Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
July 12, 2010

Did Their Creator Forget Something?
In the USA at least, courts have often ruled that corporations have the same human rights as, well humans. But in one expert’s opinion, this apparently doesn’t confer them with souls as well. According to the British

“Modern businesses are ‘soulless corporations’ that are in danger of becoming a ‘cancer’ on society, a leading UN environmental official warns today. Companies usually take a short-term view of the importance of the environment, said Pavan Sukhdev, head of the UN's investigation into how to stop the destruction of the natural world. This short-term thinking is seen in their lobbying against new policies that could slow environmental devastation, he said.”

Mr Sukhdev is not your prototypical tree hugger. He is currently on sabbatical from his day job as Chief Operating Officer of Deutsche Bank's Global Emerging Markets Division, based in Mumbai (Bombay). So he knows the inner workings of global capitalism–to which he will soon return--quite well. Right now he is in London for the first Global Business of Biodiversity Symposium where he will be giving the keynote report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Business.

He will be assisted there by Caroline Spelman, the Environmental Secretary in the new ConLib British government. While Ms Spelman appears pleasant enough her government acts like a return of Lady Thatcher on steroids. Spelman notes with regret that “BP's shares have halved since the spill began in mid-April – there will be no dividends this year.... What's bad for biodiversity is bad for business.”

I’ll leave it to the theologians to debate whether corporations can have souls. But they certainly have corporeal, sentient owners and managers, self-aware of their material interests. They are no more likely to be converted to the argument that support of biodiversity is good for business than they have to past propositions such as paying good wages helps keep skilled, loyal workers or investment in best practice safety will lower worker comp claims.

Last week I spent some time on how BP has spread sponsorship money around, along with the hint of possible future “green jobs,” to curry favor with some unions and environmentalists. Meanwhile another union was doing some homework on the history of BP–my old friends at the UE. Al Hart’s UE News article, BP-- A Long, Bloody History of Reckless Greed,. concludes with this,

“Long before BP poisoned the Gulf of Mexico, our government's support for that company poisoned our foreign relations. Perhaps it is time for us to do what Prime Minister Mossadegh and the Iranian people did in 1951, and declare that BP is unfit to control our resources – and that our oil, our environment, and our government should belong to us.”

I don’t know whether unions have souls either. But unlike most today, this one knows where our side’s real interests lay–and that’s not with BP or any of the others gathered at the London symposium.

Determining Victory and Defeat
Probably the best known victory in the heritage of the American labor movement is the sit-down occupation of General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan from December, 1936 til February of ‘37. What did the settlement of that historic battle win? They got a one-page contract that recognized the UAW–for six months.

The limited scope and duration reflected the uncertainty of those turbulent times. Neither the company nor the union could know for sure whether Flint was a fluke, an isolated local episode dominated by radicals, or whether it signaled an escalation of insurgency likely to spread within the mostly unorganized mass production industries.

It didn’t take long to answer that question. Not only did GM workers around the country pour in to the new UAW in droves--soon enabling them to win a longer agreement that brought substantial improvements in wages, hours and working conditions. Within the next month there were 247 sit-downs in various industries and locations involving 193,000 workers. By the end of 1937 the number of sit-downers swelled to a half-million accompanied by an explosion of more conventional strikes as well.

Of course, we are far from such a level of class struggle in the USA and Canada today. I use this example to demonstrate that victories–and defeats–are not always clear cut and are seldom absolute. Sometimes valid assessments can only be made retroactively, in historical context.

This reminder is pertinent as those of us who follow labor try to judge recent settlements such as the Rio Tinto Boron miners, the Vale Inco nickel miners, the IAM deal at Spirit AeroSystems--and the Twin Cities nurses.

I’ve come to know and respect a young (well 30ish) Teamsters activist in Chicago, Dave Bernt. In addition to his involvement in Local 705 and TDU, Dave has shown good analytical and writing skills in articles about contemporary labor struggles, published in Socialist Action. Writing about the 107-day Rio Tinto Boron lockout he said,

“In negotiations, Rio Tinto had demanded that the Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) accept a union-busting contract. Company proposals included an open shop, elimination of seniority, their right to cut pay at any time, their right to outsource any work, and converting full-time work into part-time. Workers refused and were locked out. The new contract beat back most of the concessions demanded by Rio Tinto....

“The Boron miners showed courage by standing up to one the largest corporations in the world and enduring over three months of being locked out. Such courage is an example for all workers to learn from and will need to be repeated in shops across the country if the labor movement is to advance in this difficult period. At the same time, the lesson of the Boron mine lock out is that courage and solidarity often are not enough. While the miners struggle was good enough to stop the worst of the concessions, it was not strong enough to resist significant givebacks to one of the richest companies in the world.”

This kind of nuanced approach is essential to keep us grounded in reality. It is also, in my opinion, the view we should adopt toward another metal miner dispute with a global giant just concluded this past week–Vale Inco. Like their sisters and brothers in California, these Ontario Steelworkers are entitled to hold their heads high even though they took some lumps as well. Their brave determination deserves not only praise but emulation.

The deal concluded by the Machinists at Spirit in Wichita is another kettle of fish. Spirit was formed as a spin-off from Boeing sold to a Canadian-based private equity outfit, Onex. Spirit soon acquired a division of BAE in Britain as well and is today a major supplier of structural components to Boeing, AirBus, North American Rockwell, Raytheon. and other major aircraft and aerospace manufacturers. Former Speaker of the House Richard Gephardt (D-MO) serves as a labor consultant for Spirit and sits on its board of directors.

In June, IAM workers at the former Boeing Wichita plant decisively rejected a concessionary contract recommended by their leadership and 58 percent voted to strike. But IAM bylaws provide that a contract is deemed ratified if a strike vote fails to get two/thirds. Normally, workers would have to grit and bear it for three years. Not this time. The “labor peace” deal cooked up by the IAM bureaucracy runs for ten years.

There is little redeeming value to this “historic” contract that garnered only 43 percent approval. Its biggest selling point was–you guessed it–“job security.” This will be maintained by the company and its IAM “partner” showing creative flexibility in work rules to avoid layoffs–if possible.

There’s no way to pretty up this porker. It is the worst kind of defeat–one without a struggle, or, more accurately, where the will to resist capitulation has been suppressed.

The contract for 12,000 Twin Cities RNs, approved by an eighty percent margin, bears no resemblance to these other examples. Fruitful negotiations with six hospital chains operating fourteen locations began only after a solid one-day “warning” strike in June, followed up by a July deadline for an open-ended stoppage.

The bosses agreed to withdraw their numerous take-back demands. The wage package was nothing to write home about but this was never a major issue in the dispute. By today’s standards, a no concession contract including modest wage boosts is a euphoric victory and MNA members can enjoy a well earned celebration.

Still, an underlying sense of disappointment could be detected among some members and supporters because of the failure to obtain the most publicized central demand–incorporating nurse/patient staffing ratios in to the contract to ensure best practice patient care and fair working conditions for nurses.

As I know from personal experience, deciding whether to pursue a potentially long strike, with no guarantee of ultimately moving the employer on what they consider a deal breaker, when an agreement acceptable to the ranks is already in hand, is a tough call. With the limited vision of a sympathetic spectator, it seems to me the leaders and members made the correct tactical choice this time.

While they failed to get ratios in to their agreement the MNA did an outstanding job of educating the public on the problems of patient care and established the union as the primary advocate for patients. This will continue. Today, MNA members are conducting informational picketing about the same issues in Duluth.

Clearly, the nurses have no intention of abandoning patient care demands; they were not a “bargaining chip” as some cynics might think. This is a core principle of their profession as well as their union. In my view, they did the best they could this time around and we can hardly ask for more than that. This unfinished task in no way diminishes their overall victory.

These recent settlements show there is still courage among U.S. and Canadian workers, a willingness to fight back against the employers in these tough times. But, unlike the days of Flint, they have mainly only attracted sympathy and tokens of solidarity. Even the best focused and led, such as the NNU, have not inspired imitators.

We also see the continuing degeneration of the old mainstream “partnership” approach.

This does not mean these battles, and others on deck, are not worth fighting. But it does confirm, in my opinion, we need to pursue this class war on additional fronts as well. Collective bargaining alone can’t do the whole job.

Renewed struggle around war, climate change, health care, immigrant rights, and, uniting all the important issues, for a revived Labor Party movement, need to be integrated in to what remains of the union movement for us to have a fighting chance.

Attention Under Fifties
It appears that the bipartisan debt reformers are settling on a new normal retirement age of seventy for all born 1960 or later. House Republican leader John Boehner said,

“Raising the retirement age — going out 20 years and not affecting anyone close to retirement, and eventually getting the retirement age to 70 — is a step that needs to be taken.”

Speaker Pelosi responded that Boehner “made a very important statement about putting everything on the table,” and Democrat House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was “me too.”

No one in power has said anything about removing the cap on payroll contributions so that the rich would pay their fair share. Instead they look forward to seventy-year-old iron workers scampering around to complete their new home in the senior’s high rise.

That’s all for this week.

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