The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Issue no. 762 — November 7 - 21, 2005

No money for pensions?
Take it out of the bosses’ hide!

Nov 7, 2005

Workers with pensions are a dying breed – in more ways than one. And if the bosses have their way, there won’t be a single one of us left.

The attacks on pensions and retiree medical care now hitting at Delphi and GM show that no worker is guaranteed a life after work. Every boss believes they are within their rights to turn their back on promises made over the years – promises made over and over again.

At GM, the bosses actually have the nerve to complain that there are too few active workers to support all those retirees... and furthermore to complain that retirees are living longer these days.

What a filthy, disgusting lie! On average, blue collar production workers live 10 fewer years than white collar workers – and both live many, many fewer years than those in the upper classes, who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Anyone who works in a plant can tell you how many workers die soon after they retire, or else never make it. That is why the auto workers fought so hard for “30 and Out,” the right to retire on a full pension after 30 years of seniority no matter how young they are. Having to work up to the legal retirement age was little more than a death sentence, one that the auto companies are obviously trying to bring back.

But that’s not bad enough! Oh, no, the GM bosses, like many others, tell us there are too many retirees and not nearly enough active workers to support them.

There are so many lies in these assertions, it is hard to know where to begin. First of all, these are the same bosses who got rid of the active workers by spinning off companies, outsourcing, and increasing the intensity of work. Now these same slave drivers want to tell us there aren’t enough active workers. We know that – and we want more of them brought back into the workplaces.

But the lack of active workers doesn’t create problems for the pension funds. The money for retiree pensions wasn’t supposed to come from the wealth produced by today’s active workers. It was supposed to come week after week, year after year from some of the profit that today’s retired workers produced during all the years they were working.

The compact the companies made with the workers a long time ago was that if workers’ would accept lower wages, the companies would guarantee pensions for those workers when they retired. Pensions were simply deferred wages.

It’s obvious that workers are not paid high enough wages so they can save for their own retirement themselves, like millionaires do. The companies could have paid the workers more. Someone working for an auto company adds $240,000 of wealth to a company in one year’s time. That money could have gone to the workers. Instead, the companies pledged to put the money away year after year to pay out in pensions for those workers when they retired. They made a promise that all the money needed for each workers’ retirement would be put into a pension fund. That promise was enshrined in the contract, and it supposedly is backed up by federal law.

But guess what. The auto companies didn’t do it. Neither did other companies – despite all their promises. Their pension funds are now short by almost half a trillion dollars.

The companies did not put that pension money aside, despite their promises – they stole it. And the government stepped aside and let them do it. And one union after another turned a blind eye to what was going on. A number of unions even asked the government to change rules, allowing the companies to put still LESS into their pension funds!

So don’t tell us there’s no money today. Someone stole it – take it back out of their hides. Let the bosses who stole it over all these years cough it up. Let the billionaire stockholders, who raked in millions upon millions of dollars out of the workers’ labor, pay it back. Let the government tax all the banks, all the companies making a cent of profit, and use that to cover pensions owed to the workers.

Pages 2-3

Violence in workers’ neighborhoods and those responsible for it

Nov 7, 2005

The following was an editorial written on November 1st and appearing in the newspaper Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), published by the revolutionary group in France of that name. It is a response to French government attacks on youths who have been rioting in working class towns around Paris.

After the deaths of two youths electrocuted while trying to flee from the police, the city of Clichy-sous-Bois for several days has been the scene of nightly clashes between the police and several hundred youth from a workers’ neighborhood. The agitation has extended to several localities in the Paris region.

Clichy-sous-Bois is a Paris suburb. But the violence could have exploded in the suburbs of Lyons, Strasbourg, Lille or elsewhere, for the same reasons.

Certainly, the principal victims of this violence are the inhabitants of these suburbs. The cars that are burnt aren’t the cars of billionaires or of government ministers, but those of workers who live in these neighborhoods. This is why, when the youth take on firemen as representatives of authority, it doesn’t show a very high political consciousness.

Sarkozy (the Minister of Interior, in charge of the police) uses this to unfurl all his demagogy, by promising to “clean out” La Courneuve with a water cannon, to “eradicate the gangrene” in Argenteuil and to take on “the scum” in Clichy-sous-Bois. He tries to pose as the defender of workers’ neighborhoods, promising to reestablish law and order there!

But these are only the demagogic words of a man who seeks to please the extreme right wing electorate by outbidding Le Pen (a far right, racist politician). Sarkozy’s policy is to carry on a war against a whole neighborhood, sending in tactical squads against anyone young, against anyone whose appearance displeases them; encouraging these squads to throw tear gas grenades into a prayer hall. The demagogy of Sarkozy doesn’t make the workers’ neighborhoods more secure for the inhabitants, but it encourages the most repressive attitudes of the police and the racism of a number of its elements. Instead of security, it sows hatred.

Today, the Socialist Party protests against Sarkozy and his methods. Even Sarkozy’s competitors inside the right wing majority do the same. The issue isn’t Sarkozy himself, but the policy of the whole government. The harder and harder life in the workers’ neighborhoods is the responsibility of all the governments – those of the left in the past as much that of the right today.

With the general impoverishment of the laboring classes, the workers’ neighborhoods are transformed into ghettoes, undermined by unemployment. There is no infrastructure for the youth, no educators, no neighborhood coordinators – only overcrowded schools, closed post offices, businesses moving out.

The violence of daily life in these neighborhoods may be the work of hoodlums or traffickers. But there have always been hoodlums. Why do they find support today from a good part of the youth? Why do the explosions of violence against the police involve many more youth than simply neighborhood toughs? Because there isn’t a young person in these neighborhoods who doesn’t have a bone to pick with Sarkozy’s police. What he calls the “scum” are the poor, all the poor, and not just some hoodlums or traffickers. The majority of the youth see a future which is blocked and hopeless.

The decaying of the poor neighborhoods is part of the decline in the workers’ condition – besieged by blows delivered by big business and the government, whatever party is in power. What we can wish is that the working class – by again finding its capacity to react against the offensive of business and the government – will find the ear of the youth of the workers’ neighborhoods. These youth, as part of the entire working class, will be able to express all that is legitimate in their revolt, while leaving the hoodlums and the petty traffickers at the side of the road.

Bird flu plans:
FEMA and Katrina

Nov 7, 2005

Even if Bush’s plans for a bird-flu epidemic were completely serious, the best that can be said for them is that the plans will only create another FEMA for another Katrina.

What good does it do to throw billions of dollars to drug-company researchers who compete in secret, instead of coordinating their research? To researchers whose results are measured by profits instead of measured by the production of the most effective medicines?

Moreover, what good are plans on paper without the money, the facilities, the material and the personnel to carry out the plans?

Even an editorial writer for the Washington Post wrote that “at times, the plan seems divorced from reality.” No kidding! First, Bush says the bird flu is an urgent threat. Then, he proposes to take his time and not meet his vaccine goal until the year 2010!

Further, Bush proposes to stick with existing flu treatments and the companies that produce them.

Sanofi-Aventis gets 100 million dollars to provide a vaccine stockpile for a flu outbreak. But not only is the vaccine made by old techniques that only keep about five years; the vaccine is not adapted to handle mutations in the bird-flu virus H5N1.

Chiron Corp. gets 62.5 million dollars for a vaccine similar to Sanofi’s, and Chiron’s track record is terrible. It was responsible for causing a widespread shortage of flu shots in the U.S. last year, because it allowed its production plant to become contaminated. The re-opened plant is behind in its production of regular flu vaccine this year again!

Then there’s Tamiflu, not a vaccine, but a medicine that may be able to lessen the worst effects of some flu attacks in some people. Tamiflu’s patent is held by the Roche (Hoffman-LaRoche) company. Roche’s Tamiflu is in great demand but it limits its production to 10 million doses per year for the entire world – and it refuses to license any other production, in order to keep its price artificially high.

If the government were serious about protecting the population as soon as possible, it would develop a real crash program, pursuing several lines of research at once, coordinating the research and results of many laboratories at one time. Into the war on influenza it would draft the necessary scientists and facilities, wherever they might be found. The government would declare their results to be public property, just like water supplies or roads.

But what’s worst of all – Bush’s proposal orders state and local communities to stockpile vaccines and hospital supplies. The costs to the states are calculated at 510 million dollars. But Bush’s plans provide only 100 million dollars; and then Bush’s budget now in congress cuts 130 million dollars from federal aid to states’ public health programs.

Those cuts come on top of years of other cuts which have fundamentally broken what public health structure used to exist. Urban hospitals closed one by one, then three by three. City and county health institutions starved for funds, and closed. Neighborhood clinics are almost a thing of the past. Hospitals today discuss ways to legally deny emergency services to the poor.

Without such local facilities, there is no way to collect exact information on spreading disease – the most important single step needed to block an epidemic.

In all measures but one, Bush’s plans are indeed divorced from reality. In this one “reality”, only the rich will have access to the most modern, effective countermeasures against any epidemic.

To any bourgeois government, that’s the only thing that really counts.

Saddam Hussein in court:
Trial or masquerade?

Nov 7, 2005

On October 19, Saddam Hussein was put on trial before an Iraqi Special Tribunal in Baghdad. He is accused of massacring 142 Shiites in Dujail in 1982. This is the only crime that he and his seven lieutenants are accused of.

The day the trial began, relatives of those killed demonstrated in Dujail with banners demanding the “execution of the tyrant.” Saddam Hussein, whose regime took power with a military coup d’etat in 1968, was in fact a tyrant. The dictatorship which he imposed was ferocious from day one: torture and the assassination of opponents, public hangings to terrorize the population, emptying the prisons of political detainees and killing 3,000 of them between 1997 and 2001, the massacres of the Shiite and Kurd populations, or the village of Hallabja where 2,000 civilians were killed from a bombing with a chemical weapon. He committed numerous crimes on his own account, in order to hoist himself into power. But once in power, he continued on a much larger scale as a hired hand in the service of imperialism.

This aspect hasn’t been raised at all by the court. It’s easy to forget that for a long time he was quite acceptable to the imperialist leaders. In December 1983, a little more than a year after the Dujail massacre, President Ronald Reagan sent his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with a personal letter for Saddam Hussein. A U.S. representative at the meeting wrote, “Saddam Hussein showed obvious pleasure with the President’s letter and Rumsfeld’s visits in his remarks.”

When Saddam Hussein’s government attacked Iran in 1980, it was done with the support of the U.S. and European imperialisms, which wished to weaken the Khomeini regime. That war was a true butchery, while U.S., German, French and Italian companies reaped billions of dollars in profits from the eight years of armed clashes which killed a million men.

Once that terrible war was over, the imperialists weren’t in the mood to forgive the huge debts contracted by the Iraqi state during the conflict and demanded payment. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait in order to get back some of what the imperialists owed him for his good and loyal service, the imperialists let out a hue and cry, which they hadn’t done when he invaded Iran ten years before. There was no question of letting a state like Iraq poach on the private preserve of the big oil companies.

But after the evacuation of Kuwait by the Iraqi army in the spring of 1991, when the Shiite population in the south of Iraq and the Kurds in the north began to rise up, the imperialist armies looked on calmly while the Iraqi army crushed the revolt. The imperialist leaders preferred to reinforce the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, rather than let instability threaten their domination in this part of the world.

For the moment, the court trying Saddam Hussein has taken up only a tiny number of all the crimes he committed, and it definitely hasn’t called any of his imperialist sponsors to appear before the bar. If Saddam Hussein were promptly found guilty of the murders of Dujail and condemned to death, that would avoid further trials for all his other crimes, and prevent him from speaking of the alliances and support which he benefitted from during thirty years.

This trial of imperialism’s hired hand, organized by those who sponsored him, who now no longer have any use for him, is a criminal masquerade.

Bird flu:
Terrorism, Act III

Nov 7, 2005

Bird flu might as well have fallen from the heavens as far as George Bush is concerned.

It comes just when he is facing the most serious problems of his presidency. His approval rating has dropped to an all-time low. A CBS poll showed only 35% of those polled approve of the job he is doing. People are disgusted with his administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, upset by the war in Iraq, and outraged by his attempt to dismantle Social Security.

He’s running into problems with the people who really run the State Department, the leaders of the military, the CIA, FEMA, and the two political parties. Two of his closest advisors have been implicated in the leak of a CIA operative’s identity, with one of them already indicted. The leader of the Republican Party in the House, Tom DeLay, has already been indicted, and the party’s leader in the Senate, Bill Frist, could be indicted.

Bush is even in trouble with his own political base, because he can’t get an evangelical anti-abortion nominee for the Supreme Court approved.

Under the circumstances, Bush reached into his same old grab bag of tricks: terrorize the population, this time with the threat of a deadly bird flu pandemic. Such scare tactics worked twice before, with the threat of terrorism after 9/11 and then Saddam Hussein’s supposed “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

Bush pretends he is the great defender against another threat, while telling us we can’t be fully prepared until 2010 – when he’ll be gone.

Could it be sheer coincidence that Disney’s latest movie is “Chicken Little?”

Pages 4-5

Bankruptcy bonanza:
Delphi and GM Demand enormous concessions

Nov 7, 2005

On October 10, Steve Miller, chief executive of Delphi, explained why he was putting the automotive parts supplier into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “We are broke,” he said, holding his hands in the air. “I am sorry to be the one delivering that message.”

Broke? Does Delphi have such a crushing debt, it can no longer pay its bills? No! Are the assets – all of its business, factories, offices, cash and other resources – about to be sold off in order to pay off the people who it owes money to?

No, Delphi is far from broke. It may have lost 600 million dollars in the first half of the year, but it has plenty of cash to tide it over. As Miller observed, Delphi's bankruptcy is “well-financed, well-organized and well-planned.” And the big companies that it owes money to aren’t worried they won’t be paid back. In fact, JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup agreed to give Delphi 2 billion dollars in new loans at better rates than the company got when it refinanced in June. And GM, which would stand to lose the most if Delphi were to really collapse, did not bat an eye when the Delphi board of directors granted Miller and the 600 senior Delphi executives 87 million dollars in bonuses and 10% of whatever new company emerges.

The reason for this is obvious. GM, the banks, and all the rest are on the same side as Delphi. For them, bankruptcy is nothing but an excuse to hammer the 34,000 Delphi workers with unprecedented concessions, concessions that GM can use to strong arm its own much bigger workforce, concessions that would spread to workers throughout the economy, like a capitalist plague.

This confrontation with the workers is what the creation of Delphi in 1999 was really all about. It was a scheme hatched by GM officers and directors. The express purpose of this new company was to divide and conquer the auto workers, to put much greater pressure for big cuts in wages and benefits. Delphi even made this clear in its 1998 prospectus, the official SEC filing describing for investors what the new company will be: “The Company believes that its complete separation from General Motors will enable it, over time, to increase competitiveness by establishing local work rules and practices more consistent with those generally prevailing in the automotive parts industry.”

The first contract that Delphi negotiated with the UAW wheedled much lower wages and benefits for new hires. But Delphi profited little from this, since it hired few new workers in that time period.

So now Delphi is going after the active workforce and retirees. It is threatening to default on its pensions unless the active workers agree to a 66% wage cut, taking wages all the way down from $27 per hour to $10 per hour. Delphi wants to pay wages below the federal poverty line for a family of 4. Since most Delphi workers have very high seniority, it means threatening to pull the retirement rug out from under them, right before they retire.

Days after Delphi declared bankruptcy, the other shoe dropped. General Motors and the UAW announced that they had reopened the GM contract two years before it was set to expire. Among other things, they agreed to let GM take back $2080 from a scheduled 2006 wage increase. They also agreed that retirees would pay – for the first time ever – part of their health care premium, along with bigger co-payments for prescription drugs and a bigger deductible. Worst of all, perhaps, they agreed to change how the company would finance retiree health benefits, taking it from a defined benefit plan, which is not supposed to run out, to a VEBA plan or a defined contribution plan, which could certainly run out in the future – as it already has at other UAW-represented companies like Caterpillar and Detroit Diesel.

The concessions are supposed to be necessary to help rescue GM practically from death’s door. GM already lost 5 billion dollars so far in 2005. Of course, no one should fall for these numbers, since GM and its bankers control GM’s books and pay their accountants to produce the profit and loss figures that they want. But even if we took this at face value, the 5 billion dollar loss is still small compared to the 50 billion dollar cash hoard that GM has built up. On top of that, they paid out over 13 billion dollars in dividends and paid 19 billion dollars to buy up other companies in the last 10 years.

The reality is that GM is incredibly rich. This is confirmed by the fact that the financier, speculator, multi-billionaire, vulture capitalist, Kirk Kerkorian, who specializes in making tons of money, has bought up 10% of all the shares of GM stock over the last few months. Kerkorian knows that GM’s claims of being on the verge of bankruptcy are a complete sham.

GM “Can’t Compete” – False!

GM dares to say that it is losing money because its labor costs keep it from being able to beat its global competition. In one interview, Delphi Chairman Steve Miller put it this way: “The Big Three have a serious competitive disadvantage. When you buy a Hyundai you get a satellite radio as your option, but if you buy a Chevrolet you get social welfare as an option. Long term, the customer is going to desert you if you try to price for your social-welfare costs.”

Of course, this is one big lie. First of all, auto workers in this country do not have more social welfare benefits than workers in other countries, especially not the big industrial countries. The opposite is true. The workers in those other countries have better social welfare benefits: better medical and pension benefits, more holidays and sick days and longer vacations. Their bosses pay bigger taxes for government programs, while in this country the bosses pay premiums to private insurance companies. That’s all.

Second, this corporate snow job buries the fact that workers in this country are much more productive than workers anywhere else in the world, both in the industrialized and less developed economies. Not only that, but the productivity of labor in this country is growing much faster than it did in the past, and faster than anywhere else.

This increase is truly astounding. By 2002 and 2003, U.S. industrial workers’ output per hour was increasing at a rate of over 10%, according to the U.S. Labor Department. This means in less than nine years time, workers will be producing twice as much every hour. And auto workers can feel the increase in the greater intensity of work.

On top of that, what corporations pay industrial workers in this country has steadily dropped, compared to industrial workers in 12 other countries, according to an annual U.S. Labor Department study.

It’s total bunk that these corporations can’t compete. Their level of profit is higher than anywhere else.

“Losing Market Share”

The auto executives try to bury these facts under talk about the Big Three losing market share.

If the traditional Big Three have lost market share, it happened because they concentrate on producing and selling for the most profitable sectors of the market. In the past it was luxury cars. Now it is SUV’s and luxury trucks, on which they make over $15,000 profit per vehicle. As for the less profitable sectors, such as economy cars, they leave it to foreign competitors to fight it out. So U.S. automakers have not lost market share. They have given it away!

But smaller market share doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no profit. In fact, they increased their profits by giving away market share.

Nonetheless, the auto companies howl not only about a pension crisis, which they themselves created by not funding pensions, they also moan about a health care crisis. Their usual refrain is that they pay more for health care per vehicle than they do for steel, that providing health care for workers and retirees and their dependents is driving up the cost of the car, making their products less competitive. We have heard this a thousand times.

It is true that the health care industry makes incredible profits. And those profits weigh on the whole economy. So why don’t the auto companies do something about it? Because the people who own and profit from the car companies, those with the big holdings of auto stocks and bonds, also own and profit from the health care companies, the big insurance companies, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment companies. The richest 10% of the population in this country own 85% of all the stock, and they own stock in both auto and pharmaceuticals.

Instead of taking these problems head on, UAW leaders agree that health care costs have gone out of bounds. And they make it sound like auto workers’ health benefits are practically free, no premium share, tiny co-pays, a gold-plated medical plan that is practically the envy of the entire civilized world. What lies!

Even before these latest concessions at GM, auto workers were already facing bigger and bigger restrictions on what doctors they could see, what procedures insurance pays for, what medicines are covered. At the same time, auto workers were already paying higher out of pocket costs for health care, in the form of higher co-payments. Those auto workers, active and retired, in most need of medical care were already being penalized.

But the biggest concession of all is the premium auto workers pay. It has been carefully hidden from sight, buried in the way the contract is written. The company and the top UAW leaders don’t call it a premium. They call it COLA diversion. Instead of getting full cost-of-living wage increases, workers have lost parts of those wage increases, which were “diverted” to pay for medical coverage. This started way back in 1964. Currently, auto workers pay about $2000 per year out of COLA for medical coverage. That is money going from the auto workers’ pocket to the bosses. That’s a premium no matter what they call it. And now with the reopening of the GM contract, these costs are about to skyrocket to $4000 per year. In other words, auto workers will pay at least $325 a month for medical coverage – and more with overtime, stolen from their cost-of-living adjustments. So don’t tell us this is the gold standard of medical coverage.

A raging war and Miller is the bosses’ general

The corporations use any pretext – the supposed high cost of pensions, health care, a general lack of competitiveness – in order to impose ever greater concessions and sacrifices on the working class. It makes no difference how big and rich these companies are. They always strive to gain more at the expense of their own workforce.

This is class war – a one-sided class war, since with only a few, isolated exceptions, the working class has not fought back for a long time. This has encouraged the bosses to carry out ever more bold offensives against the entire working class. Like in every war, there are key battles. And guess who seems to pop up at several of these battles: none other than Steve Miller, the same Steve Miller, who as Delphi chairman is now leading the assault.

So lets see who this guy is.

Miller is an old hand at attacking workers. He was Lee Iacocca’s head of finance at Chrysler in 1979-80, when Chrysler used the threat of bankruptcy to extort several big rounds of concessions from auto workers that then spread throughout the auto industry and then very quickly throughout the economy. Miller then made his way to United Airlines in the 1990s before it declared bankruptcy, and helped to impose several big concessions on airline workers, while it threatened bankruptcy all the time.

In September 2001, Miller moved on to become the head of Bethlehem Steel, where his actions provide many parallels to what he is doing today. Upon assuming his post, Miller assured the steel workers: “I came here to find a way not to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.” Within six weeks, Bethlehem had filed for bankruptcy. Like other big integrated steel makers in the United States, Bethlehem claimed to be fighting a losing 20-year battle with foreign competition. It claimed that it was being killed by legacy costs – the accumulated promises to retirees it had been making for decades. But the dirty little secret was that at Bethlehem, productivity increases had grown by leaps and bounds. Where it used to take 9 man hours to produce a ton of steel 20 years ago, it now took only 2 hours. Bethlehem had used these productivity increases to slash its workforce – under the guise that it had to cut costs to stay competitive with foreign steelmakers and mini-mills.

In the 1990's, as the stock market ballooned, Bethlehem Steel stopped putting money into its pension fund. When the stock market crashed, the pension fund shriveled like a popped balloon. Bethlehem never had any intention of making up the difference. And they used the debt owed to their retirees to declare bankruptcy.

This is Miller’s legacy, the real legacy.

Months later, Miller sold Bethlehem to Wilbur L. Ross, a vulture capitalist, who combined it with four other steel makers he bought at about the same time. This year, Ross sold the resulting company for 4.5 billion dollars – a return of more than 1,000% in just three years on the 400 million dollars he paid for all five companies. And the company that paid the 4.5 billion dollars for those steel companies, Mittal Steel, is now making such big profits, it recently followed up by buying two more steel companies, for 4.7 billion, a record price.

For the 95,000 retired workers at Bethlehem Steel, it is a very different story. Their pensions were unloaded onto the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), a government agency that insures private pension plans. But the PBGC does not cover health benefits. So all those pensioners lost their health care benefits. Also, because the PBGC does not cover the full pensions of people who retired before age 65, many of the pensioners also lost a big chunk of their pension check, especially those who had taken early retirement. In steel, just like in auto, most workers retire before age 65. So, for every year before 65 they lose a substantial amount of their pension. And many have been forced to go back to work. As for those who continue to work in the mills, their pension benefits have been frozen at the level it was when the company went bankrupt. So if they put in 10 years before the bankruptcy, that will be their level of benefits, even if they retire after 30 years.

Other companies – like Polaroid and US Airways, textile companies like Cone Mills and WestPoint Stevens, and a host of smaller companies – also declared bankruptcy at about the same time in order to unload their pensions. But it was Bethlehem Steel, which was the second largest steel company in the country, that changed the ball game. As the New York Times recently pointed out, Miller showed how to “unlock hidden value in floundering Rust Belt companies by jettisoning their pension plans.” Bethlehem Steel really opened the door especially for the airlines to really grind down their workforces and dump their pension plans.

Taken together, steel and the airlines then served as the prelude for the present offensive of the bosses against the workforce of the much bigger auto industry. Right now, the fight is in the heart of the auto industry, but it is aimed at the whole working class. The capitalists’ intention is to take back a century of gains that the working class painfully built up.

Pages 6-7

Few big supermarkets in poor worker neighborhoods

Nov 7, 2005

People living in wealthier neighborhoods of Chicago have many more major stores, like Jewel and Dominicks supermarkets, than do those living in poorer neighborhoods. This is the conclusion of a study just published by the Metro Chicago Information Center. And while the study concluded that the key to whether stores are in an area is people’s incomes, not their race, the fact is the areas with the fewest stores are in the South and West Side black communities and the Hispanic Pilsen-Little Village area, which are also among the poorest areas in the city.

People in such areas have to drive to other areas to buy things, using up their precious free time and gas just to go shopping. But over a quarter of the people in Chicago have no car. So people turn to small neighborhood stores, which have higher prices and poor quality goods. Often they pick things up at gas stations or liquor stores, where the prices are still higher.

Of course, the big supermarket chains give explanations – but they never open their financial records so we can check them out.

In any case, a rational society that worked to meet the needs of people would organize distribution of food near where everyone lived. The perishable products would be fresh, the entire store would be clean, with excellent service. And this is all the more important since it’s food we’re talking about – something we all need every day to stay alive. The measure of this society, of how ill adapted it is to people’s needs, is that it doesn’t do that.

True, Wal-Mart is an enemy
– and so are all the rest!

Nov 7, 2005

A New York Times reporter unearthed a memo showing one part of corporate America’s war on the working class. A Wal-Mart vice-president sent the memo recommending ways to hold down health care costs:

<ul><li>Recruit younger (healthier) workers;</li><li>Discourage older workers from applying, by cutting 401(k) contributions;</li></ul>

The memo caused a hue and cry among union leaders and liberal groups that frequently characterize Wal-Mart as Public Enemy No. 1.

In fact, Wal-Mart – with its poverty wages, cheating workers on overtime, locking fire doors, keeping workers on part-time status (and their children on food stamps) – is assuredly an enemy of workers. But the next question is: which company is NOT? Which company in this day and age doesn’t practice the same things that Wal-Mart preaches?

Even in the part-privatized U.S. Postal Service, temporary workers are kept on “part-time” status for years even while working more than forty hours a week. The same is true from the biggest auto plant to the smallest pizza joint. And where is the worker whose pay has not been deliberately shorted, and shorted again?

In all but the most exceptional businesses, workers may be injured on the job, but when it comes time for workers’ comp claims, suddenly the injury was a “pre-existing condition” or some other such excuse. Legions of company lawyers make their livings by defeating workers’ illness and injury claims in courts. Insurance companies exist less to pay workers’ claims than to use any preposterous excuse to deny claims.

None of this is exclusive to Wal-Mart. It was all going on long before Wal-Mart got here.

It’s impossible to condemn Wal-Mart alone – unless one hasn’t thought very far. Or unless one has an interest in using Wal-Mart as a sort of decoy – pointing fingers away from difficult problems that are right there in one’s own back yard.

Tax cuts for the greedy, program cuts for the needy

Nov 7, 2005

Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm managed to find 1.1 billion dollars to give as a gift to Michigan corporations.

The state took concessions from state workers and cut social programs over the last two years, claiming the state had a budget deficit. Actually, the state wound up with budget surpluses in both years.

But rather than putting money back into social programs or repaying workers for those concessions, Granholm reached an agreement with state legislators to reduce corporate taxes. They cut property taxes on all businesses by 15%. They also reduced the Single Business Tax and created a 1.3 billion-dollar fund for “economic development.”

Granholm says of the plan, “Michigan’s economy will feel its impact for generations and generations to come”

The people of Michigan certainly are about to start feeling another big impact. As these business tax cuts take hold, they provide another excuse to demand concessions from state workers and reductions in social programs and public services. And some of these reductions in social services are included in this new budget deal.

Movie Review:
North Country

Nov 7, 2005

North Country is based on a 1984 case in which Lois Jenson sued her employer, a Minnesota iron mining company, Eveleth, for sexual harassment. The movie tells the story of Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a young woman who flees her abusive husband with two children in tow. She arrives at her parents’ doorstep in Minnesota’s bleak Iron Range. At the encouragement of an old friend, Josey gets a job in the mines.

The federal government had forced the mines to hire women and racial minorities in a 1974 settlement. This set the stage for a handful of women, desperate for a decent wage, to walk into a hostile situation. Many of the men felt that the women were taking their jobs. Women don’t need good paying jobs; they need husbands to take care of them and in Josey’s case to beat them – or so the twisted logic goes. To add to the pressure of this situation, there had been layoffs and more layoffs were threatened. So the men felt squeezed.

The women miners are routinely groped, verbally abused, and physically threatened, culminating in Josey’s case, in a near-rape on a pile of taconite. The work environment was so hostile, most of the women were too afraid to do anything.

Furthermore, they feared losing their job if they spoke up. It paid three times better than most jobs they could get. Women, if they had jobs outside the home, worked mostly as store clerks, beauticians, bank tellers, secretaries or waitresses. And these jobs often did not offer health or retirement benefits. No way could single women with children pay the rent with those low-paying jobs let alone buy food, clothing or medicine for their children.

When Josey Aimes takes a stand against the mining company, she isn’t looking to become a leader or make a statement. She just wants what every parent wants, to make a decent life for herself and her family.

The hardest thing that happens to Josey is not the treatment she receives from a few men, but the moment she turns to her fellow female co-workers for help and they turn away. Josey knows she needs the backing of the other women, otherwise she is easy prey. With one lone plaintiff the defense can claim she is either crazy or a slut. In her case they try to prove the latter.

This is not a story where all the men lined up on one side, against all the women on the other. There are instances where both men and women behave appallingly and others where they show great compassion. The movie also shows some of the gray areas in sexual harassment.

The movie has a happy Hollywood-style ending. In real-life it took Lois Jenson 14 long years, three trials, one appeal and a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to get a settlement of 3.5 million dollars for herself and 14 other women from this company which not only tolerated sexual harassment but also benefitted from it. Despite this shortcoming, the movie is worth seeing because of the glimpse into the lives of some workers we rarely get in a Hollywood movie.

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Rosa Parks:
Activist, organizer, militant of the NAACP

Nov 7, 2005

Rosa Parks died October 24 at the age of 92. She is being memorialized as a courageous, exceptional hero, who with one dramatic act, sparked off the civil rights movement. Speaker after speaker, politicians and celebrities, say everyone owes her a huge debt.

Indeed she was courageous. But this description denigrates the real role and contributions of Rosa Parks. Her refusal to go to the back of the bus in Montgomery Alabama was only a small part of the courage that she – and many thousands of other activists – showed for many years.

Parks is the first to acknowledge this. In her autobiography Rosa Parks: My Story, written at age 79, she speaks with a sense of irony, “As time has gone by, people have made my place in the history of the civil-rights movement bigger and bigger. They call me the Mother and Patron Saint of the Civil Rights Movement.” Parks challenges this approach.

Her resolve to confront the brutal racism in Montgomery Alabama began years before the bus action. As far back as 1943, she made the courageous decision to join the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, where she quickly became secretary. Being active in the NAACP meant taking serious risks. Rosa’s husband, Raymond Parks, was also active in the NAACP. For years he participated in secret meetings, sometimes at their house, around the Scottsboro Case. Members brought their guns to these meetings to protect themselves from the violence of the Klan.

In the 1940s and early 50's, the NAACP recorded numerous local incidents of racist killings, especially of World War II veterans who were demanding their rights. The NAACP tried to provide legal help to young black men falsely accused of raping white women and given a death penalty sentence. Rarely did they win in the courts. And it was extremely hard to get people to overcome their fear and get involved. At times it seemed their efforts were getting nowhere. Parks says, “I remember 1949 as a very bad year. Things happened that people never heard about because they never were reported in the newspapers. At times I felt overwhelmed by the violence and hatred, but there was nothing to do but keep going.”

To “keep going” in the face such an unyielding situation – this took another kind of courage. It was a courage she shared with other people throughout the South who refused in the worst years to accept the dictates of Jim Crow. Because all those unnamed hundreds “kept going,” they paved the way for the movement that erupted in the 1950's.

The Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 was not the first boycott; nor was Parks the first to challenge segregated buses in Montgomery. A bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana won limited gains two years earlier. Parks describes two young protesters in the months leading up to her action. An 18-year-old young woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person, was arrested. In the spring of 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin said to the driver in a sassy way that “she had already paid her dime and had no reason to move.” When the police came, they dragged her from the bus, handcuffed and arrested her.

By the time Parks refused to follow the bus driver’s orders on December 1, the NAACP had decided to organize a protest. When she too was arrested, they raised the idea of a bus boycott. Long-time supporters sprang into action. Black college teacher Jo-Ann Robinson got her Womens Political Council to print and distribute leaflets all over Montgomery, announcing the boycott. A black newspaper printed it on the front page. On Sunday, black churches encouraged their congregations not to ride the bus on Monday. The Montgomery Improvement Association was set up and the bus boycott was begun.

The first day it was successful. Hundreds of people attended the Monday night meeting to decide whether to continue the boycott. E. D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP, spoke first, saying “You who are afraid, you better get your hat and coat and go home. This is going to be a long drawn out affair.”

That boycott lasted an entire year. The vast majority of the black population of Montgomery was involved in finding alternative ways of getting to and from work. It was a tribute to the organizational work that had been carried out for so many years before. The level of creative organization amounted to a second government in Montgomery. Black cab drivers who owned their own cabs were the first to put themselves forward, agreeing to pick people up at bus stops and charge them only 10 cents – the same as bus fare. Rosa Parks describes, “A sophisticated system was developed with cabs, 20 private cars, and 14 station wagons bought by churches, with pick-up stations and scheduled service from 5:30 a.m. to midnight.”

Parks helped organize the collection and distribution of clothing and shoes donated by people from all over the country. She says, “Many people needed those things because they were out of work. Those who had jobs wore out many pairs of shoes walking to and from work.”

This activity on the part of thousands of un-named black people made it possible to sustain the boycott and finally win results. But it was only one of many actions spreading throughout the South, with various organizations taking the lead, that encompassed a mass movement engaged in struggles for over a decade to wipe Jim Crow laws off the books. Without courageous activists like Rosa Parks, who had toiled for years when nothing seemed possible, that vast movement never could have come into being.

And without the spread of rebellions through the cities of the North, the legal remnants of Jim Crow, North and South, could not have been brought down.

A Shared Courage

Nov 7, 2005

Rosa Parks speaks in her book of her childhood years, when her mother moved with Rosa and her younger brother to live with her grandparents in rural Pine Level, Alabama. Her grandparents had very different views.

At age 10, when a white boy threatened to punch her as they met along the road, she picked up a brick and dared him to hit her. He backed off and left her alone. Her grandmother scolded her for this, warning her “not to talk to white folks or act that way.” And “not to retaliate if they did something to you.”

But her grandfather, by his actions, strengthened her resolve. As the KKK was “riding through the black community, burning churches and beating up and killing people,” her grandfather kept his double-barreled shotgun close by at all times. He had the children “go to bed with their clothes on to be ready to run if the Klan broke into their house.” She remembers her grandfather saying, “I don’t know how long I would last if they came breaking in here, but I’m getting the first one who comes through the door.”

There were many others like her grandfather throughout the South who would not bow down in fear.

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