Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
September 14, 2009

A Tale Of Two Conventions
I remember a lad by the name of Rich Trumka who, twenty years ago, led the first major strike focused on health care–a nine month struggle in the hills of coal country that fought Pittston, scab-herding cops, and court injunctions and fines to an honorable settlement. That same fellow also established links with the National Miners Union in apartheid South Africa, heading a boycott of Shell in the USA. Ever wonder what happened to that fiery, inspiring orator and organizer?

Well for the past fourteen years he’s been the number two man in the AFL-CIO. He was a key part of John Sweeney’s insurgent “New Voice” slate, that swept out the less nimble old guard leadership in 1995 while promising a rejuvenated labor movement.

Since then brother Trumka’s profile has been kept low centering on prosaic tasks such as creating investment programs for union pension and benefit funds and co-chairing the labor-corporate China Currency Coalition. So as not to detract from his Number One’s sleep inducing pronouncements, Trumka’s public oratory has been reserved for rare occasions–such as his remarkable speech against racism during the 2008 election campaign. Now it’s his turn to be top banana this week as brother Sweeney finally takes retirement.

The historic house of labor is about half the size as when Sweeney changed the locks on the doors in ‘95. Four years ago nearly half of the AFL-CIO split to form Change to Win--ostensibly to concentrate on growth in union “density.” Despite some organizing successes, both federations have suffered net losses in membership, taking union density to its lowest point since the earliest days of the Great Depression. The crumbling structure Trumka finally gets needs more than a fresh paint job. Only a thorough renovation from bottom to top can prevent its condemnation, maybe even collapse.

There are some new numbers over the past week that should cause additional alarm:

• The annual Labor Day poll conducted by Gallup shows only 48 percent now approve of the role unions play in society. This is a drop of eleven points just since last year.

• A Rasmussen poll found 48 percent–a new high--believe unions have outlasted their usefulness.

• Workers at the former Vought, now Boeing aircraft plant in Charleston, South Carolina voted by a better than 3-to-1margin to decertify the IAM as bargaining agent. They bought the company’s plausible argument that the union was mainly interested in preserving jobs in their Seattle union shop base.

This deteriorating perception of unions can’t be explained solely by anti-union propaganda by the mass media–that’s always been with us. It is a pessimism rooted in the well publicized trend of massive give-backs by unions and whipsaw competition even within unions for which plants get a shrinking number of jobs. Failure to deliver the goods in bargaining, coupled with a breakdown of elementary solidarity, has tarnished the once respected image of organized labor. This does not bode well for needed public support for organizing, strikes, and issue campaigns sorely needed to turn things around.

The agenda for this week’s convention in Pittsburgh doesn’t reveal any sense of urgency and certainly does not provide for much discussion and debate of alternative strategy.

In a concession to the nearly seventy single-payer resolutions submitted by affiliates the resolutions committee is purportedly allowing a resolution to come to the floor, along with the leadership resolution endorsing the Obama plan with a public option. Tonight single-payer delegates are hosting a reception for Michael Moore and a preview of his new film, Capitalism the Love Story. The health care vote is scheduled right after Obama’s Tuesday speech to the delegates.

There may be some useful practical information exchanged in breakout groups. There will be some solidarity features, including an appearance by representatives of the Iraqi labor movement, organized by US Labor Against the War. Nice resolutions on topics such as green jobs will be passed unanimously. But much of the plenary sessions are taken up with speeches by politicians, and fraternal greetings from other labor bodies and social movements. It is, in fact, a week long rally cheering Democrat “friends,” retiring officers, and the new incoming leadership.

There’s another union convention going on now–the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) is gathered in New Haven. I’ve attended a number of UE conventions over the years and I wish I could have made this one. While probably the smallest national union, other than the Major League Players Association, UE principles and traditions still make them a force to be reckoned with and learned from.

Unlike the conclave in Pittsburgh, there won’t be any praise of the bosses as “partners” to be heard in New Haven. The UE is the only union still limiting officer salaries to no more than the highest paid working member they represent. Instead of relying on administration happy talk they will be having an economics workshop led by Labor Notes director Mark Brenner. They’re opening up a special presentation on women workers to not just delegates but all who are interested. There will also be a public rally in support of health care for all. And, because they are proud of their heritage, they incorporate the teaching of history in to their events, this time with a presentation by David Montgomery, labor history professor emeritus at Yale.

One more thing about UE conventions–what’s said there doesn’t stay there. The policies and knowledge from the gathering are taken back to the locals for action in the workplace and community. We all heard about one of those actions–the inspiring sit-in victory at Republic Windows in Chicago last December.

Where the Health Care Debate Has Gone
Some headlines we posted on the
Daily Labor News Digest the morning after President Obama’s health care speech to congress: Conyers: 'There is no one more disappointed than I am in Obama'; NOW Urges Single-Payer as Best for Women; Obama Health-Care Reform Plan Still Lacks Specifics; President’s Speech Allays Some Fears in the Health Insurance Industry.

But most media attention was not so focused on the substance–or lack thereof–of the President’s plan which has so many avid supporters in Pittsburgh. The big story was the previously unknown South Carolina “Calhoun Republican” representative Joe Wilson shouting “you lie!” during the President’s speech.

The prompt for Wilson’s indecorous interjection was Obama’s umpteenth reassurance that “illegal” immigrants would not benefit from health insurance reform. The President convinced me but not those who believe Obama is not really a citizen either. We now have the spectacle of the liberals leading the charge against giving health care to people who may lack the proper papers. Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee are moving to tighten up the security against sick immigrants by adding a variation of E-Verify to the “reform” to insure their exclusion.

Wilson’s apology to the President was accepted–unlike green jobs advisor Van Jones’ mea culpa for rude remarks characterizing Republicans in congress. An African-American serving as a liaison to the labor and environmental movements was deemed expendable in appeasing the cracked tea pots of the far right--including those who proudly identify with the Calhoun heritage of slavery and secession

Clearly nothing good on health care will come from this administration or congress–not even some token “public option.” Deborah Burger, a California Nurses Association co-president, and a working nurse, has a thoughtful article in the September print edition of Labor Notes entitled Can We Win Single-Payer State By State? She thinks the answer is yes, concluding,

“RNs, who have long known that health care for profit interferes with their responsibility to advocate for patients, will be among the many labor and community organizers working this fall to give state-based single-payer options a chance.”

The same issue of LN has an article by Kyle Buott, a Canadian health care advocate, reviewing how Canada’s single-payer system was first established in key provinces before winning on the federal level in 1966. This gives some credibility to the state-by-state approach in the U.S.

Like remarks by Mark Dudzic cited in Burger’s article, I agree with state campaigns as “a path back to national single-payer.” But we have to note we are missing a key ingredient in the successful provincial tactic in Canada. As explained in Buott’s piece, the movement there came out of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a farmer-labor organization that was the precursor of today’s labor party in Canada, the NDP. They didn’t just lobby provincial legislatures–they took control of them through electoral victories. This base, plus mass pressure from unions and their allies across the country, ultimately won the big prize.

There are no short cuts around this perspective. We will for the most part encounter the same determined enemies and perfidious “friends” on the state level as we have in Washington. We will not break the stranglehold of the insurance and pharma robber barons until we have built a credible working class party and a mass issue movement capable of taking back the streets from the Tea Party puppet show.

David Bacon In KC Friday
David Bacon is a talented photojournalist, writer, and radio producer dedicated to the labor, antiwar, immigrant rights, and global solidarity movements. He’ll be speaking in Kansas City this Friday at the Plaza Library, 4801 Main. There will be a reception, including signing his latest book, Illegal People, at 6:30. His talk, “Illegal People--How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants,” begins at 7:00. The event is sponsored by the Cross-Border Network, the ACLU Immigrant Rights Project and the Institute for Labor Studies.

Just One More Thing
Like Lt. Columbo, I have one parting issue of a sensitive nature. It’s time again for me to appeal for financial support for the kclabor.org project. We get no grants or subsidies. We never charge for content or accept commercial advertising. The pockets of the webmaster, whose principal income is a Social Security check, do not run deep.

Last year we welcomed a number of modest contributions, and one quite substantial one, that allowed us to not only keep the site and e-mail list ticking over; we also had enough to pay expenses to attend events in Hartford and Minneapolis and to subsidize our New Crises, New Agenda conference last April.

There are at least two upcoming gatherings we very much want to attend and report back on–the US Labor Against the War Delegate Assembly in Chicago in December and the Labor Notes national conference next April. To do that we need your help. No contribution is too small or too big.

The simplest way to donate is to use our PayPal button below. If you prefer to send a check or money order please make it payable to Bill Onasch and mail to:

Bill Onasch
3927 Kenwood
Kansas City, MO 64110

That’s all for this week.  

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