Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
June 7, 2010

They Didn’t Even Get A Kiss
Workers in the most famous company town in America were offered a choice by their benevolent employer–they could either accept the loss of 600 jobs at Hershey Chocolate’s historic original plant-- or the loss of all 1500 of them in the town Milton Hershey named for himself. Only 95 workers voted against the deal that also included a nine percent raise–spread out over seven years.

Still More Boss Choices
Co-Op City is a huge complex of 35 high-rise buildings and seven clusters of townhouses in the Bronx. Nearly sixty-thousand live in the more than 15,000 units purchased by working class families at prices scaled to their income. Sonia Sotomayor and Queen Latifah once resided there but nobody famous lives there now.

Though the complex management, RiverBay Corporation, is theoretically responsible to the residents, AP reports, “Now, most of the workers--and many residents--consider those who run the cooperative their enemy.”

The 500 garbage collectors, janitors, repairmen, groundskeepers and other building workers employed by the complex are members of SEIU Local 32BJ--the same union that represents doormen and janitors in more upscale buildings in Manhattan. The Co-Op workers sought the same deal made by their sisters and brothers working across the Harlem River in April: a modest raise–they currently average 35,000 a year--and no cuts in benefits.

RiverBay had other ideas. They offered their workers a choice–a very modest wage increase tied to a substandard health insurance plan they estimated would save them over a million dollars a year or keep their present insurance but forego any raise in wages. When these options were rejected RiverBay locked out their workers.

The first crisis confronting RiverBay was garbage. With trash chutes locked, residents deposited garbage bags with little sign of good grace and scant compliance with management instructions. Huge mountains of garbage decaying in the June sun soon dominated the landscape. The bosses called their buddies at City Hall and the Bloomberg administration soon got the city involved in scabbing to pick up garbage.

It is unconscionable that the Co-Op City project, founded on the premise of working class solidarity and cooperative management, should degenerate into this corporate-style union busting. The workers–and residents who strongly defend them–deserve the support of the entire labor movement.

The Shape Of Things To Come?
The Detroit News reports,

“Volkswagen is requiring production workers hired for its new U.S. assembly plant to go through a fitness program on top of the usual job training, aiming to forge an ‘industrial athlete’ who can lift, grip, bend and push without flagging.”

The Chattanooga plant is VW’s second try at a U.S. assembly operation. In the 1970s-80s the Rabbit–the best car I ever owned–was built in a plant near Pittsburgh. The UAW met no resistance in organizing that plant but no such welcome should be expected at the foot of Lookout Mountain.

Lone Star Rebellion
That’s how a press release from National Nurses United characterized a remarkable fortnight that saw nearly 2,000 RNs at five Texas hospitals added to NNU ranks through NLRB representation elections. All these facilities are operated by the country’s largest hospital corporation–fiercely antiunion HCA.

The Blues Brothers Won’t Be Needed
Washington National Cathedral is the closest the USA has to a state supported church. While it has never directly received tax payer dollars it was blessed with a charter from Congress. Since Theodore Roosevelt helped lay the cornerstone for the massive Gothic structure that took 83 years to complete, every President has participated in activities within this Episcopalian National Landmark. Woodrow Wilson is buried there. The Supreme Court faithfully attends Red Mass every year before their opening session.

It’s hard to imagine that such an institution so closely connected to the highest authorities would have been hard hit by the Great Recession but that’s the story from the men of the cloth and their accountants. They have not relied solely on faith that the Lord will provide, instead adopting a business plan resembling those of most corporations. They slashed their expenditures in half by laying off 100 of their 170 employees, outsourcing their gift shop, closing their greenhouse, and eliminating their Global Poverty work.

The staff cuts mean they can no longer properly care for the immense collection of rare books donated over the years by such notables as Queen Elizabeth II and Haile Selassie. But even this lemon is slated to become refreshing lemonade. They expect to get many millions from auctioning off these items.

Soft Landing For Stealth Strike In Long Beach
After some initial news reports on the launch of a strike by 1700 UAW members at Boeing in Long Beach on May 11 the action disappeared from radar. Certainly there was no mention on the UAW website. From some of the banners carried by pickets shown in news photos it appeared the strike at the plant producing C-17 cargo planes for the military was over health insurance issues.

The two sides were called together by a Federal mediator Thursday and by end of business Friday a tentative agreement was reached. According to the Los Angeles Times,

“Under the new proposed five-year contract, workers would not get a raise this year, but would get a $4,000 lump sum payout. They would get a 3% raise each year over the remaining life of the contract. In addition, Boeing would increase its pension contribution by $2 to $81 a month for every year of service. Also, employees would pay 13% of their medical costs in an HMO plan, down from 15% under the previous contract offer.”

The membership will vote on the tent on Wednesday.

‘The Big Money Was Made and the Trash Was Left Behind
That was how Bob Herbert closed his New York Times opinion column,
Disaster In the Amazon. The piece began,

“BP’s calamitous behavior in the Gulf of Mexico is the big oil story of the moment. But for many years, indigenous people from a formerly pristine region of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador have been trying to get relief from an American company, Texaco (which later merged with Chevron), for what has been described as the largest oil-related environmental catastrophe ever.”

Like the fishing and tourist industries on the Gulf he notes,

“Much of that area has been horribly polluted. The lives and culture of the local inhabitants, who fished in the intricate waterways and cultivated the land as their ancestors had done for generations, have been upended in ways that have led to widespread misery.”

John Vidal, the environment editor of the British Observer, reminds us what companies such as ExxonMobil are doing in Nigeria,

“In fact, more oil is spilled from the delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico, the site of a major ecological catastrophe caused by oil that has poured from a leak triggered by the explosion that wrecked BP's Deepwater Horizon rig last month.”

These disasters remain mostly unknown in North America and Europe. Brian Williams and Anne Thompson are not on the scene with live coverage and disturbing video every night from South America and Africa.

I have no desire to dim the magnitude of what’s happening in the Gulf. But it’s important to understand that Deepwater Horizon was not an isolated screw-up. It is an all too common result of Big Oil’s modus operandi throughout the world. In their hands, not only is the end product contributing to destruction of our biosphere through carbon emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks; the process of extraction has turned the crude oil in to a weapon of mass destruction. Our whole planet is paying an enormous price for “cheap oil.”

BP is currently being demonized for their crimes in the Gulf–and they deserve it. Unreported in the mass media is BP’s labor relations in the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists–Colombia. Members of the National Oil Workers Union have been occupying BP installations in the Casanare region since May 23 in support of not only their own contract demands but a BP agreement with the indigenous community as well. BP’s response was to call for help from the Colombian military. So far bloodshed has been avoided but the situation is very tense.

We need to be careful not to put BP, and the rest of Big Oil, in to a category of evil, as has been done, for example, with the drug cartels in Colombia, and more recently Mexico. Many drug lords have been jailed or killed but as long as a lucrative market for their product remains in North America the War On Drugs will go nowhere.

Many would take pleasure in BP being put out of business. But as long as the economies of the developed and developing countries are based on oil others will take their place and continue the same destructive practices.

Dependence on fossil fuels is every bit as addictive, damaging, and profitable for pushers as the stuff too many shoot in to their blood or inhale through their lungs. While we fight today for immediate actions to protect worker and public health, and to save as much of the threatened environment in the Gulf as we can, we urgently need to start developing a working class strategy to replace fossil addiction with ready-to-go clean, renewable energy alternatives.

That’s all for this week.

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice

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