Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
February 27, 2012

Another Goose Island Reprieve
In 2008, the management at Republic Windows in the Goose Island district of Chicago told their workers the plant was being immediately and permanently closed. They said the market for their product–“green” residential windows–had not developed to their expectations and that Wells-Fargo Bank had cut off their line of credit and was demanding repayment of current debt. It was later exposed that, while orders were down, Republic’s owners were planning to shift some work to another plant.

Had those workers been nonunion that would have been the end of the story for them. Most unions would have turned the matter over to their lawyers for rumination. But UE Local 1110 at Republic is a different kettle of fish.

Ignoring black letter law forbidding sit-down strikes, UE workers occupied their plant. They made it clear no product or equipment was leaving the premises until they had negotiated a fair deal with Republic and Wells-Fargo. The too big to fail bank was cast as a primary target of the fight and demonstrations were organized by UE allies such as Jobs with Justice not only at Wells-Fargo sites in the Chicago area but across the USA.

News media from around the world picked up the story of the Republic workers and they won solid public support. As a result, no serious efforts were made by men with guns to evict them. Supporters kept the occupiers well supplied with food, toiletries, books and video. A steady stream of family members and supporters from other unions to the door of the plant kept the sit-downers’ spirits up.

After six days, a deal was brokered for a new owner–Serious Materials– to take over Republic and keep the plant running, although with a workforce greatly reduced from peak employment levels. Though only a defensive battle involving small numbers, the Republic sit-down was widely and justly praised as a rare and inspiring union victory in a period marked by give-backs without resistance.

However, inspiration did not lead to extensive emulation by other unions. Nervous bosses began to console themselves that Republic was a fluke, unlikely to be imitated. Apparently even Serious Materials management believed lightning would not strike Goose Island twice. Last Thursday they told the workers and their union once again that the plant was being closed post haste.

The workers didn’t mope about this deja vu. They know the drill by now and swung in to action by again sitting-down, summoning help through a rapid response network, and alerting the media. Occupy Chicago headed to Goose Island with tents.

At 1AM a truce was announced. The company agreed in writing to delay the closing for at least ninety days to allow a search for a new owner–possibly the workers themselves.

Jane Slaughter put together an excellent timely and thorough account of these rapid developments in a Labor Notes posting that I recommend you read by clicking here. The UE page on the struggle can be found here.

Being Monsanto Means Never Saying Sorry
It was one of those deals where a corporation settles a suit by taking a hundred million out of their chump change account without admitting any wrong doing. Monsanto, the St Louis based multinational has a slogan of “Improving Agriculture, Improving Lives.” They do this primarily by developing poisons to apply to crops and, in recent years, producing genetically modified seeds designed to work in conjunction with their herbicides. The long-range environmental consequences of this highly profitable domination of food and fiber are still under study--but certainly will be dire.

But sometimes their work goes beyond agriculture. Monsanto, along with Dow, collaborated closely with the U.S. military in using herbicide cocktails as a weapon in Vietnam. During Operation Ranch Hand, they first used Agent Blue to destroy food crops in order to drive peasants out of battle zones in to new urban slums. When American generals complained that men and supplies were being “infiltrated” from the North under cover of lush forest canopies Monsanto developed Agent Orange that effectively defoliated the jungle. Spraying twenty million gallons of this stuff over five million acres revealed targets to the massive Air force and Navy sorties that dropped more tons of bombs on Vietnam than those dropped by all sides in the Second World War.

But there were some unintended consequences of this botanical warfare. Agent Orange not only killed trees–its dioxin compounds produced debilitating, sometimes fatal side effects in exposed humans. Sometimes these didn’t appear until after decades of dormancy. Both Monsanto and the Veteran’s Administration long resisted acknowledging any harm to people.

Naturally, the biggest group affected were those the U.S, claimed to be defending--the residents of Vietnam. Vietnam estimates 400,000 people were killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects, because of Monsanto’s product. In 2005 a U.S. court ruled Vietnamese victims are ineligible for any compensation.

Many thousands of American GIs were also exposed. It took decades of protests and litigation to get validation of the claims of these men and women who did their duty.

But the settlement to which I earlier referred applies to those who are always the front line casualties in environmental tragedy–the workers who made this poison and their families. Monsanto has agreed to set aside a total of about 100 million for structure clean up and thirty years of “medical monitoring” in Nitro, West Virginia. That’s where a now closed Monsanto plant made Agent Orange. 100 million doesn’t come close to being an adequate financial compensation and, of course, no amount can offset the pain, suffering, and worry the company created.

And they still won’t say they are sorry.

A Penny A Day
That’s been the average daily increase in gasoline price at the pump in the USA for weeks now. In response to an NBC reporter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute explained the steady rise was attributable to the rising price of crude oil. That’s sort of like saying a heat wave is caused by high temperatures.

Most experts blame faceless crude speculators--that they are unwilling or unable to identify–for price gouging. Certainly these masked men are taking advantage of the threats by Israel and many U.S. politicians to go to war against oil-rich Iran--a conflict that could also disrupt shipments out of the Persian Gulf-- to push the price panic button. I’m not so sure they are completely unconnected to Big Oil.

In any case, Big Oil is exploiting the present suffering at the pump to redouble their efforts to obtain “energy independence” through unrestricted drilling in the Arctic region and off the West Coast--as well as completion of the Keystone XL pipeline from the Alberta tar sands.

One fact ignored by the media is that increasing the supply of crude would mean little to domestic gasoline production. Refineries were already running at virtually 100 percent before recent closings and accidents further reduced capacity. Any gasoline refined from the dirty syncrude coming through XL to Gulf of Mexico facilities will likely be exported.

The present oil crisis highlights twin dangers, economic and environmental. Working class consumers will have to reduce consumer spending even more. Non-energy capitalists feel the same consumer pain as the rest of us when fuel prices shoot up. Either they absorb the increases, cutting in to profits, or they raise their prices–losing customers, cutting in to profits. If not soon contained fuel gouging will bring about the second-dip recession.

Yielding to demands for more drilling–and especially embracing the dirtiest of all fuels from the tar sands–will inevitably create new environmental disasters. Even maintaining the status quo in oil consumption is leading to irreversible damage to our biosphere.

The only acceptable way to avoid both the economic and environmental threats from today’s oil market is to take oil–and all energy sources–out of the market. We need to nationalize the energy industry and run it according to a plan that can conserve and restructure our resources for an ecologically sustainable and full employment economy.

Accidental Link
If you were surprised to receive an e-mail invitation from me to join me on LinkedIn–so was I. I did innocently respond to such a request from an old friend and apparently also inadvertently allowed LinkedIn to send out requests to everyone in my Yahoo address book.

LinkedIn is a perhaps over-eager but not malicious employment-oriented networking site. Some find it useful, others annoying. You are in no danger from the invitation but I am not actively promoting it either. Unlike Monsanto, I am willing to say to anyone bothered by the message–I’m sorry.

That’s all for this week.

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