Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
July 6, 2008

Catching Up Again
We’ve got a fortnight to review this week. Part of our schedule adjustment was planned–driving to and from an important antiwar conference in Cleveland. An unexpected setback was returning home to find our telephone/DSL line was out of order. A CWA repairman strung a new AT&T line for us Tuesday but getting back to routine was further complicated by new storm damage Wednesday night. With all utilities working, and fallen branches cleared away at our homestead, we’re now scurrying to get caught up.

I’ve posted a conference organizer’s summary of the Cleveland conference which can be read here. I’ll have more to say about the event in coming columns.

Fill the Tank, Starve the World
The food and fuel crises are intertwined and, with an unpleasant ironic twist, were made possible only by the environmentally destructive operations of global capital. Without the undeniable acceleration of global warming, driven by burning fossil fuels, there could have been no plausibility for the food to fuel scam at the heart of today’s crises.

The politicians in Washington hotly deny that the massive conversion of food to fuel is responsible for food price escalation throughout the world–bringing not only new hardship to the American working class but actual starvation for millions in what used to be called the Third World. They attribute the rise to more prosperous consumers in emerging economies such as China and India, clamoring for more and better food, and droughts in breadbaskets such as Australia.

An as yet unpublished report for the World Bank, obtained by the respected British newspaper Guardian, refutes this. They say,

“Without the increase in biofuels, global wheat and maize [corn] stocks would not have declined appreciably and price increases due to other factors would have been moderate, says the report. The basket of food prices examined in the study rose by 140 percent between 2002 and this February. The report estimates that higher energy and fertilizer prices accounted for an increase of only 15 percent, while biofuels have been responsible for a 75 percent jump over that period.

“It argues that production of biofuels has distorted food markets in three main ways. First, it has diverted grain away from food for fuel, with over a third of US corn now used to produce ethanol and about half of vegetable oils in the EU going towards the production of biodiesel. Second, farmers have been encouraged to set land aside for biofuel production. Third, it has sparked financial speculation in grains, driving prices up higher.”

It’s no wonder this report has not been made public. It acknowledges what many scientists, environmentalists, and honest journalists have been saying right along. Its findings are known to political leaders and technocrats associated with the World Bank–dominated by U.S. interests who have argued quite the opposite. Now, thanks to the Guardian, its conclusions are available to the rest of us.

The Establishment has consciously manipulated this win-win situation–for their class. The same monied interests benefit from higher food prices in the commodity market; increased sales of chemical pollutants to maximize crop yields; government subsidies for biofuel production which is distributed along with the oil based fuels--whose price has reached once unimaginable heights due to their speculation in crude futures.

The food to fuel swindle has powerful political defenders in both boss parties. Republican Missouri Governor Blunt recently denied an urgent appeal from the Kansas City Metropolitan Area Regional Council for a waiver from a new state requirement that fuel sales must be at least ten percent corn ethanol. MARC argued that ethanol would worsen the area’s growing ground level ozone problems. Choosing between expansion of deadly pollution or reduction of agribusiness profits was a no-brainer for the lame duck Governor.

Senator Obama, endorsed by virtually all environmental as well as labor groups, is a strong champion of domestic corn ethanol–and a defender of the 54-cent a gallon tariff on more efficient Brazilian produced sugar cane ethanol. One of his campaign’s national co-chairs is Tom Daschle, former Democrat Majority Leader in the Senate–who today sits on the boards of three ethanol companies. Daschle also works closely with former Republican Senate Majority Leader, and 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, known for his close ties with agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), in a murky group known as the National Commission on Energy Policy. Not surprisingly, this “commission” promotes corn ethanol.

We hope to have our promised article on the fuel/food/energy crises, along with suggestions for a working class response, out by midweek.

Return Of the Ten-Hour Day
Following the lead of many private employers, the state of Utah has established four ten-hour days–at straight time pay--as the normal work week for state employees, purportedly to help cut down on fuel consumption. This is a revival of retrogression seen during the Oil Shock days in the Seventies when some employers even went to three 13-hour, twenty minute straight time days a week.

I’m all for shorter work weeks–but not by lengthening the workday and certainly not giving up time-and-a-half for over eight hours. The productivity of the typical worker has increased many times over since the Fair Labor Standards Act established five eight-hour days as the norm in 1938. We should already have a four eight-hour day week by now with at least as much take home pay as we currently get. That would share the work to eliminate unemployment and give everyone more family and leisure time. But you won’t find any boss willing to talk about that.

One bright spot though–unions representing New York registered nurses and licensed practical nurses appear to have won a deal on state legislation that will ban mandatory overtime.

Workers Uniting
I’m anxious to hear reports from friends who attended the Steelworker convention in Las Vegas this past week. North America’s largest manufacturing union is embarking on an interesting experiment by merging with the biggest union in Britain and Ireland, Uniting the Union. The gradually phased fusion will be known as Workers Uniting and will have nearly three million members in steel, paper, oil, chemical, rubber, health care and transportation industries in the four countries.

That’s all for this week.

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