Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
April 10, 2012

Two Views of Crisis
Two men I highly respect recently made statements about carbon that were about as far a part as you can get.

Today, NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen received the prestigious Edinburgh Medal, awarded for his landmark contributions to science. The British Guardian says,

“Averting the worst consequences of human-induced climate change is a ‘great moral issue’ on a par with slavery, according to the leading NASA climate scientist Prof Jim Hansen. He argues that storing up expensive and destructive consequences for society in future is an ‘injustice of one generation to others.’”

While Hansen’s call for a global carbon tax to resolve the crisis misses the mark in my view, both his science and moral appeals are unassailable. At age seventy he not only continues his science–he can also be found committing civil disobedience, such as at the White House in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline.

But Hansen has aimed his harshest warnings at coal. In a 2009 opinion piece in The Observer entitled Coal-fired power stations are death factories. Close them, he writes,

“A year ago, I wrote to Gordon Brown [then British Prime Minister] asking him to place a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Britain. I have asked the same of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and other leaders. The reason is this - coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.”

After a long, unconscionable delay, the Environmental Protection Agency finally put regulations in to place effectively blocking new conventional coal-fired power plants in the USA. That leads us to the contrary position.

The plain spoken president of the United Mine Workers, Cecil Roberts, caught attention is some circles with this remark on a radio talk show,

“...the Navy Seals shot Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and [EPA head] Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington.”

The “us” pronoun refers to the U.S. coal industry--in which the UMWA is today a relatively small player. The combination of technology and corporate restructuring has greatly reduced the number of miners over the years--and those remaining are mostly unorganized. The operators–not the tree-huggers–have been the job-killers of the UMWA.

While there were certainly some dark periods, the overall heritage of the coal miners union is a proud one. They were pioneers in industrial unionism and racial integration. The UMWA played an indispensable role in building the CIO. They were the only national union to defy the no-strike pledge during World War II. After falling under control of murderous gangsters the miners liberated themselves through the courageous Miners for Democracy movement. They flouted a Jimmy Carter Taft-Hartley injunction against a national coal strike. They fought brave rolling battles against Pittston’s effort to break the union. And they were one of the original core unions that launched the Labor Party project.

Cecil Roberts has played an important part in the union’s recent history, becoming president in 1995 after his predecessor Rich Trumka was elected AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer–later going on to head the Federation. Brother Roberts and the union he represents has earned a right to speak out about the future existence of the industry that employs them. We have a different attitude toward them than we feel toward the coal operators and utility companies.

But our warm respect and solidarity with this part of our working class family doesn’t change the science articulated by Jim Hansen. There’s no way we can sugar-coat this bitter medicine If our planet is to be livable for future generations, the world must stop burning coal ASAP.

It would be irresponsible–not to mention futile–to ask workers to cooperate in eliminating their livelihood without offering some viable alternative. That’s precisely why the Labor Party–that Cecil Roberts and the UMWA helped found–incorporated the principle of Just Transition in to its program,

“This Labor Party affirms its commitment to a clean and safe environment. We all need clean workplaces, clean air, and clean water. But we also need our jobs. We reject the false choice of jobs or the environment. We will not be held hostage by corporate polluters who poison our workplaces and our communities. We refuse this corporate blackmail. Corporations are not interested in either saving our jobs or protecting the environment. But we also know that environmental change is coming. What we produce and how we produce will change as steps are taken to protect people and the natural environment from harm. The Labor Party will support taking such steps if and only if the livelihoods of working people endangered by environmental change are fully protected. Therefore, the Labor Party calls for the creation of a new worker-oriented environmental movement — a Just Transition Movement — that puts forth a fair and just transition program to protect both jobs and the environment. All workers with jobs endangered by steps taken to protect the environment are to be made whole and to receive full income and benefits as they make the difficult transition to alternative work.”

The science and technology required to restructure an ecologically sustainable economy that can provide alternative good jobs for coal miners–and everybody else–is available thanks to the Jim Hansens of the world. What is sorely lacking, needed to implement the possible, is the revival of the Labor Party movement by the likes of Cecil Roberts.

Education Short Sale
In 1971, the AFL-CIO purchased a 47-acre bucolic monastic retreat in Silver Spring, Maryland that was to become the campus of the National Labor College. Its students came out of the labor movement. First in partnership with Antioch College, and eventually under its own academic accreditation, it went on to offer Bachelor degrees in Labor Studies, Labor Education, Labor Safety & Health, Union Leadership & Administration, Labor History, Political Economy of Labor, and, more recently, Emergency Readiness and Response Management, Construction Management, and my favorite–Business Administration.

The campus has expanded considerably over the years The 72,000 square foot Lane Kirkland Center, mainly used for internal union education programs, was built just five years ago. I visited the campus only once–a stop at the impressive Archives–and it seemed a nice environment for learning.

But it's said there’s more to a college than its bricks and mortar. Apparently that’s what the current Federation leadership believes. This morning, the daily e-mail update from the Metropolitan Washington Council reported the campus is being sold, “‘The College is working hard to continue its core mission of educating union workers and their families, now and in the future,’ said NLC President Paula Peinovich. ‘The College’s Board of Trustees has made difficult decisions to refocus on the College’s core mission.’”

The scuttlebutt is that some courses will continue to be offered to an atomized online student body. So far there’s no word about how the NLC’s unionized workforce will be affected. Nor was the compelling need for this cash windfall at the expense of abandoning bringing workers together for education immediately revealed. Perhaps it will be used to “educate” voters about labor’s “friends” as the campaign ad buys go in to saturation mode.

Not Disappointed
They say only a pessimist is happy when they are disappointed. I’m not a skeptic in all matters but when it comes to the prospect of American Capital bringing improvement to the lives of the working class–call me Thomas.

Since the March jobs report met my expectations I feel neither joy nor dashed hope. After two months of what was billed robust jobs growth the malaise of chronic high unemployment is back. Retail trade that roared in to the New Year lost 34,000 jobs. Seven thousand in construction worked themselves out of jobs during the unseasonable warm weather. The public sector shed 1,000 workers. One out of four young workers remain jobless. Fourteen percent of African-Americans can’t find work. Only manufacturing and health care show signs of significant job growth.

The conditions of those who have a job remain virtually unchanged. The average work week for production and nonsupervisory private sector workers has been steady at 33.8 hours for the past three months. Their average hourly wage went up a whopping three cents over February to 19.68. That would put them on track for a pre-tax annual wage of about 33,000.

In this “consumer-driven” economy 1.8 million workers toil for the precise minimum wage of 7.25. More than that work for even less in occupations or age groups not covered under the Federal minimum.

Writing in the New York Times, Jason DeParle gives a needed reminder to those who have focused only on the problems of the “Middle Class,”

“Perhaps no law in the past generation has drawn more praise than the drive to “end welfare as we know it,” which joined the late-’90s economic boom to send caseloads plunging, employment rates rising and officials of both parties hailing the virtues of tough love. But the distress of the last four years has added a cautionary postscript: much as overlooked critics of the restrictions once warned, a program that built its reputation when times were good offered little help when jobs disappeared. Despite the worst economy in decades, the cash welfare rolls have barely budged.”

Worse yet, he notes sixteen states have actually slashed welfare rolls.

The media looks at all these statistics from one standpoint only--how they will affect the election? So do most liberals and union officials. They desperately search for ways to find a positive spin to the monthly dismal drumbeat of despair so that they may keep their friends in power.

To me the stats are an impersonal description of the level of anxiety, even misery, that continues to spread among tens of millions of workers, retirees, and their families. Them I care about; I couldn’t care less about which of the evil twins competing to enforce the will of our masters prevails.

No, none of these things so easily anticipated disappoint me. It’s just Free Enterprise on steroids. It’s a ruling class acting as bullying class. They will slap us around, humiliate us, and take our lunch money until we answer push with shove.

I still carry an optimistic counterweight to my otherwise pessimist personae that I picked up in my youth–a belief that the best of the American worker is yet to come. One day, probably when least expected, some group of workers is going to say basta! and others will join in. Once that starts, no force can stop it. That will be the day when I can be happy without disappointment.

That’s all for this week.

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