Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 9, 2011

An ELM Blooms In Cleveland
As we pulled out of town in my wife Mary’s Ford 500 before sunrise last Thursday Brian Elam asked me what to expect when we finally reached our destination the following day–the Emergency Labor Meeting in Cleveland. Though I had been part of the ELM organizing committee I couldn’t make any confident declarations other than we expected about 100 of those who had been invited to attend. (There were, in fact, 96 from 26 states.)

The idea for ELM started sprouting last November. Not only had reactionary Republicans won control of the U.S. House, and many state legislatures and administrations; the Obama White House humbled itself after this “shellacking” and pledged cooperation with the GOP and Big Business in fiscal policies and rolling back government regulation.

Unlike his pledges to labor, and others who had put him in office, the President has quickly followed through on these new promises, freezing Federal worker wages, promoting the devastating take-backs of his bipartisan debt reduction commission, and deep-sixing a number of OSHA and EPA protections. Some Democrat Governors, such as Jerry Brown in California, and Working Families Party-endorsed Andrew Cuomo in New York, emulated Obama’s new stance.

Workers in the private sector–including those in the historically most powerful unions–have mainly been in give-back mode over the past thirty years. Multi-tiered wages; defined benefit pensions replaced by 401(k) plans; soaring health care costs; part-time and “flexible” workforces; are all too common results of partnership between unions and private sector bosses. These trends continue with the recent UAW six-year deal at Caterpillar and seven-year capitulation by the IAM and Steelworkers at Harley-Davidson in Kansas City. Throughout this period dominated by surrender of past gains without a fight private sector union membership and density plummeted to the point where public sector unions now have a majority of organized workers.

It is these public workers who are now the prime target of the boss class and their politicians. As they attack the workers they also attack the services the public sector deliver including education, Medicaid, public hospitals and clinics, water and other utilities, transit, street and infrastructure maintenance, even firefighting.

They sought to gain public acceptance of this unconscionable downgrading of everyday life by cynically promoting what’s been dubbed “public envy.” Why should the public workers not give up what we have taken from you? the bosses pose to the battered private sector workers. They live high on the hog with their Cadillac health plans and generous pensions that tax payers cannot afford.

In several states, including Missouri, there are now serious efforts to impose “right-to-work laws” outlawing union shops. In Kansas, legislation has been passed banning payroll deductions of voluntary contributions to union political action committees. Hardly a day goes by without some new anti-worker initiative.

This new take no prisoners escalation of class war seemed to us to be a bona fide emergency, the likes of which most of us had not seen in our lifetime. We decided to try to put together a “coalition of the willing,” which we expected would be quite modest initially, to figure out how to fight back. To test the feasibility of such a project we opted for an invitation only gathering where we could have some frank discussions without any prior commitment beyond a first meeting. Dozens agreed to endorse an Emergency Labor Meeting in Cleveland March 4-5.

About a month ago it became clear that we were not the only ones to recognize workers face an emergency that requires exceptional, urgent response. As so often happens, the ranks of labor went considerably beyond the routine efforts suggested by their leaders. Traditional lobbying gave way to mass actions by public sector workers in state capitals in Ohio, Indiana and, above all, Wisconsin.

In Madison public workers were joined by private sector workers–both unionized and unorganized–and students as well, in bold Kill the Bill actions around the flashpoint of legislation to strip public workers of meaningful bargaining rights. There has been an ongoing occupation of the Capitol grounds and several mass marches of up to 100,000--with another planned for this Saturday, March 12. There was also a rally of 7,000, initiated by the Madison central labor body and National Nurses United, calling for no cuts in worker wages or benefits as well as “Kill the Bill.”

Regardless of the ultimate legislative outcome of these battles they have shaken up and rejuvenated the labor movement. The cork will not be put back in this intoxicating bottle any time soon. This new mood was reflected in both the temperament and discussion at the ELM.

Participants came from a broad cross section of the labor movement both public and private: AFSCME; both teacher unions; National Nurses United; SEIU; CWA; Teamsters; both Longshore unions: UE; ATU; UTU; UAW; OPEIU; Plumbers; Laborers; Steelworkers; National Union of Healthcare Workers; IATSE; Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Health Care; Florida Labor Party; and probably more that I may have missed.

There were panels that took up a number of issues of concern and a Perspectives document was approved establishing our basic principles and strategy. A three-point short-term action plan was adopted including:

* Support to the March 12 mass action in Madison this Saturday.
* Building the April 4 “not-business-as-usual” Nationwide Day of Action at workplaces and communities across the country in support of labor rights called by the AFL-CIO executive council. April 4 is the anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King while he was in Memphis supporting an AFSCME sanitation workers strike.
* Participants agreed to go back to their unions and communities to report on the ELM and try to organize local coalitions to build support for the above and similar fight-back actions.

If progress is made on these initial steps another, broader nation-wide gathering will be called. You can view the official summary of the Cleveland meeting; the Perspectives document; and the endorsers list by clicking here.

An ELM website will be up and running soon. In the meantime you can contact ELM by e-mail at:

This Sunday, March 13, Brian Elam and I will give reports on the Cleveland gathering and encourage discussion of what can be done in the Kansas City area at the KC Labor Forum.

Next KC Labor Forum
From Madison to Cleveland—and Beyond
American Workers Are Fighting Back
Sunday, March 13, 2-4PM
North Kansas City Community Center
Here For Details

International Women’s Day is a holiday, like May Day, with roots in the USA but celebrated mainly in other lands. The first Women's Day was organized in 1908 by American socialist women fighting for the right to vote and promoting organization of women workers through the Women's Trade Union League. Fifteen thousand marched through the streets of New York. The following year they organized another mass demonstration in New York in preparation for a major garment worker strike. Their actions inspired a 1910 Women's Conference of the Socialist International to proclaim an annual coordinated International Women's Day, beginning in 1911.

In 1917 an IWD demonstration in Petrograd (later Leningrad, now St Petersburg) became the launching pad for the revolution that first overthrew the Russian Czar and then, eight months later, established the Soviet Union. IWD was then established as an official national holiday by the Soviet government. Ex- comrade Putin has not shown much enthusiasm for maintaining this heritage.

During the revival of feminism in the USA in the 1970s there was a brief period when IWD was again marked by mass marches and rallies but today most groups are preoccupied with electoral and lobbying activities. In other countries, where women are confronted with even more pressing issues than the glass ceiling, IWD is still an occasion for taking to the streets.

Egyptian women, who played a prominent role in the launching of revolution there, had to defend themselves against gangs of backward men taunting, and sometimes physically assaulting their demonstration.

Things got even uglier in the Ivory Coast where thousands of courageous women, with some of their male comrades, were fired upon by the army leaving at least four dead.

The best reference to the centennial observance of IWD in the USA yesterday that I saw was an article by National Nurses United Co-President Deborah Burger, The War on Women’s Health. Is there any major issue these nurses don’t cover?

We look forward to the day when IWD will again be on labor’s calendar as part of the solidarity goal of establishing genuine and complete gender equality.

Don’t Forget Iraq
While the U.S. and EU are threatening intervention in Libya under the pretext of defending people against a dictator we hear little news about stepped up repression in Iraq where tens of thousands of GIs are still on the ground ready, if needed, to protect the repressive regime. Unions and worker political parties have had their offices seized and many have been jailed or “disappeared.”

US Labor Against the War has a solidarity campaign going, at the request of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers, to press the authorities to disclose what happened to three labor journalists arrested in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square whose whereabouts remain unknown. You can plug in to this effort by clicking here. The Iraq Freedom Congress is also coming under fresh attacks and you can read about their participation in Iraq’s Days of Rage, published in an Australian magazine here.

KC R-t-W Rally
There will be a rally against Missouri SB1, a version of the right-to-work law outlawing union shop agreements, this Saturday, March 12, 12:30-1:30, at the picnic grounds of IBEW Local 124. The IBEW hall is located at 301 E 103rd Terrace in Kansas City. The event is sponsored by the Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trades and being promoted by Kansas City Jobs with Justice.

We resumed our regular posting schedule on our Daily Labor News Digest this morning.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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