Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 16, 2008

A Bloody Week At Work
Yesterday’s spectacular crane collapse in a posh area of Manhattan got a lot of media attention–as it should. As I write at least four are confirmed dead and there are still some missing and others hospitalized. The dead were all members of the Operating Engineers. But this union site had thirteen open safety violations and observers in the area noted the unusually fast progress–several floors a week–in the 40+-floor condo project going up. Early reports tell of a “piece of steel” falling from above shearing the crane away from the structure and toppling it over a whole city block. That’s not supposed to happen.

NBC News reports that there had already been sixteen construction industry deaths over the past year in Manhattan before the crane collapse.

Earlier in the week, across the East River in Brooklyn, a worker digging a foundation was crushed by a collapsing wall of an adjoining vacant building–that should have been shored up.

In Lehi, Utah a 26-year old construction worker on a new Residence Inn site fell forty feet to his death. Fall protection standards are designed to prevent such fatalities.

In Providence, Rhode Island three BMWE track workers were hit by an Amtrak train. One killed, two injured. Apparently they were working in a “blind spot” and didn’t hear the electric train until it was too late.

And in suburban St Louis two workers died in a trench collapse. This type of fatality is easily preventable through simple sloping or shoring. As an OSHA inspector said post-mortem, “It's very important for companies to follow our requirements. If they do that, the odds of an employee being at risk are very low.”

These are just the workplace deaths I came across this past week while posting stories on our Daily Labor News Digest. There were undoubtedly dozens more. While occasional accidents may be inevitable, this level of carnage isn’t. Employer greed and indifference is the chief culprit--not the inherent nature of work It’s high time the labor movement started addressing these life and death questions with more than ritual gatherings of staffers for Worker Memorial Day. They can find good advice in the Labor Party program which says,

“We call for national legislation to train and deputize workers to be on the job inspectors in each and every workplace. Such inspectors should be protected against corporate harassment and discrimination and should be able to do their job without fear of reprisal. Such inspectors should have the power to shut down hazardous operations and to enforce the right of every worker to refuse unsafe work.”

Bob Mast
Bob Mast passed away this past week at his home in suburban Detroit. I haven’t yet seen an obituary and know only at this point that he will be greatly missed by many, including me. Robert H Mast was a Korea era Army veteran, a sociologist, writer, college professor. He was also a life long fighter for the working class, especially its most oppressed sectors. I came to know Bob first through correspondence about building Labor Party chapters. At that time Bob, and his late wife Anne, were building the New Mexico LP chapter. We didn’t meet personally until several years later after his move back to Detroit. Bob was my host on several occasions when I visited the Motor City after I was elected to represent Midwest chapters on the Labor Party INC. Bob was both a good talker and listener as we kept one another up far too late with discussions about everything under the sun. We will post more information as we receive it.

Five Years and Counting
In searching the media for scant coverage of antiwar response to the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq I found a perceptive piece by Joseph Gainza of the Vermont American Friends Service Committee, published by the Barre Montpelier Argus Times. Gainza says, “We are told that the attention of the American people has turned from the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan to the faltering economy at home. With the decrease in reported incidents of violence and the slowdown in the rate of death of U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq, polls indicate that fewer people are registering the war and occupation as No. 1 on their list of concerns.”

He goes on to note the media’s responsibility for this shift, “The Iraq and Afghanistan wars and occupations are also being pre-empted in the major news media by the perennial primary races for the presidency. The standard media story of the wars seems to be the following: The situation is improving and would be more hopeful if the Iraqis and Afghanis could only stop fighting one another, but we, here in the United States, have more pressing business.”

Gainza holds out one honorable response to this Establishment effort to numb us to wars that have become a “normal” part of the background in American life–the Winter Soldier testimonies, organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, emulating a project of the same name by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971. “The goal of the Winter Soldier hearings is to bring human stories to the national debate about the U.S. occupations, to raise the moral dimensions of war and to move citizens to active opposition. The veterans call on both supporters and opponents of the wars who say they support the troops, to now listen to the troops. As IVAW says, ‘our responsibility is to tell the truth; America's duty is to listen.’"

Major national media coverage of Winter Soldier has been zilch–as it was for the Vietnam era event at the time as well. Reports of demonstrations around the world scheduled for yesterday have also been hard to come by. Forty thousand marched in London. Organizers claim 10,000 in Los Angeles, 1,000 in Minneapolis. We’ll have to wait for other reports to trickle in.

Five years ago the movement aimed at preventing the war was alive, growing, attracting young people and trade unionists, getting prominent media attention. While even more have come to oppose the war each successive local “anniversary”commemoration has come to take on the character of parishioners showing up for Easter Duty.

We have a duty to the working people of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as our own GIs and their families, to make the war the top issue on the political agenda once more. We need to unify and organize the all too passive antiwar majority and summon them to mass action to impose their will on the perfidious politicians leading war without end.

The most hopeful sign is the good response received to the call for a National Assembly To End the Iraq War and Occupation, scheduled for Cleveland June 28-29. I urge you to endorse this gathering and to make plans to attend.

Return Of Freedom Fries?
Francophobia ran high in Washington during the run up to the Iraq war because the French government said non merci to the invitation to join Bush/Blair’s coalition of the willing. Three restaurants on Capitol Hill started a national trend by renaming French Fries “Freedom Fries.” In an irony of historical ignorance the same change was also made to the egg-dipped fried bread once known in this country as German Toast until the First World War--when “patriots” of that day rechristened it French.

For a while it looked like rapprochement was under way as the new right wing French president Sarkozy and Bush seemed to hit it off. But then came the Air Force tanker deal, awarded to the European consortium Airbus as prime contractor. Now part of corporate America, and all of the union leadership, are so fuming they will probably demand that Starbucks drop French Roast. An e-blast from the AFL-CIO read, “McCain cares more about French workers than American.” Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican colleague of McCain from a state where loser Boeing has a major presence, said, “We shouldn’t require our military personnel to learn to speak French to be able to operate our refueling tankers.”

Probably Airbus, which is not just a French company but also includes German, Spanish, and British stakeholders, will supply manuals in English. The planes will be assembled in Alabama by the very American Northrop Grumman. The Alabama plant is not unionized–but it could be organized.

I am every bit as indignant about the tanker deal as the IAM and the AFL-CIO executive council. But my reasons are different. As an opponent of both war and environmental destruction I find it obscene to spend 35 billion dollars on a plane whose sole mission is to refuel war planes–and consumes 2,140 gallons of fuel for every hour it is in the air to boot. I’m not about to pick sides over which war profiteers get the order.

Instead of shilling for the bosses and appealing to xenophobia, the labor movement needs a program to convert destructive industries serving the Pentagon to needed socially useful work while preserving union conditions and standards.

In Case You Missed It...
* We reported last week on an attempt by SEIU to pull a fast one by cutting a deal with the bosses at Catholic Healthcare Partners hospitals in Ohio for a quickie uncontested election to represent RNs. After the CNA raised hell Chairman Andy’s union backed out. We posted a
detailed account of this episode by Marilyn Albert, “a nurse who was there,” setting the record straight.

* In reviewing material around the fifth anniversary I ran across the statement we posted on kclabor.org the morning after the invasion. Unfortunately, it seems to stand the test of time well.

That’s all for this week

KC Labor Home

Rebuilding Labor's Power
Dearborn, MI April 11-13

National Assembly To End the Iraq War and Occupation
Cleveland June 28-29

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