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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

GM Workers Get an Unwelcome Holiday Bonus

General Motors assembly line workers are scheduled to receive a dubious “gift” in the coming year. Thanks to GM management, the Obama administration’s automobile task force and the collaboration of the United Auto Worker’s union leadership, General Motors will run auto plants on three shifts, twenty-four hours a day in 2010. Beginning on January 4, the Kansas City (Fairfax) plant will inaugurate the three-shift scheme.

According to The Wall Street Journal (In Risky Move, GM to Run Plants Around Clock, Kevin Helliker, 12-22-09), long standing industry standards engage the assembly line for two shifts with sufficient time for cleaning, maintenance, and restocking before the start of a new daily production cycle. Among industry experts, the two-shift regimen is believed to be the most efficient production technique; two shifts, operating 250 days a year, is considered 100% of capacity according to these experts. But the Administration’s auto czars, while negotiating the $50 billion investment infusion of public funds, pressed GM to operate at 120% of capacity.

“Do these guys understand the business?” asked an industry analyst quoted in the WSJ.

Functions formerly done while the line was down will now be performed while the production line runs, albeit at a slower speed. GM managers and union officials have reportedly agreed to make up for these slowdowns with “overspeeding” at other times, an odd euphemism for old-fashioned industrial speed-up.

In essence, the GM/auto czar scheme eliminates the industry accepted maintenance shift, replacing it with a production shift and conducting the maintenance work while production continues.

GM is increasing the workforce by a third by drawing workers from closed plants, but expects to increase weekly car production by forty per cent.

Fully a third of the new employees will come from the closed Janesville, Wisconsin plant. The Wisconsin State Journal (12-28-09) reports the toll this displacement takes on workers:

In some cases, the distance has torn families apart. Bill Hollingsworth, a clinical psychotherapist at the Janesville Psychiatric Clinic, is working with seven families strained by out-of-state job transfers. He said marriages separated by hundreds of miles have brought loneliness and fears that spouses are being unfaithful. In some cases, the distance has triggered depression, alcoholism and drug abuse.

"There's a lot of insecurity," Hollingsworth said. "A lot of mistrust."
Many people interviewed for this story spoke of long-distance marriages splitting up… "GM doesn't realize what it's done to the actual families," Carol Muchow said. "I know it's triggered divorces. I know there's going to be more."

The WSJ – not from compassion, but from “efficiency” - notes that “[in] all industries… midnight-shift workers are prone to above-average rates of on-the-job errors, absenteeism, and illness”. Unspoken here is that with “on-the-job errors” and “illness” come injuries, deaths, broken families and marriages, and social and cultural deprivation.

Looming over these changes is the threat – always present – of plant closings or shifts of production. In 2006, Kansas City offered a $146 million bond issuance to GM if they would bring production of a mid-sized vehicle to Fairfax. Where free trade agreements gave corporations an opportunity to stage global labor races to the bottom, these same corporations employ this competition to extort deals and concessions domestically. Ironically, GM extorted deals from the public coffers in 2006 and begged for public funds in 2009. Could there be any more dramatic proof of the fusion of the state and monopoly capital? Could there be a more clear demonstration of the utter bankruptcy of class collaboration on the part of union leaders?

It could not be clearer that the GM/auto czar scheme is not about workers, their families, their fair share, their health, their security, or their futures, but about profits. Increased exploitation, speedup, harmful working conditions, and job insecurity are the consequences of this new scheme. In contrast to other auto producing countries that linked public bailouts to sustaining employment, the current Administration insisted that auto companies close plants, cast aside workers and, in this case, subject workers to draconian conditions and increased exploitation. In contrast to other worker organizations in other countries facing the economic crisis, the UAW leadership eschewed militancy and opted for improving the profitability of capital. The WSJ cites the Fairfax union chairman as giving “his card to anyone driving the new Buick Lacrosse, one of the plants products. ‘I tell them to call me if they have any troubles or questions,’ he said.” Does he report problems to GM management? Does he scold workers over any reported problems? Does he represent GM or the workers?

It is understandable if GM workers feel that they are the “collateral damage” in the economic wars to restore capitalist profitability. On one hand, they must assume the cost of the massive bailout shoveled to GM by an Administration that they did much to elect. On the other hand, they are forced by that same Administration to accept unemployment, increased exploitation and severe working conditions. The only answer is a militant fight back. Unfortunately the current UAW leadership has neither the spine nor vision to organize that struggle.

Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Holiday Story

A fantasy in the spirit of Charles Dickens:

In February of 2009, with his poll numbers and public expectations exceptionally high, President Obama announces that he supports the House health care reform bill with the most co-sponsors: HR 676, the universal, single payer plan. He notes that this has always been his answer to fixing the broken, for-profit system that now fails patient needs and burdens our economy. Immediately, the health care industry and big Pharma go into full attack mode, condemning the bill as "socialism". Obama meets with Democratic House leadership and emphasizes that “the American people need this bill and we will give it to them. This victory will pave the way for an overwhelming victory in the 2010 elections!”

House conservative Democrats join Republicans in attacking the House bill, citing industry generated polls and conservative pundits in arguing that the “American people do not want a government plan, but one that leaves health care in the hands of the private market.” The health care industry and its friends rush multi-million dollar attack ads into play, much as they did during the Clinton administration.

In the early spring, Obama holds a town hall meeting, nationally televised, in which he brings together, from around the country, hundreds of people who have been victimized by lack of insurance, poor insurance, coverage denials, and obscene health care costs. In a major address, Obama cites the tens of thousands who die every year from a lack of insurance coverage. He declares this as criminally tragic as the September 11 attacks. Also, he emphatically states that placing petty concerns above delivering adequate health care to all is unpatriotic.

That same week, House leader Nancy Pelosi publicly announces that HR 676 must be passed and she will hold Democrats feet to the fire with all the resources available to the Democratic Party, including election funding, committee seats, and primary challenges. CNN reports live on a conference of pollsters, health care providers, doctors, nurses, and economists who discuss the bill thoroughly, followed by a full endorsement. National media coverage is extensive. The Sunday morning gasbags devote their shows to the bill, grilling opponents in light of the Administration offensive.

As the Senate takes up a health care bill, progressive Democrats call for a rally in support of the bill to take place in DC in the summer. They pressure the House leadership to endorse the rally. The AFL-CIO, NOW, MoveOn, and all other liberal groups endorse the rally.

While seemingly endless debate goes on in the Senate, hundreds of thousands pour into DC to hear a wide range of speakers, musicians, and Congressional leaders in support of the Senate counterpart bill introduced by Senator Sanders. The crowd stirs with the spreading rumor that the President may well appear. Near the end, the crowd roars as President Obama briefly appears, thanking the demonstrators.

The Democratic Senate leadership, stiffened by the unprecedented rally, announces that they will bring the bill quickly to the floor. Senator Reid – the Senate Democratic leader announces that this bill is as significant as any legislation since the Voting Rights Act. He wants his place in history to be identified with this vote. Administration staffer, Rahm Emanuel, reportedly caucused with Senate Democrats and says: “I don’t give a s*** about Lieberman. And Ben, you better get your ass on board or there will be hell to pay. You can’t even imagine the hell we’ll bring down on you. I want this f***in’ bill passed with ALL the D’s supporting it”. Emanuel denies this report.

The Republicans and a few Democrats howl in indignation. Fox news vilifies the House and Senate Democrats with wild charges of socialism and fascism. Harry Reid speaks in the Senate, holding a copy of the Constitution: “Maybe you folks in the Republican Party should read this. Americanism has never been to side with the bullies, and the insurance industry, their rich executives, big Pharma, and their consultants and lobbyists are bullies, forcing their profits ahead of the needs of the American people.” The media is shocked by his bold leadership.

Desperate Republican leaders announce a filibuster with the intent of forestalling a majority vote. The President goes on television with a sober, reasoned plea to have the bill passed. When asked by the press about the threatened filibuster, Obama replies with a wry smile: “Bring it on!”

As the Republican filibuster continues into the fall with Republican Senators droning on and on to an empty Senate chamber, public anger grows and grows. Late night comedians devote most of their shows to parodies of Senators quoting Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Constant picket lines of doctors, nurses, and victims of the broken US health care system surround Senate office buildings. Media commentators question this tactic, blaming the Republicans for bringing legislation to a halt. Polls show Republican favorable ratings at an all time low.

Senator Reid is quoted as chiding a Republican colleague: “Don’t stop now. Keep it up until the interim elections!” Senator Reid denies saying this.

Late in November, Republican leaders huddle, recognizing that continuing to filibuster will destroy any chances of survival after the November 2010 elections. They quickly agree to call it off.

In early December, the Senate passes its version of Medicare for all by a vote of 51 to 25, with many Republicans nervously abstaining.

President Obama goes on national television, thanking all of those who worked so tirelessly and intensely to achieve an efficient, universal, and comprehensive health care plan that will rival any system in the world. He assures the American people that all the failings of the current system, referring to World Health Organization’s parameters, will be reversed and the US will become a widely admired leader in delivering the best health care to its people. He promises to sign a final bill before Christmas, stating that he hopes that the new legislative act will serve as a long overdue, but welcome gift to us all. “Happy holidays!”, he concludes.

Of course this is a fantasy. We do not have the health care bill that we could have had. In fact, almost nothing in this fantasy is true. The President didn’t get behind the House bill with the most co-sponsors, the Democratic leadership didn’t fight hard for real change, there were no tough back room threats, the media didn’t give serious advocates a megaphone, there was no attempt by political leaders to engage and rally the base, political leaders did not show courage, and Democrats did not call the Republican bluff.

While I wish my liberal friends and soft-left comrades a safe and warm holiday season, I ask that they try, in the New Year, to understand why things went so awry. I ask that they turn away from the comforting notion that we live with an economic and political system that can deliver democracy, justice, and equality by our simple participation in the permitted rituals. I ask that, in the New Year, they desist from finding scapegoats for this disaster that should shame us all: whether it be Obama’s betrayal, Blue Dog treachery, or that rotten renegade, Lieberman. It’s the system. Seriously, it’s the system…

Happy Holidays!

Zoltan Zigedy

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Action against Cuba

Despite the election of a new President, US government hostility towards Cuba continues unabated. The New York Times (“US Contractor Seized”, 12-12-09), in an article written by Marc Lacey and Ginger Thompson, quotes US officials as announcing that “A US government contract worker, who was distributing cell phones, laptops and other communications equipment in Cuba on behalf of the Obama administration, has been detained by authorities here [Havana]…” The contractor “was employed by Development Alternatives, Inc., which had at least $391,000 in government contracts last year. Based in Bethesda, Md., the company is a kind of do-it-all development company that provides services to the US government in countries around the world.” according to the authors.

In fact, this little known company received a three-year $43 million dollar contract for work in Pakistan last year, according to Business Week. With offices in DC, Jordan, Mexico, Palestine, Pakistan and Europe, this quiet, “do-it-all” corporation has had projects in many of the world’s hotspots: Afghanistan, Albania, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe. Its major fund sources are USAID, The Millennium Corporation (a well funded US government international “aid” corporation set up in 2004 and dedicated to promoting “good governance and economic freedom”), the Department of Defense and the Department of Labor.

While The New York Times understates dramatically both the funding and government dependence of DAI, it does reveal an interesting aspect of the story. The detainment occurred on December 5 with no public disclosure by the Cuban government. The fact that US officials felt compelled to announce the detainment, confessing the detainee’s activities and his employment, suggests that there will likely be more exposed in the days to come.

The detainment comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Obama administration. They have made a cause célèbre of a young Cuban blogger, Yoani Sanchez, who has become a darling of the US media with her accounts critical of life in Cuba. Obama has personally submitted answers to her inquiries on her blog, drawing extraordinary attention to her efforts (One would hope that this would give pause to the thousands of liberal US bloggers who cannot get the courtesy of a response from the President for their postings). Given that the detainee was admittedly distributing cell phones, laptops, and “other communications equipment”, this likely signals a calculated US campaign to utilize the internet – tweets, blogs, etc. – to destabilize Cuba, a tactic already exposed in the US intervention in the Iranian post-election demonstrations. Such a campaign would surely cast a shadow on the credibility of the Sanchez blog.

The shift of anti-Cuba covert activity to DAI and the Millennium Corporation is possibly a result of the stunning corruption of past USAID funding to de-stabilize Cuba. The same New York Times article notes that of the $74 million in USAID contracts designated for anti-Cuba activities in the prior decade, the Government Accounting Office reported in 2006 that nearly all went directly into the pockets of Miami-based gusanos. No doubt a good bit of these public funds went to finance anti-Cuba political candidates.

This violation of Cuba’s internal affairs by the US government comes on the heels of a curious public letter signed by 60 African-American notable figures calling ostensibly for the release of an Afro-Cuban prisoner and his case’s elevation to the status of “political prisoner”. No details or documentation of the case, the individual, or the circumstances are offered in the letter, other than a web link to an open letter by a Brazilian professor who repeats the charges, again with little detail. Stranger still, the letter makes the wholesale charge that Afro-Cubans are “the most oppressed citizens” in Cuba. It also speaks of the “brutal harassment” of Afro-Cubans. None of these claims are illustrated or substantiated.

Professor Nascimento – the Brazilian author of the open letter – writes, in a similar vein, of “those most marginalized in Cuba”. Once more, no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, is given for this charge.

Cuba, like any ethnically diverse country, is not immune to racism. The Cubans would be the first to admit that vestiges of the virulent pre-revolutionary racism could not be rooted out in only a few generations. Yet this once popular charge has largely receded since Cuba’s unprecedented sacrifices for the liberation of the former Portuguese colonies, Namibia and South Africa. A figure of the stature of Nelson Mandela, who singled out Cuba’s embracing of tens of thousands of Africans who resided in the country for education and refuge during these struggles, attested to the unique role of Cuba in fighting racism and forging a society antithetical to its ugly manifestations. The Cuban medical missions to Africa, as well as other continents offer a gesture of international solidarity unknown in our time. One certainly does not hear these allegations from African leaders.

There is something oddly skewed about intellectuals of a country that will not allow its citizens to travel to Cuba to explore matters for themselves attacking the internal affairs of Cuba without mentioning that perverse fact in their public statement. While US government contractors are assigned to go to Cuba to meddle in Cuba’s affairs, prominent African-Americans, with- undoubtedly - honest concerns, are forbidden by law to verify those concerns.

These developments mark a continuation, if not escalation, of the provocative, hostile Cold War waged against Cuba since its revolution.

Zoltan Zigedy

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Heads in the Sand

Herbert Aptheker, the pre-eminent Marxist historian of US slavery and long-time leader of the Communist Party USA, fervently argued in a popular lecture that if you wanted to end slavery, you had to end slavery! His point was that before the Civil War many opponents of slavery opted for measures – ending the slave trade, negotiating with the slave-owners, limiting slavery’s expansion, moralizing, etc. – that fell far short of simply insisting upon its immediate and complete termination. For Aptheker, the institution of slavery might have continued for decades, perhaps a century, without the firm determination of the abolitionists – Garrison, Douglass, and most emphatically, John Brown – to destroy this violent and morally corrupt practice.

Today, the occupation and aggressive war in Afghanistan offers a similar challenge: if you want to end this war, as 59% of the US people favor, you must end this war!

For anyone true to the passionate resolve of the abolitionists, the recent announcement by President Obama to send an additional 30,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan is an escalation of this imperial adventure that can only be answered with the demand: Stop the war!

Now is not the time to dissect the delusional journey of much of the left that portrayed President Obama as the Pied Piper of progressivism. Surely the works of Obama’s henchmen – Geithner, Summers, Baucus, and Gates - on the economy, health care and war have aroused the left from this comfortable dream. By any measure, the trajectory of the Administration, admittedly better than that of Bush in some respects, is still fully in step with the interests of Wall Street, corporate board rooms, and imperial designs.

Yet some continue to burrow their heads deeper in the sands. The current issue of The Nation attacks the Senate filibuster as the barrier to progressive change. “A great lie of politics is that all the legislators are ‘bought’ by special interest donors”, the editors proclaim. It is instead this undemocratic tactic that impedes the tide of reform, they say. Perhaps all legislators are not “bought” – I know of no one who could prove that each and every one of them is “bought” – but how else do these august liberals explain how the majority of the legislators continually vote and govern contrary to the wishes of their constituents as expressed in poll after poll? Does the filibuster explain the abominable health care bill now under consideration by the Senate? Is the filibuster the obstacle to ending the aggressions in Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course not. The filibuster issue is merely a lame cover for the corruption and dishonesty of our Democratic legislators. Three years ago our practical and tactically wise liberal friends told us that change would come if we elected a Democratic Administration, a House majority and 60 Democratic Senators. But with no substantial change in sight, it is now the filibuster obstacle. What will be the next lame excuse for disappointment?

Perhaps most appalling in this season of caution and easy self-delusion is the role of the current Communist Party USA leadership. Faced at the mid-November National Committee meeting with a resolution condemning the Afghanistan occupation and aggression and calling for an “immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. forces, including military troops, contractors and mercenaries from Afghanistan”, the body deferred consideration of this resolution to a special “enlarged” meeting held on December 2, the day after President Obama’s escalation announcement. At that meeting, the resolution was soundly rejected with only two votes recorded in support. No amendments, clarifications, or adjustments were made to the resolution. It was simply rejected. This is not the militancy or principle of the twentieth-century CPUSA, a Party that weathered vicious slanders, repression, and physical danger to defend a working class, internationalist perspective. This is not the Party of W.Z Foster, E. Flynn, Ben Davis, Claudia Jones, W.E.B. Du Bois, W. Patterson, H. Winston, or Gus Hall. While Chairperson Sam Webb has moved further and further from the Party’s traditions, jettisoning more and more of the principles of Marxism-Leninism, the Party’s leading bodies have remained eerily silent. Before, one could only wonder if their silence indicated consent or distance. With this shameful vote, they are stripped of their innocence; they must bear the responsibility for staining the Party’s record of unswerving internationalism.

The same could be said for the Party’s economic policy leadership. The on-line People’s World prominently features a December 4, 2009 posting of an article by John Case defending the independence of the Federal Reserve and its leader, Ben Bernanke. According to Case, “The Fed should get the increased resolution authority it needs to take ownership of failed banks, but it should stay focused on monetary policy, not investment policy, as [Senator] Dodd's proposal recommends. And Bernanke should stay chair. He has learned much from his mistakes - as could we all”. This is an absurdly naïve view of the function of the Federal Reserve, its non-existent “independence”, and Bernanke’s sordid role in funneling public funds to saving banks that are now swollen with reserves, reluctant to lend, paying huge salaries and benefits and embarking again on risky ventures. Case’s views have polluted economic discussion in CP organs for a long time, bringing a confused, but decidedly conventional Business Week perspective to economic discussions. One might look at this as an oddity, an eccentric indulgence of pretension and arrogance except for the fact that Case’s ranting enjoys the spotlight of CPUSA economic commentary. Some have said that he speaks only for himself, but the silence of others entrusted with CPUSA economic policy says otherwise. If these views – utterly alien to the working class movement – stand unaddressed and not refuted in the Party’s public forums, then one must assume that they reflect the views of the leadership, the Economics Commission, and even the membership. To sidestep these responsibilities is to reduce the meaning of Party membership to the level of membership in a country club.

At this critical juncture – a unique conjunction of political and economic crisis and ill-fated foreign policy – we desperately need the probing, challenging, and skeptical – albeit liberal – voice that The Nation has offered at times in the past. Nor can we meet these challenges without a bold, battle-hungry Communist Party.

Zoltan Zigedy