Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
February 9, 2009

Usually when I miss my unofficial deadline of Sunday evening for these columns it’s because I’ve been involved in meetings or other events during the weekend. There was in fact a major union-sponsored jobs rally in Kansas City Sunday afternoon–but I slept through it, along with the rest of the weekend, because of a “bug.” While still not yet hitting on all four cylinders the combination of sleep, and fortification with home-made Irish soda bread and hot tea, is making me feel like Mickey Rourke–the morning after a match.

A Good Question
In addition to making a four-star soda bread my wife Mary sometimes challenges me with seemingly simple questions. Last night, as she monitored my response to Irish ambrosia, she asked, “So, are you for a stimulus package?”

If she hadn’t chosen engineering she could have made a good lawyer. While the query was I’m sure innocently put it’s sort of like asking a baseball player if he’s stopped using designer steroids. Often a simple yes or no is inadequate and sometimes, even if honest, misleading.

The only outright opponents of the Democrat stimulus efforts recognized by the media are the Republicans. They argue for tax cuts at all times with patronizing declarations that tax-payers know better how to spend our money than bloated government.

As a matter of fact, I do believe I know how to better spend money than the politicians of each party. But I also believe that society urgently requires collective spending that is far beyond the capacity or control of individual tax-payers. That is why we have institutions such as government.

The problem is not that the government spends too much of our money but rather how it is spent and who benefits from the spending. I look at the congressional debate and administration compromises over stimulus not as a trained economist, which I’m certainly not, but from the viewpoint of Them and Us–the bankers and bosses versus the working class and our allies.

The administration’s package serves Them, not Us. Doing nothing will serve Them more than Us. It’s not unlike the debate over healthcare. Tinkering with the way the health insurance robber barons get their profits is not worthy of support. We should settle for nothing less than single-payer. We need to develop such a plan of our own for the economic crisis as well. So, my convoluted answer to the original simple question is that I support a stimulus that benefits workers and tackles the global warming crisis–and oppose all others.

In a session entitled “Lessons From Past Crises,” at the April 3-4 conference in Kansas City, I will be speaking on “The World War II Mobilization.” That–not the New Deal–is what brought an end to the Great Depression. As interesting as that period is I will spend relatively little time on its history. My emphasis will be on lessons to avoid, certainly, but more importantly positive lessons that can be applied and expanded from a working class perspective today to the twin economic and global warming crises.

The speakers at the conference, even including me, won’t claim to have all the solutions to our problems. The gathering will be a modest step in promoting honest questions and frank answers in the wide dialogue needed for working class recovery. If you’re one of Us I hope you’ll join us in the discussion.

The Four Rs R.I.P.?
Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle was coined by the modern environmental movement. Actually these principles worked best during World War II when most Americans pitched in to make do with limited wartime resources. Recent generations have become more conscious about the need to recycle for environmental reasons.

Unlike during the Second World War however recycling has become integrated in to the market economy. Recycling works–when it is profitable. The global economic crisis has trashed the recycling market. Over the past six months the price of aluminum cans has plunged fifty percent, reusable cardboard has plummeted from 140 dollars a ton to twenty, and you literally can’t give away mixed paper. More and more of these items find their way in to landfills–or yards of abandoned houses.

Kansas City will likely soon abandon our limited curbside recycling–joining many other towns across the country.

Kids Healthcare Depends On Smoke Filled Rooms
SCHIP, providing money to states for health insurance coverage to children living in low income homes was signed in to law last week. The program, which doesn’t include parents, is expected to reduce the number of uninsured kids of the poor by about half over the next four years.

The primary funding source for this half-loaf program is a 61-cent per pack increase in cigarette tax. Of course, it is public health policy to discourage smoking and the number of smokers has long been on the decline. Is it just me or does anyone else see a serious inconsistency here?

A similar problem is confounding many transit agencies. In states such as Minnesota, for example, much state transit assistance comes from fuel and other car related taxes and fees. Many Minnesotans have greatly reduced driving and are now using mass transit. But reduced revenue from these dedicated car tax sources threatens major cuts in transit service.

Long Honeymoon Quick Divorce?
Five years ago the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union to form UNITE-HERE. Just a few months away from the first scheduled post-merger convention their president, Bruce Raynor, has declared, “This union is engaged in a civil war.”

The divisions are pretty much along pre-unity lines. The HERE side, headed by John Wilhelm, is bigger and seemed poised to take control at the convention. Raynor has shown he is ready to defend turf–and the Amalgamated Bank, which he chairs.

There appear to be few principled differences between these two Ivy League grads who found rewarding careers leading workers. Yet another Ivy Leaguer, SEIU president Andy Stern, has offered a peace gesture of bringing one or both of the combatants in to his union.

Maybe A Glass Floor
Women now hold 49.1 percent of all jobs and it’s expected they will soon become a majority of the U.S. workforce. As Catherine Rampell commented in the New York Times,

“The reason has less to do with gender equality than with where the ax is falling.”

The economic collapse has hit hardest in male dominated industries such as manufacturing, construction, trucking and rail and men have received an astounding 82 percent of the pink slips. Female dominated occupations such as education and healthcare have so far been spared from massive cuts.

Lest we celebrate too much Rampell reminds us,

“Women may be safer in their jobs, but tend to find it harder to support a family. For one thing, they work fewer overall hours than men. Women are much more likely to be in part-time jobs without health insurance or unemployment insurance. Even in full-time jobs, women earn 80 cents for each dollar of their male counterparts’ income, according to the government data.”

That’s all for this week.

 New Crises, New Agendas
Save Jobs, Save the Planet
Kansas City, April 3-4
Click for conference site

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