Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
September 18, 2005

Katrina: The System Continues To Compound Disaster
According to senior White House staff, after President Bush watched a DVD compilation of what the rest of us had been watching on the Evening News, he realized how serious the Katrina crisis was. After many days of inaction he has now committed to rebuilding New Orleans.

That sounds like a worthy goal. But, it also raises many questions.

• Assuming the great environmental disaster can be cleaned up, assuming an adequate long-term flood control system can be put in place–and validations of these assumptions are far from certain and surly years away at best–who decides how the Crescent City should be rebuilt? Will the great diaspora of hundreds of thousands scattered across the fifty states be consulted? Or will the pre-Katrina blend of industry, finance, and tourism, supported by a workforce largely living in poverty, residing in class/race segregation, simply be duplicated?

• Who will pay for this mammoth rebuilding–with figures bandied about going as high as a quarter of a trillion dollars? The president is a bit vague but pledges the federal government will "spend whatever it takes." At the same time he rules out any raise in taxes–spending on other programs must be cut, he tells us. But, of course, some programs are out of bounds for cost cutting. Reductions in the war or homeland security budgets, for example, are verboten. That guarantees further substantial slashes in health care, education, unemployment comp, veteran’s benefits, mass transit, OSHA enforcement–any and all of the socially useful government services not yet completely axed.

• To aid rebuilding contractors the administration has taken steps to eliminate prevailing wage protections in construction work and is loosening environmental and workplace safety requirements as well.

The employers that Bush counts heavily on to put unemployed Katrina victims to work have already demonstrated some imagination. California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco got a dozen "evacuees" from a temp agency to fill in for striking SEIU housekeeping workers.

Clearly, the drift of what Washington and Wall Street have in store will do little for the working class victims of Katrina and will mean more misery for many of the rest of us.

The "opposition" Democrats have little to offer. Their big effort is demanding a "Katrina Commission" that could embarrass the Bush administration.

It seems to me that we need a truly bold response in the interest of working people. We should demand that the working class of New Orleans–including the "evacuees"--be recognized as the primary stakeholders in the future of that city. Neighborhood associations, trade unions, civil rights groups, and environmental organizations should have the lead voice in determining how their city be reconstructed.

Above all now, this is a time to guarantee fair wages for all those in the rebuilding effort, along with adequate income assistance for those who remain out of work. Above all now, this is a time to set and enforce environmental standards to ensure there will never again be a disaster of the scope of Katrina Above all now, this is the time to eradicate, not replicate, slums and to guarantee new adequate housing for all–and in all parts of the city, without regard for class or race.

Anything less will only compound and spread around the disaster that began with Hurricane Katrina.

Let’s Don’t Forget the Rest of the Gulf Coast
New Orleans was not the only victim of Katrina. Most of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama was devastated as well. This is an area that already had poverty rates of nearly twenty percent. The best private sector jobs were in the new casinos–all now in ruins. Family farms and fishing fleets were largely destroyed. Hats off to Oxfam America for stepping in to this overlooked pocket of disaster. They say,

"Oxfam America has made an exception to its policy of expecting that well-resourced governments, such as ours, will effectively respond to their own crises. The government’s response to Katrina amounts to a massive institutional failure...Across communities in southern Louisiana and Mississippi, where poverty rates soar above the national average, many of the most marginalized people have neither resources to fall back on nor much hope that government assistance will reach them any time soon. Our work is focusing on poor rural and urban residents many of whom are African-American farmers, migrant farm workers, and immigrant dock workers. We are providing not only a direct response, but are planning ways to help communities with their long-term recovery."

Big Protests Against the War Next Weekend
President Bush did catch one break because of Katrina–it diverted some attention from the war in Iraq. Of course, most of the population in Iraq has been living in Katrina-type conditions for 2½ years now because of the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Many Iraqi workers are courageously fighting to improve their lives through trade union and political organization. They deserve our support.

Others, as could be expected, have carried out a military resistance to the occupation forces–resulting in nearly two thousand deaths and thousands more wounds and injuries to American GIs.

Still others, who summon our memories of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, have used the rage against occupation to recruit the desperate for misdirected murderous attacks on Iraqis–such as the bombings of day laborers looking for work, and a school bus filled with children, just this past week.

There will be no peace, no reconstruction in Iraq until U.S. occupation forces are withdrawn. I urge you to participate, alongside many trade unionists, in mass demonstrations next weekend calling for Bring the Troops Home Now!

Extracting the Gold Out of Our Golden Years
In the propaganda against Social Security much has been made of the fact that people now live considerably longer than when that program was established. One factor in this growth in longevity has been the increased utilization of nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and home health care. These facilities are not cheap. The national average annual cost per user is more than 72,000 dollars. Such a burden would be unsustainable for the big majority without substantial help from Medicaid. The Bush administration, acting on suggestions from the National Governors Association, is proposing to slash ten billion from this assistance over the next five years. Undoubtedly they see a double fiscal benefit from keeping old folks out of long term care–it will also reduce Social Security payments as well.

In Brief--More Later On...
It’s been an eventful week.

¶ The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) held their 13th Biannual Convention this past weekend in Detroit. Among their actions was endorsement of the September 24 antiwar demonstrations.

¶ The Canadian Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) has launched a public campaign to pressure Bell Canada to pay up on a long overdue pay equity award to thousands of women telephone operators. When the union began this fight ten years ago there were 5,000 working operators; today there are 250.

¶ Our friend Rod, in Vancouver, commenting on efforts to eliminate trade union representation in the B.C. New Democrats writes, "The madness continues...Our labour party (BC New Democratic Party) is about to make a giant step to the right. It is going to abandon it's labour union roots and become a party of the bosses and intellectual elitists never thought I would see this happen to our party."

¶ AMFA strikers are holding firm even after Northwest Airline’s bankruptcy scam. They got a boost last week from the UAW who, ignoring official AFL-CIO policy, contributed 880,000 dollars to the union’s strike fund.

Headed For St Louis

I’ll be leaving for the Gateway City on Thursday to attend the Jobs with Justice conference and an antiwar rally there next Sunday. With our new lap top computer and broadband connection in the hotel I expect to be able to keep the Daily Labor News Digest updated and post next week’s Review from on the road.

That’s all for this week.

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