Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
July 15, 2007

The Other Desert War
A key element in nearly all immigration “reform” proposals is tightening the border with Mexico. But somehow the politicians don’t seem to be taking the credit this approach already deserves in its success in keeping out undocumented immigrants. So far just this year at least 275 bodies of job seeking workers, dying while attempting to evade the more fortified sections of the border by cutting across desert areas, have been found. Still others drown in the All American Canal running along the California/Arizona/Mexico border–and even more are expected to perish when concrete lining of the canal is completed leading to much swifter current. Many are buried unidentified with simple wooden crosses reading “no olvidado” (not forgotten.) The total number of immigrant lost lives since border security was stepped up in 1994 during the Clinton administration is over 4,500. That’s more than the number of American GIs killed in Iraq, more than the number of Germans killed by guards while trying to get over the Berlin Wall.

Union Busting Not On the Menu
Food services in the Minnesota Capitol complex were privatized long ago but successive contractors always maintained the regular cafeteria workforce, represented by UNITE-HERE Local 17 since 1958–until now. The new boss, Taher, Inc, offered employment to only three long service workers–and those were part-time jobs with no benefits. Last week there was a rally in support of these outsourced workers in front of the Capitol where unions representing the cafeteria’s primary customers pledged to boycott the new operation.

About That Victory
There was much fanfare about labor’s “friends” in congress committing to give back the right to organize–taken away by Homeland Security--to airport screeners. But this premature celebration was short lived. Senate Friend #1, majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), received unanimous consent–including from the “socialist” from Vermont–“that it not be in order to consider the conference report if it contains the collective bargaining provisions, which I have committed to drop, as has the Speaker [Friend #1 in the House, Nancy Pelosi].” According to the labor news service, Press Associates, the Democrats scrapped union rights because they were anxious to get the 9/11 commission legislation passed and “force Bush to improve overall U.S. security.”

Tree Huggers In Santo Domingo
Life can be bleak for the working class in the capital of the Dominican Republic. One of the few pleasures all can enjoy are the parks in the Colonial Zone of town where the son of Christopher Columbus planted mahogany trees 500 years ago. City residents were not pleased when, without any notice, much less public debate, city chain saw crews started chopping down the majestic old growth trees. City Hall issued a cynical statement explaining they were replacing European and African vegetation introduced by conquistadors with “native species.” This was about as popular as the mayor of Los Angles would be if he axed all the palm trees–originally imported from places like the DR--and replaced them with the desert vegetation once “native” to that town.

A spontaneous group, Somos Todos (all of us) sprang up and people started chaining themselves to the endangered trees. “Those trees belong to the people, not the government! They are the air we breathe and the only natural thing we have to enjoy here,” they declared. For now their limited numbers seem to have stopped the clear cutting in the Colonial Zone--though thousands of tree stumps now blight the working class residential neighborhoods.

Clearly there is more at stake here than preserving a treasured park. Somos Todos issued a manifesto accusing the local Establishment of seeking to drive the poor out of public spaces. “The mayor has a vision for the city, but it's one that doesn't include workers. He wants a city that looks like Miami, that will be attractive to tourists,” said Hecmilio Galvan, an economist and founding member of Santo Domingo Is All of Us. Resentment about the lack of democracy in their country, and being made to feel unwelcome in their beautiful homeland by rulers catering to rich foreigners is palpable.

But intertwined in this traditional movement for democracy and national pride is a growing awareness of environmental issues. Amparo Chantada, an urban planning engineer, told the Los Angeles Times that the massive tree felling has endangered wildlife by destroying habitat, and contributed to air pollution and greenhouse gases. “We have become a bad example in a world preoccupied with global warming,” Chantada said.

We could all learn something from the working class tree huggers of Santo Domingo.

Will the Big Three Contracts Be Enhanced?
One of the more innovative “partnerships” between the UAW and the Big Three automakers is at Chrysler’s Belvidere, Illinois assembly plant. Now the UAW has long made two-tier wage deals at parts suppliers, and employers such as Caterpillar. Temporary workers–usually limited to 120-day assignments--are nothing new to them either. But unique so far is what they call at Belvidere enhanced workers, sort of a hybrid of two-tier and temp.

The special deal was made in exchange for Chrysler renovating rather than closing the plant where Dodge Caliber, the Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot are now assembled. The enhanced workers are paid about ten dollars an hour less than their fellow UAW members with tenure. They get no dental or vision coverage, no pension credits or sick pay and no guaranteed raises. They can be laid off at any time -- and more than 100 have been -- and are not eligible to receive pay through the jobs bank that protects other laid off UAW workers. They are, in fact, very similar to the thousands of temp workers employed by Toyota and other unorganized “transplant” employers.

This deal was crafted in Detroit, not Belvidere. The UAW local president attempted to file a labor board charge against the unequal treatment but Solidarity House promptly brought down the hammer on that. Some of the enhanced workers have tried to file a class action suit in federal court against the arrangement but it seems unlikely they will get any relief in that quarter.

Now there is speculation that the Big Three will seek to expand this successful (for them) innovation more widely throughout their assembly plants to make them even more “competitive.”

Occupying Their Idle Time
This past spring a U.S.-based company, Greenbriar, shut down the TrentonWorks rail car plant that had been operating in Trenton, Nova Scotia since 1872. Three hundred production workers, members of the Steelworkers, were permanently laid off as the company announced the work was being transferred to Mexico. Only a dozen unionized security guards remained to watch over the moving out of equipment. Last week the company dismissed those guards, outsourcing their jobs. In solidarity more than 200 laid off TrentonWorks unionists showed up to block the plant gates and twenty of them occupied the guard shack.

Viva Northland Poster
We were relieved to hear that the Northland Poster Collective in Minneapolis has survived a financial crisis that threatened to put them out of business by the fall. An emergency fund drive has enabled them to “retire our old debts and meet payroll! And we'll have capitalization left over to expand our outreach and introduce new product lines, too,” the 28-year old organization said in a statement last week. Northland has produced original art, posters, t-shirts, bumper stickers and many other items for a variety of union campaigns and other struggles. For updates on Northland's future, sign up on the group's website,

That’s all for this week.

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