Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
May 18, 2008

Small Town Family Values
Last Monday ICE rounded up half the workforce at the world’s biggest supplier of glatt kosher beef, Agriprocessors, located in Postville, Iowa. The next day fifty percent of students in the community’s schools were absent. Many had gone to St Bridget’s Church for help after hearing that one or more of their parents were being incarcerated at the Cattle Exhibition Hall in nearby Waterloo.

ICE is not insensitive to these family separations. They are taking bids to greatly expand their pilot program of Family Detention Centers--where the kids get locked up as well. A family detained together gets deported together.

The Los Angeles Times reports,

“Family detention has been condemned by human rights groups and immigrant rights organizations as punitive and unnecessary. But immigration authorities said it ensures that immigrants show up for their court hearings and leave the country when ordered deported.

‘"Family detention has had the desired impact,’ ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. ‘We don't see as many families coming across the border. That automatic pass is no longer there.’”

Postville may seem a curious location for a plant dedicated to a product line aimed at a small segment of practicing Jews. The family business in fact began in Brooklyn but moved to rural Iowa to escape New York unions. The owners first tried using immigrant Russian Jews in their new location but that didn’t work out. They soon developed a stable, productive workforce of largely Mexican and Central American immigrants who brought their families and, by most accounts, were welcomed in to the community.

This is not to say everything has been lovely in Postville. The UFCW is pursuing labor board charges against the union-busting employer. Agriprocessors has also been targeted for its environmental, workplace safety, and animal cruelty record. It’s the boss who is a dangerous criminal--not the hard working folks hauled off to the Cattle Exhibition Hall.

The surge in ICE workplace raids is intended to divert our attention from who is really responsible for a tanking economy in an election year. It’s not the Mexican worker fleeing the effects of NAFTA south of the border. We should follow the example of the UFCW in denouncing these raids, and showing solidarity with all workers, organized or not, documented or not.

Rebuilt Axle
John L Lewis was fond of the parable about the lions being led by asses. For some reason I recalled this while reading the reports on the tentative agreement expected to end the 12-week strike by 3600+ UAW members at American Axle.

Earlier in the week we posted an excellent article by Dianne Feeley, a recently retired former local officer in UAW Axle Local 235, giving some good historical background as well as the stakes in the present fight. A fateful step was taken in the last Axle contract when a second wage tier for new hires–14.50 per hour at expiration–was agreed. Once Axle got that taste–and the UAW gave away the store to Delphi and the Big Three–the company was determined to polish off the rest of the apple.

The Detroit News tried to put the best possible spin on the current deal with a headline, “Axle offer boosts wages, bonuses.” The headline writer at the Detroit Free Press captured it more accurately, “Axle workers face harsh cuts in tentative deal.” After General Motors agreed to chip in 200 million dollars Axle did slightly enhance a deal that was being sounded out a few weeks ago. But the final terms reported in the press are still quite draconian:

* For those still getting the old GM rates there will be wage cuts of 4 dollars an hour for skilled trades, 9.50 for production workers, 13.50 for everybody else.

* Forging plants in Detroit and Tonawanda will be closed. A plant in Buffalo had already been closed at the expiration of the old contract.

* An even lower wage rate will be negotiated in a separate plant agreement at Three Rivers.

GM’s contribution will be used for “buydowns”–three annual payments totaling 90-105,000 to ease the pain of the cuts–and lump sum buyouts, ranging from 85-140,000, to encourage retirements. This is about par with what was agreed to at Delphi.

The Axle strikers have fought with the courage of lions. No one will blame them if they feel they now have to settle. Everyone should support them if they reject this deal and continue to fight.

In Canada, the CAW completed early deals with GM and Chrysler along the same lines of the concessionary pattern established early at Ford.

A strike over local issues at the GM Fairfax plant in Kansas City, Kansas coming up on its third week is rumored to be close to settlement. As this is written there are still plans for a rally Monday, May 19, 11AM, at the UAW Local 31 hall, 500 Kindleberger Road. You can call (913) 342-7330 for more information.

Hauling A New Record
Scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii say that CO2 levels in the atmosphere are up almost 40 percent since the industrial revolution began and are at the highest for at least the last 650,000 years. Their studies confirm that carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, is accumulating in the atmosphere faster than expected. From 1970 to 2000 the concentration rose by about 1.5 ppm each year. But since 2000 the annual rise has leapt to an average 2.1 ppm. Clearly the Kyoto Treaty has fallen far short of even slowing down the threat of climate change.

Scientists think this increase could indicate that the Earth is losing its natural ability to soak up billions of tons of carbon each year. Climate models assume that about half our future emissions will be re-absorbed by forests and oceans. These new figures indicate this to be way too optimistic. In fact the situation in the Amazon will likely get worse after the resignation in frustration by Brazil’s respected environment minister last week. If more of our carbon pollution stays in the atmosphere it means emissions will have to be cut by much more than currently projected to prevent dangerous levels of global warming.

Of course, there are doubters of this scientific prognosis. Among them is the leadership of the United Transportation Union. They recently ran a little roundup called “In Defense of Coal” on the union’s web site.

They report that the UTU’s Iowa Legislative Director Pat Hendricks recently told readers of the Des Moines Register that,

“Coal is black gold -- not only in its ability to advance America’s energy independence, but in the thousands of secure railroad jobs provided in transporting our abundance of low-sulfur coal to electric utilities.”

The UTU tops know global warming is a scam because they have done extensive research–even going to the extent of reading a review of Al Gore’s film in the Moon Church’s Washington Times. In it “scholar” William Hawkins compares environmentalists to “the fable of Chicken Little, in which dim-witted animals were duped that the sky is falling because an acorn hit Chicken Little on the head. In their rush to warn the king, the dim-witted animals fell prey to a fox.”

The fact of the matter is that if the UTU coal promoters instead linked up with dim-witted environmentalists they could not only help save the planet but would see a net increase in “secure railroad jobs.” Serious efforts to reduce carbon fuel emissions would lead to substantial amounts of both freight and passenger traffic being diverted from truck and air transport to cleaner, more efficient rail. But it will take more than an acorn crack on the noggin to alert most rail union leaders to both the dangers of global warming and the benefits of green conversion. For now they can’t see past those visions of “black gold.”

Robust Response
There were a lot more messages than usual commenting on last week’s column. Mostly based on personal experiences, all concerned my commentary on the secret deals negotiated by SEIU and UNITE-HERE. I apologize to those of you I haven’t yet personally acknowledged. I will incorporate much of this material–without attribution because of fear of retribution in some cases–in a future article.

There I Go Again
Midweek I will be boarding my first flight in fifteen months, going beyond my no fly zone to Toronto, Ontario. I’ve been invited by the organizers of a multi-national conference entitled “A World in Revolt,” to give a panel presentation on “Labor’s Retreat and Its Coming Resurgence.” While I dread air travel these days, I look forward to meeting and hearing labor and social activists from around the western hemisphere--and also seeing how Toronto has changed in the twenty years since my last visit.

Of course such trips cause disruption to not only my valued personal routine but also the functioning of the kclabor.org site. After Tuesday’s posting the next update of the Daily Labor News Digest will be Tuesday, May 27. The Week In Review will also run a little late. 

That’s all for this week.


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