Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
May 3, 2009

Our Lost Holiday
On Friday morning the New York Times predicted, “Rising unemployment, stagnant wages and fury at the way that governments are handling the financial crisis were expected to bring unusually large crowds onto the streets of Europe on Friday to mark May Day, the traditional workers’ holiday.” They were right on the money.

In France, for the first time in generations, all unions and working class parties joined in a united front effort. The biggest union federation, CGT, reports 1.2 million people marched in 283 demonstrations.

An editorial in the mainstream British daily Guardian commented,

“When the former prime minister Dominique de Villepin warned that there was a risk of revolution in France, it was not just because he wanted to make life difficult for his arch-rival Nicolas Sarkozy. It was also because social unrest is genuinely on the rise.”

There were many other significant marches and rallies on all inhabited continents. Some included confrontations with police. A thousand bravely marched in occupied Baghdad. Many defied the government ban on public gatherings to march in Mexico City. We’ll have a roundup of news and photos about these actions posted on Monday’s Daily Labor News Digest.

In 2006, after decades of being ignored by the labor movement, there was a revival of May Day in its country of origin–the USA. Like the first May Day in 1886 it was led by immigrant workers. Some cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, had marches and rallies numbering in the hundreds of thousands. A few unions endorsed these actions, and contributed material support.

But since that promising time subsequent May Day events have shrunk. In most places this year they were well under ten percent of the 2006 turnout. Various reasons are cited: intimidation from the surge in ICE workplace raids, the current Swine Flu alarm, etc. No doubt these are significant.

Perhaps an even bigger factor is the change in the White House. It’s one thing to organize militant demonstrations aimed at Bush, the most in-your-face reactionary administration in living memory. Obama is supposed to be different. He is promising immigration reform. Illusions that we now have a friend working for us at the top changes both the character and sense of urgency that marked previous May Day actions. That, in my view, is the chief reason that even this most combative sector of the U.S. working class is looking more like the quiescent union, antiwar and social movements.

Why is it that workers in Europe, not yet as bad off as those of us in the U.S., are raising hell in the workplace and in the streets while American workers have never been so timid and pliable? Have our brains become addled? Have we become lazy, cowardly?

I don’t think it’s a question of national intelligence or character flaws. Every now and then we see glimpses of inspiring struggle that remind us of our once proud heritage. The big difference between us and say the French, is that the flame of class consciousness has never been extinguished in Old Europe. They know the difference between Them and Us. The last several generations of American workers, on the other hand, have become befuddled and debilitated by the dope of class collaboration peddled by the politicians and most union officials.

For a fresh example let’s look at another event on May Day.

Tripartite Bankruptcy Alpha
This May Day the leaders of the once mighty United Auto Workers were in lock-step with the White House and Chrysler’s emerging new bosses, filing bankruptcy for what remains of the weakest of the former Big Three. Our friend Larry Christensen, a retired member of UAW Local 140 in Detroit, wrote an excellent summary of the partnership deal--
Chrysler's Plan? Send Pay and Standards Down the Drain–on Labor Notes online.

The bankruptcy petition, filed with the same judge that presided over the Enron and WorldCom disasters, is really a dress rehearsal for an even bigger one at General Motors. Just when we thought things could hardly get worse the Obama administration came up with a new transformational tactic in labor relations.

President Obama would have us think the bad guys in this deal are a few hedge funds that wouldn’t accept dubious equity in a new Fiat-Chrysler in exchange for massive debts owed them. Hedge funds are deservedly unpopular and I will not mourn their losses. But this is only an effort to divert attention from the hundreds of thousands of real victims of this tripartite agreement–union and salaried Chrysler workers and retirees; workers at parts suppliers; dealerships employing thousands of workers; Midwest cities and towns losing their life blood.

All of Chrysler’s 23 U.S. plants will be closed throughout the bankruptcy process. At least eight of them are pegged for elimination.

The impact of the filing was felt within hours. Parts suppliers immediately cut off their just-in-time deliveries, not only leading to early closings of U.S. plants but also Chrysler Canada as well, who are not part of the American bankruptcy.

Those who get special supplements to their regular Chrysler pensions found their May payments cancelled. The special supplements are not covered under the government’s pension guarantee and that part of their pension will be subject to disposal by the judge.

While the administration has said it will guarantee warranty work many Chrysler dealers expect to run out of filters and other key routine maintenance parts while plants are closed.

Even if all goes to plan during the bankruptcy–by no means a sure thing–this is the single biggest defeat yet suffered by the American working class. Of course, it will be soon eclipsed by a Beta version of a similar sell-out at GM.

The current GM restructuring plan calls for take-backs from the UAW similar to Chrysler and includes trimming 47,000 jobs, closing more than a dozen plants in the United States, eliminating four brands and shuttering 2,600 dealerships. Obama has not yet approved and will likely demand more cuts.

The leadership of the UAW not only rejects a French-style resistance; they refuse to even acknowledge this severe defeat. They say it is only a rough patch in the partnership road that will ultimately lead to a return to prosperity. Nothing can be more disorienting and demoralizing than this disingenuous cynicism.

The UAW is not unique in inducing mind altering, feel good trances. Even as newspapers were disclosing Obama’s personal “hard ball” intervention in extracting the last ounce of flesh from the UAW contract, an article and video on the AFL-CIO website earlier this week proclaimed, “Obama’s First 100 Days Mark Major Wins for Working Families.” Change to Win was just as lavish in praise, “....as the last 100 days have proven, with a leader like Obama at the helm, workers once again have a shot at achieving the American Dream.”

Now as tamed and house broken as the new White House puppy, these groupies are being herded by Obama and Dave Bonior in to the National Labor Coordinating Committee. Future generations will likely view this as a sort of Jurassic Park where the last surviving examples of laborus tyrannis were put on display.

Recently I had a discussion with a Ford worker who told me that while he liked the program of the Labor Party he couldn’t support it because it aimed to be based on unions. In his opinion, the unions are effectively dead as useful institutions.

I understand his sentiment. The mainstream union bureaucracy is clearly beyond any hope for self-reform and their certain demise may well take some, or all, existing unions through a painful death agony.

But while these labor statespersons may be on their way to a just doom I think my Ford friend’s last rites for the unions is premature. To shift uncomplimentary metaphors, the mis-leaders of labor are not a vital organ in the union body–they are a neglected parasite. They cannot survive without their host; our unions won’t long survive without their removal.

Unions are the basic front line defense of working people. They can also be the building blocks for working class political action. If we have to, we will build new unions to replace dead ones. But it would be malpractice to abandon sick unions without pursuing every reasonable effort for saving and rehabilitating them.

Labor Notes provides a valuable, reliable source of news, analysis, and debate about these crucial issues. If you’re not a regular reader you should be and can subscribe by clicking here. Labor Notes is also running a special series of regional Troublemakers Schools dealing with the current economic crisis. The next one is coming up this Saturday, May 9, in Chicago.

In Brief
¶ With confusion dominating news about Swine Flu the
CNA/NNOC Position Statement on Swine Flu was a welcome breath of fresh air. It combines the professional challenges for nurses on the front line with a restatement of their social advocacy program for single-payer healthcare, more public spending on services, healthcare worker rights on the job, and more. As usual, a job well done.
¶ Workers occupying a Ford/Visteon plant in West Belfast, Ireland today voted to accept a redundancy deal their union described as worth “ten times more” than the company’s initial offer. After the employer announced the plant’s closing--with an hour notice--34 days ago the 600 workers decided to sit-in until they got fair treatment. Even with today’s vote the Belfast workers are not leaving the plant until workers at two British plants also approve–and the first company payments are received.
¶ There’s more good news/bad news for Social Security pensioners. This month most of us will get 250 bucks to help us put America on the road to recovery. Also welcome is the expectation there will be no increase in our monthly premium for Medicare Part B next year. Of course, the reason for the Part B freeze is that for the first time in 34 years there will be no cost-of-living increase in monthly benefits.
¶ An American Lung Association report found that air pollution at times reaches unhealthy levels in almost every major city and that 186.1 million people live in those areas. The number is much higher than last year's figure of about 125 million people because recent changes to the federal ozone standard mean more counties recognize unhealthy levels of pollution. Health effects from air pollution include changes in lung function, coughing, heart attacks, lung cancer and premature death.
¶ More bad news on greenhouse gas emissions as well from Canada. The Globe & Mail reports, “Emissions were 26 per cent above their 1990 level, when modern record-keeping began, violating a key pledge Canada made in the Kyoto Protocol to cut them by 6 per cent.”

Next week I plan to say something about what’s happening to U.S. newspapers.

That’s all for this week.

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