Wednesday, June 24, 2009

We’re Finding Our Way

There are encouraging signs that the American working class is finding its way toward a strategy of unity and solidarity that can lead to successes. Here in Texas, the labor movement has unified brilliantly against the right-wingers controlling state offices. Our unity in political fights, including unity between the AFL-CIO and the dissident federation, Change to Win, has been admirable.

At the same time, there are vestiges of older “go it alone” separatism still holding us back. The green alliance between unionists and environmentalists is wonderful, but many of the participants will remember that the Autoworkers backed the former “Big 3” auto companies in opposing fuel economy regulations, and they continue clutching at “buy my product” strategies even though it separates them from others. It gets ridiculous when unionized autoworkers from different manufacturers argue in public over which cars to recommend to other unionists, but it happens.

Jingoism, especially in its China-bashing form, is growing dangerously in union speeches and conversations. The “buy American” tactic of old did not work in the textile industry, which has been almost totally outsourced, and it never worked for big-ticket items like automobiles either. The Economic Policy Institute recently published a short piece by Tony Avirgan and Anna Turner revealing that, “Big Three U.S. automakers have outsourced much of the production of auto parts, resulting in a loss of 354,000 jobs in U.S. auto and auto parts manufacturing over the past two years alone.”

A smaller, but relevant, example came from the Dallas paper on June 24. “GAO Auditors: Tilt-rotor falls short,” was the headline. The article says that the military’s V-22 Osprey flying device isn’t living up to its promise after costing “$27 billion in taxpayer money.” Twenty years ago, unionized workers at Bell Helicopter made it their top priority to lobby for government acceptance of the plane. Bell management rewarded them by moving nearly all the work to a new plant in Amarillo and resisting all efforts to organize it. The union is currently on strike over health care issues.

As American workers unite to demand that their government solve the health care crisis, some workers still cling to the idea that their employer will go back to the 1950s and provide full cradle-to-grave insurance. Employer-provided health care was the American “solution” to health care back when the other industrialized nations developed their national plans, and many of our most revered union leaders from the 1950s led the way into the trap.

The Economic Policy Institute article gives American workers a good tip from Germany. It says that German unemployment, long higher than ours, is now lower. German unionists never gave up the demand for shorter hours, as Americans did in the 1950s, and their government is currently subsidizing employers who keep workers on payrolls. They add, “This policy, along with a “cash-for-clunkers” program, has meant that, as of June 1, Germany had not lost a single full-time job in auto manufacturing. By comparison, 92,500 American auto manufacturing workers have lost jobs in the last 24 months.”

Necessity is a great teacher. American workers are learning fast.

--Jim Lane

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seniors Complete Conference

On the 3rd day of the Alliance for Retired Americans Legislative Conference in Washington DC, June 17, retired union members had breakfast with their own unions. In the plenary session afterward, they heard an uplifting message from U.S. Rep Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). She was solidly on the side of the retirees and predicted that meaningful health care reform, which was defeated in 1994, will pass in 2009. “They will not stop us this time!” she announced to strong applause.

One of the issues she raised may seem complicated to some. She said, “We need to eliminate overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans.” The disastrous Medicare Prescription Drug Part (D) plan of 2003 had allowed insurance companies to administer Medicare funding for their private insurance clients. They “cherry picked” the insurable population and demanded, and received, increases in the government subsidy for their private programs. Speakers estimated their overcharging at between 12 and 20%! The issue is very clear to ARA members, who oppose these “Medicare Advantage” private plans, and to the American Alliance for Retired Persons (AARP) which supports them, takes the subsidies, sells the insurance and helped get the 2003 drug bill passed.

Referring to Medicare Advantage, Schakowsky said, “It is not a level playing field when they receive 14% in overpayments… that cost every Medicare recipient another $3/month.”

Other big issues came out of the 2003 bill, such as the prohibition on negotiating drug prices. The bill requires seniors to pay prices that the drug companies set. The bill also requires seniors to pay all of their drug costs when they fall into the “donut hole” starting at about $2,700 in annual expenses.

Schakowsky and all of the conference speakers agreed that the biggest issue currently facing retirees is whether or not proposed reform bills will include a “public option” as President Obama wants. The Representative made the point that federal law prohibits regulation of insurance companies, even on anti-trust issues. She said, “The only competition that the insurance companies will have is the public plan.”

Representative Schakowsky supported another bill that would provide insurance for long-term care. She said, “Once we are successful in getting our health care bill, we have to return to a comprehensive long term care coverage.”

Schakowsky told the retirees, “This is the moment.” A timetable is set, but details are still coming out. One key committee, the Senate Finance Committee, announced that they would not begin revealing details of their proposals until after the July 3 recess. Schakowsky said, “It will be your work today and your work back home that will determine what’s in the bill.”

Schakowsky went on from health care to trade issues. She said, “Our trade policies have not been with people in mind. Neither the people in our country nor the people in the other countries that we are dealing with…. That ideology has changed and now we are going to be looking at trade legislation from the point of view of the workers.”

After the session, hundreds of retirees were bused to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives. Afterward, they shared their experiences at a town hall meeting back at the Washington Hilton hotel.

At a banquet that evening, they honored the first president of the ARA, former Machinist President George Kourpias. ARA President Barbara Easterling joined AFL-CIO Secretary Rich Trumpka and Machinist President Tom Bufffenbarger in tribute.

On the final morning, retirees met with their state or regional organizations. Thirty states are already chartered, and retirees are organizing in the other twenty.

The main speaker at the plenary session was Steve Protulis, Executive Director/Executive Vice President, Elderly Housing Development & Operations Council. He emphasized the crisis in housing for America’s seniors and asked for help with Senate Bill 118 on refinancing homes.

ARA Legislative Director Rich Fiesta reviewed the Alliance’s very successful efforts in the 2008 election and projected activities for 2010, when redistricting of Congressional Districts will be a top priority. He said that there are 35 governor’s races anticipated. Governors can, in many states, overturn and veto redistricting plans. He made the point that the ARA will keep track provide information on which candidates supported meaningful health care reform, and which ones took money from insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

President Easterling told the assembly that this historic moment in America will be affected by what the delegates do in their home areas. She emphasized attendance at the June 25 health care rally in Washington and related events throughout the country.

--Jim Lane

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Seniors Are Ambassadors for Reform

On the second day of the Alliance for Retired Americans’ legislative conference in Washington DC, Teamsters President James Hoffa lauded President Obama and the change represented by the new Administration. He proudly announced that his union had been the first to endorse Obama.

Hoffa made a strong plea for change in trade policies. He said, “Teamsters have lost thousands and thousands of jobs due to bad trade policies. Big corporations got NAFTA and CAFTA, but all the workers got the SHAFTA.”

Hoffa criticized Washington leadership for trying to save Wall Street before the workers. He asked, “Where’s our bailout?” One particular disaster he announced is a $10M shortfall in the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation: “I say let’s give $10B or $20B to PBGC, because that’s what we need.” Hoffa said that Michigan is now suffering with 12.9% unemployment now, “…and the national rate will match it over the next year!”

Hoffa spoke about the need for the Employee Free Choice Act, but the next speaker, Communications Workers of American President Larry Cohen, dedicated most of his presentation to it. The bill that would make it easier to organize unions in America is essential, he said, because, “Without bargaining power, we have no power at all.”

Union negotiations today are all about defense, Cohen said. Very few actual gains are made, and unions are doing their best just to hold on to what they have. Electrical workers who are members of CWA at General Motors are worse off than the Auto Workers union, because they have negotiated some defenses against the bankruptcy procedure. One hundred thousand CWA members are stalemated in their bargaining with AT&T. Health care is a major issue there, but another big problem is different levels of organization in the telecommunications industry. The Employee Free Choice Act would help all workers, including those already in unions.

Larry Cohen said that the anti-union forces are being led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They are focusing their attention on the Democratic Caucus in the Senate, because Republicans are lined up solidly to vote together against even hearing the Employee Free Choice Act. Democrats, including those who oppose the bill, would have to be just as unified to provide the 60 votes necessary to bring the bill to a vote. Cohen said, “Right now we don’t have procedural unity among the Democrats.”

Cohen talked about 70 other countries that have better organizing laws. While the United States dropped from 35% unionization of the work force to 7% (not including the public sector) in 50 years, the South Africans went from almost no unions to 40% of the workforce in less than half the time. They had “card check recognition” which Americans could get with the Employee Free Choice Act. Cohen said that our nation is isolated in the company of such right-wing nations as Myanmar and Saudi Arabia.

In the afternoon, a panel of experts on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid brought the retiree delegates up to date on pending legislation and the intentions of some Congresspersons. They were congratulated on having stopped GW Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security in 2005. Speakers pointed to the drastic drop in the stock market since Bush attempted to move Social Security funds into it.

There are a number of possible attempts to cut the three vital programs now. They are using an attempt to misinform and panic American voters, the panelists agreed.

When not hearing major speakers on this second day, retiree delegates trained in workshops on such topics as:

*State legislative and Budget Advocacy in a Fiscal Crisis
*Building Community-Based Membership
*Grassroots Fundraising Strategies
*Public Speaking and Running For Office
*Finding and Training New Advocates
*Lobbying Congress
*Getting Your Message to the Media
*Yearly Strategic Planning
*Technology and Advocacy

--Jim Lane

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Seniors Plan to Push Health Care Reform

At an historic moment in American history, on June 16, 500 delegates to the Alliance for Retired Americans legislative conference convened at the Washington Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C. The following morning, the first markup for Senator Kennedy’s health care reform would take place in the Congress. ARA Executive Director Edward Coyle pointed out that no one is more committed to health care reform in America than retirees.
In workshops, the retirees began briefing for their visit to Capitol Hill. Elements of acceptable health care reform included:
All employers must participate by providing insurance or by helping pay for it. Sometimes called “pay or play.”
No taxation of health care benefits
Include a public plan as well as insurance companies
Allow the government to negotiate prices with drug companies
Stop subsidizing insurance companies through “Medicare Advantage” plans
Many of the retirees were already wearing hats or stickers that showed their commitment to single-payer health care. Leaders of the ARA said that the public sector plan proposed by President Obama might eventually lead to a single payer plan. “If we don’t get a public plan, you can say goodby to single-payer forever,” said one workshop coordinator from the ARA. The public plan is the big fight. ARA spokespersons said that anti-reform forces say they are for “competition.” Our argument is that if the private plan is so great, then it should certainly be able to compete with the public plan.
One retiree commented, “The dirty little secret is that insurance companies don’t want competition. They abhor it. They want government subsidies.”
Another argument for a public plan is that it is projected to save three times as much money as health care reform without a public plan.
Few details from the plans and proposals in Congress were available. The Kennedy proposal, which includes the elements that retirees need, has already presented a 615 page summar. Those who oppose reform have been the most secretive about their own alternatives.
The Kennedy proposal is rivaled by other Senators in the Finance Committee. There are three different committees in the House of Representatives who might present health care reform plans, beginning in July. All of the House plans are expected to include a public sector plan.
Retirees also support the CLASS Act, S.697 and HR1721, as a small but important step toward a government program for long term care. It is currently almost unaffordable and even dangerous.
At the first plenary session, Washington AFL-CIO leader Joss Williams talked about the “new day” that had arrived with the election of President Obama. Executive Director Coyle credited union retirees with having a big role in the election. The only age group that Obama failed to carry was over 65, but retired union members, with 74% voting for Obama, actually led the entire labor movement in support.
Coyle said that the Alliance now has 3,000,000 members. They are in every state, but thirty states now have their own charters
The ARA’s new President, Barbara Easterling, was presented to the conference. She blasted insurance companies: “I can’t believe how much they profit off other people’s suffering.” Even though voter turnout may get lower, the trend for retirees is upward. Easterling said, “If you win the senior vote, you will probably win the election.”
Easterling presented the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, Kathleen Sebelius, as “Obama’s point person on health reform.” Sebelius stressed the historical moment: “This is the time. This is the moment. We cannot let this opportunity pass by.”
Sebelius revealed the remarkable statistic that 100,000 Americans die every year based on what happens to them in the hospital. “Not what brought them to the hospital, but what happens to them in the hospital!”
She assured the audience, to great applause, that the President supports a public sector plan in health care reform and opposes taxing health care benefits.
AFSCME Union President Gerald McEntee was next. He referred to ex-president Bush as “Commander in Thief. He tried to steal Social Security, and you stopped him. You stopped him cold. He gave us two wars and the biggest gap between rich and poor in American history.”
McEntee enthusiastically supports the retirees in demanding health care reform. He whispered into the microphone, “They want to call it … socialism. Don’t say it too loud.” The word had already come up several times in workshops. McEntee made it clear who our health care enemies are: “Insurance companies, big pharma, and the right wing pundits.” McEntee concluded, “Go up on that hill and give them hell!”
Armed with solid information and reams of statistics, the retirees planned their assault on Congress. Judging from the enthusiasm in the audience, they might have brought torches and pitchforks.
--Jim Lane in Dallas

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Wal-Mart Organizing Drive Spreads

DALLAS -- Wal-Mart workers across the country are organizing themselves into unions with the United Food and Commercial Workers, even in Texas! The inside organizing committee held a press conference outside a Wal-Mart at the extreme southern end of Dallas on June 1. It was one of 20 held nationwide as lead-up to Wal-Marts shareholders' meeting on June 5 in Arkansas. North Texas Jobs with Justice backed them up, as did students from Denton, Texas, and civil rights leader Reverend L. Charles Stovall. The coordinating union leader was from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), but the workers are apparently joining UFCW. Both are members of the Change to Win Federation.

The SEIU organizer and two of the internal organizing committee members appeared on the "Workers Beat" radio program on KNON radio on June 3. They reported that Wal-Mart has a special anti-union team that shows up wherever organizing is mentioned. Carefully skirting the law, management begins holding "voluntary" anti-union meetings with prepared videos, then they pressure every reluctant "associate" to attend.

"It would be good for America to organize Wal-Mart," said organizer Sarah Solis, "because they are the main anti-union force in America." She also brought the Employee Free Choice Act into the discussion several times. If Americans enjoyed the same freedom to organize as other industrialized countries, Wal-Mart would already be union.

It is fitting that Dallas should get one of the organizing drives now underway. UFCW Local 540 from Dallas organized a meat cutters' unit in Jacksonville, Texas, nine years ago. Despite the company's world's worst stalling, the union stayed by the workers there and is currently negotiating their benefits. Although Wal-Mart is organized in other countries, including China, Local 540's accomplishment was the breakthrough in the United States.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Texans Less Embarrassed in 2009

Twenty million Texans breathed a sigh of relief on June 2, when the state legislature ended its five-month session. It was probably the least shameful of their biannual meetings in more than a decade!

They even accomplished a few things:

* They refused to confirm the Governor’s proposed Chairman of the State Board of Education. He doesn’t believe in the science of evolution.

* Improved compensation for the many innocents now being released from Texas prisons on DNA evidence

* For a change, they didn’t pass every right-wing crazy notion proposed, including pre-abortion sonograms, more guns on campus, more guns at work, and
"Choose Life" state vanity auto license plates

* The anti-democratic forces fixated on limiting voting rights with a “Voter ID” bill lost out, although they tried. Lord knows they tried. The Governor may still call a special session for it

* They gave every Texas teacher a one-time bonus, minimum $800

* They didn’t re-elect the former all-powerful iron-fisted dictatorial Speaker of the House, Tom Craddick

* To a limited extent, they let some Texas schoolchildren escape the deathly grasp of compulsory standardized testing

* They limited the ability of private businesses to exploit prison labor

On the other hand:

* They gave a green light to the insurance companies raping the population with the highest rates in the United States

* They refused to improve the state’s disastrous workers’ comp laws

* In the face of the economic crisis and overwhelming budget deficits, they issued a tax cut to certain businesses, and specifically to the Chambers of Commerce

* They refused to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program to tens of thousands of Texas children. The Governor was threatening to veto it anyway.

* They failed to adjust the state’s extremely backward unemployment compensation rules in order to get $555 in federal stimulus money. The fund is going broke.

In general, the State Legislature majority wasted its time trying to force the “Voter ID” bill, which would deter seniors and disabled Texans from voting, past a growing minority of Democrats. The Governor and others are setting the stage for next year’s tiny Republican primary, because they anticipate an election in which only the craziest, most backward, and most anti-worker candidates can win.

From the point of view of those who have watched the disaster of Texas politics since George W. Bush was first elected governor, the 2009 session could be characterized as “less unbearable!”

--Jim Lane

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Goodbye Solo: A study in dialectics

By James Thompson
I went to see the new film, "Goodbye Solo," with three of my movie buddies. Director Ramin Bahrani has scored a major hit in dramatizing the misery and struggles which working people endure in our culture today. Its realism propels it into the realm of great art.

The movie displays dialectics in the gripping reality of the drama depicted. A Senegalese taxi driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina picks up a passenger who contracts with him to take him to a cliff presumably to end his life. The taxi driver, Solo, attempts to befriend the isolated William, who resists his exuberant efforts to rescue him. William is an elderly white biker and motorcycle mechanic from the South.

Dialectics abound in the movie to include black/white, death/life, old/young, hope/despair, community/isolation, self-destruction/progress, immigrant/citizen and failure/success.

William is masterfully portrayed by an Anglo actor who epitomizes the corrupt, self-destructive, thrill-seeking but isolated and alienated white community. Solo is captivating as the Senegalese immigrant taxi driver married to a “Mexican” woman with a brilliant young daughter, Alex. Solo is symbolic of the vibrant, robust, positive energy and hope inherent in the African American and immigrant community today with the election of a new President in this country. Solo talks of the importance of community and people loving and caring for one another. William does not even know his own son. William is symbolic of the decay and self-destructive, thrill-seeking, individualistic, isolated and alienated nature of the dominant culture in this country in recent history. Solo’s and William’s faces dramatize and depict the pain and joy which accompany the struggle for survival among working people. The friction of this struggle occasionally erupts into physical confrontation which is tolerated by Solo with Zen-like acceptance and understanding.

Solo’s and Alex’s attempts to lift William out of his self-destructive plans are symbolic of the potential of the African American and Latino people to move predominantly Anglo culture forward out of negativity and self-destruction. William’s humanity is not overlooked by this very progressive movie and his attempts to reciprocate Solo’s help are clear. In the end, Solo and Alex pay respect to William and allow him to make his own decision even if they disagree.

The ending is left ambiguous for us to figure out. When art mirrors reality we have the possibility of great art. Goodbye Solo is great art.

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