Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
February 21, 2011

Because of the volume of important news–especially from Wisconsin way--we skipped our union Presidents Day holiday to update the Daily Labor News Digest.

On Wisconsin
I wish I had a pound of Sharp Cheddar for every reference to Egypt from the remarkable mobilization of public workers and allies in Wisconsin–the biggest labor solidarity actions since the Reagan administration. Clearly they took heart from the TV and Internet coverage of the power of mass mobilizations in Liberation Square, and the accompanying strikes by workers, that in a few weeks overcame decades of tyrannical rule. Nor did those in the Badger State have trouble identifying the would-be Mubarak in their midst.

The protest against Governor Walker’s attempt to strip public workers of most collective bargaining rights began last Tuesday. Most attention has focused on the uninterrupted days of protests by tens of thousands of public workers, other unionists, and many students at the state Capitol in Madison. But actions of unprecedented size erupted in Wausau, Superior, Hudson, and many other smaller towns as well. On Day One, players from the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers expressed their solidarity with state workers.

Like Mubarak, Governor Walker summoned his supporters to confront the workers at the Capitol. But there the comparison with Egypt breaks down. Instead of young thugs charging in to the crowd on horseback the curious collection of cracked tea pots assembled was a tiny sideshow of the main event. Chanting “trim the fat” while displaying photos of Ronald Reagan they soon retreated to a corner of their own where they heard remarks from “Joe the Plumber” and a recorded message from Sarah Palin.

Also unlike Egypt, the first few days of action in Madison were largely ignored by the mainstream media. NBC Nightly News first mentioned them only on the fourth day. Most newspapers weren’t much better. The Kansas City Star didn’t inform their readers about all the ruckus until Saturday and then it was headlined, “Wisconsin Democrats Flee State.”

Wisconsin Senate Democrats became heroes of the moment with a self-imposed exile to Illinois, denying a quorum needed to transact any business. They hope no one will remember how Democrat Senators let public workers down in a “lame duck” session in December. The unions and outgoing Governor had hurriedly come to terms on agreements they expected to get ratified. But two Democrat Senators–one the outgoing majority leader–abstained on ratification, killing the deals and opening the door for Walker’s union busting.

Right-wing Republicans such as Walker would like to eliminate unions and have nothing to lose by trying. Democrats, however, depend on union funding and volunteer power to get elected. That’s why they want to keep around unions who act “responsibly.”

The Senators in exile have said they are prepared to stay in Illinois for “weeks.” Since no budget–or any laws of any kind–can be passed in their absence that could mean a shutdown of state government. While this is a potent threat, it is unlikely to be played out. Their cross-border camp-out is to show they “tried,” not a fight to the finish to win. Even that much would have never happened without the massive outpouring.

Overshadowed by Wisconsin but also impressive was a mass demonstration of 5,000 at the Ohio Capitol in Columbus against introduction of a “right-to-work law” as well as public worker union-busting similar to Wisconsin.

So far unions have not been so combative in states such as New York and California where Democrat Governors are also busting labor’s chops. Nor have they put up much of a squawk about the wage and hiring freeze imposed by the White House on civilian Federal employees.

In a New York Times article entitled Wisconsin Puts Obama Between Competing Desires Jackie Calmes writes,

“The battle in Wisconsin over public employee unions has left President Obama facing a tricky balance between showing solidarity with longtime political supporters and projecting a message in favor of deep spending cuts to reduce the debt.... Administration officials said Sunday that the White House had done nothing to encourage the demonstrations in Wisconsin — nor was it doing so in Ohio, Florida and other states where new Republican governors are trying to make deep cuts to balance their budgets.”

The fiscal crisis orchestrated by the bosses, bankers, and the bipartisan collection of politicians they keep on retainer, has targeted public sector workers first and foremost. Be they scientists, laborers, teachers, nurses, or bus drivers, they are portrayed as overpaid and inefficient, living the good life while hard working tax-payers sacrifice to support them. They must make sacrifices as well, we are told.

This common slander has been refuted by studies that show that public workers earn on average 4.8 percent less than private sector employees with the same qualifications doing similar jobs. In order to stay in public service that can be personally fulfilling, public sector workers have agreed over the years to a trade off–lower wages in exchange for relatively secure jobs and retirement. Now their employers want even lower wages while eliminating jobs and gutting benefits such as health care and pensions.

While public sector workers are presently on the front line of the class war being waged on American workers none of us will be exempt from Big Business plans for fiscal austerity. They are not only going after the present meager government assistance to the poorest--as the President proposed in his budget, with the Republican House seeking to whack away even more. The once untouchable entitlements of Social Security and Medicare are in grave danger.

Fiscal austerity is not dictated by declining national assets. It is a subterfuge to redistribute more of the wealth from working people to the richest ruling class in history. In the private sector the bosses demand even more take-backs from us in the name of “competitiveness”--though American workers are already the most productive in the world.

In organized labor there are discussions and emergency conferences in the works to start formulating plans for fighting back in the class war. These worthy projects deserve support. Hopefully they can lead to a unified, national response from all sectors of the movement.

Our unions, it is true, represent only a minority of workers. They are, however, the only class based mass organizations workers have yet built in this country. We begin with the organized and branch out to the rest of the working class and potential allies from there. To build such alliances we need to champion the interests of all.

A central goal for metaphorically rearming workers for current and future battles of historic importance needs to be finally establishing a party of our own–a Labor Party that can bring our struggles in the workplace and street in to the arena where we can also fight for political power for the presently dispossessed working class majority.

I began this section by describing the impact of the Egyptian workers on Wisconsin. I close it out by referring you to a link on Michael Moore’s site with a statement and video from Kamal Abbas. He is General Coordinator of the CTUWS, an umbrella organization for independent unions in Egypt. The CTUWS, which was awarded the 1999 French Republic's Human Rights Prize, suffered repeated harassment and attack by the Mubarak regime, and played a leading role in its overthrow. Abbas salutes the Wisconsin workers saying,

“We want you to know that we stand on your side. Stand firm and don't waiver. Don't give up on your rights. Victory always belongs to the people who stand firm and demand their just rights. We and all the people of the world stand on your side and give you our full support. As our just struggle for freedom, democracy and justice succeeded, your struggle will succeed. Victory belongs to you when you stand firm and remain steadfast in demanding your just rights....Today is the day of the American workers. We salute you American workers! You will be victorious. Victory belongs to all the people of the world, who are fighting against exploitation, and for their just rights.”

In Brief...
¶ The Los Angeles Times reported, “Thousands of employees would lose jobs, children would face larger classes, and magnet and preschool programs would experience sharp reductions under a worst-case $5-billion budget plan approved Tuesday by the Los Angeles Board of Education.”
¶ From the CBC, “The City of Winnipeg's largest group of unionized workers has rejected a contract offer and is positioned to strike, although talks are expected to resume through a conciliator next week.” About 5,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees are involved.
¶ A Detroit Free-Press article probes a multiple personality disorder challenge,
Stock puts UAW in a divided role in talks.
¶ Fiat’s hit Super Bowl commercial was called Detroit Is Back. But not back is the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Musicians who have been on strike against take-backs since October have rejected another inadequate offer and management has canceled the balance of the season that would have run through June.
¶ 1,650 RNs at Washington Hospital Center, members of National Nurses United, have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a one-day strike. No date has been set for a walkout at DC’s biggest hospital.
¶ The Wall Street Journal took a break from Social Security bashing for an update about the private sector’s alternative–
Retiring Boomers Find 401(k) Plans Fall Short.
¶ Rachel Krech of Yahoo’s content farm writes, “According to recent scientific evidence, large amounts of oil from the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year is still stuck on the bottom of the ocean basin floor, implying the spilled petroleum hasn't biodegraded as quickly as BP has stated.”

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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