Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
February 17, 2008

A Matter Of Degree
A Sunflower State legislator seeking to overturn regulator denial of permits for two new coal-fired power plants in rural western Kansas thought he had scored a major point. He demanded to know from the top regulator, at what level does carbon dioxide become dangerous for humans? The answer of “I don’t know,” provoked a guffaw heard the length of the Kaw River.

Of course, unless it is in concentrations displacing needed oxygen, breathing CO2 is not harmful to humans. But what it does when it collects in the upper atmosphere started becoming dangerous to humans more than a century ago and today represents the biggest threat to human civilization yet. That’s what prompted some gutsy Kansas regulators to say no to pumping more massive amounts in to our increasingly distressed biosphere.

Christine Frank, a long time labor movement activist who has become a remarkably knowledgeable environmental crusader, and coordinates the Twin Cities Climate Crisis Coalition, notes in an article in the February Socialist Action (unfortunately not yet available online),

“A weakening in Earth’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere means that the planet is warming faster than previously thought. It had been assumed that concentrations of CO2 would grow in line with the world economy. However, over the past seven years, levels of the greenhouse gas have grown 35 percent faster...”

The urgency of the situation was brought to the attention of millions last Thursday with an excellent television special on the National Geographic channel, Six Degrees Could Change the World. It was largely based on the book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas, who narrated much of it. Using a format similar to Al Gore’s Oscar winning An Inconvenient Truth, this powerful presentation combined hard scientific facts with dramatic graphic illustrations.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Earth will warm up between 1.4 degrees Centigrade and 5.8 degrees C (roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit to 10 degrees F) by the end of this century. Lynas calmly and clearly explained the ramifications of incremental increases in this range. The smallest, which can be obtained only by prompt global response, will still bring unwelcome changes to just about everyone’s life. The top of the scale means catastrophes of Armageddon proportions.

But this is not the final battle between divine and evil powers where the good guys get rewarded for eternity. Nor is it a contest already lost as some “skeptical environmentalists” argue, suggesting we may as well indulge ourselves with that Hummer we secretly covet. It is a clash between science and ignorance, between activism and apathy–and, in the final analysis, between global capital and the rest of us.

The state legislators, and many union officials, supporting those new coal fired plants in Kansas may be ignorant–though they probably concluded long ago that it pays to be ignorant. But the people running the show, the top level bosses and politicians, are well aware of the scientific truth–yet cannot bring themselves to make the needed changes to shave even a degree or two off.

Al Gore tried to talk some sense in to a group of 500 prominent financial leaders and institutional investors last week at a gathering at UN headquarters. They all agreed something should be done–as long as there was a profit in doing so. Many corporate giants, of course, now tout new green images. Dow Chemical was one of the sponsors of the Six Degrees TV special

Dow is not the top polluter--the Political Economy Research Institute ranked them no higher than eleventh on the list of toxicity of airborne pollutants emitted in the United States. According to the EPA, they are responsible for 96 of the United States' worst Superfund toxic waste dumps. When Dow acquired Union Carbide they renounced any responsibility for damages arising from the Bhopal disaster that killed at least three thousand, and wrecked the health of tens of thousands more in India. They are being sued by residents living along the Tittabawassee River in Michigan for dioxin contamination. This company that brought the world napalm also produced the once common–and highly toxic--home and garden pesticide, Dursban. Now they are greener than an Irishman on St Patrick’s Day.

General Motors is another born-again green concern. But last week GM CEO Rick Wagoner urged auto dealers to lobby against rules that would allow individual states to set their own standards for greenhouse gas emissions, as California has proposed. The dealers agreed to do just that.

Christine Frank observes in her article,

“It is clear we cannot rely upon government leaders, the scientific community, green capitalist entrepreneurs or technocrats to save us. Working men and women must take matters into our own hands...”

I believe she is absolutely correct in this assertion. A possible opportunity for advancing discussion of how to do this is the “Labor and Environmental Coalitions” workshop scheduled at the Labor Notes Conference in Dearborn April 11-13.

In Brief...
¶ If you missed it in our
Daily Labor News Digest you should check out a six-part series on poultry workers in the Carolinas, in the Charlotte Observer.

¶ Labor was well represented among the more than three hundred initial endorsers calling a National Assembly To End the Iraq War and Occupation, in Cleveland June 28-29. Among the labor sponsors: North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor (formerly Cleveland AFL-CIO); United Teachers Los Angeles, (the 2nd largest local teachers union in the US, affiliated with both AFT/CFT and NEA/CTA); Donna Dewitt, President, South Carolina AFL-CIO; Ohio State Council UNITE HERE; Chris Silvera, Secretary-Treasurer, Teamsters Local 808, Long Island City, NY; John W. Braxton, Co-President, American Federation of Teachers Local 2026; Doug Bullock, 1st Vice President, Albany Federation of Labor; Francesca Rosa, SEIU Local 1021 Delegate, San Francisco Labor Council; Mark Dudzic, National Organizer, Labor Party; and more. Veterans for Peace are also on board as well as such prominent figures as Cindy Sheehan, Howard Zinn and Scott Ritter. Go to the conference web site by clicking here.

¶ Sal Rosselli, the president of United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), has resigned from the SEIU’s Executive Committee. In his resignation letter to [Chairman] Andy Stern, Rosselli lists a bill of particulars challenging bargaining and political strategy as well as internal bureaucratic functioning. He says, “Much of what I have outlined here I have said to you directly and in Executive Committee meetings. I have abided by the code of conduct for Executive Committee members that requires what is said in the committee to stay in the committee and that positions adopted by majority vote of the committee should determine the position of all its members. In good conscience, I can no longer allow simple majorities of the Executive Committee to outweigh my responsibility to our members to act out of principle on these critically important matters. I say this with no ill will, but with a deep sense of conviction.” Rosselli has recently granted interviews to Labor Notes, Democracy Now, and others on the fight shaping up in SEIU. We’ll have more to say on this next week.

¶ The National Nurses Organizing Committee, a union started by the California Nurses Association, took their campaign for legislated patient/nurse ratios to Arizona with a rally at the state capitol last week. CNA played a leading role in winning such protections for both patients and nurses in California and are working along the same lines in Texas, Maine, Massachusetts and other states as well.

That’s all for this week.

KC Labor Home

Rebuilding Labor's Power
Dearborn, MI April 11-13

National Assembly To End the Iraq War and Occupation
Cleveland June 28-29

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