Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 31, 2008

Good News From Texas
It seems like most of our rare good news on the American labor front comes from the CNA/National Nurse Organizing Committee. Last Friday they racked up another impressive organizing victory–the first nurse unionization win in the state of Texas. It was modest in size–a unit of about 300–and hard fought–the margin of victory was 119 to 111. But the RNs at Cypress Fairbanks in northwest Houston stood up to their parent company Tenet Healthcare. They showed that even in this “right to work” venue–union density in the Lone Star state is only 4.7 percent--determined workers can win a say on the job.

This election was watched carefully by healthcare bosses around the state. They know it represents much more than an isolated fluke. The NNOC has active organizing committees in every corner of Texas. They have a high profile even before collecting their first dues dollar through organizing actions at the state capitol for legislated nurse/patient ratios. With this first victory notched in Houston more demands for recognition can be expected soon.

The NNOC example may encourage other unions to step up organizing among other healthcare workers. Who knows? Maybe even other Texas crafts and industries may catch this union bug as well.

Not So Good News From Detroit
UAW membership has dipped below the 500,000 mark. This is the lowest point since Depression days before the union won recognition at Ford. Of course, this comes at a time when the Solidarity House mantra is “jobs.”

Meanwhile, the company is ratcheting up pressure on 3600 UAW strikers at American Axle. Profitable Axle is demanding the same fifty percent wage cuts the UAW granted bankrupt parts makers. As we reported last week, they continue to shift tools and work from the struck plants to Mexico. Now they have started placing want ads in the papers for replacement workers. It’s unlikely that they will actually start running strikebreakers in to the plants at this time. That could set in motion an escalated struggle that the company may not feel up to. But, at the very least, it shows the employer, and their chief customer General Motors, are prepared for a protracted game of hard ball.

Unhealthy Skepticism
Skepticism can be a good thing. I’ve learned over the years to take the words of bosses, politicians, brass hats, union bureaucrats, and persons of the cloth with a generous dose of sodium chloride. In many cases their self-serving pronouncements are aimed at keeping the rest of us in ignorance and subservience. This may be a pessimistic outlook but, as Freud once remarked, only a pessimist is happy when disappointed. Unfortunately, I’m not disappointed nearly enough.

But now there is fresh evidence of the Establishment trying to turn our own healthy, reflexive skepticism against us as they try to maintain their power and privilege while wrecking our biosphere. It’s hard to threaten scientists in the same way church and state once subdued troublemakers such as Galileo. But there are sections of the ruling class who have established well funded think tanks to nurture the hearty seed of doubt into a patch of weeds in the field of climate change science.

My wife Mary has actually read much of the junk science produced by “climate change skeptics,” promoted by outfits such as the Reason Foundation and Heartland Institute. She wants to be prepared to refute all of their outrageous claims. Being less educated, and somewhat lazier, I have focused more on following the money.

There’s been a good opportunity to do that in a controversy in my neck of the woods–the drive by Sunflower Electric Power Corp to expand coal-fired power production in Holcomb, a tiny town in sparsely populated western Kansas. Accustomed to getting whatever they want, the utility was shocked when hundreds of opponents turned out for a public hearing in Lawrence in November, 2006.

Sunflower’s initial response was to emphasize they were going to use some algae to make “clean coal.” By this time, however, the regulators were concluding there would not only be emission fall out but political as well and rejected the permit request. They were backed up by Governor Kathleen Sebelius.

Well, no more Mister Nice Guy for Sunflower after that. They turned to the Kansas legislature for help in reversing the state’s decision. They set a nice tone by buying full page ads in newspapers around the state featuring shots of the smirking faces of the presidents of Iran and Venezuela, arguing that these “enemies” would profit from the rejection of coal. They furnished Rep. Larry Powell, a Garden City Republican, with enough copies of the book, Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years, to distribute to all of his fellow lawmakers. After mastering the science in this work, Powell wrote a letter to Kansas newspapers asserting carbon emissions likely would boost agricultural output by 50 percent.

In the meantime, new EPA figures show that the rural location targeted for emission expansion is already at a higher ozone level than the typical major metropolitan area. This is because of huge coal-fired plants downwind in Texas.

Karen Dillon and David Klepper of the Kansas City Star did a commendable job in tracking down the funding and propaganda sources for the coal burners. Included were Exxon Mobil, Koch Refineries, Peabody Coal, the Coors family, and one family offshoot of the Mellon fortunes. The Libertarian free market gurus of the Cato Institute supplied their cost analysis arguments. In the interest of fair disclosure it should be noted that a significant sum was spent on opposition to Sunflower by Chesapeake Energy–who favor substitution of their “clean burning” fossil alternative, natural gas.

The coal based greenhouse skeptics succeeded in getting the legislature to pass a bill granting a go ahead for Holcomb expansion. The Governor, who has national ambitions and dreams about sharing the ticket with Obama, vetoed the measure. It appears unlikely that the carbon crowd will be able to get the votes needed to override her rejection.

Unfortunately, this is not just another example of exotic behavior in the Sunflower State. The Los Angeles Times reported,

“EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson has shelved his agency's findings that greenhouse gases are a danger to the public, and on Thursday told Congress that he will initiate a lengthy public comment period about whether such emissions are a risk before responding to a U.S. Supreme Court order.”

Tomorrow will be Fossil Fools Day throughout the globe. For example, an e-blast from the Climate Crisis Coalition of the Twin Cities (3CTC), calls for a lunch hour observation of this new traditional holiday in front of the Minneapolis corporate headquarters of Xcel,

“With the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica on the verge of breaking off—another grim reminder that the planet continues to melt down--it is business as usual for corporate America . The continued fossil fuelish behavior of King Coal, the Carbon Barons and the Dukes of Nukes is a shameful mockery and a disgrace. Come to mock them and call attention to the urgent need for renewable energy in the form of wind & solar power and clean mass transit powered by the same means. Challenge the status quo by bringing signs, chanting slogans, ringing bells, banging drums and wearing a fool’s cap, tiara, crown or coronet. Let’s have some serious fun! SAVE EARTH! SEE YOU THERE!”

Of course, the climate change skeptics can only appear the fool in any examination of science. But we are not dealing primarily with academic debates. The skeptics offer a straw of hope to workers concerned about losing their jobs. I have a brother-in-law who has a blue collar, union job in a coal-fired power plant. He knows all the basic arguments of the skeptics and champions the future of his employer

Science has in fact developed alternatives to ameliorate global warming. Climate change disaster is “unstoppable” only if we don’t stop the bosses destructive ways of making obscene profits. If we are to beat global warming we have to popularize the alternatives and come up with a credible plan to convert to them without victimizing the working class. That’s the main challenge to the future of civilization today.

We’ll have more to say on the now trendy question of “green jobs” next time–and also at the Labor and Environmental Coalitions Workshop at the upcoming Labor Notes conference.

That’s all for this week.


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