Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
September 19, 2010

Seattle’s Best
Even though it meant a special waiver of my personal no-fly rule, my wife Mary and I shifted our tentative plans for a leisurely driving trip to a brief vacation in Seattle instead. Now Seattle is one of our favorite American cities. But the choice of this particular time to swoop in and out of Seatac Airport was to join in the celebration of the eightieth birthday of my longtime friend and comrade,
Rita Shaw.

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Rita joined the socialist movement as a teenager and has been active in just about every fight for class and human justice ever since. This was validated in the SRO attendance at the wonderful program and party organized by her kids, in-laws, and her companion Joan. In addition to family and old socialists, there were dozens who had worked with Rita in union, civil rights, women’s liberation, and antiwar activities over the decades. Among those who couldn’t make the event but sent greetings to be read was Mark Dudzic, national organizer of the Labor Party, who recognized Rita’s tireless efforts in building LP in the Northwest. (Rita requested that in lieu of gifts well-wishers could contribute to the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute, the 501(c)(3) educational and cultural arm of the Labor Party.)

Rita has been one of my mentors who demonstrates that you can bring discipline to great struggles while continuing to think for your self; that you can be a team player without becoming an uncritical hand-raiser. That she has done this for decades with the highest level of activity while also raising a couple of kids who turned out pretty well--and additionally winning a bout with cancer--is a remarkable achievement. 

We’re really short handed of such folks. Though she was a Hebrew School drop-out, let me offer, in a secular spirit, the old Yiddish blessing, biz hundert un tsvantsig–may you live to 120!

The Most Important Election This Fall
I’m not talking about the clash of the donkeys, elephants, and cracked tea pots. The outcomes of those contests are strictly lose-lose for our side. I am referring to the biggest NLRB representation election since the UAW finally cracked Ford River Rouge in 1941.

More than 43,000 Kaiser Permanente service and technical workers, serving nearly 6.5 million patients in California, are involved. They will choose whether to continue with the present SEIU United Healthcare Workers West or to opt for the fledgling National Union of Healthcare Workers.

SEIU has some clear advantages. They have many more organizers to put in the field and the sky’s the limit on spending. They are the palpable choice of the employer and most academic and journalistic labor “experts”–highly dependent on SEIU’s good will.

For example, the New York Times labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse–who I once respected–tarnished his reputation and credibility by promoting the lies and distortions peddled by SEIU in their attempt to exterminate their rival. Others have pointed out that Greenhouse violated reporting rules in place at the Times and ignored sound general journalistic practices. Purported experts were cited anonymously when there was no compelling reason for confidentiality and experts with contrary assessments were not sought out.

SEIU/Greenhouse try to frighten Kaiser workers with the assertion that they risk losing their union contract if they vote NUHW. Greenhouse’s “experts” lament the valuable resources wasted on NUHW’s “raid” when so many healthcare workers are unorganized.

Had Greenhouse reported responsibly he would have explained that labor law keeps the current contract in force until there is either a new agreement reached or an impasse is declared after extensive good faith bargaining.

Nor did Greenhouse clarify that NUHW’s challenge is hardly a typical raid. The leaders of NUHW were recently the elected leaders of SEIU United Healthcare Workers West and negotiated for Kaiser workers and tens of thousands more. They didn’t lose a membership election–they were undemocratically removed from their posts on orders from then SEIU president Andy Stern and driven out of the union they had worked so hard to build. The NUHW has already reclaimed some of those hijacked by the Stern Gang in smaller units. This is a decisive showdown.

The NUHW deserves support not just out of a sense of fair play–though that’s always a pretty good reason. The Stern philosophy–that his successor shows every indication of continuing–is to make sweetheart deals at the top levels of management by demonstrating the union will provide “value added.” The NUHW approach is more adversarial, based on a mobilization of the power of the ranks.

The mail-in balloting has already begun. I eagerly await the returns.

Shocked But Hardly Surprised
Since I live in Kansas City’s urban core, I was hardly as surprised as the media feigned to be about the Census and other reports released over the past few days about poverty in the USA. If you are a regular reader you probably weren’t either. We frequently cite the underlying latest BLS monthly reports on a number of measures.

Still, seeing so many indicators pulled together at once and put in historical context is admittedly shocking even to a card-carrying cynic. It is empirical verification of a postulation I would prefer to have disproved–that U.S. society is going to hell with gathering velocity. Here’s a few figures to ponder:

●43.6 million Americans are living below the official poverty threshold–the princely sum of 21,756 dollars per year for a family of four. That’s ten million more than the total population of Canada.

●The inflation-adjusted income of the median household–ground zero for the Middle Class–plummeted 4.8 percent under three different Presidents between 2000 and 2009. That’s the first time in living memory that income went south for a whole decade.

●Those without health insurance increased 4.4 million last year to the largest number since they started keeping records--50.7 million. That’s equivalent to the population of England–where, by the way, everyone has health care.

●Hard times have forced 5.5 million 25-to-34-year-olds to live with their parents.

●The Associated Press reported this week, “More than 2.3 million homes have been repossessed by lenders since the recession began in December 2007, according to RealtyTrac. The firm estimates more than 1 million American households are likely to lose their homes to foreclosure this year.” The same story says that because the housing market is so depressed, “fewer than one-third of homes repossessed by lenders are on the market,”and inevitable foreclosures are being delayed.

●Susan Tompor wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “Total student loan debt exceeds total credit card debt in this country, with $850 billion outstanding.” Might this be part of the explanation of how the USA fell from first place to number twelve in college graduates among industrialized countries?

While the major news outlets prominently featured such disturbing stories the politicians in the midterm election cycle remained focused on the “fiscal crisis,” giving this snapshot of growing misery scant attention. President Obama stuck with his “it could have been worse” theme,

“Because of the Recovery Act and many other programs providing tax relief and income support to a majority of working families - and especially those most in need - millions of Americans were kept out of poverty last year.”

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert noted,

“Millions of struggling voters have no idea which way to turn. They are suffering under the status quo, but those with any memory at all are afraid of a rerun of the catastrophic George W. Bush era. An Associated Press article, based on recent polling, summed the matter up: ‘Glum and distrusting, a majority of Americans today are very confident in — nobody.’”

Their confidence is not misplaced. The time for the working class to forge a recovery program of our own and to build a party to implement it, is way over due. More next week.

Where To End?
It’s tough to review a fortnight in a weekly column. As usually happens during vacations there were some major developments.

A McClatchy headline reads, Iraqi forces struggling, forcing U.S. troops to fight

National strikes shut down transportation and schools throughout France and more than a million workers rallied in the streets in the ongoing battle against raising retirement age and other “austerity” measures.

100,000 Germans marched on the Chancellory to protest Merkel’s extension of nuclear power plants.

There was actually some good news on the U.S. labor scene. Nearly a thousand members of the Minnesota Nurses Association won an important contract victory at SMDC Medical Center in Duluth. Another affiliate of National Nurses United won a representation election at HCA’s Research Medical Center in Kansas City by an impressive margin. Two weeks earlier SEIU Healthcare Missouri/Kansas won an election to represent service workers at the facility. (My GP is part of a clinic at this property.) And the tiny but feisty IWW filed for a representation election for nine Jimmy John’s locations in the Twin Cities–the first union in the nation to take on the fast food chain.

A progressive slate–OneATU–seems to have a decent chance of winning at the upcoming convention of the union to which I pay retiree dues. The Hanley-Baker team promises to shake up–along lines I have advocated for more than twenty years–the stolid union that is the biggest among North American transit workers. Says presidential candidate Larry Hanley, “We cannot wait for others to fight for our cause. The ATU must play a dramatically increased and more effective role in building public and political support for mass transit. This must be our number one priority in both U.S. and Canada.”

Unfortunately, the more familiar trends of defeats and surrenders without a fight also continued.

After 114 days of bravely picketing not only their own plant but others in the Dr Pepper/Snapple empire around the country, Mott’s Williamson, NY workers were pressured in to accepting a not-so-sweet deal they had recently rejected. The Dallas Morning News reported, “Earlier this month, the union voted down a pact in which the company agreed to continue the pension for current workers and keep wages flat. The approved deal was largely the same as the rejected plan, but better than the contract rejected before the strike, said union president Stuart Appelbaum.”

Harley-Davidson stock is listed as HOG. That should make any self-respecting swine wince. After the iconic motorcycle maker threatened to abandon their 107-year old home base, a truly horrible agreement was approved by a relatively close vote of workers at their plants in Milwaukee and Tomahawk, Wisconsin. 1,350 workers making engines, transmissions, windshields and sidecars are now locked in to a seven-year contract that not only freezes wages but also replaces hundreds of present full-time workers with part-time casuals--called in like any other just-in-time components. The casuals will get half-pay and next to no benefits. But while job security went down the tubes “union security” was preserved–the casuals will pay union dues to either the Steelworkers or Machinists, depending on their fleeting job classification.

Seven years was also the length of a new contract for 2400 IAM-represented workers at Cessna in Wichita. Even though 58 percent voted to reject it was approved by “default” because there were insufficient votes for a strike. Wages will be frozen for the first four years; one percent raises will be doled out in each of the last three years. A new health insurance plan will pay nothing until workers have laid out 5,000 dollars from their own pocket.

We could easily expand on these and unmentioned stories but I’m pushing the envelope of my allotted space so I will say,

That’s all for this week.

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