Week In Review
A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
April 27, 2008
The first Earth Day was in 1970, a truly massive outpouring of growing environmental concern not previously recognized. It’s estimated twenty million participated in innovative activities. It was testimony that long percolating ideas advanced by a vanguard can suddenly take the form of mass action.
Global warming was not yet widely understood in 1970. The concerns then were primarily about what chemicals and industrial wastes were doing to our air and water. A modest labor contingent was present from the beginning of this new ecological awakening–sparked by the late Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers union (now part of the Steelworkers.) As his biographer, Les Leopold explained in his book, and also in a workshop presentation at the recent Labor Notes conference, Tony believed the unions should become green, a leading force in the fight to stop corporate polluters. He also insisted that other environmentalists recognize, as few did on their own, that workers were the front line victims, at the very source of pollution. Mazzocchi was the chair of the first Earth Day rally in New York City.
This mobilization of millions shook up the Establishment. Its momentum led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. But since then, most Earth Day observations have been more festive than demonstrations aiming political demands at those in power.
This year, in deference to growing concerns about the climate change crisis, the Establishment and their media sought to coopt the mantle of Earth Day. NBC Nightly News did a green story every night during “Earth Week,.” including a tour led by Laura Bush of the First Family’s environmentally advanced ranch in Crawford, Texas. The History Channel’s Modern Marvels show focused on green technology--including the wind turbine powering Jay Leno’s 16,000 square foot personal car garage. Even my wife Mary’s favorite show, What Not To Wear, selected a campus recycling center manager to get five grand for a new environmentally friendly wardrobe, complimented by an all natural cosmetic make-over.
But the day after Earth Day the New York Times brought us back to reality with an article entitled, Europe Turns Back to Coal, Raising Climate Fears. While all top climate scientists urge at least a moratorium on construction of new coal fired power plants, in Europe--where we have heard so much hype about their use of solar and wind technology–fifty new burners are scheduled to go online over the next five years. Sunny Italy plans to more than double its consumption of the dirtiest of all fuels.
Pardon me if I don’t feel festive about this year’s Earth Day. Bush’s geothermal home heating and Jay Leno’s wind mill are not going to cut it. We need to once again mobilize millions in the streets to demand the urgent, far reaching changes needed to save this planet from the corporate destroyers.
Worker Memorial Day
Tony Mazzocchi gained valuable allies from Earth Day in another historic campaign he helped generate that same year that led to the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act creating OSHA, which opened for business the following April. In 1989 the AFL-CIO used that launch date as a tie-in linking to an annual National Day of Mourning for workers killed on the job, initiated five years earlier by the Canadian Labour Congress. Today, April 28 has become a global day of awareness.
Certainly the globalization of capital has made work more deadly than ever. Miner deaths in China are reckoned in the thousands. This morning’s papers report at least 55 Moroccan workers perished in a fire in a Casablanca mattress factory.
But there are disturbing trends in North America as well. The CLC notes that workplace fatalities in Canada were up 18 percent over the past decade.
Clearly safety standards in the USA have eroded as well. In global capital’s headquarters in Manhattan ten have been killed on high rise construction projects just since the first of this year. As documented by a diligent New York Times reporter, in at least eight of those cases the workers were following all the rules and using approved safety equipment–equipment that often failed. Nylon straps used in crane lifts tore apart. Safety harnesses ripped out of their anchoring supports. A frantic pace driven by the lure of completion deadline bonuses, combined with schlock being used in critical components, has mixed a deadly workplace cocktail in the most unionized city in the country. It can only get worse west of the Hudson.
The AFL-CIO annual Death On the Job report says,
“More than 369,000 workers now can say their lives have been saved since the passage of the OSH Act in 1970. Unfortunately, too many workers remain at risk. On average, 16 workers were fatally injured and more than 11,200 workers were injured or made ill each day of 2006 [the latest full year statistics available]. These statistics do not include deaths from occupational diseases, which claim the lives of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 workers each year.”
The Federation emphasizes the debilitation of OSHA and MSHA under the Bush administration and the poor worker safety voting record of Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Their observances of Worker Memorial Day will be mainly limited to gatherings of staff to fire them up for support of the Democrats.
Mazzocchi often noted the irony that many of the biggest postwar gains for working people, such as OSHA, EPA, and the Urban Mass Transit Act were won not from Democrat “friends” but from the Nixon administration. He once told Steven Greenhouse, “When you build a big movement from down below, regardless of who's in the White House, you can bring about change.”
Three years ago, I devoted a column to a concise history of May Day, showing the American roots of this worker holiday marked by millions throughout the world, largely ignored in its country of origin. That changed somewhat over the past couple of years. The wave of immigrants to the USA brought many accustomed to celebrating May 1 as Labor Day. They used the day to demonstrate against the growing attacks on immigrant workers. Cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles had truly huge outpourings in the hundreds of thousands. Most cities had some kind of march or rally–even Kansas City, where the local Labor Party distributed its first bilingual leaflet. And some unions had sense enough to reach out to these workers in motion.
Once again there are plans in at least three dozen cities across the country for May Day events with a solidarity with immigrant workers theme. It remains to be seen what impact the ICE raids, and state and local crackdowns on “illegal” immigrants, will have on the size of these actions. They deserve our support.
A bizarre incident around May Day leaves a bad taste and smell. The Democratic Socialists of America lined up Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association to be the main speaker at their 50th Annual Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner in Chicago. But then they got a letter from the head of SEIU’s Illinois Council, a man who carries a family name well known in progressive circles in Chicago, Tom Balanoff. After reminding these socialists of how much support his union had given them in the past, Brother Balanoff told them, “We are requesting you rescind your invitation of Rose Ann DeMoro...We don’t want to picket your event, but we cannot allow Rose Ann DeMoro to speak in Chicago without educating the public of her anti worker agenda.” Of course, the recent SEIU physical assault on the Labor Notes conference is still quite fresh in everyone’s mind.
The smear that DeMoro has an “anti-worker agenda” is based on the fact that she makes life uncomfortable for Balanoff’s boss, Andy Stern. Not wishing to contribute to DSA’s addition to Stern’s hit list, DeMoro let the mild mannered socialists off the hook by withdrawing as a speaker. CNA did offer to send a different speaker for a proposed debate with the Stern Gang about single-payer healthcare–an alternative dismissed by Chairman Andy.
Stern accuses CNA of “union busting,” because they challenged a sweetheart deal he had made in Ohio. But a better example of union busting is taking place in Los Angeles. SEIU United Healthcare Workers West–led by dissident Sal Rosselli who is challenging many of Stern’s policies at the upcoming SEIU convention–is facing a decertification attempt at a particularly nasty employer, Good Samaritan. In the midst of this boss effort to break the union pro-Stern forces from another SEIU group, the United Long Term Care Workers, distributed a leaflet to Good Sam workers. It focused on an irregularity in voting for convention delegates in Rosselli’s local which has led to an election rerun. They falsely charged Rosselli with scheming to disenfranchise 95 percent of his members and, in 36-point bold, all caps type asked, “WHO IS SAL ROSSELLI REALLY LOOKING OUT FOR?” It was a leaflet that could have been written by the employer’s union busting consultants. Clearly Stern cares more about trying to marginalize an internal union challenger than keeping Good Sam workers in SEIU.
* Last week we reported on a tentative agreement between ATU Local 113 and the Toronto Transit Commission. There’s a reason why such deals are called “tentative.” 65 percent of those 8900 members who voted nixed the deal and, without any prior notice to the public, the system serving 1.5 million riders daily was shut down midnight Friday. This afternoon the Ontario legislature went in to emergency session and passed legislation ordering the strikers back to work. Stay tuned.
* First corn, then wheat, soy beans, and now rice have become short in supply with skyrocketing prices. Biofuel diversion and regional droughts are part of the reason. But good reporting in the German newsweekly, Der Spiegel, and the Washington Post, have established the biggest driving force is speculators. With the housing and credit bubble bursts investment bankers and hedge funds are finding new outlets for capital in cornering food supply. Trading on grain exchanges and other commodity markets in places such as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Kansas City has been more active than on Wall Street.
Once again we’ve reached our limit. Be sure to check out our Daily Labor News Digest, updated by 7AM Central Monday-Saturday, for postings of interest to working people.
That’s all for this week.
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