Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
February 27, 2011

Labor’s Back–Now Where Are We Going?
Instead of my age 68, this past week I’ve felt more like it was the year ‘68 again. Not since the movement against the Vietnam war–launched by students that ultimately won over a majority of workers and GIs as well–has there been so many Americans in the streets in so many locations over such a protracted period of time. Saturday’s rally in Madison is reliably estimated to have been 100,000 strong. Many of the dozens of Saturday solidarity actions at other state capitols and in major cities numbered in the thousands. This capped a week where we earlier posted over 100 news stories on our
Daily Labor News Digest just about protests connected to battles in state capitols in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana.

Boosted by the Wall Street Journal, MoveOn.org characteristically acted as if they were responsible for this outpouring of humanity. But in fact it was workers, through their unions, leading the way with these Establishment liberals hitching a free ride, as usual. This surge of organized workers is a fresh confirmation that the reports of the labor movement’s death agony are somewhat exaggerated. Those occupying the Capitol in Madison, and their supporters in every state, do not appear ready for the hospice–they are engaging in nonviolent hostilities

This reawakening comes none too soon. In our February 15 Week In Review–sent out just as protesters were assembling for the first time in Madison–we wrote in reference to Governor Walker’s threats,

“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.”

I had no inkling at the time that others sharing this view were already acting and finding resonance to their bold vibrations throughout the working class. Individuals immediately searched for ways to help. One example: when Ian’s Pizza Shops started supplying free pies to those occupying the Madison Capitol donations to cover the cost poured in from every state and a couple of dozen other countries–including, of course, Egypt. Ian’s finally had to stop accepting donations because these dollars soon exceeded the list price of their pie-making capacity--even though they had doubled the size of their workforce.

Although Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean explained how pizza is nature’s most perfect food it takes more than deep-dish pies to sustain a movement. Unfocused motion is quickly dissipated; there needs to be clear objectives.

The immediate goal of the Wisconsin protest is to stop changes in public employee law that would strip them of most bargaining rights. Nearly all union officials–and local Democrats who must live with the workers when they go back to paying for the pizzas at Ian’s–consider this cause righteous, as indeed it is.

It is good that public worker rights are gaining attention. Relatively few states have the rights Wisconsin workers are defending. New York’s infamous Taylor Law forbids strikes. Missouri grants unions only the right to “meet and confer.” Some states, such as North Carolina, outlaw even advocacy of the right of public worker bargaining. In 2005 the Governor of Indiana abolished public worker rights by executive order–and made it stick without much of a fight. Still, we welcome those that have come around in a changed climate to today’s struggle.

One might expect that labor’s “friend” in the White House would show some sign of sympathy for at least his fellow Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate now in exile in Illinois--if not for a labor movement that threw 400 million dollars his way in 2008. The Wall Street Journal explained,

“President Barack Obama, after initially lending his support to organized labor, has stepped back from the fights spreading in state capitals from Wisconsin to Tennessee, leaving union officials divided about his tactics.... Mr. Obama is eager to occupy the political center, Democratic officials said, to help him forge a bipartisan deal on the nation's long-term finances that could strengthen his position heading into the 2012 election. Mr. Obama has already tacked to the center on taxes, on trade and by working to forge stronger ties with business leaders.”

Eager to help this friend in his time of need, nearly all the top national leaders of Wisconsin’s public sector unions have said they are willing to accept Walker’s other demands for wage and benefit cuts that would be as high as ten percent for the lowest pay grades. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has been making the rounds of TV interviews from the Morning Joe to the Colbert Report explaining how reasonable her union is in granting concessions during hard times.

But there are differing views of how to use bargaining rights. A union independent in more ways than one, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE) issued a refreshing departure from most national unions which you can view by clicking here.

My old friend Peter Rachleff, a professor who is a solidarity activist as well as astute commentator on the labor movement, wrote a perceptive piece entitled Madison Is Our Cairo that is well worth reading.

Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United--a union that includes both public and private sector RNs and has been very active in Madison--also demonstrated a vision going beyond the ritual of bargaining in an aptly named article, Just Say No - no more cuts for workers. It opens,

“There should be two lasting lessons to emerge from the heroic labor-led protests in Wisconsin. First, working people--with our many allies, students, seniors, women's organizations, and more--are inspired and ready to fight. Second, we need to send a clear and unequivocal message to the right-wing politicians and those in the media suggesting further concessions from working people.”

After going through an FAQ about how we got in to today’s fiscal mess, who benefits, who loses, she suggests supplementing No with three additional demands:

* No More Cuts in Public Sector Pay, Pensions, or Health Benefits
* Balance Budgets By Closing Corporate Tax Loopholes, Restoring Fair Share Taxes on Corporations and Wealthy Individuals
* Guarantee Retirement Security and Healthcare for All

David Riehle is a rail engineer on the UP and a leader of UTU Local 625 in St Paul who has also been a close friend and collaborator of mine for about forty years. Invited by Minnesota Public Radio to comment on the events in Wisconsin he submitted With corporations paying a smaller share of the tax burden, Walker blames public employees? After nailing the declining corporate tax contribution to budgets as one of the primary factors in the manufactured “fiscal crisis,” he closes with,

“Gov. Walker's war against his own people has gotten off to a rocky start, thanks to the audacity and determination of its targets. The working-class mobilizations in Wisconsin and other states demonstrate that labor has begun to stir in a way not seen for a long, long time. Once labor begins to feel its power to move and act, the locomotive of history -- and justice -- can resume its journey.”

Peter, Rose Ann, David and the UE national officers, have been around the block a time or two allowing them to quickly and skillfully articulate the needed response. There are many more union officers, staff, and retired leaders who are heading toward the same conclusions and feel a sense of urgency. A number of them will be meeting next weekend. I’m pleased to have been invited to join them as has Brian Elam, an officer in the BMWE local at the BNSF railroad in North Kansas City. Brian and I will share a car for the journey.

I suspect this emergency gathering will be much like a first date. Most will be on their best behavior as they try to figure out how far the others are prepared to go. Such encounters may be awkward but are necessary to any rewarding long term relationship.

I’ll give a preliminary report in the next WIR after I return home–perhaps not until March 9. Brian and I will also give a report back to the next KC Labor Forum on Sunday, March 13, 2-4PM at the North Kansas City Community Center. A downloadable leaflet for that event should be available soon.

In Brief...
¶ RNs at Washington Hospital Center, members of National Nurses United, have set Friday, March 4 for a one-day strike at the facility that is part of the MedStar Health chain. The main issues are safe staffing levels and demands by the employer for economic take-backs. The union recently filed additional unfair labor practice charges. The nurses not only have solid support from the local labor movement but also from ten members of the DC city Council.
¶ Remember Climategate? That was the slander campaign launched by corporate polluters and their hired hackers alleging climate scientists conspired to fudge data. Reuters reports, “U.S. officials on Thursday cleared scientists of charges that they manipulated data about climate change in e-mails that were stolen from a British university in 2009, triggering a climate scandal.”
¶ The National Union of Healthcare Workers has filed a lawsuit against SEIU alleging a pattern of violent threats and strong-arm tactics against NUHW.
¶ In an article about the eight trips the President has made since last November’s election to “get a feel of America,” the Washington Post quotes John Powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, “There has been an olive branch to the corporate community after the election. Where is the olive branch to the working-class community, the unions, the everyday folks? It's hard to imagine a Democratic president doing a jobs tour and not meeting with people who are out of work or [with] unions.”
¶ An AFP dispatch from Washington opens, “Fifty million ‘environmental refugees’ will flood into the global north by 2020, fleeing food shortages sparked by climate change, experts warned at a major science conference that ended here Monday.”
¶ Canadian actress Shirley Douglas--daughter of the late Tommy Douglas, NDP labor party leader credited with establishing Canada’s single-payer health care system--didn’t fall far from the tree. The 76-year old mother of Kiefer Sutherland used the occasion of a lifetime achievement award by the Canadian performers union ACTRA to rise from a wheelchair to denounce Tory prime Minister Harper for starving the system known as Medicare.

After our posting on Monday, February 28, our next update of the Daily Labor News Digest will be Wednesday, March 9. This break is needed for preparation and travel time for the labor gathering mentioned above. I regret this means missing a very important date. March 8 is not only International Women’s Day; it is also the anniversary of the Russian Revolution that overthrew the Czar in 1917 and, on that date in 2000 this website was launched.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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