

A net 200,000 jobs were added to nonfarm payrolls to make the final month of 2011 the fourth strongest of the year. The conscientious folks at the Bureau of Labor Statistics try to make seasonable adjustments to these reports but acknowledge this one may be more skewed than normal.

The job category experiencing the greatest growth, making up over twenty percent of the total, was the 42,000 new messengers and couriers hired. A resumption of customer and office holiday parties hosted by recently more stingy companies generated a bump of 21,000 new jobs in hospitality/leisure. Unseasonably warm weather produced a surprising growth of 17,000 construction jobs. Generally there was some growth across the board–except for the public sector where 14,000 more positions were lost.

Before you start planning a career change to messenger you should understand the lion’s share of this category’s growth was due to the now standard free shipping offered to boost mail order/Internet Christmas sales--and many are already looking for work again in the new year. They will be joined by a lot of the 28,000 hired in retail (following a growth of 39,000 the previous month.) Sears/Kmart has announced plans to close dozens of stores. And everyone agrees the construction figures are a fluke.

I’ve always paid closest attention to what is informally known as the “real” unemployment total–the aggregate of measures that tell us the number who would like a full-time job but can’t find one. Long hovering in the 25 million range, this has declined over 2011 to around 24. It would take ten years of “solid steps” of 200,000 jobs a month to put that many to work. For now, the fact remains that for every new job opening there is an average of more than four applicants.

The White House used the report to claim their Social Security tax-cut scam, along with extended unemployment compensation, are contributing to economic revival--and urged Congress to extend them beyond the next expiration date about seven weeks away.

Many of the long-term jobless would have to resort to begging or stealing if it were not for extended benefits.

I have no doubt that most employed workers have spent the extra 10-20 bucks a week in their paychecks resulting from shorting their retirement fund. Some that didn’t blow it all on pizza are using it for installment payments to replace water heaters, refrigerators, and washing machines as they wear out--fueling the modest growth in manufacturing jobs.

But other Administration policies are perpetuating, even intensifying the misery and anxiety that has been spreading in America over the past several years. Tens of thousands of good postal jobs are on the chopping block. Pro-privatization Education policies are closing schools and eliminating union teachers. Even the employer of last resort for young people who can’t find work and can’t afford college–the all volunteer U.S. Army-- is going to be trimmed.

After imposing a two-year wage freeze on Federal employees the President is now proposing to give them a whopping one-half of one percent raise. That’s sort of like giving your waitress a nickel tip. I imagine this bounty will lead to spending sprees like a thirsty sailor ashore after a six-month float.

In addition to targeting future Social Security benefits it is likely that further fiddling with cost-of-living indexing will soon reduce the purchasing power of present retirees.

And, to offset the Social Security “tax cut” gimmick, new consumer mortgage fees will dampen any recovery in the housing market.

Neither labor’s “friend” in the Oval Office or that Bain of the working class, Mit Romney, has the objective, much less a plan for full employment with decent wages and benefits. On the contrary, the ruling class that each serves–Romney actually a part of the One Percent elite–is far from satiated in their relentless drive to transfer more wealth from Us to Them.

Right Wing Pushes the ERA
No sisters, we’re not talking about the Equal Rights Amendment that failed to get the super-majority of states required for ratification. My wife Mary pointed out to me a full-page ad in the New York Times promoting the Employee Rights Act, introduced in Congress by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). The colorful display, part of a ten million dollar campaign by the boss front called the Center for Union Facts, compares union members to those suffering under dictatorship in North Korea. Once unions get in, they argue, they are as self-perpetuating as the Kim family. The new ERA would require a secret ballot vote every three years to determine if a union still has majority status.

This ERA is unlikely to get as far as the earlier one. But, in Indiana it looks like a hard fought so-called Right to Work law will finally be enacted. If the courts shoot down White House recess appointments, the National Labor Relations Board will essentially go out of business during the life of the present Congress. The bosses are on the offensive against the puniest protections of American labor law.

Of course, even the “more labor friendly” Obama-shaped NLRB continues to enforce Taft-Hartley against basic human rights of workers. We got a reminder of this from the president of the ILWU, locked in a bitter dispute with a scab EGT terminal in Longview, Washington. In a message to solidarity supporters he writes,

“Locals need to be aware of the narrow path that we must cut through a federal labor law (the Taft-Hartley Act) that criminalizes worker solidarity, outlaws labor’s most effective tools, and protects commerce while severely restricting unions....the NLRB, which administers Taft-Hartley, sought and received an injunction in federal court on behalf of EGT against the ILWU and its members.”

Hundreds of ILWU pickets are also awaiting disorderly conduct trials in state court. In the very first to go before a jury his peers needed only twelve minutes to decide on acquittal.

Following the last Presidential election labor officials were confident we would soon see the Employee Free Choice Act--some modest tinkering with Taft-Hartley to help organize new workers. But, even after watering it down as demanded by the administration, EFCA sank as quickly as the Red Sox in a wild card race. What do you reckon are the chances of meaningful labor law reform in a lame duck Obama administration?

Canada’s Turn
Union contracts for 457,960 public sector workers and 98,530 in the private, are up for negotiation this year in Canada. Unlike the major U.S. negotiations last year, there is some potential for major class battles. A story in the Globe & Mail surveying them is entitled
Bracing for trouble on the picket line.

Of course, some bosses already got a head start by locking out workers even as the New Year was rung in. Rio Tinto Alcan barred 800 Quebec smelter workers from their jobs and, as reported in the last WIR, Caterpillar shut out hundreds of CAW members at its Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ontario. The CAW will also have to deal with the remnants of the Big Three automakers–fresh from getting the sweetest deal ever from the UAW.

Especially in the many cases where we deal with the same employers there should be serious efforts in cross-border solidarity–going beyond e-mails of outrage. Along the way, those of us south of the border may learn some lessons from a labor movement showing more signs of motion.

Like Dorothy, Boeing’s Not In Kansas Anymore
About a year ago, Boeing won a long battle against European Aeronautic Defense & Space for a huge Air Force contract to build aerial refueling tankers. They could not have prevailed without vigorous lobbying from both organized labor, spearheaded by the IAM, and top, mostly Republican, Kansas public officials. The reward for this effort was to be years of work for 7500 blue and white collar workers in Wichita.

On Wednesday, Boeing announced they are closing the Wichita plant, a complex of dozens of buildings that have been making military planes since the 1920s. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) thundered “The fact that Boeing is now refusing to honor its commitment to the people of Kansas is greatly troubling to me and to thousands of Kansans who trusted that Boeing's promise would be kept. A company so much a part of the Wichita community for 80 years should not make this decision lightly.”

Troubled as public and union officials may have been it didn’t occur to them that perhaps there was a lesson to be learned about corporate pledges. Three days later, Governor Brownback announced a deal with Montreal-based Bombardier to expand their Wichita Learjet plant, described in the Wichita Eagle,

“The incentives package will help with the expansion of the plant to make room for Bombardier’s newest business jet – the eight-passenger, intercontinental Learjet 85. The $52.7 million project will mean 450 jobs at the site, the company has said.”

That’s all for this week.

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