Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 13, 2012

Good Excuse For Being Late
Generally, I try to get the WIR out as early in the week as I can. Sunday meetings can delay this goal. This past Sunday was sort of a hybrid gathering–a party to celebrate the twelfth anniversary of the KC Labor site that inevitably included group as well as one-on-one discussions about the state of the movement. Everyone seemed to enjoy the home-made chili and cake that was consumed. The beverage service that could have been approved by Methodist bishops probably facilitated the cogent, if sometimes heated exchanges of opinion.

Long time supporters of KC Labor were joined by some younger folks that I knew only from brief encounters at demonstrations and solidarity picket lines and that others met for the first time. I was pleased to get to know them and their views better. I was also encouraged that some were already preparing to attend the upcoming Labor Notes Conference. It was agreed that we will have another house meeting soon of those interested in building a Kansas City conference contingent.

While I value punctuality and consistency, delays such as these gatherings will always be a valid excuse for tardiness.

Before moving on, I must thank those who responded to the fund appeal in the last WIR. While we are still a long way from flush, there’s now at least enough cash on hand to cover our credit card charge reserving an information table at the LN Conference--and even for gasoline to get there. Old friends in the Chicago area have offered me accommodations, saving a couple of hundred bucks that would have otherwise gone to Crowne Plaza. I love it when a plan comes together.

Citizens Divided
Many good people that I have collaborated with in opposing war, racism. and environmental destruction have become preoccupied with the
Move to Amend project. This latest chapter in a saga begun during the so-called Progressive Era, aiming to prevent the ruling rich from buying elections, came in response to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United. As those of you who watch the Colbert Report on the Comedy Channel well know, that ruling enabled the PACs that have dominated recent election spending to escalate in to Super-PACs.

As much as I respect many of the individuals and groups pushing for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United, I believe it is a diversion of precious resources to an unobtainable goal. After all, candidate ad-buys are only one small component of the legal ways the ruling class rules. They also limit our access to information through control of mass media; shape school curricula; influence sermons; and yes, even underwrite “noncommercial public radio and television.” Whether they function through corporate personhood, foundations, or out-and-out graft, they will defy all efforts to “level the playing field.”

Nearly all past attempts to reform campaign financing have wound up only effectively restricting unions and other working class organizations. One of the contradictory aspects of Citizens United is that the “free speech” now granted to corporations is also extended to unions.

To be sure, the unions don’t have anywhere near the discretionary funds of the <One Percent. But the steroid effect of the new rules is leading them to bulk up in to a more formidable “player.”The perhaps last remaining labor beat reporter for a major American news outlet, Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times, examines this new Incredible Hulk in the Monday paper He writes,

“Unions first used their expanded ability in a big way in Ohio last November to educate and mobilize both union and nonunion voters in a battle to repeal a law that curbed bargaining rights for Ohio’s teachers, firefighters and other public employees. Spurred by 17,000 union volunteers, labor won in a blowout, with Ohioans voting 62 percent to 38 percent to repeal a law that the Republican-dominated Legislature had enacted seven months earlier.”

So far, so good. Ohio was a rare case of following up on mass actions that failed to stop the attack at the State Capitol with use of an unusual state referendum provision to win ultimate victory. Greenhouse goes on to quote a major union official,

“‘That was a pretty big wake-up call to the Republican Party and also to the Democratic Party, because it showed what labor unions can do when they’re motivated and can reach out to voters across the board,’ said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.”

Greenhouse cites corroboration for sister Weingarten’s declaration from the other side,

“‘Their ability to be totally unified and focused on their message will make them ultimately the most decisive single player in the political landscape this year,’ said Stephen J. Law, president of American Crossroads, a Republican super PAC whose founders include Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s top political adviser.”

Republican fears of an unprecedented mobilization of money and volunteers from a dwindling union movement may well be justified. But the ruling class as a whole isn’t sweating “the most decisive single player’s” electoral strategy. Today AFL-CIO leaders will follow the example of many of their affiliates, as well as SEIU and the NEA, by endorsing the consensus choice of the ruling rich for President–the incumbent Barrack Obama.

Labor’s movers and shakers are talking about throwing hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of volunteers in to political action this year. If that was allocated toward building a party of our own--that would coordinate with working class actions in the workplace and in the community-- we could be well on our way to working class recovery.

But these captains of labor don’t feel qualified to steer a ship of their own. They prefer to book us all on a “friend’s” cruise ship. It’s a vessel remarkably like the Costa Allegra--as you may recall, the liner that went dead in the water of the pirate-infested Indian Ocean and had to be towed to port. They are quick to point out that’s better than its sister ship Costa Concordia--that sunk after being smashed on rocks off Tuscany.

Given such choices, I’ll stay ashore working to build a new and better boat.

A Temporary Recovery
A Reuters story by Lucia Mutikani was headlined, Job creation heralds stronger recovery. The BLS February employment report did show a growth of more than 200,000 jobs for a third consecutive month. That rate slightly outpaces first-job seekers entering the labor market.

Despite this seeming good news it is still probably too early to chill the bubbly–much less pop the cork. Mutikani notes,

“Economists are perplexed at the relative strength of the jobs market, given still-sluggish economic growth. Growth is expected to slow this quarter from the fourth quarter's 3 percent annual pace, with high gasoline prices curbing spending and a recession in Europe weighing on exports.”

All of the job growth was in the private sector. The public sector continued its slide with another 6,000 jobs lost.

The combined un-and under-employment rate is just a hair below fifteen percent. The category with the biggest job growth, nearly twenty percent of the total, was–Temporary.

The article goes on to say,

“Although hiring is picking up pace, wage gains are sluggish. Average hourly earnings rose just three cents in February. Over the past 12 months, they were up 1.9 percent - a figure that has changed little over the past year. With gasoline prices up 49 cents since January, wages continue to lag inflation, which could pose a hurdle to increased consumer spending.”

The Silenced Generation
Unless you live in California, chances are you didn’t hear them or about them. It’s tough to compete against the big stories such as Mitt Romney’s contribution to nouvelle Southern cuisine--cheesy grits. Thousands of students have been demonstrating and testifying in Sacramento, holding a Democrat legislature and Governor accountable for unaffordable higher education.

Looking at the stats over the past decade it’s clear students, far from being hot-heads, have been enduring suffering far too long. According to Chris Megerian in the Los Angeles Times,

“Since the 2002-03 academic year, state spending on the University of California and the California State University systems has fallen 42% when adjusted for inflation, according to statistics from Gov. Jerry Brown's administration. Undergraduate tuition and fees have nearly tripled in roughly the same period.”

How the spending cuts have affected the quality of education is difficult to quantify. But there’s no mystery about how the increases in tuition and fees were covered.

Student loans have become very big business indeed. Student loan debt now far exceeds credit card debt. Unlike credit cards, these loans can almost never be discharged through bankruptcy. If there are cosigners, even death doesn’t end the obligation. Shylock’s ecumenical descendants don’t demand pounds of flesh–just decades of indentured servitude.

All this illustrates innovative synergy of American capital at work. Now they are not content to just transfer wealth from the pockets of those already working in to theirs but also stake a claim to those just preparing to enter the labor market. Fiscal austerity, White House policies favoring privatization of education where there is profit potential, investors looking for a sure thing, all come together for the sweetest deal since miners were paid in script redeemable only at company stores.

The need for a worker-student alliance has never been more clear.

In Brief...
¶ More than 1500 workers protested at the state capitol in St Paul yesterday against moves in the legislature to enact a Minnesota “Right-to-Work” law.
¶ From the AFL-CIO Blog: “First, the good news: The wage gap between what men earn and what women earn narrowed last year to its closest point ever, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). The bad news? Women still earn an average of 17.8 percent less than men. More bad news: The gap only closed because wages for men have fallen further than for women.”
¶ Reported by AP, “Hundreds of thousands of people in 60 cities across Spain took part in demonstrations on Sunday called by the country's main trade unions to protest the government's tough new labor changes and cutbacks.”

That’s all for this week.

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