Week In Review
A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
February 15, 2011
What with the launch of our Forum series and my favorite Saint’s holiday, I’m a wee bit late but here it is.
One of the jokes circulating early last week among protesters in Cairo’s Liberation Square ran like this: A nervous aide rushed in to dictator Mubarak’s office exclaiming “the protesters are demanding a firm time for departure.” Mubarak replied, “Why, where are they going?”
Though they are still far from their ultimate destination it’s now clear to all–even the stony-faced and stone-hearted ex-tyrant–the direction Egyptian workers and unemployed youth have chosen. We wrote in the last WIR, “The key component in building not just protest but an alternative to the whole rotten regime is the lively union movement that has asserted itself against repression over the past few years.” We were gratified to see that begin.
Egyptian youth had assembled the biggest flash mob in history through their texting and tweeting but last Thursday those encamped in Liberation Square appeared to have gone as far as they were capable. It was then the heavy battalions of the working class, led by their fledgling independent unions, entered the fray.
They not only swelled the numbers of protesters, and led them in a march on the dictator’s palace; they shut down workplaces great and small across the land. They even pulled out the support workers for the Suez Canal though they chose not to completely shut down the vital international waterway for now–that’s a card to hold for later play if needed.
The Army, at least temporarily in charge, has granted some wage increases to workers in the public sector. The nominal public sector is huge, a remnant left over from Nasser’s 1950s vision of a Pan-Arab socialism. Similar to China, much of this state-owned economy today has production contracts with global corporations for goods destined for Europe, Japan and North America.
These economic ties of globalization--along with the strategic role Egypt has played in U.S. policy throughout what we call the Middle East since Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords--are the biggest threats to a complete victory of the Egyptian revolution. The foreign powers have close ties and provide funding for the officer caste that is trying to get all Egyptians back to their jobs–if they have one. But the conscripts making up the ranks of the Army are from the working class and may not be a reliable force of repression if the brass tries to go that route.
The last three weeks have shown how quickly things can change. That’s not lost on the Egyptians who are optimistic even though they are aware their fight is far from over. It can also be an object lesson for workers in North America who may feel resistance is futile.
Sunday, before we began the scheduled presentation at our first KC Labor Forum, we took a moment to first honor the dead who have so far fallen in the uprising in Egypt, and then to join in the joy of their celebration of what they have so far accomplished. We also recognize it’s our duty to demand that the corporations and governments in North America keep their Hands Off the Egyptian Revolution.
PATCO Moments Coming?
Many date labor’s decline in power to 1981 when first-year President Reagan fired all of the nation’s air traffic controllers involved in the PATCO strike–and got away with it. Even Nixon had not gone that far in the 1970 postal workers strike--which wound up winning a first contract.
Labor was outraged. Then AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland even called a Solidarity Day demonstration in Washington that brought out hundreds of thousands of fighting mad unionists. He resisted suggestions by some leaders that the march be taken to National Airport, not far away, to shut it down. Kirkland proved to be more frightened of the monster he had summoned in to the streets than was the White House. Soon even the token boycott of air travel by union staff was abandoned and our labor statespersons returned to what they know best–hustling votes for the Democrats.
Of course, a Democrat “friend” currently occupies the big mansion built by slaves on Pennsylvania Avenue but tokens of gratitude from that address have been difficult to identify. When unions were recently given the right to petition for an election to represent TSA security folks in the nation’s airports our leaders hailed this as a sign the Obama administration walks the walk with working families. Not just one but two unions–AFGE and the Treasury Workers–are competing to win a vote scheduled in a few weeks.
It turns out, however, that even if one of these unions wins, their representation rights will be somewhat limited. They cannot bargain over wages, benefits, hours, or working conditions. Nor can they grieve discharges. Other than that they will have full union rights–except for one other little thing, of course. A Washington Post headline reminded us, TSA boss says he'd fire security officers who strike.
John Pistole isn’t the only official taking a Mubarak-style approach to public sector bargaining. WorkDay Minnesota posts a story headlined, Wisconsin governor seeks to strip worker rights, threatens to use Guard. The GOP Governor in Ohio has been making similar bellicose statements. Working Families Party Governor Cuomo in New York doesn’t have to threaten to call out the militia–he has the Orwellian Public Employees Fair Employment Act–more commonly known as the Taylor Law. It forbids public sector strikes in the most highly unionized state. Workers who violate Taylor are subject to a fine of two days pay for every day they are out.
Because of these threats and intimidation, it’s more important than ever for the entire labor movement–appealing for support from the rest of the working class as well–to rally meaningful solidarity with our sisters and brothers who are justly proud of being public employees. I’m talking a lot more than e-mail campaigns or sending a bus load or two to the state capitol to lobby. If we let those workers down–as happened with PATCO–future historians may pinpoint this moment as the coup de grâce of a once mighty movement become helpless.
Let Them Eat Cooked Books
My wife Mary is generally more even tempered and cool headed than I during our dinner-time ritual of watching NBC Nightly News. But the reporting last night on the Obama Budget really got her dander up. Of course, she was upset to hear about funding cuts proposed for such items as education, heating bill assistance for those living in poverty, and–of direct concern to Mary’s profession–the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, among many other useful services. Everyone knows the cracked tea pots will be holding House GOP feet to the fire to slash more.
But Mary’s outrage was centered on reporting on the consensus of expert judgment of this first draft of a budget. The pundits thought it did reasonably well in cutting “discretionary” spending but ducked the main cause of fiscal deficit–entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. Mary, who paid attention in her high school civics class, knows full well Social Security was never intended to be part of the Federal budget as either asset or liability. It’s funded by a dedicated payroll tax. It’s also very efficiently administered by public sector workers.
During the first three decades of Social Security it was kept completely off-budget, a category of its own. Things started getting messy when politicians heavily borrowed from this fund–mainly to pay for things that did swell the deficit such as the war machine and tax cuts for the rich. Now they want to count not only repayment of these loans to the Social Security Trust as liabilities but all the projected payments from the Trust and ongoing payroll tax to old folks as well.
Of course, this cooking of the books is not limited to NBC. Virtually all the mass media peddles the same scam. I don’t blame Mary for getting mad–and, while she’s a one-of-a-kind in many ways, in this area I’m sure there are many more like her.
The only response from a major labor leader to the budget I’ve seen so far that’s worth mentioning is a piece by Rose Ann DeMoro, Executive Director, National Nurses United entitled An alternative vision for the President’s budget. She suggests sixteen concrete proposals for a better budget, mostly pretty good, all moving in the right direction.
¶ Missouri State Senator Jane Cunningham has introduced SB-222 that would effectively eliminate my home state’s child labor laws.
¶ Richard Mabion, who spoke at our New Crises, New Agendas conference a couple of years ago is once again organizing his annual Breaking the Silence conference in Kansas City, Kansas. The gathering is focused on bringing together people of color working for environmental sustainability in their communities with the largely white environmental groups. This year’s event will be at the Reardon Center, March 11-12. For more information click here.
¶ The Wall Street Journal reports, “In his more than two decades as Illinois's top power broker, House Speaker Michael Madigan has been a stalwart backer of unions, regularly supporting public-pension benefits with long-term obligations. The unions have returned the favor in campaign donations and endorsements. But now, amid a massive budget crisis, he is threatening to break that link, underscoring a growing gulf between public-employee unions and some of their longtime Democratic champions. Illinois, one of the nation's remaining union strongholds, has funded less than 50% of the pension benefits it owes retirees—the worst ratio of all U.S. states.”
That’s all for this week.
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