Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
February 24, 2008

Our Father May Forgive But Not Solidarity House
When the Cleveland Five, also known as the Freightliner Five, went to their last union meeting they were told they were no longer members and were “trespassing.” The quintet tried logical arguments such as reminding union officials their dues were paid up and they had attended every previous meeting over the past year. Dismissing their reasoning as well as the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer, the leadership of UAW Local 3250 summoned the Iredell County (North Carolina) Sheriff’s Office to send deputies to eject the alleged interlopers. Allen Bradley, who had played a key role in the UAW organizing drive at the Freightliner plant in Cleveland, NC, was arrested and eventually charged with trespassing. Later, with the help of the local NAACP branch, he was released on his own promise to appear in court.

The Five were among those disciplined by Freightliner after calling a strike upon expiration of the last contract in April, 2007. UAW officials in Detroit disavowed it and ordered workers back to work. Some were required by the company to sign a “last chance” mea culpa–essentially putting them on probation--before being allowed to return to their jobs. The Five, who constituted the heart of the shop leadership, were fired.

The UAW bureaucracy has done little, beyond filing formal grievances heading to arbitration, to help those discharged for following the old UAW maxim “no contract, no work.” Instead their local struck them from the rolls.

Just as they have done with the Big Three, Solidarity House is desperately trying to nurture a “partnership” relationship with the Freightliner bosses. Daimler, the parent owner of Freightliner, was once their partner at Chrysler. They don’t want adversarial hot heads like the Five messing things up. Their half-hearted grievances filed on behalf of the Five are mainly to protect them from “failure to represent” charges.

The Five have been appealing for solidarity from the rest of the labor movement with some good response.

South Carolina AFL-CIO president Donna Dewitt said, “Corporations continue to flock to the South, where they can take advantage of 'right-to-work' laws and intimidate workers. It is incidents such as the termination of the five Cleveland Freightliner union members that impedes the ability of unions to organize successfully in the South. When workers see what happens to union members--union leaders--they will choose not to be a part of a union. In the end, the corporations win, and workers lose.”

Sister Dewitt, as usual, is right on the money. She knows what it takes to organize workers in the South–and it’s not pleas for partnership while union activists are fired with impunity.

You can find out more about this important solidarity effort by clicking here.

As Seen On TV
My friends who disdain watching television miss out on a lot. For example, there are these thirty-second TV commercials, sponsored by the “Coalition For the Future American Worker,” featuring Dr Frank Morris. Dr Morris, identified as former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, begins one telling us that some condemn opponents of illegal immigration as racist. As the screen shifts to scenes of the 1963 March On Washington, the doctor declares he has been fighting racism all of his life and is now fighting illegal immigration as well because of what it is doing to African-American workers. Messages are flashed informing us immigration is responsible for forty percent of Black unemployment and also for plummeting wages.

This was news to me. Here I thought ingrained racism, along with the restructuring of industries with large numbers of African-American workers, were the main factors leading to the present economic plight of Black America. I was eager to learn more so I went to the coalition web site.

The coalition has many member organizations--though most were unfamiliar to me. It seemed a little light on labor but I did see AmericanLaborFirst.com. Going to that site I was told, “The domain americanlaborfirst.com is for sale.” In fact, about half the links to claimed affiliates were nonfunctional.

Eventually I tracked down the source cited for Dr Morris’s commercial claims. It all traces back to a paper by a University of Chicago urban policy professor, Dr Jeffrey Grogger. It turns out Dr Grogger is a Kansas City raised lad who was greatly influenced by what he saw in our common hometown in the Sixties-- “all this social unrest, this big racial divide.” He went on to study “common issues affecting minority populations: teen pregnancy, urban crime and violence, welfare reform, and racial profiling.” With I’m sure the worthiest of motives, he has now looked at the impact of immigration–legal and otherwise–on Black employment, wages, and, not mentioned in the TV spots, incarceration.

Dr Grogger is a statistics wizard. He likes to correlate things. With award winning statistical methodology he concludes a ten-percent increase in low-skilled immigrant employees decreased the wages of Black peers by roughly four percent and reduced the same group’s overall employment rate. (How this got translated in to the forty percent job loss claimed on TV is not clear.)

Having earned his PhD in economics he explains the trend as “basic supply shock”: “when there is a sudden increase in the supply of a certain good—say, low-skilled labor—its price in the marketplace declines. Thus, as more low-skilled immigrants enter the country, the wage for comparably skilled U.S. workers, a group in which Blacks are disproportionately represented, declines.”

In other words, he’s saying immigrants, including “legal” ones, have taken over low paying, undesirable jobs from Blacks. Presumably, the way to correct this would be to get rid of the immigrants and restore these poverty level jobs to African-Americans.

There may be a drop of validity in this shaken statistical cocktail but I would submit Dr Grogger wasn’t paying close enough attention to economic trends already shaping up in Kansas City during his youth. In the statistical time line he used we saw in Kansas City the closing of four major packinghouses and the adjoining stockyards; the Fisher Body/Chevrolet plant in Leeds; Armco’s Sheffield Steel; AMOCO and Phillips refineries; and the Colgate-Palmolive plant–to name just some of the bigger losses. African-Americans held a share greater than their percentage of the population of these tens of thousands of good paying union jobs now gone for good The same trend has, of course, been at work in nearly all industrial cities in the Midwest.

It is true that much of the work formerly done in these closed plants is now performed by immigrants at substantially lower wages. But this is largely being done, especially in meat packing, in rural areas where there are few African-Americans. It’s understandably unlikely that many Blacks will leave their homes and families behind in Kansas City, Chicago, or the Twin Cities to relocate to rural Kansas and Nebraska for low wage jobs.

The immigration issue is a highly charged one within the working class of this country. We need a calm, rational discussion and should be careful about throwing around charges such as “racist.” The debate in fact cuts across skin color and ethnic lines. (You can find my general outlook by clicking here.)

However, the murky forces behind those TV commercials are clearly doing just the opposite. Those footing the bill don’t give a rodent’s backside about the condition of Black workers. They are a cynical attempt to fan the flames of undeniable tension between African-Americans and Latinos. Peel back enough layers of this odorous onion and you will undoubtedly find a sub rosa world--maintained by the employer class--that includes those playing on white prejudices against Blacks as well. The goal is to keep the working class divided, fighting among ourselves instead of against them.

Gone Is the Wind
Last March, the Thomas Hart Benton Group of the Sierra Club (Kansas City) announced a “groundbreaking agreement that can serve as a model for environmental groups and utilities working together.” The deal with Kansas City Power & Light (now part of Great Plains Energy Inc) included the Sierra Club dropping opposition to the construction of the coal-fired Iatan 2 plant, near Weston, Missouri, in exchange for a commitment from the utility giant to provide a “carbon offset” by adding 400 megawatts (MW) of wind power, and 300 MW of “energy efficiency.”

KCP&L opened a 100-megawatt wind farm last year in south-central Kansas. But now plans for additional wind generation are “on hold.” The Kansas City Star says, “the deferral of the second plant, which came to light this week, is raising questions about the company’s commitment to renewable energy, and whether the other 300 megawatts of capacity will ever be built.”

So much for the Sierra Club’s model. The whole concept of “offsets” for additional CO2 is pretty dicey to begin with. A few days before the deal was cut for Iatan 2 the world’s leading climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, told the National Press Club, “There should be a moratorium on building any more coal-fired power plants.”

That’s all for this week.

KC Labor Home

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Dearborn, MI April 11-13

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Cleveland June 28-29

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