Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
May 10, 2009

Fighting Monopolies
Newly confirmed Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius told congress that, while the administration wants a “public option” in health care reform, it opposes a government “monopoly.” Says the former Kansas Governor,

“Dismantling the private market and having an entirely public option, a single-payer system, I think is not something that the President supports.”

Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the Democrat chairman of the Finance Committee, is trying to broker a compromise on the public option issue but stands four-square with the White House that single-payer is literally off the table. He sent that message loud and clear at a Senate “Roundtable” last Tuesday.

The star of the fifteen witnesses carefully screened and selected by Baucus was Karen Ignagni. At one time she headed the AFL-CIO Department of Employee Benefits before going over to the Dark Side. She’s now the CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the trade association representing the robber barons.

Uninvited and unwanted were eight supporters of single-payer who showed up asking for at least a voice in the Roundtable. They had the audacity to stand up and make this polite but firm request to the labor friend from Montana. The response of friend Baucus was swift and decisive. Each were led by Capitol Police out of the hearing room, handcuffed, and taken down for booking. Included among the Baucus Eight was my old friend Mark Dudzic, Labor Party national organizer and national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer. Mark wrote,

“I got arrested today with 7 other activists as we disrupted the Senate Finance Committee hearing. Baucus [Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, D MT] has been the most arrogant and disrespectful of the committee chairs. I've been encouraging people to draw the line on him and couldn't resist the urge to join them. The other protesters belonged to the Physicians for a National Health Program and the Healthcare Now Coalition.

“I think it was exactly the right thing to do. We got more mileage out of it than if Baucus had actually scheduled a token single payer witness and we hijacked the theme of the hearing. The Associated Press piece said something like ‘The protesters called for putting single payer on the table. Senator Baucus called for more police.’”

Labor Notes interviewed Donna Smith, a community organizer for the California Nurses Association, about what happened at the big bust. They asked, “Do the arrests yesterday indicate that single-payer advocates’ strategy is changing?” Sister Smith replied,

“We don’t know yet. In the single-payer movement, there’s been growing unrest among lots of people that they are not being heard. Members of Congress and to a certain extent the new administration are just not open—we hear their words about transparency in government and being a part of the process, but what’s happening in policy is not being shared with the people.”

The question of health care access becomes more urgent daily. As Smith points out, on average, 14,000 people a day are losing their employer-based health care benefits–2.4 million just since the beginning of the recession. Less than sixty percent of American workers are now covered.

Single-payer has been endorsed by hundreds of unions. But, aside from CNA and Labor Notes, I found no labor outrage–or even mention–in response to the arrests. As they are on every other issue, the new emerging “single voice of labor” at the top echelons are taking their marching orders from the White House, plugging away for “private/public options.” They lack the honest transparency of Baucus who was at least forthright in kicking our side to the curb.

Once again, urgently needed action is blocked by those who are supposed to be leading it. That doesn’t mean the single-payer movement is a failure. It certainly doesn’t mean that we too should cave in and accept another rotten compromise that compromises the health of our people. But it does mean we will get nowhere unless we can build a powerful mass movement based on the majority sentiment that favors single-payer.

Compulsory Meditation
A consensus is building around the Employee Free Choice Act–that it is dead. But its original Senate sponsor, Tom Harkin, along with the newest Democrat Senator, Arlen Specter, are cooking up a new compromise labor law reform bill. Card check would be dropped but representation elections would have to be held within 21 days of filing. Compulsory arbitration of a first contract would be replaced with mediation. Mediators can, of course, offer only suggestions. Old timers, with good reason, used to refer to that process as “meditation.” Doesn’t sound like the game plan needed to organize six million new workers.

Bye American
The Washington Post was the first to report that the latest General Motors restructuring plan–largely financed by U.S. and Canadian taxpayers–projects a steadily increasing domestic market share for GM vehicles built abroad. Currently GM products built in Mexico and Asia account for a little more than fifteen percent of the company’s U.S. sales. They project that by 2014 this will rise to nearly a quarter. They will soon begin their first imports from China.

This got even UAW president Ron Gettelfinger’s attention. The Detroit Free Press reported,

“In a striking departure from its usual public silence during sensitive bargaining, the UAW continued to hammer away at General Motors Corp. on Wednesday, blasting GM's plans to close four more U.S. assembly plants and use imports to satisfy future vehicle demand.”

GM argued that while they were indeed planning to substantially up Asian imports they would soon eliminate German (next to nothing anyway), and would cut production in Mexico–and Canada.

The Canadian federal and Ontario governments have demanded the CAW give away a third round of concessions to GM even as the company projects cutting production in that country by about half.

The Free Press also quantified the impact of Big Three dealership closings–159,000 workers directly affected.

Tough Week For the Third Rock
* Shortly after replacing Kathleen Sebelius, the new Democrat Kansas Governor, Mark Parkinson, caved in and agreed to construction of a new 895-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Holcomb.

* Australia's Labor government has postponed taxing polluting industries until 2011 because of the economic slowdown and concerns it would hurt business.

* Information recently revealed by the EPA suggests people in 34 states who live near 210 coal ash lagoons or landfills with inadequate lining have a higher risk of cancer and other diseases from contaminants in their drinking water.

* A once huge 18,000 year-old glacier more than 17,000 feet above sea level at Chacaltaya, Bolivia is now completely gone because of global warming. Ten years ago researchers had expected its demise in 2015.

* Global warming will lead to declining polar-bear populations, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged Friday--but the Interior Department will let stand a Bush administration rule that proposes to manage the threatened animals without taking into account greenhouse gases that heat the planet and threaten their sea ice habitat. “The special rule is a death warrant for the polar bear,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity.

* The company and executives that poisoned the town of Libby, Montana with their vermiculite mining that released asbestos fibers, and then tried their best to hide it, left court scot-free Friday. A bungled prosecution by the Justice Department, along with some amazing jury instructions from a pro-corporate judge, led to the acquittal.

In Brief...
¶ As Treasury Secretary Geithner talked incessantly about new transparency the Wall Street Journal revealed big banks, such as Bank of America, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo, engaged in intense, and successful behind the scene negotiating to alter the bank “stress tests” in their favor.
¶ A list of CIA congressional briefings shows that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and other top Democrats such as former Senator Bob Graham of Florida, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Representative Jane Harman of California, were briefed on torture of prisoners during 2002-2003.
¶ Who says unions are not organizing? Mechanics at United Airlines will soon be voting in their third union representation election in six years. In 2003 the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association replaced the IAM as bargaining agent. The Teamsters later ousted AMFA. Now the IAM is preparing what they hope will be a comeback to get 5,000 dues payers.
¶ A Wall Street Journal comparison,
U.S., Europe Are an Ocean Apart on Human Toll of Joblessness, is well worth checking out.
¶ The California Nurses Association has reelected their council of co-presidents: Deborah Burger RN, Zenei Triunfo-Cortez RN, Geri Jenkins RN, and Malinda Markowitz RN. The four will begin their next terms at the CNA/NNOC national convention in San Francisco in September. CNA leaders recently met with their opposite numbers in the United American Nurses and the Massachusetts Nurses Association to set up an interim leadership to organize the Founding Convention of a new “nurse super-union.”
¶ The National Union of Healthcare Workers, undemocratically driven out of SEIU, held their formal founding convention April 25. Carl Finamore wrote an interesting account,
New Prescription for Healthy Union.

Clearly, the pace of current events is not going to leave room for a substantial comment on the newspaper crisis I mentioned last week. This will appear in a stand alone article soon.

That’s all for this week.

Next Troublemakers School--Bay Area--May 30

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