Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
February 20, 2012

‘We Are Not in a Battle; We're in a War!
That was the subject line of an e-mail newsletter from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the biggest union of Federal workers. Their president John Gage, or whoever wrote this piece and title, is spot on. In the fourth year of a “friend” for their executive branch boss, their complaints are many and bitter.

On Friday, the President commended Congress–much appreciated, I would think, in light of their ten percent public approval rating–for acting responsibly in passing a package that included continuing the “Middle Class tax cut” and extended unemployment compensation, through the end of this year–that is, until after the election. Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proudly said: “In the end, both sides compromised for the good of our country, which is exactly how the American people expect their elected leaders to work.”

I’ll come back to that “tax cut” shortly. Not so widely publicized was the bipartisan slashing of the duration of long-term unemployment compensation from 99 to 73 weeks. And, scarcely mentioned by anyone, was a new attack supported by both parties on Federal workers, exposed by AFGE:

“The new hires will be asked to pay 2.3 percent more into their pension programs, an immediate reduction in take home pay....For a GS-3 nursing assistant earning $27,322 while working in a VA hospital psychiatric ward, this will be a $628 annual tax increase. For a GS-5 USDA meat and poultry inspector earning $31,825 while protecting Americans from E.Coli and other deadly diseases, this will be a $732 annual tax increase.”

Let’s not forget--these are the same workers whose wages were frozen for two years. They are part of the broader public sector of all levels of government that has seen over 600,000 jobs eliminated since the beginning of the recession. The hemorrhaging hasn’t stopped yet–as Kansas City Firefighters battling to maintain safe crew sizes on pumper trucks can attest.

I’ve often commented on the scam cynically called a “Middle Class tax cut” that the big majority of Democrats, and all but the most cracked tea pots across the aisle, voted to extend. The often perceptive economics writer Michael Hiltzik recently devoted a Los Angeles Times blog to it entitled Payroll tax cut undermines Social Security's security. He writes,

“...because of the unique features of the program's financing, tampering with its revenue stream is playing with fire. The payroll tax is currently set at 12.4% of wages, split equally between employer and employee, up to a maximum of $110,100. The tax holiday cuts the employee's 6.2% share to 4.2%.

“Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) put it well when he excoriated President Obama and his fellow congressional Democrats for approving a measure that places Social Security's financial stability on the table. ‘I never thought I would live to see the day when a Democratic president ... would agree to put Social Security in this kind of jeopardy,’ he said. ‘Never did I ever imagine a Democratic president beginning the unraveling of Social Security.’”

 The sub-heading for Hiltzik’s blog was “If Social Security becomes just another line item in the federal budget, what's to save it from being swept up in an across-the-board orgy of spending reductions?” Certainly not the Democrats or Republicans is a safe partial answer.

AFGE has a reputation of being a progressive union. They were an early affiliate of the Labor Party. I once got a chance to meet brother Gage when his union graciously provided meeting space for a gathering of the Labor Party Interim National Council in our nation’s capital.

It’s good they–unlike too many unions--are publicly defending their members under attack. It’s even better that they call what all workers face today by its right name--a war. But, despite early flirtations with the now dormant Labor Party, they are just as reluctant as most other unions to recognize the two faces of the enemy whose blitzkrieg is meeting little effective resistance.

Those nice structures near Lafayette Park that house most of Labor’s general staff may seem as secure to them as the French General Staff felt in the Maginot Line. But us grunts in the field are being exhausted in retreat. Our best weapons are becoming rusty in disuse. Many are even confused as to who is enemy, who is ally.

The great ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu said,

“Know thy enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated....If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.”

The General’s wisdom has never taken hold among our labor statespersons. Another recent example of perfidious labor “friends” that didn’t receive much national attention was taken up in Labor Notes by Lenny Potash, Why Did Single-Payer Health Care Fail in California? When the state had a Republican Governor sure to veto, the Democrats twice passed single-payer legislation. Now with a Democrat friend in the Governor’s spot, who would be deeply embarrassed by a veto, just enough Dems voted no or abstained to kill the bill by two votes.

In another Los Angeles Times article entitled Unions return to Democratic fold for 2012 election, Matea Gold and Melanie Mason write,

“Last May, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stood a few blocks from the White House and issued a stern warning: Union members could not be counted on as the Democrats' foot soldiers anymore. ‘If leaders aren't blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families' interests, then working people will not support them,’ he said in a speech at the National Press Club. Flash forward to today: Labor appears squarely back in the Democrats' corner for the 2012 election...”

They go on to report,

“The country's biggest unions also have played a central role in helping a network of federal pro-Democratic ‘super PACs’ get off the ground, pouring more than $4 million into those groups in 2011, even as many wealthy liberals kept their checkbooks closed. And some major labor groups have even inserted themselves into the Republican presidential primaries with ads that take aim at White House hopeful Mitt Romney.”

Fighting this war without a working class party of our own is indeed ignorance that will cost us dearly.

But the war is far from over. There’s still time to revive the building of a Labor Party that knows the enemy, can take them on–and can win.

Complex Fractures
Back in the first year of the Obama administration an energy/climate bill was a major White House priority. Among a bit of everything else was a plan for the same type of cap-and-trade swindle so widespread in Europe. The Pale Green environmental groups not only embraced that approach; seeing coal as the main enemy they cuts deals with the gas industry. As revealed in a
Washington Post story by Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson, the grateful leader of the gas pack, Chesapeake Energy, forked over millions of dollars to outfits such as the Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, and even the American Cancer Society.

Now some are having sellers remorse. Of course, to begin with, the burning of the fossil fuel natural gas is only marginally less destructive to our biosphere than coal and oil. That slim benefit is more than offset by the environmental and health damage resulting from its latest methods of extraction. The main growth of gas has been through hydraulic fracturing, now universally known as fracking, to separate gas trapped in shale deposits deep underground. When Michael Brune took over as Sierra Club executive director he says he realized this was “controversial.”

That’s like saying global warming or evolution is controversial. One major union body doesn’t see much controversy about it. The Pennsylvania Federation of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters devotes a web page on the topic that begins with an article entitled-- Fracking - The Killing of America.

To his credit, Brune has rejected an offer of another thirty million dollars from Chesapeake Energy. But the fact remains that instead of environmental groups--who should know the most about environmental risks--raising the early alarm about fracking they chose political and financial expedience instead and only tardily reacted to growing public outrage against this danger.

In Brief...
¶ President Obama congratulated General Motors reclaiming the title of the world’s number one automaker as GM announced a record profit of 7.6 billion dollars--and the Detroit News reported, “General Motors Co. is ending traditional pensions for all U.S. salaried employees and replacing them with more common defined-contribution, or 401(k), plans.”
¶ From Theresa Moran in Labor Notes, “A bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, voted up 75-20 in the Senate, changes federal labor law to make organizing more difficult for railroad and airline unions. New rules will make it easier to decertify unions and harder to win elections when employers merge. Only 14 Senate Democrats stood with labor to oppose the measure in a February 6 vote. One independent and five Republicans also voted against the bill.”
¶ Also in LN, Jenny Brown explores the important question,
Can Labor Organize the Unemployed?
¶ A reporter for a well known political site, searching for some visible sign of labor at an Obama rally in the Badger State, misidentified the Wisconsin state flag as a banner for “Wisconsin Local 1848.”
¶ Ylan Q. Mui in the Washington Post, “The nation’s unemployment rate is falling faster than expected, but what counts as a job has become increasingly murky. More than a quarter of people who have found jobs since the recession ended have landed in temporary positions, according to government data, though private estimates range far higher. The numbers reflect a fundamental change in the way Americans work, with neither businesses nor their employees expecting to stay together for life.”
¶ From the British Guardian, “Canada has threatened a trade war with European Union over the bloc's plan to label oil from Alberta's vast tar sands as highly polluting...The move is a significant escalation of the row over the EU's plans, which Canada fears would set a global precedent and derail its ability to exploit its tar sands, which are the biggest fossil fuel reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia. Environmental groups argue that exploitation of the tar sands, also called oil sands, is catastrophic for the global climate, as well as causing serious air and water pollution in Alberta.”

After the long holiday weekend break, news updates will resume tomorrow (Tuesday, February 21) on the Labor Advocate Blog.

That’s all for this week.

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