Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
September 23, 2007

And the Hours Turn to Days...
I don’t know if the BLS or Guinness keeps track but surely GM and the UAW have set a new record for “hour to hour” extension of a contract. The two bargaining teams have been at it since the old contract expired 11:59PM EDT September 14.

Rumors have been plentiful–and often contradictory. This is probably explained by how tired and crabby sources were during their break times. While other topics have been discussed from time to time they keep coming back to the linchpin of any settlement–VEBA.

If you don’t understand what a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association is don’t feel lonely. Even most accounting professionals are not familiar with them. VEBAs have actually been authorized by the tax code since 1921, and there are about 12,000 of them in existence, but they remained obscure curiosities until about a year ago. USW workers at Goodyear had to eat a VEBA for their retiree healthcare after losing a strike last year. Since then both USW and the UAW agreed to a VEBA at bankrupt parts maker Dana. But a VEBA at the Big Three is a whole new species in size, dollar amount–and collateral damage to other workers.

Just after I posted the last WIR I received an e-mail open letter to UAW president Ron Gettelfinger from three former UAW regional directors, Jerry Tucker, Paul Schrade, and Warren Davis, blasting VEBA. Instead they propose that the union demand that the Big Three join labor in support of John Conyers single-payer bill, HR676. They say,

“That such a national health care system would serve the auto companies self-interest and level the competitive playing field is well documented. The companies extol the economic value of the Canadian system. Our role as a union, in behalf of our members and the community at large, is not to help them escape their responsibility to their past commitments but to help them convert those commitments to the common good. On that proposal, our members are informed, and they will stand behind you.”

Tucker, Schrade, and Davis are right on the money. There is no way our unions can bargain us out of the health care crisis. Single-payer is the only fair answer that can guarantee adequate health care without bankrupting us.

Of course, that would require political action. The mainstream parties and candidates supported by both the UAW leaders and Big Three bosses are adamantly opposed to single-payer, beholden to the health insurance robber barons. Check out views of front runner Hillary Rodham Clinton's “universal health care” plan by Rose Ann DeMoro and Susannah Meadows.

The Canadians and Europeans got their superior health care systems because they have parties of their own to fight for it. We will get no where on health care–or much of anything else–until we follow that example of building a Labor Party.

The Post-SiCKO Fight for Single-Payer will be one of the topics at the Kansas City Labor Party’s Fall Issues Mini-Conference coming up October 6.

A Surprise Ending
A 16-day strike by AFSCME clerical, technical and health care workers at the University of Minnesota came to an abrupt, somewhat puzzling end on Friday. The first hint of something brewing was a Thursday announcement that negotiations were resuming at the union’s request. Usually that’s a sign the union is prepared to modify demands. In this case it was acceptance by the union negotiators of the exact same proposal by the U administration that had been rejected just a week before.

Wages were at the heart of the dispute. While most state employees received at least 3.25 percent raises, and a Teamsters local at the University had accepted 3 percent, U bosses hung tough on their offer of 2.25 percent for AFSCME clerical and technical, 2.5 for health care workers. Nine days in to the strike the administration offered to throw in annual 300 dollar lump sum payments, with an additional 300 for those already at the top rate for their classification. It was that deal that was initially rejected with contempt but agreed to as the final settlement.

To all outward appearances the strike had been a model of organization with high morale. Considerable support had been won among students and faculty. There were numerous mass marches, rallies and teach-ins. Student supporters were five days in to a hunger strike when the walkout was unexpectedly ended. There had also been significant support from the local labor movement and a benefit fund raiser delivered twenty thousand dollars to the strike hardship fund.

“We're forced back to work because we can no longer sustain the loss of salary and a looming end to our health care coverage,” said Denise Osterholm, president of UMD Local 3801. “A typical striker earns $34,000 a year and qualifies for food stamps if supporting a family of four. We remain shocked by the administration's absolute disregard for its workers.”

I’ve been through strikes and I would never condemn strikers for making tough decisions. Undoubtedly many already living from modest paycheck to paycheck were hurting. Unlike many unions, AFSCME does not provide strike “benefits” to all strikers.

Sixteen days is by no means a long strike. Membership hardship is predictable. A responsible union leadership–and in the AFSCME structure we’re talking about the District and state council levels–needs to make sure members know what to expect in a strike and, more importantly, ensure that resources are on hand to help strikers avoid being starved in to submission. The rank and file strikers, and their student and community supporters, did themselves proud. The same cannot be said for the upper echelons of their union structure.

This high profile setback at the U does not bode well for the upcoming struggle of a similar pool of 5,000 AFSCME represented workers at Hennepin County (Minneapolis).

Freedom of Mobility
A study released last week showed the average urban driver in the USA wasted 38 hours of time last year in traffic congestion. Los Angeles topped the list of idleness with 72 hours. Anecdotal evidence tends to confirm these figures generated by the Texas Transportation Institute.

This is hardly surprising. The U.S. has 239 million cars and light trucks on the road–more than there are licensed drivers. This doesn’t count commercial trucks and buses or RTVs.

Congestion isn’t the only problem flowing from this mess. While this country has about five percent of the world’s population we produce 45 percent of the world's total global warming pollution from vehicles. 28 percent of US global warming pollution comes from transportation.

Air travel is part of the problem, not the solution, with massive flight cancellation and delays, as well as high altitude pollution.

Clearly, the only sensible way to start reducing both pollution and congestion problems is by greatly expanding usage of urban mass transit and inter-city rail. But both are threatened with cuts.

The Kansas City Transit Crisis will be one of the topics at the October 6 Labor Party Mini-Conference.

My Own Travel Plans
Rejecting the uncertainty and indignity of air travel, and with no viable options offered by Amtrak, I will reluctantly be contributing to road congestion and pollution with my 1999 Ford Contour on a trip to Cleveland later this week. I’ve been honored with an invitation to speak to the convention of the Ohio State Labor Party next Saturday. I will report on this event after my return and will likely post a copy of my talk. Because of the travel time involved our last posting of the
Daily Labor News Digest will be on Wednesday, September 26, resuming our updates on Tuesday, October 2. Our next Week In Review will also be delayed a couple of days or so.

That’s all for this week.

The Fall Labor Party Issues Mini-Conference
Saturday, October 6, North Kansas City Library

Click here for information

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