Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
June 21, 2010

A Needed Shot In the Arm
When I get an article from my friend Peter Rachleff I read it carefully. I know it’s going to pack a lot in a compact length. Chair of the history department at prestigious Macalester College in St Paul, Peter is one of those rare historians who not only explains what our ancestors did but also demonstrates the relevance of past struggles of working people to today’s battles. More than that, he also is not afraid to leave the comfortable confines of the campus to get involved in making as well as interpreting history. I first met him when he played a leadership role in the Twin Cities Support Committee that organized substantial solidarity with the epic battle of P-9 Hormel strikers in Austin, Minnesota nearly 25 years ago. He later wrote an excellent book about that experience,
Hard-Pressed In the Heartland.

Peter’s latest piece, Minnesota Nurses Association Provides Rx For Union Revival, begins with support for a hometown struggle. Now Peter supports virtually all worker battles, even when defeat seems likely, out of a sense of class solidarity. But in this case he argues the Nurses are applying useful lessons from the past, in conjunction with effective innovation, that gives them a chance to win a major victory for MNA/NNU. He suggests other unions across North America would do well to emulate the Nurses approach. It’s an article well worth reading, pondering, and discussing.

Class Court Advantage
The California Nurses Association is, of course, using the same generic prescription that Peter Rachleff praised in Minnesota. But CNA ran in to an additional obstacle. We reported last week that a San Francisco judge, at the request of hospital bosses and a state agency. issued a temporary restraining order blocking a planned one-day strike at UC Hospitals. On Friday the judge extended the order blocking a walkout by 12,000 RNs while negotiations continue–until the end of September at least if no earlier settlement is reached.

“This ruling does nothing to address the serious erosion of care standards in UC hospitals, instead seeking to punish and silence the nurses, the canaries in the coal mine, who have been prodding the University for months to correct appalling problems that put patients at risk.” said Geri Jenkins, RN, a co-president of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United and a UC San Diego nurse.

Jenkins further commented,

“This decision affirms the complicity of the state agencies and at least one court to limit the right of nurses to use the collective action of the right to strike to press for improved patient care conditions which has assisted the RNs in achieving significant gains for patients in private hospitals.”

Stay tuned.

The very highest court in the bosses’ judiciary delivered another big blow last Thursday as a 5-4 vote wiped out 600 rulings by the National Labor Relations Board. Because of Senate inaction on confirmations, the NLRB had long been functioning with only two members–one from each boss party. An employer challenge to this short-handed crew had been denied by an Appeals Court but the Supremes decided to invalidate these hundreds of cases. AFL-CIO General Counsel Lynn Rhinehart observed,

“As has become the norm, workers are once again penalized by corporate stall tactics. By the barest of majorities, five justices rewarded New Process Steel and other corporations who challenged the two-member NLRB decisions as a delay method to avoid respecting workers’ rights. Workers in these cases now face further delay as the NLRB is forced to sort out and deal with the impact of the court’s decision.”

By the way, how’s EFCA coming along?

A Toyota In King’s Future?
As expected, Bob King managed to defeat Gary Walkowicz 2,115 to 74.5 in a weighted delegate vote for UAW president. Feisty Bob hit the ground running proclaiming an all out effort to “organize” Toyota.

Some would say this comes about thirty years late. Other cynics might wonder why Toyota workers would be attracted to a union that has negotiated a considerably lower wage rate at the Big Three than prevails at the giant transplant.

There are other peculiarities to the projected campaign. The new leadership plans to demonstrate at Toyota dealers. While this may be more civilized than the trashing of Japanese cars once favored by “Buy American” advocates, it will undoubtedly be seen by the Toyota workers as an effort to undermine their jobs. Nor will the new workforce at the soon to be opened Toyota Mississippi plant take kindly to King’s remarks that the world’s leading carmaker’s decision to abandon the NUMMI plant in favor of the Deep South shows they are not committed to quality.

No novice field organizer would be as insensitive to workers they hope to recruit as the new top dog at Solidarity House has demonstrated in the space of a few days. Perhaps King shared Tony Hayward’s PR tutor. No doubt, this could be rich material for The Colbert Report or The Onion. But. since the UAW is one of two unions to which I pay dues, I am not laughing. Judging Brother King’s Toyota strategy I wouldn’t entrust him to organize a free beer keg party.

Bargaining for Health Insurance
From a Labor Campaign for Single-Payer
e-mail blast,

“As unions and employers begin to assess the impact of the recently passed healthcare legislation, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: there is no let up in the relentless employer attacks on medical benefits at the bargaining table. From the Boeing workers in Long Beach, California and St. Louis, Missouri to the warehouse workers at Shaw's distribution center in Methuen, Massachusetts, healthcare costs continue to be the number one cause of strikes and lockouts.”

There’s not much relief in sight. A recent Towers Watson survey found 94 percent of HR managers expect that health care “reform” will drive their future health costs up and 88 percent plan to pass the increases on to their workers. The same survey projects 85 percent are planning to chop or eliminate retiree insurance benefits. Retirees For Single-Payer demonstrated and distributed leaflets at the opening session of the recent UAW convention–where the union controlled Big Three VEBAs have already had to start chiseling away on benefits.

LC-SP plans to “act in solidarity with workers everywhere who are fighting to protect their hard won healthcare and to publicize their struggles” and ask information about these fights be sent to: organizers@laborforsinglepayer.org. The labor group also enthusiastically supports Healthcare NOW's call for local actions to celebrate the forty-fifth birthday of Medicare July 30 by demanding its protection and expansion.

Tough Week For Latin Miners
• Last Wednesday an explosion likely caused by methane build up at a coal mine in northwestern Colombia claimed over seventy lives. The mining minister, Hernán Martínez, said Thursday that the small, privately owned mine lacked gas detectors and a chimney to ease venting of gases. Coal accounts for about a third of Colombia’s exports and eighty percent of coal imports in the USA come from there. Of course, Colombia is also the deadliest country of all for trade unionists.
• Dan La Botz wrote in Labor Notes, “Grupo Mexico, the largest mining company in Mexico, has imposed a company union on workers at its Cananea copper mine in Sonora in northern Mexico. This comes just days after the Mexican government used helicopters, tear gas, and thousands of police to dislodge striking members of the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union from the mine.... The Cross-Border Network for Justice and Solidarity, based in Kansas City, is asking supporters of the miners to write letters of protest. For addresses, click
here.”

• The Canadian Press reported, “Gammon Gold Inc. says it has fired 397 workers at one of its Mexican mines and it will file criminal charges against seven union executives. Operations at Gammon's El Cubo mine in Mexico's Guanajuato state have been suspended indefinitely. The company says it experienced continued illegal labour disruptions at the mine and financial demands from the union that Gammon describes as ‘untenable.’ Gammon's headquarters is in Halifax and executive offices in Toronto but all of its mining operations are in Mexico.”

The Search For Win-Win In the Gulf
The script got too complex for some of the bit players. A GOP Texas congressman long indebted to Big Oil apologized for the mean treatment BP CEO Tony Hayward received from his congressional colleagues. But before the end of the day, after finally getting the message from Republican leaders, the luckless sycophant was apologizing for his apology.

Tony’s assigned role was to place his perpetual smirk in the pillory in order to absorb all the self-righteous indignation from those who previously had never met an oil man they didn’t like. He further had to accept his boss replacing him as point man in the Gulf, recalling him to England. Even then the poor fellow wasn’t left in peace as the paparazzi caught him watching his yacht in a race sponsored by JP Morgan.

The President himself was not much more charitable in his first televised address from the Oval Office, coming on the heels of a well publicized trip to the Gulf Coast. He could soon announce that he had forced BP to turn over twenty billion (dollars, not pounds) to an escrow fund to help those hurting financially as a result of the “spill.” The mainstream environmental groups–labeled Gang Green by one pundit--once more lavished praise on the White House.

Now twenty billion is more than chump change even to BP. But they seem to have dodged a number of potentially lethal bullets. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports,

“The fund is a big financial hit to BP. But behind the scenes, according to people on both sides of the negotiations, the company achieved victories that appear to have softened the blow....

“After the high-profile meeting of administration and BP officials on Wednesday, it was in the interest of neither to discuss such details. BP wanted to look contrite and to make a grand gesture, and the White House wanted to look tough.”

A classic example of win-win–for the plutocrats and politicians. Meanwhile internal BP documents indicate an upper limit of the daily gush of oil to be 100,000 barrels–or 4.2 million gallons. Just as many scientists predicted, this is twenty times the original figure quoted by both BP and the government for weeks. In addition to siphoning and skimming, large quantities are being burned off–a big injection of greenhouse pollutants among other nasty things in to our air.

We have not yet seen the conclusion of the First Act of this tragedy. But we’ve seen enough to demand not only new authors but a whole new stage. It’s high time to nationalize the energy sector in order to restructure it along clean, renewable lines. And we should confiscate whatever funds it takes to provide a Just Transition for workers employed or harmed by destructive fossil fuel industries.

What Time Is It?
Why it’s break time. One of the few rewards of retirement from gainful employment is that--with the exception of the one who assigns and supervises my household tasks–I am responsible to no one for how I use my time. I’ve decided to take off some personal time sandwiched around a “business trip.” The next update of the Daily Labor News Digest will be Tuesday, July 6.

I’ve accepted a couple of speaking invitations in the Twin Cities. Both will take place at MayDay Books, 301 Cedar Avenue South, on the Minneapolis West Bank.

This Saturday, June 26, at 7PM, I’ll be giving a report back on the Labor Notes Conference at the Socialist Action Forum. Monday, June 28, also 7PM, I’ll be speaking about the Alliance for Class & Climate Justice at a meeting sponsored by the Climate Crisis Coalition of the Twin Cities (3CTC). Both talks will be followed by a discussion period and are open to the public. If you’re in the land of sky blue waters I hope you’ll drop by one or both of them.

That’s all for this week.  

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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