Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 20, 2012

The View From the ‘Catio’
That’s the trendy name for a second-story covered front porch that a carpenter friend screened in so that my wife’s four cats can safely romp–or sleep–in fresh air. Since it is also a designated smoking area, weather permitting I spend a fair amount of time with the cats out there reflecting on the state of the world.

Over the past few weeks I couldn’t help noticing the first daffodils flowering, robins battling over this year’s turf--and grass already overdue for mowing. The only problem with these idyllic first signs of Spring–it was still Winter and I live in the Midwest. It was a Winter that required me to pick up the snow shovel only once. And, at a time when basketball tournaments are often accompanied by the season’s biggest snows, we basked in record-breaking high temperatures exceeding 80F last week.

These unseasonable conditions are, of course, not a fluke confined to Kansas City. So far in March, 1,757 new daily high temperature records have been set in the USA including new ones in 36 states just last Thursday.

Admittedly, most of us urban dwellers in these parts have not directly suffered from snow scarcity and warm temps. But these conditions are producing swollen numbers of insects that kill corn and trees and devour key structural parts of wood-framed houses.

Other regions have experienced different and less pleasant extremes. The first three months of 2012 have seen twice the normal number of tornadoes. Many of these have been of exceptional and deadly force.

States west of the Continental Divide got plenty of frigid Arctic air that evaded the rest of us. Snow too. While Kansas City got only a record paltry 3.9 inches of snow, the temperate port city of Anchorage, Alaska has so far seen eleven feet of the stuff–creating a load of a quarter of a million tons to be hauled away by overwhelmed street crews.

Now some readers may be saying, “there he goes again–complaining about weather.” I did indeed speak and write about extreme weather--last year. In a KC Labor Forum presentation entitled Climate Change Comes to the Ozarks last June I said,

“Unexpected freak weather incidents have always been a part of the human experience. Meteorologists will tell you that it’s difficult to prove a direct connection between any specific incident to climate. But when you start getting reports of unusual extreme events on a regular basis across the planet then it is time to give credibility to the predictions of climate scientists that climate change includes more common, more frequent, more intense weather related disaster. The top climate expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently told a reporter, ‘Looking at some of the modern trends, we've seen increases in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, drawing a direct link between what's happening in the Midwest and global warming.’”

Weather is one topic that is always thoroughly covered by the mass media. Since NBC acquired the Weather Channel, Brian Williams has a weather segment every evening on the national Nightly News. The meteorologists appearing still offer the same superficial explanations for extreme weather–el Nino, la Nina, jet stream, etc--usually leading to circular restatements of effect rather than explanation of cause.

As years of unfamiliar weather patterns pass they can no longer be called “unseasonable.” The quantitative accumulation of weather statistics reveals a qualitative change in seasons–climate–has begun. The only thing we can count on is instability. More and faster change is coming.

The fundamental force altering el Nino, la Nina, the jet stream, and other weather engines throughout the world, is global warming resulting from greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, the warming term refers to the global average temperature. Within the range leading to the average will be places getting at least temporarily colder. While much of North America had a much warmer winter most of Europe suffered unusually brutal cold and snow.

There’s an old saw: weather–everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it. Except for such ethically questionable practices as cloud seeding, there’s nothing much we can do to control day-to-day weather. But climate shapes weather and we can do something about the destructive human practices that are changing the climate and weather patterns that are vital to sustaining human civilization.

Unlike the USA and Canada, most of the governments of the European Union have acknowledged climate science findings on global warming and have adopted goals to reduce emissions. They have even created a new post of Chief Scientific Adviser tasked to regularly report to the EU President on progress.

The first appointee to this position–Scottish molecular biologist Anne Glover–has made a less than inspiring initial report. “It has been extremely disappointing to see many member states cut back on their emission reduction efforts because they say 'we're going through a recession',” she said.

She continues, “Make no mistake, if we had unabated man-made climate change, we would go through an absolutely horrible period of conflict and migration, until the world's population started diminishing very rapidly.”

This plain-speaking scientist deserves our applause. In the short term, however, the “dismal science” of market economics will likely trump climate science within EU governments–as in North America. The scientists need some mass opinion and action on their side.

When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced they were awarding the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to the team of F. Sherwood Rowland, Mario Molina and Paul Crutzen, they said the three “contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences.” This was not just hype. They had discovered that CFCs, once widely used in aerosols and refrigeration systems, were creating a hole in the ozone layer that protects us from UV radiation. Like today’s climate scientists, they were viciously attacked by corporate interests. But, after eventually winning not only scientific consensus but also broad popular support, nearly every country agreed to phase out CFCs. Today the ozone layer is largely restored.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published a book that is generally credited with launching the environmental movement in the USA. It was certainly an eye-opener for me. It exposed the collateral damage of agricultural pesticides and stirred an outcry that eventually led to the ban of DDT in the United States. Referring to the mass kills of birds, she entitled it The Silent Spring.

Perhaps we can utilize the palpable transformation of our seasons to begin to ignite a sense of urgency about the issue of climate change and expose what’s behind The Early Spring.

Honorable Exception and Grumblings
Shortly after posting the last WIR, I received a “Dear Bill” e-mail from my pen pal Rich Trumka confirming my expectation,

“This afternoon, the AFL-CIO’s General Board voted unanimously to endorse President Obama for re-election. For many reasons, we are pledging to work with President Obama throughout the elections and in a second term. The bottom line is this: As president, Barack Obama has placed his faith in America’s working men and women to lead our country to economic recovery and our full potential. So we’re putting our faith in him.”

This puts the biggest House of Labor on board with the smaller Change to Win federation and the non-affiliated National Education Association, in supporting labor’s “friend.” Including use of Super-PACs, the unions plan to spend more than 400 million dollars on this year’s election and promise to put 400,000 union volunteers at the service of their boss party of choice.

The independent United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE), as they are so often, is an honorable exception to the labor bandwagon. The UE political action director, my old friend Chris Townsend, told labor blogger Mike Elk, “It's bad enough we are locked in this two party trap. We don't have to make it all worse by not leveling with the members about what we are really facing.”

Elk also talked to an unusual state fed president,

“‘Anybody who negotiates a contract knows that you start off with an ultimate idea of what you want and you don't stop negotiating till the very end. I don’t get why they are doing this so early,’ says South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna Dewitt, who is not in favor of endorsing Obama. ‘Of all things the labor movement should know, it’s how to negotiate. I don’t think they know how to negotiate anymore.’”

After receiving an admonishing phone call from a regional AFL appointee representing higher authority, Dewitt got together with Elk to attach a “correction” to the blog to make it clear she was expressing her personal view and not that of her state fed–which does not have the authority to make endorsement decisions in a presidential contest. Donna, who I have known and greatly respected for a number of years, is also chair of the South Carolina Labor Party.

While brother Trumka reported the decision of the exalted General Board was unanimous, grumbling by many has hardly been muted. Everyone sees Obama’s choice of venue for the Democrat convention to be a calculated insult to labor. The building trades are livid because the host city of Charlotte, North Carolina has been known to boast their convention center was completely built with nonunion labor. UNITE HERE is hardly pleased with the fact that Charlotte does not have a single unionized hotel.

Larry Cohen of the CWA is furious about the administration’s reneging on a deal for fair representation elections under the Railway Labor Act that jeopardize his union’s efforts to keep flight attendants during the craze of airline mergers.

Grumbling, yes. But few are emulating Townsend and Dewitt. Our labor statespersons may not all be happy campers--but they see no life outside the camp of class subordination.

In Brief...
¶ Fourteen employees of the Elizabeth R. Wellborn, P.A. law firm in Ft. Lauderdale were summarily fired for wearing orange shirts. Those discharged told reporters their coordinated wardrobe was part of a planned excursion to an after work Happy Hour. Why the boss saw red over orange remains a mystery. Had the shirts been worn as part of a concerted protest the firings would have been illegal. But under Florida’s “at-will” employee law the bosses can, as explained by one labor lawyer, fire workers for “good reason, for a bad reason or even for the wrong reason, as long as it's not an unlawful reason.” As Chris Townsend commented, “fourteen more reasons to join a union.”
¶ The CBC reported Friday, “The Liberal-dominated [B.C.] legislature voted 43-31 to pass Bill 22, which bans further walkouts, forces teachers to resume their normal duties, imposes a six-month ‘cooling-off’ period, and then sends the contract dispute to mediation.” The teachers are discussing their response.
¶ From the BBC, “Police in Chile have used tear gas and water cannon to break up a protest by thousands of students in Santiago. It was the first big demonstration this year by Chile's student movement, which held months of mass protests in 2011. They are demanding free, high-quality public education for all, as well as the reinstatement of students excluded from school for protesting.”

If you are not on the e-mail list you may have missed an article I recently posted, Labor Notes Conference What We Expect–What We Hope For.

That’s all for this week.

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