Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
May 11, 2008

Forget This Day?–Inconceivable
So says a TV promo for the Kansas City Royals. Most nations set aside a day to honor mothers. In the Middle East this is done on the Spring Equinox. Relying more on lunar phases, Britain, Ireland, and Nigeria praise moms on the fourth Sunday of Lent. Dozens of countries, including Canada and the USA, observe Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May.

Mother’s Day in the United States has an interesting and little known origin. Historians recognize Ann Jarvis as the “mother” of American Mother’s Day. Jarvis was an early campaigner for worker safety and promotion of sanitation. During the Civil War she organized women to help wounded soldiers and prisoners on both sides. After the war, she worked to reintegrate veterans in to a peacetime society.

Another pioneer for this day was Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist, feminist and poet. While perhaps best known as the author of the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the song that roused Union soldiers in the Civil War, she was to become a pacifist. In 1870, inspired by others such as Jarvis, she wrote a poetic Mother’s Day Proclamation emphasizing motherhood’s role in working for peace.

Tireless campaigning over decades gradually won local and state wide recognition of Mother’s Day. Finally, in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson–who would soon lead the country in to a “war to end all wars”–proclaimed Mother’s Day as an official national observance--to fly the flag to honor mothers whose sons had died in war.

Over the years this narrow scope has expanded to include all mothers and its character has evolved from an original quest for peace into a major event on the commercial calendar. More Americans eat out on this day than any other. 2.6 billion will be spent on flowers; 1.53 billion on “pampering” gifts; 68 million on greeting cards; and, of course, a hell of a lot of new vacuum cleaners and waffle makers will brighten mom’s lives.

If you’re fortunate enough to still have your mother around give her a call today–and maybe occasionally once in a while between Mother’s Days.

Going For the Gold--The Newest Wall
Even after that one in Berlin finally came down rulers continue to put faith in walls to contain or bar troublemakers. Walls still exist in occupied Ireland, their construction and maintenance is ongoing business in Israel/Palestine, and new technology is being incorporated in the fortification of the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, after weeks of a house-to-house offensive by U.S.-Maliki forces in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, the occupation rulers seem content to secure about one third of the area with a new wall along a street known as Route Gold. It seems sure to work as well as these earlier ventures.

The residents of Sadr City have suffered severe food shortages due to the blockade of the area imposed during the offensive. But they are far from alone. A recent UN report estimates because of reduced rations, widespread corruption and soaring prices, four million Iraqis cannot get enough to eat on a regular basis. 150 Iraqi kids die every day from malnutrition. Many Iraqis now view even the grim period of sanctions during the Saddam Hussein regime as better times. An Iraqi lawyer told IPS journalist Ali al-Fadhily,

“All Iraqis complained about life under Saddam's regime because it was bad, but it seems that all the good things, little as they were, have been taken away along with his statues....We used to get cheese, powdered milk for us and our children, shaving paste and blades, tomato paste, special food for children, beans, soap and cleaning detergents, and even chicken, as well as basic foods like flour, rice, cooking oil, tea and sugar. Now we get bullets and missiles and polluted food and medicines.”

Not only is food in short supply–so is clean water. A Reuters dispatch says,

“Baghdad's crumbling roads, burst sewage pipes and chronic water shortages are casualties of war that get little attention amid the daily litany of gunfights, bombs and bloodletting in Iraq...As summer approaches, the city is facing an acute shortage of drinking water...Temperatures are set to reach 50 Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) and demand for the precious commodity will outstrip supply.”

Even worse off than Sadr City is New Baghdad, the last great building project of British colonial rule in the 1950s. As a result of polluted drinking water there are increasing reports of cholera outbreaks in this now destitute working class area.

The occupiers, who are spending over a half-billion dollars on just the new American embassy, are backing away from paying to rebuild the infrastructure they have destroyed. The Democrat led Senate Armed Services Committee last week approved a law prohibiting the Pentagon from funding Iraqi programs costing more than two million dollars.

You won’t hear talk about such misery resulting from American occupation from peace candidate Obama, or House Speaker dove Pelosi. It doesn’t get any play on the nightly news on any network. Elementary solidarity–not to speak of basic humanity--leaves it to working people in the USA to act in behalf of working people in Iraq suffering because of our government and corporations.

Labor has an important role to play in the upcoming National Assembly To End the Iraq War and Occupation in Cleveland June 28-29. This past week three former UAW international executive board members--Warren Davis, Paul Schrade, and Jerry Tucker–added their names to the growing list of hundreds of conference endorsers. If you haven’t already, I again urge you to endorse--and attend--this much needed effort to get the war back on center stage of public attention. Click here for more information.

Shocked But Not Surprised
That’s how I felt after reading an article on yesterday’s online Wall Street Journal entitled,
Unions Forge Secret Pacts With Major Employers. The unions involved are SEIU and UNITE-HERE. The corporations are British based Compass Groups; French based Sodexo (who recently dropped an h from their name); and also Philadelphia based Aramark–though the unions claim they have reneged on their deal.

These companies are huge, with hundreds of thousands of workers in dozens of countries–nearly 400,000 employed in North America. All are involved in institutional food service–schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, military bases. Aramark is also a major player in managing conference, entertainment and sporting facilities and uniform rentals.

While the power of these employers is formidable they lack the potent threat routinely made in manufacturing--to offshore the work. In many cases these companies are also dependent on political approval of their service contracts. It should be possible to organize, and win significant improvements, for their mainly low wage workers. Normally we would applaud efforts by SEIU and UNITE-HERE to unionize the industry.

The problem is these “fast growing” unions seldom actually organize workers. I was taught organizing in the UE back when Hugh Harley was Director of Organization. He emphasized that the goal was not to put together a successful election campaign to win an NLRB election; it was to assist the workers to start organizing their power to control the tempo and conditions of work on the job. Recognition of the union means little if the workers are not prepared for inevitable battles to negotiate, and later enforce, a decent union contract.

That is not the approach of these Change to Win leaders. They make deals on the highest corporate level for chunks of the workforce. They rough out a pattern for contracts for the newly “organized.” Once the deals are in place they send in the staff to establish a bureaucratic hierarchy and dues collection.

Not being greedy, Andy Stern and Bruce Raynor didn’t seek all the workers at these three giants, only a modest slice of them–20,000 Compass, 11,000 Sodexo–approximately ten percent of their wage earner workforces. A confidential SEIU internal memo–leaked to the WSJ-- says,

“Local unions are not free to engage in organizing activities at any Compass or Sodexho locations unless the sites have been designated.”

The companies designate the sites where the unions can “organize.” According to the WSJ article,

“The agreements enable the unions to organize workers through a simple card-signing process in which the companies agree to remain neutral, rather than a secret-ballot election. The companies agree to provide the unions with lists of employees and access to workers.”

That’s a far cry from any organizing drive I’ve ever seen. Just establishing the names of those in the bargaining unit is almost always a protracted, contested process with the Labor Board. Typically union organizers are kept off company property while the bosses hold all kinds of captive audience and one-on-one meetings during working hours to blast the union. But with this boss secret pre-approval about 15,000 have been “organized” over the past couple of years.

Of course, the bosses expect some consideration for this unusual generosity. Stern and Raynor agreed to forfeit the right to strike for their lucky future members. They further pledged not to bad mouth the companies either in public or on the shop floor. The Change to Win partners will undoubtedly be of assistance to their corporate partners in smoothing the way with politicians.

Not all in the SEIU are pleased with these hitherto secret organizing successes. The article quotes Zev Kvitky, president of a small SEIU local that represents food-service and custodial workers at Stanford University,

“We really believe that Stern and the international are putting growth in numbers ahead of any other consideration of what a union means in the lives of working people.”

We’ll have more to say later about secret organizing.

Ready For Prime Time
I rarely watch so-called public television but I did tune in Friday night to see a segment on the Bill Moyers Journal about the California Nurses Association. It gave a glimpse of how the social unionism of CNA has mobilized nurses as advocates for health care. It was as good as you could hope for on corporate sponsored television.

Much that needs to be said must be left unsaid for now. Be sure to check out the Daily Labor News Digest, updated by 7AM Central Monday-Saturday, for timely postings of news, opinions, and information of interest to working people.

That’s all for this week.

KC Labor Home

National Assembly To End the Iraq War and Occupation
Cleveland June 28-29

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