Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
May 10, 2010

Sometimes the Roots Show
Back in the day before there were Hallmark Cards, there were early attempts to establish a Mother’s Day around an antiwar theme. Julia Ward Howe, a prominent abolitionist and all around troublemaker, was responsible for a number of peace-oriented Mother’s Day marches in the 1870s. But after the present Mother’s Day was blessed with a presidential proclamation by Woodrow Wilson in 1914, it became commercialized so quickly and thoroughly it’s main lobbyist, Ann Jarvis, later expressed regret for what she had done.

I read with great satisfaction a piece by one of my favorite writers, Donna Smith, returning to the historic antiwar roots of the day–Bombs for Moms. If you haven’t yet read it check it out.

This has been a time for a number of memorable ones: VE Day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe sixty-five years ago and FDA approval of The Pill fifty years ago, eventually giving women unprecedented control over if and when to have children, have received prominent media attention. This Saturday I’ll be attending the fifty-year anniversary of the 1960 graduating class at Ruskin High School.

I was reminded by a long-time acquaintance, Mike Alewitz–who is perhaps the top labor muralist on the scene today–of another one that has received less attention. Mike writes on a blog he maintains,

“May 4, 2010, will mark the 40-year anniversary of the massacre at Kent State University in Ohio.

“The events of that day – the killing of four and wounding of nine students, sparked a national student strike, the largest such action in US history. Ten days later, two students were killed and at least twelve wounded at Jackson State University in Mississippi – and the strike spread and deepened.

“The campus shutdowns marked a turning point in the fight against the war, as students took over the universities and reached out to the working class, particularly within the armed forces.”

Mike was a student at Kent at the time and an eye witness to the shootings. He never went back to class there, instead working to organize the antiwar movement in other places.

The bloody protests at Kent and Jackson were in response to Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam war in to Cambodia. After the campus killings a decisive shift in antiwar sentiment among working people was palpable. Even sections of the union leaderships, who had previously been either pro-war or silent, began to say enough is enough. For a good description of those turbulent times–and indeed the whole war and antiwar movement–there is still no better source than Out Now!, written by the late Fred Halstead, a central leader of that movement I was privileged to know.

We Care For You
That was the apt slogan of 3,000 members of the Minnesota Nurses Association–an affiliate of National Nurses United–who marched Thursday outside Children's and Abbott Northwestern hospitals in Minneapolis. It was a demonstration of unity and determination as negotiations with six Twin Cities hospital systems approach a showdown. The nurses will vote May 19 to either ratify a new contract or authorize a strike, which could begin on June 1. If nurses do vote to go on strike, it would be the largest RN-related work stoppage in U.S. history in terms of the number of nurses involved–about 12,000.

Overthere and Overpaid?
The Pentagon wants to do its share in cutting the deficit. A prime target seems to be the GIs going through multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Bush appointee kept on by Obama, rails that service pay has risen 42 percent over the past eight years compared to 32 percent for the private sector. And health care costs are “eating us alive,” he complains.

The 42 percent claim sounds dubious. Certainly it’s not based on enlisted personnel–those most likely to be concerned about IEDs. The basic pay scale for an Army E-3 in their first two years is the princely sum of 20,470 dollars a year–about the same as a full-time ten dollar an hour job. In 2004, the earliest year for which I could find figures online, it was 16,884–about an eighteen percent increase over six years.

During the height of the Iraq war, when recruits to the all-volunteer military started drying up, the Army did start offering one-time signing bonuses for those willing to accept an adventure instead of a job. The Great Recession has made this largesse unnecessary. It sounds like Gates wants to imitate other employers by using the economic crisis to freeze wages and to require GIs to pay more for their health care. Nothing is too good for the troops–and that’s what Gates would like to give them.

Neither Weeping Nor Smiling
Andy Stern closed his resignation video as President of SEIU with a quote from Dr Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Many of us, of course, did neither. Chairman Andy didn’t get his first choice for a successor but Mary Kay Henry differs only in tone and life style. While Steven Greenhouse described her challenge to Anna Burger as a “grassroots revolt,” fellow retiree Steve Early spilled the bubkus early in his Mary Kay Henry and Smoke Signals From the Purple Vatican

Steve’s take is being confirmed as Mary Kay graciously accepted victory from the Purple Cardinals on Saturday. According to the Wall Street Journal, she said she will seek to settle a bitter dispute with Unite Here. However, she will not approach former SEIU leaders in the National Union of Healthcare Workers and dismissed the idea of rejoining the AFL-CIO.

We Should Sign Up For This Greek Rush
It’s now the turn of the European Union to confront questions of state defaults and bailouts. The International Monetary Fund came to the “rescue” of indigent Greece with a thirty billion dollar loan. But, just as when Washington bailed out GM and Chrysler, tough love conditions were imposed by the IMF that included big cuts in wages and benefits, along with increased taxes, for Greek workers.

Unlike our auto bailout analogy, the Greek workers have been fighting back beginning with various sector walkouts, leading to a solid general strike. A photo of a contingent of unionists occupying the Acropolis featured a banner–in English–reading, “Peoples of Europe Rise Up!”

It’s an appropriate slogan because the Greeks are not alone. Spain, Portugal, and Italy may soon be faced with the same banker-imposed “austerity.” Come to think of it, with a slight continental adjustment it wouldn’t be a bad idea on this side of the Atlantic as well--as the commission on deficit reduction, which includes Chairman Emeritus Andy, begin their new round of tough love deliberations on the national level.

States and cities are well ahead of Washington in slashing public sector jobs, services, and benefits. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Wednesday that in light of state funding cuts he “anticipates,” the city is preparing to ax 6700 teachers, and an additional 5000 workers from other departments. This doesn’t include massive cuts in the works for the MTA transit system.

Yes, Greek take-out would be a welcome change in menu.

Who Done It
One of my few guilty pleasures is reading a good mystery. I’ve gone through the saga of Archie Goodwin’s reports about Nero Wolfe but Rex Stout isn’t doing any more of them. Len Deighton’s spy thrillers are a treasure as well but he seems to be retired. So I was pleased to discover that a brother in the National Writers Union has four labor-theme detective novels to his credit. If you’re a fan of the genre you should go to Timothy Sheard’s
website and look at samples from his Lenny Moss novels. He also has some other interesting labor and progressive links and materials on the site.

Self-Regulated Disaster
As this is written, industry and government are floundering about in so far futile attempts to stop the daily flow of over 200,000 gallons of crude oil in to the Gulf of Mexico. The only reliable chance of cutting off the gusher remains drilling another shaft that could divert the oil from the present leaks to a surface platform. That process has begun but will likely take months to complete.

Booms and burn offs to stop surface oil from reaching shore are effective only in calm seas–a condition that can hardly be counted on in the run-up to hurricane season. It’s too soon to tell where winds and currents may carry this destructive mess, too early to even guess the scope of ultimate damage to living things and livelihoods.

The federal government can honestly say, don’t blame us, we had nothing to do with this accident. Since at least the days of the Clinton/Gore administration the feds have relied on the companies to do the right thing. The most thorough and honest coverage of this aspect of the crisis has been in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. Not forgetting that workers, as usual, were the first victims of the current disaster Russell Gold and Stephen Power wrote in a Friday article,

“The small U.S. agency that oversees offshore drilling doesn't write or implement most safety regulations, having gradually shifted such responsibilities to the oil industry itself for more than a decade.

“Instead, the Minerals Management Service—now caught up in the crisis of the Deepwater Horizon rig that for weeks has sent crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico—sets broad performance goals for the industry. Oil producers and drilling companies are then free to decide for themselves how to meet those goals, industry executives and former regulators say.

“A Wall Street Journal examination of the MMS's track record found several instances of the agency identifying potential safety problems and then either not requiring follow-up or relying on the industry to craft a solution. In some cases, the industry didn't do its part.

“The Journal also found that the safety record of U.S. offshore drilling compares unfavorably, in terms of deaths and serious accidents, to other major oil-producing countries. Over the past five years, an offshore oil worker in the U.S. was more than four times as likely to be killed than a worker in European waters, and 23% more likely to sustain an injury, according to International Association of Drilling Contractors data, which is adjusted for man-hours worked.”

The record of the self-regulated has been no better when it comes to environmental damage.

What’s behind this abandonment of government responsibility? There are three factors:

• Since the Carter administration began with deregulation of airlines and telecommunications, there has been a relentless drive by Big Business to get agencies “off their back.” Each succeeding administration, both parties, has embraced this contribution to maximizing profitability. A 1996 law signed by Clinton instructed federal agencies to “benefit from the expertise of the private sector.” Not just the MMS but OSHA, MSHA, FAA, and other agencies have faithfully followed this deferral.

• In the case of MMS there is a material conflict of interest. In addition to protecting workers and the environment they are also expected to promote “energy independence” and to generate government revenue from drilling on government lands.

• There has also been out-and-out corruption. In 2008, the Interior Department Inspector-general’s office found workers in the MMS Denver office were accepting cash bribes and sexual favors from industry representatives. In 2009, the former regional supervisor of the Gulf of Mexico pled guilty and was sentenced to a year's probation in federal court in New Orleans for lying about receiving gifts from an offshore drilling contractor.

One thing we can count on: as long as self-regulated private companies produce for a lucrative market there are sure to be more Deepwater Horizons killing workers, destroying the environment, and corrupting government.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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