Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
August 10, 2008

Kettle and the Pot
President Bush, in a stop over in Thailand on his way to the Olympics, blasted China’s human rights record. The Chinese, none too diplomatically, told him to mind his own business and further demonstrated their pique by making the White House press corps sweat it out on the tarmac during “heightened security” screening of their underwear and toiletries.

China does have a deplorable human rights record of political, ethnic, religious and gender persecution as well as suppression of attempts by workers to organize genuine unions. Freedom of expression, and even access to information, is restricted–sometimes in collaboration with American companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo.

But what human rights record does the man who entered the White House after finishing second place in the vote bring to the bully pulpit? The USA has more people behind bars than China, or Russia–or anybody else in the world. Dozens have died from shocks from police tasers. We also take the gold for judicially sentenced executions. Torturers from around the world are regularly trained at the School of the Americas at Ft Benning. And when the Bush administration took some inspiration from Kafka establishing the Black Hole of Guantanamo they actually stole some pages from the Chinese playbook for psychological torture of prisoners--used on American POWs during the Korean war. The day after Bush’s statement urging more freedom of the press in China the FBI issued an apology to the New York Times and Washington Post for illegally obtaining phone records of their reporters. If there was a medal for hutzpah being handed out in Beijing my money would be on the leader of the Free World.

You can find out plenty about the records of both countries on the Amnesty International websites.

In Transit
As we’ve reported before, a number of transit agencies around the country are experiencing both increased ridership and cuts in service. Disappearance of federal and state operating assistance funds, declining sales tax revenues, and, of course, the surge in fuel costs, wreak havoc on agency budgets just as many seek new transportation alternatives. The transit bosses shrug their shoulders and start cutting service, raising fares, and demanding concessions from transit workers.

Officials of Cleveland’s Regional Transit Authority got spattered with blow back this week as they chopped big chunks off that city’s bus/rail system. 1500 angry and vocal transit riders showed up at public hearings required by law. One suggested RTA really stood for Return To Automobiles. Missing from reports of these protests was any intervention by the Amalgamated Transit Union. Apparently it was shrug time for them as well.

It doesn’t have to be this way. After the Kansas City ATA implemented layoffs, service cuts and fare increases in 1992 ATU Local 1287 organized a Community Outreach Committee involving dozens of rank-and-file volunteers. I had the opportunity to chair that committee and we were fortunate to have the support of the then local president Javier Perez. Reaching out to our riders and community groups we organized a mass petition campaign, rallies, forums–and rowdy interventions of transit users at metro area city council meetings. Along with allies in the Sierra Club, we put transit back on the agenda and, for a few years, stopped further cuts.

After Javier moved up to become an IVP his successors had little interest in such mobilizations. The Local returned to its tradition of concentrating on “contract administration”–which usually means choosing between dropping a grievance or paying a lawyer to arbitrate it–and relying on labor’s “friends” in office to do the right thing by funding. The transit agenda has again become the sole property of developers of sprawl and their politicians, with little real input from transit riders, workers, or those concerned about our environment.

The community response in Cleveland reveals a palpable potential for reviving a labor/community/environmental coalition to defend and expand transit. Right now it’s only the labor component that is missing in action.

Testing Faith I
When I hired on at Litton Microwave in 1975 I was surprised to learn that Good Friday was included as one of twelve (later thirteen) paid holidays in our UE contract. The explanation was simple; the majority of the workforce, both union and management, were Catholics and this was a very important day for their faith. The rest of us didn’t object to a three-day spring weekend so it was written in to our agreement.

I admit I was somewhat outraged when I heard about a contract extension between the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union division of the UFCW and Tyson Foods poultry plant at Shelbyville, Tennessee. The initial report was that the union had agreed to replace the Labor Day holiday with Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, the holiest time of year for the Islamic faith. About fifteen percent of the thousand workers covered by the contract are practicing Muslims.

Unlike many self-described “Christian patriots” who wrote letters to the editor and called in on talk radio, my problem wasn’t accommodating Muslim workers. As one of no faith, I find that no more offensive than observing Christmas and Good Friday. What was objectionable was trading away Labor Day for a different holiday–even though it turns out the plant usually runs on Labor Day anyway. It is disgraceful that in 2008 CE a union packing plant has only eight paid holidays a year.

It turned out the deal caused so much uproar the company and union had to renegotiate it. Labor Day stays. Workers who want to observe Eid al-Fitr can take another of their eight holidays known as Personal Day.

The same issue will no doubt arise at the runaway kosher packing plant, Agriprocessors, in Postville, Iowa. Since ICE arrested 400 Mexican and Guatemalan immigrant Agriprocessors workers the company has been replacing them with Somali workers recruited in the Twin Cities.

Testing Faith II
Back in the day, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange were some pretty mean nuns on picket lines and causing chaos in grocery stores in support of the United Farmworkers grape boycott. They became well respected as champions of labor justice.

But those who work for the sisters at five St. Joseph Health System hospitals in California see them differently today–as union busters. They are using typical boss tactics in an effort to quash an organizing drive by SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West to sign up 9,000 workers--essentially all except doctors, RNs, and operating engineers.

The sisters’ corporate structure has a “vice president for theology and ethics,” Kevin Murphy, giving spiritual guidance to union avoidance. According to the New York Times, Murphy “characterized the resistance to the union-recognition effort as consistent with Roman Catholic teachings....[and] emphasized the concept of individual choice, including the choice to spurn a union.”

You can read about the union’s charges against SJHS by clicking here.

Breaking Scandal
The UHW organizing SJHS hospitals is also one of the main centers of opposition to Andy Stern’s brand of corporate unionism in the SEIU. Chairman Andy has used his muscle to try to undercut this powerful local and its principal officer, Sal Rosselli.

One of the battering rams used is the 160,000 member SEIU United Long Term Care Workers. It represents those paid by the state of California to care for the infirm and disabled in private homes. They were “organized” through political deals made in Sacramento. Their leader, Tyrone Freeman, was appointed to replace Rosselli as top officer of the SEIU California State Council and Stern is trying to move another 63,000 home health care workers from Rosselli’s local to Freeman’s

A report in this morning’s Los Angeles Times alleges a number of financial improprieties, involving hundreds of thousands of dollars, in union funds being paid to firms owned by Freeman’s wife and mother-in-law.

We don’t have room to comment on all the big stories of the week. You can keep on top of a lot of them by visiting our Daily Labor News Digest, updated by 7AM, Central Monday-Friday.

That’s all for this week.

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