Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 15, 2011

The Japan Syndrome
Earthquakes and tsunamis are truly natural disasters that cannot be prevented or predicted with precision. Japanese society has learned to prepare as best they can knowing such events in their part of the world are inevitable. They’ve done a much better job than what’s been done in quake-prone areas on this side of the Pacific, such as California and Alaska. Most of the estimated 11,000 fatalities came from one fishing town virtually destroyed by a tsunami emanating from the fifth strongest earthquake ever recorded, a short distance off shore. They deserve our sympathy and solidarity.

But a third disaster still unfolding is not natural. Like global warming, human choices are culpable. It could not have happened without the application of science--first at the service of war, now also used for corporate profit as well. As this is written, it appears partial meltdowns have occurred in three nuclear power plants operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. At least one of those seems likely to have a breach in the last ditch protective barrier to massive radioactive release.

In 1979, a thriller movie starring Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, and Michael Douglas called The China Syndrome hit the cinemas. The plot revolved around the danger of a meltdown at a nuclear power plant. Many critics dismissed that story as cheap fantasy that could never happen in the real world.

Twelve days after the film’s release we saw the most significant nuclear power accident in U.S. history--a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Had President Carter not been trained on nuclear reactors while in the Navy, government intervention in to this private sector mess might not have stopped that accident from becoming a much bigger disaster–such as happened with the full meltdown at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine in 1986.

Palpable danger of catastrophic accident brought a decades long halt to construction of new nukes in the USA. Those 140+ plants already in place that have continued in service–such as Vermont Yankee now fighting for renewal of its operating license–have had plenty of less severe releases and structural collapse. And all the operating reactors have been accumulating waste that will remain dangerous for centuries--with no known safe way of disposal.

With energy prices soaring and Peak Oil close at hand, there is a big push to build dozens, perhaps hundreds of new nuclear plants in the USA. General Electric is the go-to company in this field. This morning’s Wall Street Journal reports, “Obama administration officials Monday brushed aside calls for a freeze on new U.S. nuclear power development, and sought to reassure the public the nation's nuclear facilities are safe.” Even some otherwise intelligent environmentalists and scientists who should know better, pessimistic about the odds of taking on the fossil fuel interests, are supporting more nukes as a way of reducing carbon emissions.

Such nuclear proliferation–which is neither clean nor renewable--will do nothing to slow climate change. But it would mean the likelihood of more catastrophes and the certainty of pollution threatening human and other life well in to the next millennium. As the world helps the Japanese in the present crisis let’s reabsorb the lesson broadly accepted after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl–no more nukes!

Who Will Lead the Lions?
After reading accounts, and watching video of the inspiring mass actions by workers fighting for their rights in Annapolis, Columbus, Indianapolis, Lansing–and especially Madison–it was time once again to feel proud instead of apologetic for being part of the American labor movement. A friend of mine, a rail worker who is also a dedicated labor historian, reckons we are seeing the biggest labor upsurge in the USA since the explosion of strikes and other actions immediately following World War II. Neither he nor I think this is a passing fad. The wind blowing from Wisconsin signals the movement is a-changing.

But this rejuvenation is still far from being universal. Nor will its progress be smooth and linear. Instead it will likely be uneven, marked by false starts and temporary setbacks as well as victories. I got a personal reminder of the validity of this assertion last Saturday.

I responded to e-mail blasts from the Missouri state fed and Kansas City Jobs with Justice by attending what purported to be a rally against “right-to-work” legislation currently considered by the Missouri legislature. A rally in St Louis had turned out about 5,000 angry workers. I must admit I was somewhat suspicious of the KC venue–the parking lot of a building jointly owned by electrical contractors and the IBEW. This site is well hidden from public view and very difficult to find. Nevertheless, hundreds showed up.

When the mercurial long time leader of the United Mine Workers, John L Lewis--who led the split from the AFL that went on to great victories under the CIO banner--made his famous remark that the labor movement reminded him of the parable of the lions being led by asses, he could very well have been talking about the leadership of the Kansas City Building Trades, the host of this “rally.”In introductory remarks we were told we were not working class, we’re Middle Class. We were then subjected to a parade of various area politicians who favor large scale public construction projects and who don’t much like environmentalists or “peaceniks.” We even got to hear from one of the electrical contractor bosses who “chose to be union.”

When we first arrived the mood of the crowd was lively and expectant. Over the course of the program their disappointment, mixed with boredom, became visibly evident. There were absolutely no suggestions from the stair landing serving as a makeshift speakers platform for those of us below other than vote for labor’s “friends” at election time. The only literature distributed was a leaflet advertising our KC Labor Forum scheduled the following day--that we had brought along.

After the event, a friend had a not for attribution chat with one of the sponsoring officials. He confirmed a strategy I had heard off the record from some state fed officials–we do our work in Jefferson City behind closed doors. We don’t want thousands of workers making a commotion on the Capitol grounds. That would be counterproductive. In St Louis they had to let the hot-heads blow off steam there but folks seem pretty reasonable here in KC.

This is a far different approach than that taken the last time there was a serious effort to pass r-t-w in Missouri. Our old friend Jerry Tucker wrote an excellent recollection of that worker victory that appeared in the March issue of Labor Notes. Here’s what the editors said in their introduction to Jerry’s article,

“In an astonishing turnaround, a 1978 ballot initiative by the National Right-To-Work Committee to turn Missouri into a right-to-work state was defeated by a 3-2 margin. Jerry Tucker, then a Washington, D.C., staffer for the United Auto Workers, returned to his home state that August to manage the campaign. It put together the strongest coalition of progressive forces Missouri has ever seen—and dealt Republicans a lasting defeat. When Missouri Republicans began to agitate for right to work again last year, retiring Republican Senator Kit Bond counseled them against it, saying the 1978 battle was ‘a disaster’ for the GOP.”

Inimitable as Jerry Tucker may be, I’m sure he would agree that among the hundreds of thousands who have marched around the country, and the millions more who have watched them with joy, there are plenty of similar ilk. We grey heads have something to contribute from our experience but it will have to be the young lions who push the timid asses to the side so we can confront the real enemy in the class war being waged against us.

In Brief...
¶ Eight immigrant workers arrested in a sting operation five years ago by Danbury, Connecticut cops ordered by City Hall to hunt down “illegals” have finally won a measure of justice. The undocumented workers waiting at a customary day labor street hiring location were offered eleven dollar an hour jobs for demolition work but instead were transported to jail where they were held for ICE to pick up. They attracted the attention of sympathetic students who put them in touch with some good immigration and civil rights legal help. The suit they filed said that the plaintiffs had been arrested without probable cause, and that the arrests kept workers from exercising free speech — the right to signal their availability for jobs. Rather than going to trial the city has now settled for 400,000 dollars in damages. Additional damages were obtained from the Feds. The eight still face deportation proceedings.
¶ The Kansas City Star reported from Topeka, “At a hearing on how to control feral swine in Kansas, Rep. Virgil Peck said a joke was intended when he said: ‘Looks like to me, if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a (solution) to our illegal immigration problem.’ Several people in the hearing room gasped....”
¶ Missouri legislators are not so light hearted as their Kansas brethren. They were dead serious about a Star report, “Bills introduced this year by the Republican lawmakers aim to prevent Missouri courts from applying laws from other countries or those based on Sharia, the Islamic religious law.” The bill sponsors acknowledge they don’t know of any such astounding rulings from courts in the Show Me State yet but they don’t want to leave any loopholes. I must find out their brand of tea.

Meeting In KC
The KC Labor Forum group will plan our April Forum and a May Day event, at a meeting this Sunday, March 20, Noon-2PM, at Tony Saper’s home, 2113 Erie, North Kansas City. The meeting will also discuss community outreach around the perspectives adopted at the Emergency Labor Meeting recently held in Cleveland. A hot, meatless dish will also be served–required by current hamburger prices, not Lent.

Can You Help Us Out?
In our fund appeal last Fall we raised enough contributions from supporters to pay our site maintenance and e-mail service costs–but no more. I had to dig in to meager personal savings to make the trip to the ELM in Cleveland. There will be more reason to travel to events now that the labor movement is stirring again. But, as reluctant as I am to ask, I just can’t do it without your help. If you value our reporting and commentary please send what you can afford by either using the PayPal button below or sending a check or money order payable to Bill Onasch to 3927 Kenwood, Kansas City, MO 64110.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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