Thursday, December 11, 2008

Scribes, Profs Fear Government Control Of Auto

David E Sanger, one time Tokyo bureau chief before becoming the current White House correspondent for the New York Times, is well educated and well traveled. A graduate of Harvard, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Strategy Group and has a reputation as an expert on globalization. The very concept of the auto bailout makes him nervous and he tells us why in a December 8 article, Washington Takes Risks With Its Auto Bailout Plans.

Sanger begins by quoting remarks by President-designate Obama on Meet the Press,

“We don’t want government to run companies. Generally, government historically hasn’t done that very well.”

Obama is also a Harvard grad so maybe this is what is taught by the history and economics departments at that great Ivy League institution–whose endowment has lost eight billion dollars in investments over the past few months.

But the one experience of government controlling the auto industry–from 1942-46–was not so bad at all. It was, in fact, the greatest industrial mobilization the world has yet seen. Without its success there’s a good chance our first language today would not be English.

Of course, government control of that period was not limited to auto–who stopped producing cars to make planes, tanks, and jeeps. Virtually every sector of the economy was subject to government direction, supplemented by wage and price controls and rationing.

This omnipotent government intervention not only was indispensable for the U.S. military victory in World War II. It was also what finally put an end to the Great Depression that plagued the USA for more than a decade–including all through the mythical New Deal.

The next President, along with a top writer for America’s “paper of record,” do us a disservice by suppressing a significant part of our history clearly relevant to today’s economic crisis.

Of course, the productive success of the war time mobilization carried its own drawbacks–demand was created by the killing of seventy million persons and the destruction of most of the world’s industry outside North America. Taxpayers rewarded the owners of American industry with obscene profits while worker wages remained essentially frozen throughout the war. In those respects, not an experience we want to repeat. We’ll come back to that.

Despite Obama’s bad mouthing government control, Sanger still worries about bipartisan demands for “oversight” of the Big Three automakers,

“It all sounds perilously close to a word that no one in Mr. Obama’s camp wants to be caught uttering: nationalization.”

To Sanger this is like sounding the alarm about termites found on the front porch.

“The fact that there is so little protest in the air now ... reflects the desperation of the moment. But it is a strategy fraught with risks.”

The first is a reiteration of Obama’s quoted message,

“Government’s record as a corporate manager is miserable, which is why the world has been on a three-decade-long privatization kick, turning national railroads, national airlines and national defense industries into private companies.”

These examples are curious choices for advertising the superiority of private capital. Britain’s denationalized railroads stagger from one scandal to another concerning both safety and performance. And you would think the well traveled Sanger would have noticed by now that the world’s deregulated airlines have become dysfunctional.

“The second risk,” he continues, “ is that if the effort fails, and the American car companies collapse or are auctioned off in pieces to foreign competitors, taxpayers may lose the billions about to be spent.”

Sanger joins those in congress who swallowed an eight trillion dollar camel to salvage finance capital but now strain on a 15 billion dollar gnat for a loan to the Big Three.

Now he could raise some serious arguments against the Detroit bailout. For example, he could point out that General Motors has more operations abroad than in the USA and that they are making hefty profits in these other markets. They could easily save themselves from collapse at “home” with some of their earnings from other lands. But such an argument would cut across the grain of globalization that Sanger champions.

There’s more,

“And the third risk — one barely discussed so far — is that in trying to save the nation’s carmakers, the United States is violating at least the spirit of what it has preached around the world for two decades. The United States has demanded that nations treat American companies on their soil the same way they treat their home-grown industries, a concept called ‘national treatment.’”

He quotes Jeffrey Garten, a professor at the Yale School of Management, who as under secretary of commerce under Clinton was one of many government officials who “tried in vain to get Detroit prepared for a world of international competition,”

“If Japan was doing this, we’d be threatening billions of dollars in retaliation. In fact, when they did something a lot more subtle, we threatened exactly that.”

The fact that Sanger and Garten find this hypocritical double standard as shocking as discovering gambling at Rick’s, and express surprise at muted condemnation of it, demonstrates their understanding of globalization is ideological, not analytical.

Globalization, if it means anything, is a description of the way the leading powers–the old G-7--have screwed the workers of the whole world. It means breaking down social safety nets; abrogating labor, antitrust, and environmental laws; and privatizing every public treasure that might become a profit center; in order for capital to move freely across borders and exploit with few restrictions. It has profoundly, often disastrously, changed the industrial, financial, mercantile, and agricultural economies of the so called “developing countries” while at the same time putting workers in the imperial countries in what another NYT writer, Steven Greenhouse, so accurately described as a Big Squeeze.

But globalization has not eliminated national ruling classes, or the state power they control. Nor has it ended competitive tensions. In the nuclear age it is not practical to resolve disputes in the time honored way of war between major powers. Through passive consensus, all the major players defer to the super-power–the USA--as the ultimate arbiter. That’s why few will complain out loud if Washington decides to protect the Big Three. Welcome to the NFL.

Turning once more to his roots for another nervous Nellie, Sanger quotes Malcolm S. Salter, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School who has studied the auto industry for two decades and, until a few years ago, was an adviser to General Motors and Ford,

“...we’re in uncharted water. Think about this: Who in the federal government would have the tremendous insight needed to fix this industry?”

When the Feds took control of industry in World War II they turned to some bright young lads barely out of college to plan the economy. They were initially resented at the time by many corporate managers and some professors as snotty nosed kids. But some of them later became prominent, such as Tex Thornton, who founded Litton Industries, and Robert McNamara, who went on to become president of Ford and, of course, Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. And all in all they did a pretty good job of “fixing” industry.

Sanger returns to Professor Garten for his grand finale,

“We’re at this moment in history, in which the Chinese are touting that their system is better than ours with their mix of capitalism and state control. And our response, it looks like, is to begin replicating what they’ve been doing.”

Now I would agree with the learned professor that the Chinese mix is not what we should seek. The workers and peasants of China still live under an oppressive one party regime but have lost the old guarantees of even a basic diet, much less the free healthcare and education, and full employment that once brought a measure of security. The rapid growth of Chinese manufacturing–much of it offshored for the U.S. market–has created a new layer of rich but even bigger layers of poor. And, of course, it has been accompanied by a deplorable workplace fatality rate, not to mention enormous environmental destruction. But the downside for Chinese workers–and our biosphere--can be primarily attributed to the global capital component of the “mixed” economy–precisely what Sanger and his academic buddies promote in opposition to government control.

The greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression has not shaken the faith of Sanger & Co. that only the unfettered capitalist market will ultimately resolve all problems. The sole alternative they see is a slippery slope to the world of the Chinese Communists.

Let’s return, as promised, to the historical example they try to ignore–the World War II experience. In my opinion, the war time economic mobilization was a great success for primarily two reasons:

●The inherent superiority of intelligent planning over the irrational chaos of the markets.

●The overwhelming majority of society supported the objectives of the government effort and pitched in enthusiastically to make it work.

Today, in addition to our economic challenges, we face a crisis even more serious than the threat of being conquered by other countries–global warming. It surely rates the same kind of emergency response as this country saw after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Building more cars would not help this crisis–the proliferation of cars is in fact a major part of the problem. But the industrial capacity and productive workforce of the auto industry can play an essential role in converting our economy to things we really urgently need: new energy sources, new transportation alternatives, reclaiming forests and wetlands, retrofitting buildings to green standards, etc. There’s plenty of work to save the planet, to keep us all busy.

Like in WWII, workers should be retained, and if necessary retrained, in this conversion without loss of pay or benefits. Union contracts should be maintained--and even extended to those not presently covered.

Unlike the Second World War, we should not reward the corporate polluters with cost-plus contracts but instead embrace the long verboten “N” word and launch a bold new public sector, beginning with the finance, energy, and transportation sectors–including auto.

With the question of job security resolved rebuilding a green economy could quickly win the same level of popular support as the earlier war effort.

Who could the government possibly turn to to fix these industries? How about scientists, environmentalists, elected worker representatives, working with the Tex Thorntons and Robert McNamaras of today’s young generation?

Such ideas will send cold shivers to Sanger and the Establishment he seeks to serve.

Me? I’m in a sweat about what our kid’s world will look like if we can't find a way to move in this direction–and soon.

December 11, 2008

Thursday, October 2, 2008

More Mean Spirit At the KCATA

I should have known something was up when I got an announcement in the mail about a new dental plan being offered at Open Enrollment at the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority–where I was employed for fourteen years before taking an early retirement a few years ago. A cover letter said it was the second benefit mailing. I had not received a first but, after calling the HR department they did send me the mailing for retirees.

I was at first puzzled. The costs for all options for the coming year were considerably less than what I was currently paying. Then I finally noticed a line buried near the end,

“All retirees who are age 65 and/or eligible for Medicare Part B will no longer be eligible to participate in the KCATA provided insurance plan(s).”

I should explain that the ATU Local 1287 contract provides that the Authority will pay ninety percent of retiree health insurance until age 65. After that the ATA pays only the princely sum of 21.50 per month for reimbursement for Part B.

But there is a long standing practice of allowing Medicare retirees to continue carrying ATA group coverage if they pay the full cost of the plan. This is what I started doing last December, when I turned 65 and had to enroll in Medicare. I’ve been paying 835.17 every month this year for a “Retiree Over 65 + Spouse” Blue Cross HMO option.

That’s a hefty amount–especially considering my only regular income amounts to 900 a month (after Part B deduction) from Social Security. I chose this plan because my wife, Mary, is self-employed, about thirteen years away from Medicare, and would find it difficult to get a decent individual plan at any price. I’m far from the only retiree with a younger spouse, or dependent children at home, who has benefitted from the past practice of staying in the employer group.

ATA officials offer no explanation for this change other than it’s not guaranteed in contract language. Since they don’t save a penny by denying retirees the option to fully pay continued insurance it can only be understood as a mean-spirited sticking it to the retirees and their families.

The ATA bosses did not bother to inform the union in advance of this change. I’m pleased that Local 1287 president Willie Wilson is filing a grievance over this failure to negotiate over a such a major change in benefit practices.

Of course, the USA is the only industrialized country in the world where such health care issues exist. Everybody else has some form of universal coverage–and at a lot lower cost than we pay. Most European countries, along with Japan and Canada, enjoy longer life spans than we do.

There is legislation in congress to establish a “single-payer” health care system, similar to what works in Canada. Hundreds of unions have endorsed HR676. To learn more go to the web site maintained by the California Nurses

Bill Onasch
ATU Local 1287 retiree

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Three Alarm Crisis

Certainly the term “crisis” is overworked. Sometimes this suits the interests of the ruling rich, as Naomi Klein has ably demonstrated in such works as The Shock Doctrine, The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism. There are many serious problems confronting the working class that are chronic, endemic to Free Enterprise, requiring systemic change.

But, while resisting panic from cynical wolf-criers, we need to recognize that there are at times crisis situations that demand urgent action. I believe we can identify three of those today:

* Financial/Credit
The housing bubble, which created artificial, unsustainable high real estate values, is only part of the larger credit disaster. Many now owe far more than they can ever repay–not just on mortgages but for their transportation, health care, and college education. The current bailout effort in the USA holds the very flow of money hostage to an enormous transfer of wealth from the tax-paying working class to pay the rich part of this uncollectible debt. Whether the bailout is approved, or in its absence day to day credit dries up, it’s a lose-lose situation for American workers.

* Fuel
Soaring costs and spot shortages of fuel have adversely impacted every sector of the world economy and there’s no end in sight.

* Climate
Above all, the global warming crisis, threatening the very existence of human life as we know it, is advancing much faster than even the most pessimistic recent projections. With melting polar and Greenland ice, and warming ocean temperatures, we will soon see rising sea levels threatening the homes of hundreds of millions. We are approaching the point of no return. Yet greenhouse emissions are still on the rise, massive offshore drilling and shale extraction will soon be authorized by Congress, and 28 new coal fired powerplants are under construction, with permits approved for 20 more, just in the USA. Even former Vice-President Al Gore has called on young people to use civil disobedience to stop the growth of destructive coal.

But Gore is the partial exception that proves the rule. The corporate and political Establishment has no acceptable solutions to any of these challenges. And, most of our union and mainstream environmental leaders defer to the Establishment. That makes them part of the problem, not the solution.

Initiatives from below are clearly needed to work both through existing organizations, such as our unions and environmental groups, and to draw in the unorganized in to ad hoc formations, to discuss a program and strategy for confronting this three-alarm crisis.

In my opinion, such discussion should be geared to planning a far-reaching emergency response. Earlier this week, in writing about the inadequate party platforms in the current Canadian election campaign, Ian Angus wrote,

“A government that really wanted to deal with climate change would declare a Climate Emergency. It would learn from the experience of World War II, when Ottawa forced through a radical transformation of the entire economy in a few months, with no lost jobs or pay cuts.”

Of course, this is also apropos to the USA, which had an even more impressive economic mobilization during that war--in fact what finally pulled the country out of the Great Depression. It’s an example that many of us have raised in the effort to unite labor and environmentalists in the U.S. In taking such bold steps on the climate crisis we would also take care of the other two as well.

But we can improve on the war time experiences. Instead of guaranteeing profits on top of costs for corporations we could and should nationalize the financial, energy, and transportation sectors–whose owners are responsible for the emergency. With the resources of public investments, we should bring labor, environmental, and scientific representatives in to the actual planning and management of those sectors.

We could bolster those public resources by ending the current wars, which serve only the interests of global capital, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, while we’re at it, pull the plug on the insane building of more nuclear weapons.

All of this emergency reorganization of the economy should follow the principle of Just Transition–guaranteeing worker living standards as they are retrained and placed in different jobs in a green, peaceful economy.

I don’t offer any blueprint for change. I propose opening discussion to formulate an action plan. A logical place to begin is among those already engaged in trying to transform the labor movement–such as the Labor Notes network and Center for Labor Renewal. Some left groups, such as
Aaron Bass's excellent analysis of the financial crisis in Socialist Action, seem interested in a nonsectarian dialogue.

But I stress the goal should be an action plan. We could talk about problems until the cows come home. We won’t solve everything right away. But the planet is on fire, the economy is crumbling–and like it or not, we’re the First Responders.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Peter Camejo, 1939-2008

Peter Camejo, one of the most prominent left leaders to emerge from the Sixties radicalization in the USA, lost a second bout with lymphoma Saturday, September 13. He was 68.

Camejo was born in to a wealthy Venezuelan family. His mother, Elvia, who had family and friend ties in the USA, and was concerned about health care in Venezuela at the time, chose to have Peter in a hospital in the Bronx. As a result Camejo began life as a dual citizen of the USA and Venezuela. Peter spent his earliest days in Venezuela. When Elvia divorced his father, Daniel, when Peter was seven, he relocated with his mother to the U.S. where he resided the rest of his life.

Peter was an exceptional student in high school and achieved a perfect SAT score in math. He went on to attend the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology for three years. But soon interest in the civil rights movement, and later radical politics, began to distract him from academic pursuits.

He became involved in the newly formed Young Socialist Alliance, an independent formation that evolved in to the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party. I first met Peter in 1963, when he came to Chicago to speak for the YSA. He was already well on his way to becoming, in my opinion, the best agitational speaker our generation produced.

He put these speaking skills at work in many venues. He became a well-known student leader at UC Berkeley–where he was enrolled from 1965 to his expulsion, ordered by Governor Ronald Reagan, in 1967 for “unauthorized use of a microphone.” Reagan listed him as one of the “ten most dangerous Californians.” The only evidence cited for this remarkable assertion was that he was “present at all antiwar demonstrations.”

The height of Camejo’s speaking abilities was reached during his 1976 campaign as the SWP’s presidential candidate. He traveled 150,000 miles, speaking at dozens of campaign events. He even managed to get the last word in on William F Buckley’s television talk show. With no funds available for television or direct mail advertising, and only able to get on the ballot in eighteen states, Camejo racked up an impressive vote total of over 90,000.

Camejo also produced some serious writing, such as Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877: The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction; Liberalism, Ultraleftism or Mass Action; Who Killed Jim Crow: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement and It's Lessons for Today; and How to Make a Revolution in the United States.

Years later, after Peter applied his mathematical prowess as a stock broker, first with traditional Wall Street firms, later with his own enterprise, he wrote, The SRI Advantage: Why Socially Responsible Investing Has Outperformed Financially.

For reasons not clear to party members at the time, Camejo parted company from the central leadership of the SWP in 1980. He eventually became a leader in California’s Green Party, describing himself as a watermelon–green on the outside, red on the inside. He made three campaigns for Governor as a Green and in 2004 was Ralph Nader’s vice-presidential pick.

I certainly had my differences with parts of Peter’s evolution from socialist agitator to watermelon. But the contributions he made to building social movements and the socialist movement for decades are enduring and, to the end, he was still working to do the right thing. He will be missed. Our sympathy goes out to his family, friends, and comrades.

Bill Onasch

Monday, September 8, 2008

Celia Hart Santamaría (1962 – 2008)

Celia Hart, and her brother Abel, were killed in a car wreck in Havana on Sunday, September 7. Funeral arrangements were hurriedly made, racing against the approach of devastating hurricane Ike–which roughly followed the route taken by the victorious guerilla forces of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara marching to Havana a half-century ago.

Celia and Abel’s mother, Haydee Santamaria, had been part of those revolutionary forces, going back to her participation with Fidel in his earliest battle against Batista–the 1953 assault on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago. Her life ended in 1980.

Their father, Armando Hart, was one of the main organizers of the revolutionary movement in the cities. He was selected to be the revolutionary government’s first Minister of Education and later, from 1976-97 served as Minister of Culture. He continues to actively follow political events at the age of 78.

Celia did not initially choose to follow the highly political path of her prominent parents. Instead, she pursued a study of physics. She did her graduate work at the University of Dresden, becoming the first non-German female graduate from their prestigious physics school.

But the differences she saw between her native Cuba and the Stalinist dictatorship in East Germany deeply troubled her. She later wrote,

“In 1985 I returned to Cuba on holidays and confessed to my father my feelings of utter desperation. In response, my father opened a cupboard and got out four books: the three-volume Life of Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher and Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. I devoured these books, but until a few months ago had no opportunity of reading the rest of Trotsky’s works.”

Celia, while remaining loyal to the Cuban revolution and regime, began writing and speaking extensively, independent of Communist Party venues. She was particularly interested in the working class upsurge in Latin America, especially Venezuela. She established relations with Trotsky’s grand-son, Esteban Volkov in Mexico and took part in introducing Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed at a book fair in Havana several years ago.

Some thought Celia was “asking for trouble” in advancing such views. My good friend Jeff Mackler, who is helping to edit and introduce a soon to be published collection of Celia’s articles and speeches, writes,

“Celia was proud to tell us that her defense of Trotskyist ideas had not gone unnoticed by the Fidel Castro she loved, admired and knew since her childhood. A letter from Fidel to Celia not long ago conveyed his appreciation of Celia's writings and concluded with the assertion that Celia was not to be discouraged from expressing her views. ‘No one will hurt a single hair on your beautiful head,’ said Fidel, a delighted Celia told us.”

More recently, she began to collaborate with socialists in North America. She, of course, was banned from visiting the USA and travel by Americans to Cuba is made extremely difficult by the U.S. government. I was fortunate to meet and spend some time with her at a conference in Toronto a few months ago.

I was already impressed by her fresh analytic application of classic socialist views in her writings. I was pleased to experience first hand her dynamic energy, sense of humor–and our shared passion for baseball. One could not long remain gloomy or lethargic in her presence.

Her tragic demise is a set back, for sure, for the working people of this hemisphere as well as a deeply felt personal loss for those who knew her. Our sympathy goes out to her father.

But Celia certainly would not want her friends and comrades to mope. She would expect us to carry on her efforts to liberate working people from exploitation and ignorance.

Bill Onasch

Friday, September 5, 2008

What’s Within Bounds Regarding Sarah Palin

The distractions from the real world by the seemingly endless election campaign became more skewed than ever as both boss parties reacted to the surprise selection of Governor Palin to be a heart beat away from the presidency.

How many children Sarah Palin decides to have is her business–and no body else’s.

Sarah Palin’s proposal to use big government to deny the rest of us family planning options is our business.

Sarah Palin is entitled under freedom of religion to embrace her Pentecostal faith.

When she proposes to use the power of big government to advance this faith’s view of the universe, in opposition to the teachings of science in schools, she tramples on freedom of religion and seeks to keep our children in ignorance.

Sarah Palin was entitled to pray for God’s assistance to U.S. forces in the war in Iraq.

She and her party were not entitled to direct the police state tactics used against many thousands protesting that war outside the convention–events largely ignored by the “liberal” media.

Since the other party also tries to be “faith based,” and wants to expand the War On Terrorism front in Afghanistan, it is unlikely they will give these issues much play.

We’ve got sixty-one more days to go of this malarkey–unless, of course, there are more hanging chads.

Bill Onasch

Friday, August 1, 2008

Starter Line A Non-Starter

We’ve lost count of the number of light rail “starter line” proposals that have emanated from the Kansas City Establishment–and have so far been rejected by the voters. The latest one deserves a thumbs down as well.

I say this as a retired transit worker, and committed pro-environmentalist, who strongly favors greatly expanded mass transit--including light rail, heavy rail, trolley bus and “modern” streetcar components.

But I begin with a totally different perspective from our local economic and political masters. Their sole interest is using tax payer dollars for light rail as a “development tool.” They have thrown a few more crumbs around on this one and have convinced those who speak in the name of the largely low wage or jobless African-American working class on the East Side to get on board the “development” train as well.

The area served by the latest starter line was once highly developed and included one of the best streetcar and trolley bus networks in the USA. Kansas City’s urban core was consciously undeveloped by postwar urban sprawl, fed by white flight to outlying areas that became car dependent. The first class electric transit service was scrapped.

Those residents remaining in the core have had to accept not only dwindling transit service, aimed to keep them in their geographical place, but failed schools, and infrastructure crumbling from decades of neglect, as well. Any development plan that ignores the totality of those challenges is an insult to those of us living in the core–above all those on the East Side.

The development that our town’s movers and shakers see is two-fold:

* Big bucks for those building the starter line.
* Using the line to drive more business to profit centers in downtown, the Hall family’s Crown Center, and the Nichols family’s Country Club Plaza.

The extension from previous starter line’s Plaza destination to 63rd & Prospect is a political bone thrown to the East Side. Most area residents will soon realize that the light rail will be no faster getting them to work downtown than buses–in fact, it will likely take longer.

My perspective is to use expanded transit to provide realistic alternatives for getting people out of their cars as much as possible. That is crucial to combating global warming and growing ozone problems. Building an expensive “starter” system in areas already relatively well served by bus lines does little to lure drivers to transit.

Granted, the urban core bus lines leave a lot to be desired. Some lines such as Troost, Prospect, and Independence Avenue can get dangerously overcrowded while a few are way under utilized. Much cheaper than light rail would be a restoration of clean, fast, quiet trolley buses--such as once served Independence Avenue, Prospect, Brooklyn, Woodland, and Indiana–adding at least Troost and Country Club (now known as the MAX) to the mix as well. Once an adequate power house is in place it’s just a matter of stringing and maintaining overhead wires. The same power would be available for any future light rail or streetcar lines.

One interesting part of the new Establishment proposal is running light rail down the Watkins–though only from 47th to 63rd. Actually a light rail right of way was provided for much of the Watkins when it was built. A position paper that I helped draft for ATU 1287 some fifteen years ago advocated running light rail from a park and ride on the north side of Bannister Mall, down the Watkins to Hospital Hill, where it would then go by street to downtown. That is a line that could attract a lot now driving to those destinations from Lee’s Summit, Raytown, south Kansas City, and perhaps even further out. Of course, since that original proposal, the Mall, and Wal-Mart’s Hypermart, have closed--so there is plenty of room for parking and plenty of need for saving that area from blight. A Northland connection from downtown to Vivion Road added on the other side would be a giant step forward for transportation–if not “development.”

Such proposals are not favored by the ruling rich, their political servants, or the grant driven bureaucrats at the ATA. It will take a mass movement, led by labor, environmental, and community organizations, to get Kansas City the transit we need and deserve.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Outraged, Outraged I Tell You

The headlines all say Senator Barrack Obama, front runner for the Democrat presidential nomination, is “outraged.” Is his rage directed toward the occupation forces deadly assault on Sadr City? Or perhaps the hunger caused by hedge funds cornering the world’s food supply? Or maybe that the cost of health care in the USA has increased ten times faster than worker incomes?

No, these headline stories haven’t gotten much play from Obama, nor from Clinton or McCain either. The junior Senator from Illinois called a special press conference to denounce a 66-year old Chicago Black preacher, now retiring–formerly Obama’s pastor, who performed the Obama wedding ceremony–Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Obama has been trying to lose his one-time “spiritual adviser”ever since the Clinton camp stealthily circulated videos of some of his sermons. Tuesday Obama indignantly responded to Rev Wright’s Monday remarks at the National Press Club. “I cannot prevent him from continuing to make these outrageous remarks, but what I do want him to be very clear that when I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it. It contradicts everything that I'm about and who I am.”

The bitterness of Obama’s renunciation led me to look up the transcript of what Rev Wright actually said at the private club of the Fourth Estate. You can do the same by clicking here.

Reverend Wright began by explaining why he was in our nation’s capital,

“Over the next few days, prominent scholars of the African-American religious tradition from several different disciplines -- theologians, church historians, ethicists, professors of Hebrew bible, homiletics, hermeneutics and historians of religions -- those scholars will join in with sociologists, political analysts, local church pastors and denominational officials to examine the African-American religious experience and its historical, theological and political context. The workshops, the panel discussions and the symposia will go into much more intricate detail about this unknown phenomenon of the Black church -- (laughter) -- than I have time to go into in the few moments that we have to share together.”

Not being religious, I have little interest in the theological differences between competing religions. But the differences between Wright’s “Black church” and the mainstream white churches go far beyond appeals to faith. As the Rev reminded his audience, 11AM Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America.

Even more important than the role the Catholic church has played in Ireland over centuries of English subjugation, African-American churches have been the historic center of Black organization in the face of racism from slavery, through Jim Crow, down to today’s more subtle–and hypocritical--second class status. That’s why, even in an election year where all candidates piously proclaim “faith,” none of the movers and shakers even want to acknowledge the existence of a Black church–much less embrace it.

Rev Wright has been called “anti-American” because of his views on the War On Terrorism. Here is how he replied at the Press Club,

“Our congregation, as you heard in the introduction, took a stand against apartheid when the government of our country was supporting the racist regime of the Afrikaner government in South Africa. (Applause.) Our congregation stood in solidarity with the peasants in El Salvador and Nicaragua while our government, through Ollie North and the Iran-Contra scandal was supporting the contras who were killing the peasant and the Miskito Indian in those two countries. (Applause.)...

“Our congregation has sent dozens of boys and girls to fight in the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War and the present two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My goddaughter's unit just arrived in Iraq this week, while those who call me unpatriotic have used their positions of privilege to avoid military service while sending -- (cheers, applause) -- while sending over 4,000 American boys and girls of every race to die over a lie. (Boos, jeers.)”

Some have called Rev Wright an “anti-Semite.” Here’s some excerpts from a question and answer about Louis Farrakhan.

“As I said on the Bill Moyers show, one of our news channels keeps playing a news clip from 20 years ago, when Louis said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion. He was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter's being vilified for and Bishop Tutu's being vilified for. And everybody wants to paint me as if I'm anti- Semitic because of what Louis Farrakhan said 20 years ago.

“I believe that people of all faiths have to work together in this country if we're going to be build a future for our children...My position on Israel is that Israel has a right to exist; that Israelis have a right to exist, as I said, reconciled one to another...

“Now, I am not going to put down Louis Farrakhan any more than Mandela will put down Fidel Castro. You remember that Ted Koppel show where Ted wanted Mandela to put down Castro because Castro is our enemy, and he said, ‘You don't tell me who my enemies are; you don't tell me who my friends are.’”

Senator Obama said, “The person that I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago. His comments were not only divisive and destructive but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate.”

By all accounts, Reverend Wright has been making such “divisive and destructive” comments all of his life. He has never been one to pull punches as he built a congregation that numbered 87 when he took it over in 1972 to more than 8,000 at the time of his retirement. Perhaps it is the Senator who is a different person today. The man who would be President, groomed by Oprah and Ted Kennedy, surrounded by Establishment advisors telling him who his friends and enemies are, showered with record breaking cash donations, finds the preaching against war and racism of his former “spiritual adviser” to be embarrassing.

Obama’s censure of his one time mentor demonstrates audacity. It should also signify the end of hope held by so many “progressives” that this Senator represents some sea change in American politics and race relations.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Green Around the Gills

I always get kind of nervous when the House of Labor’s equivalent of the College of Cardinals–the AFL-CIO Executive Council–gathers, as they have this week in San Diego. Seldom does anything good come as a result of them putting their feet under the conference table–presumably first checked by Tom Buffenbarger to ensure none were shod in Birkenstock. After I read their new encyclical, Greening the Economy, I was a little green around the gills.

This looks like a boiler plate document circulated by the Chamber of Commerce. The federation comes down firmly on the side of:

Cap and Trade
The bosses love markets. The Kyoto Treaty–rejected by the Bush administration–established a commodity market for pollution. 1990 was set as a base line for pollution, along with a modest goal of 5.2 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2011. Polluters didn’t have to actually stop polluting. They could buy credits from companies and countries that don’t pollute as much. And they could and did, of course, also shift a lot of pollution to developing countries through offshoring of industrial production. Kevin Smith of Carbon Trade Watch summed up this scam well, “The problem lies in the fact that carbon trading is designed with the express purpose of providing an opportunity for rich countries to delay making costly, structural changes towards low-carbon technologies. This isn’t a malfunction of the market or an unexpected by-product: this is what the market was designed to do.”

More Coal and Nukes
The fed document says, “The federation supports the expansion of both IGCC coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration and new nuclear technology...” Both integrated gasification combined-cycle technology (IGCC), and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) are unproven, and somewhat dubious technologies aimed at cleaning up coal. Truly clean coal would be a wonderful thing. By all means research in this area should continue. But until the unlikely day comes of demonstration of viable science and economic feasibility for this dream at the very least there should be a moratorium on construction of any new coal fired plants. We don’t know what “new nuclear technology” the executive council has discovered. Even if catastrophes such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are avoided there is still no safeguard for protecting the planet from the radioactive waste that remains dangerous for centuries and there are still big environmental threats from the mining, processing, and transport of uranium–a nonrenewable resource.

For Biofuels
After devoting an entire sentence to expanding passenger rail and mass transit the document goes on to hail biofuels and “UAW supported CAFÉ [auto fuel consumption] standards.” Coincidently, the UAW standards are identical to those acceptable to the Big Three and other car makers in the USA. The jury is no longer out on AgriBusiness’s biofuel schemes. On balance, the drive for biofuels is more harmful to the environment than conventional reliance on petroleum fuels--and is driving up food and fiber costs around the globe to boot.

I guess the fact that our labor statespersons made time in their busy schedule to comment at all on the greatest crisis facing civilization in recorded history should be recognized as progress. To have expected any independent thinking about a working class response to the crisis would have been as delusional as counting on clean coal. Still, one always hopes.

More progress on this issue–and many others–is more likely at the
Rebuilding Labor’s Power conference, sponsored by Labor Notes, to be held next month in suburban Detroit.