Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Long Road Home

Ron Ault
Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO

In August and September of 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita plowed paths of destruction of apocalyptic proportions throughout the entire Gulf Coast region. These storms were an act of God and were unavoidable. Modern weather forecasting and Max Mayfield’s personal calls of dire warnings of the consequences of these storms to the Governors of Louisiana and Mississippi saved millions of lives. We can all say thanks to the National Hurricane Center for doing their job so well. NOAA was one branch of our federal government that performed magnificently during this disaster.

But overall government, at all levels, failed its citizens, both before and after the storms. Today, those governments are still failing. The lead for such disaster recovery is always with the federal government and our national leaders. State leaders define local needs and allocate available resources back to local governments at the community level, but those resources are a combination of federal and state. Partisan politics are also in play. Over two years after the storms subsided some partisan Republicans and Democrats are jockeying for political advantage, finger pointing and playing hard ball party politics.

Louisiana had a Southern Democrat as Governor and was given second fiddle status by the Bush Administration in recovery funds and priority of first responders. The White House went out of their way to make Governor Blanco look bad. She didn’t need any help.

Mississippi had a Republican Governor, the former Republican National Party leader, Haley Barbour. Not surprisingly, he got the lion’s share of early federal money and assistance. But what did Mississippi do with that money and where did the assistance go? Most of it went to rebuild the gambling industry as first priority…then wealthy areas got priority in rebuilding the infrastructure of roads, businesses, electricity, gas, water and sewers.

Today, the vast majority of the working classes, everyday citizens of the Mississippi Gulf Coast are still trying to rebuild their lives. Many still live in FEMA trailers. They have been left out of the billion dollar federal and state grants that were so generously given to business and corporations to rebuild. Those most needy and unable to afford to rebuild are just out of luck in this equation and distribution of public funds. They don’t have a big politically connected lobby knocking on the doors of Congress for them.

What about Louisiana? Their state government focused differently and funded the recovery differently. They allocated more money to the poor and middle class workers to rebuild their lives. The money was very slow coming to Louisiana from FEMA and the federal recovery monies allocated by Congress. But it is finally starting to be allocated down to the local community level and the results are dramatic. Tens of thousands of individual homes are being rebuilt or new replacement homes are under construction. In the past six months I have seen a quantum leap of recovery progress in the communities and suburbs of New Orleans. And all this progress happened before the election of a Republican Governor in Louisiana, so party politics did not come into play. This is just the difference in priorities that Louisiana placed on the recovery that Mississippi did not.

The one story of non governmental organizational assistance and generosity in this tragedy that has not been told by anyone is the story of organized labor’s help and assistance-not by Anderson Cooper; not by CBS, NBC, ABC, Newsweek, USA Todayno one- no newspaper ink; no public exposure. Not one word about labor’s help has appeared in the national press…

Organized labor responded immediately and has sustained that effort for over two years now. Teams of union volunteers from all unions packed their bags and went down to the Gulf Coast to help. Tractor trailer loads of supplies of potable water, food, emergency equipment, medical supplies, and temporary shelters were all supplied by, opened, stocked and run by labor unions.

I was on the ground in Pascagoula, Mississippi, within days of Katrina and before Hurricane Rita struck. I was part of a team of senior level union representatives on a fact finding tour of the area interviewing survivors, assessing, filming and documenting the needs of the Gulf Coast. Upon my return to Washington, D.C., I gave a power point report to a meeting of the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council with hundreds of vivid pictures of the wide spread destruction and the overwhelming scope of this disaster.

Five days after Katrina Hurricane Rita struck much of the same area and made the situation much worse. Organized labor, through all of its International and National Unions, freely gave millions of dollars of aid and invested millions more dollars in manpower and staff to the area’s recovery efforts with no strings attached or any thought of profit. The AFL-CIO directed a massive investment of union funds into the area that totaled a billion dollars. Part of that billion (with a B) dollar investment is a factory (Housing International, Gulf Coast) located in Reserve, Louisiana, to manufacture affordable, storm resistant, steel framed homes for workers and everyday citizens. In addition, organized labor is investing in rebuilding residential tracts of housing in the historic Treme section of New Orleans-a new Convention Center, a new Hotel, a worker training center and labor is helping in rebuilding area hospitals and schools.

We have been working for over a year to get this manufactured housing facility up and running. Our goals are to be able to provide affordable worker housing that can be ready for the family to move in as soon as three days after the site preparation is complete.

We want this strong, fire resistant, “green (65% recycled materials),” hypo-allergenic, energy efficient, termite proof, and low maintenance housing available to workers nationwide, but most especially for storm ravaged workers in the Gulf Coast region. We have been working hard to get the first prototype housing certified as 150 mph storm protection (that includes walls, roof, doors and windows). This 150 wind protection rating will exceed Dade County, Florida hurricane building code requirements, the toughest building code in the nation. Like the proverbial “chicken and the egg” question, we have struggled to get the first commercial orders for this new concept housing out on the market. I am happy to say that that phase is now complete. And an added point is that no one can tell from appearances that these houses are not conventional “stick built” houses.

Labor’s efforts to alleviate the suffering of our fellow citizens in the Gulf Coast emanate from our fundamental commitment to the principle that we are all our brothers keepers. Our frustration with the failure of the media to spotlight this work grows not out of some self-centered need to garner “credit” but from a genuine understanding that the rest of America needs to know what has been done and what more can be done through the generosity, determination and creativity of America’s unions and their members.
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Monday, November 5, 2007

Energy: The Canary in the Coal Mine Has Died; Why Doesn’t Anyone Notice?

While packing my suitcase for a business trip to the Gulf Coast, I was watching the NBC "Today" show with Matt Lauer on a boat in the open waters of the Artic circle, Ann Curry in Antartica, Al Rokker at the equator, all telling us about the increased ice melt on the polar caps and the ten fold increase in temperatures over what scientists predicted ten years ago.
I watched Al Gore tell Meredith Viera about what we could do to turn global warming around and how many good paying jobs could be created by doing so...I then read news account predicting a worldwide 60 percent increase coal use over the next two months, causing a rising knot in my stomach.

No matter what we do in America this problem is global, not just national. China's massive industrial pollution takes five days to reach America. Our pollution takes only hours to reach Canada. Mexico's pollution takes just one day to reach us.

The canary in the mine has died but no one seems to take notice. Global warming is real and its effects are catastrophic in scope.

The law of unintended consequences is now in play with global warming and there is no way to accurately predict all that it may bring.

We already know some of the worst results, and they are chilling:

  • Atlanta's population of five million citizens will run out of fresh, potable drinking water next summer unless the drought breaks.
  • Small towns in Tennessee are now in water crisis situations—with tanker trucks bringing in drinking water.
We must reduce our output of greenhouse gas this decade, but according to the coal use prediction, we will more than double our use of coal for, principally, baseline electrical generation plants.
If this is the case, our research and development initiatives in the area of clean coal technology must redouble as well as increasing the use of nuclear, wind, water and geothermal (green power) power generation to reduce our reliance on greenhouse gas producing internal combustion steam generation.

And, we need political leaders who fully grasp and appreciate that we must have a foreign policy of engagement of not only our close military allies, but also our trade partners to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As labor leaders we must lobby the presidential front-runners into adopting an energy policy that includes a matrix of power generation including green energy sources.

So far, only John Edwards has publicly stated he opposes nuclear power. We need to talk to John and see if we can't change his mind. Being pro nuclear isn't anti-coal. Using the latest technology and continued R&D into improving coal technology, we can have both while meeting our increasing energy needs.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Going to Hell in a Hand Basket

Is it just me or does the beginning of the election season bring out all the terror alerts again? I counted the number of times the news anchor used the words terrorism in the news broadcast on NBC evening news the other night. I quit counting after the total reached fifty…Seems John Edwards is right about our so called “war on terror” being a bumper sticker slogan. It seems to me that the Brits have gotten theirs a lot more right than we have. They don’t panic their general population with politically driven terror scares…they just bust up the cells, arrest those responsible and keep on living their lives as best they can without disrupting their entire economy and dividing their population.

We, on the other hand, are going to Hell in a hand basket…Here the third world cave dwelling followers of Bin Laden are bankrupting our nation, stripping us of our national moral compass . America has stooped to their level by resorting to torture and other unspeakable acts of brutality. We now routinely deny individuals suspected of terrorism basic due process. Our government indiscriminately violates all citizens’ basic rights to privacy without any probable cause. Our military is all used up. Our national defense arsenal is used up to the point that the rolling equipment used in Iraq is not worth the costs of bringing it home for complete overhaul.
Bin Laden can stand on the deck of an aircraft carrier and say “mission accomplished.” Since September 11, 2001, he has fundamentally changed our everyday lives and taken our freedoms away. He won… the U.S. airline and air transportation industry is probably the best example of a sector of our economy ruined by our own “War on Terror.:

For those of us who travel a lot—and I am one of those—our air line system is broken. It is so inconvenient, so unreliable and long lines at security checks are so silly and intrusive, flying isn’t worth it. In fact, our entire air transportation system is on the verge of collapse. Last week, United Airlines cancelled hundreds of flights. And it wasn’t just United Airlines; Northwest did, too. Thousands of stranded passengers were left frustrated to fend for themselves…and I was one of them.

My trip originated out of Baltimore International Airport July 16th flying into Denver then on into the Tri City region of Pasco, Washington (home of the DOE Hanford nuclear facility). I had meetings scheduled for July 17th in the Pasco area with our workers, British Trade Union representatives who represent nuclear workers in the UK, and many of the contractors who have nuclear contracts both here and in the UK. Unfortunately, my United flight from BWI to Denver was delayed out of BWI for almost an hour (according to the pilot for weather issues along our route). When we arrived an hour late in Denver our gate was blocked so we sat on the airplane for an additional half hour. I rushed through the Denver airport to my departure gate to board the flight to Pasco finding that it had closed five minutes earlier. I was told that there were no more flights to Pasco that evening, because my flight had been “affected “ by weather United didn’t have to do anything. Which is exactly what they did…not a thing. No apology, No upgrade to first class on the next flight. No meal voucher. No hotel accommodation. Nothing! After several phone calls looking for a hotel room, I got the last available room at a Hilton in Aurora, Colorado, for $209.00 (a handicapped room that was only available because it was past 11 P.M. and they didn’t have to hold it any longer). … After a nineteen hour day I finally got in my room and placed a 5 A.M. wake up call so I could get back to Denver airport and stand in long security lines and hope to catch a flight that might fly to Pasco. I arrived just before noon in Pasco, Washington; wearing the same clothes I flew out of BWI the day before (Did I mention that I checked my luggage in Baltimore?) After a quick shower and a change of clothes, I hurried to my delayed meetings.

The return trip to Baltimore was another horror story …I caught a United Express 6:00 A.M. flight out of Pasco Washington into Denver. At Denver, I learned my 10:40 A.M. flight to Baltimore had been cancelled…. After an hour wait along with several hundred other stranded United customers, I was told there wasn’t another flight from Denver to Baltimore…but there was one seat available on a flight out of San Francisco…Yep, you guessed it; a two and a half hour flight from Denver to San Francisco. I boarded my flight from San Francisco to find the friendly skies of United had put me sit in a tiny middle row seat in economy section for a five hour flight to Baltimore…We pushed away from the gate only to be told that we would be held up for air traffic control reason (what is that?) and that United needed our gate so we were pushed off to the side and sat for an hour. Now it would be six hours cramped in a tiny middle row seat between two big guys (I’m not tiny either) with my arms tightly tucked across my body unable to let them down in my lap. My day had started at 5:00 A.M. checking baggage and waiting in security to catch a 6:00 A.M. Two-hour flight from Pasco to Denver, then a two and a half hour flight from Denver to San Francisco, then six hours on the San Francisco to BWI flight- arriving home at 2:30 a.m. the following day… This is the torture we should apply to terror suspects…I guarantee they would talk! My three day business trip turned into an all week trip…My advice: don’t fly…Rent a car, take the train, hitch hike, but don’t fly.

There has to be a better, safer, more efficient way to move the U.S. mass passenger volume than the inefficient airline system that has reached its maximum capacity. High-speed mag-lift rail is used extensively in the rest of the world. Building such a system would bring back thousands of good paying, middle class manufacturing and construction jobs and running this rail system would employ tens of more thousands of good paying, middle class jobs…maybe we don’t have to go to hell in a hand basket, if we join together and demand our federal government go to work for us instead of against us.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Case for Regulation

By Ron Ault
Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO

The Reagan Administration sold the American people a bill of goods called “De-Regulation” purportedly as free enterprise working at its best to reduce prices, improve services and improve the quality of products. Natural competition was supposed to have businesses vye for your dollar by lowering prices and offering you a better deal. AT&T, airlines, the meat & poultry industry, public utilities, the broadcast & print industry, oil companies, drug companies, public hospitals and private health care industries were all un shackled from government regulation and were free to run their business as they saw fit…but they were no longer protected from competition as a public utility nor required (in the airline industry) to service unprofitable routes in smaller cities and rural areas. Gasoline was around $1.50 a gallon and U.S. telephone, mail and airline services were the envy of the free world. Deregulation of other industries accelerated under both Bush Administrations. Today, there is no meaningful regulation or controls on industry.

But, deregulation proved to be something altogether different.

Deregulation brought us the collapse of the airline industry Eastern, TWA, Value Jet, People’s Express, Delta, US Airways, and UAL bankruptcies. We got Bernie Evers’ WorldComm, Ken Lay’s Enron, and the Oil Companies’ $3.00 a gallon gas gouging…dead dogs and cats from un-inspected contaminated pet food, “E” coli deaths from contaminated un-inspected meats and produce, untold thousands of deaths from the “for profit” health care industry that has absolutely nothing to do with real health care, and just the latest debacle of the drug industry in a long and continuous list of debacles, drug company CEO’s lying about “Oxycontin” being a miracle drug and not being addictive.
“Trust me” say the captains of industry…on commercial network television channels that no longer gives us a factual news broadcast but instead, columnist commentary and entertainment news magazine format filled with fluff about celebrities like Kobe Bryant, Anna Nicole Smith, Brittany Spears, Barry Bonds and Lindsey Lohan . Real news doesn’t sell nor does it have high enough ratings for advertising dollars.

For profit corporations cannot be entrusted to monopolize essential goods and services without strong Congressional oversight and a system of checks and balances. CEOs caught every day lying and cheating the American public. One only has to look at the energy sector. Dominated by multi national corporations and foreign state-owned businesses, they are only concerned about profits. The law of supply and demand doesn’t exist in the oil industry. Just look at today’s record highest gasoline prices in history…crude prices are lower than last year and supplies are so high Chevron has to rent super tankers to store crude in the Gulf of Mexico as they don’t have any where else to put it—all oil storage facilities are totally full. Production quotas are dictated by OPEC—the oil producing nations. This is nothing more than price fixing and commodity manipulation by greedy nations in collusion with even more greedy corporations. There is no better example of corporations that should be regulated as a public utility than the energy companies, and no one can argue that energy isn’t an essential service required by every American.

The so-called “Health Care Industry” is another shameful example of corrupt corporate greed that is killing Americans every single day in the name of profit…just look at the thousands of new life-saving drugs developed every year that are patented but never marketed because the margin of profit just doesn’t fit the corporation’s formula as only a few thousand patients each year fall victim to these deadly illnesses. But Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs have billions of dollars of profit, so they get center stage advertising, free samples for doctors to give out to establish a need and a customer base. Same story for diet drugs…that is the largest R&D effort in drug history; not curing cancer nor finding a cure for diabetics…community and charity hospitals have just about gone the way of the dinosaur…for-profit Health Care provides neither health nor care…you get the level of health services you can pay for…those who can’t afford to pay, die.

It is time for Americans to demand better from our elected officials. Demand that Congress pass laws regulating all public transportation, food, medicine, utilities, health care and energy companies. Make profit margins in these essential goods and services exactly the same as real inflation, so Americans are protected against price gouging. Excess profits from these industries should be returned to the government to pay for regulating the industries and to provide coverage for those who cannot afford coverage.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they have resisted with either words or blows or both! The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they suppress.”
Frederick Douglass
Escaped Slave and Great Abolitionist, 1857

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Veterans as a Profit Center

Move aside, soldier. You were a hero when you could carry a weapon. Now, you’re just a used up piece of equipment—no more important than a broken down humvee. We’ve got to find some place to put you so you’re out of the way and we won’t have to see those awful scars.

Sound harsh? That’s how our nation has been treating veterans for more than a century, especially the ones who come home in less than one piece.

And, it’s worse than shameful.

Every war our nation has fought, from the Revolution through today, put the sons and daughters of working people at the tip of the national spear. You’ll always find the chicken hawks who make the speeches, rattle the sabers and wave the bloody shirts far behind the lines tucked safely away cheering for our side.

When the time comes to make good on the promises to young recruits—the earnest men and women who made the sacrifices, faced the enemy and earned the title of veteran—the hypocrites look the other way. And, somehow, the money that flowed so freely to fight the war has dried up. A billion here or there for Halliburton; suddenly there’s nothing left for the veterans.

This war—in Afghanistan and Iraq—its execution and its aftermath, is personal for working families. I recall my own experiences in Vietnam, and I can relate. My own nephew has finished three combat rotations. Many labor leaders like me have sons or daughters in uniform. Many of our union members—friends and brothers like Don Bongo at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard—have both served and sent children into service. For us, this is a family issue.

We bear the burden of worry for loved ones sent to war. We carry the sorrow for the casualties. Our families endure not merely the loneliness of separation, but the financial sacrifices, too. We see the pinch on today’s American military, with too many families scrimping to make ends meet, and those spouses and children left at home too often forced on rely on food stamps and public assistance.

Yet, we still see service to the nation as a noble privilege. Unfortunately, not many among America’s political and corporate elite feel the same way.

Our families share the frustration and agony of the vets who return, some with broken bodies, some with broken spirits, or both. For many, the human toll will last a lifetime—pain they will try to relieve with alcohol or drug. They will encounter difficulties in employment and relationships, and homelessness. All these conditions are predictable and very preventable.

The same people who sent out the call to war somehow never thought to prepare a place for the warrior. Since 9/11, America has been creating 200,000 new veterans a year—yet the Bush Administration has failed to request adequate funds to maintain a modicum of medical services through the Veterans Administration. Today’s veterans will put up more than $700 million of their own money in “user fees” to “buy into” VA services. We wouldn’t want to have to ask those wealthy beneficiaries of President Bush’s trillion dollar tax cuts to dip into their pockets for it, now would we?

There is no recess of hell too deep or hot to house the souls of those who proclaim they “support the troops” then turn around and ignore veterans, belittle them, or trample their dignity with bureaucratic red tape. And, there must be a niche in hell even deeper and hotter for those who exploit the plight of veterans for profit.

The Walter Reed scandal is a case in point, but only one of far too many.

As California Rep. Henry Waxman revealed in his subpoena demanding that the Army produce General George Weightman as a witness before the congressional committee investigating this scandal, the Army knew the conditions that existed. They thought no one else would ever find out. In fact, the guilty knowledge goes right up the chain of command through the Pentagon and to the White House. Here and there a courageous underling stood up and warned of the problems—it was Garrison Commander Col. Peter Garibaldi who had the courage to put that warning about the “risk of mission failure” on paper—but those words were ignored.

No surprise, either, that a key contributing factor in the “mission failure” at Walter Reed was that wonderful concept known as “outsourcing” that led to the Army handing over a $120 million contract to IAP Worldwide Services, a firm run by two former Halliburton executives (one with the appropriate last name of Swindle). The process of replacing 300 trained, experienced and dedicated federal workers with some 25 employees of a for-profit contractor to handle facilities maintenance at the complex. Small wonder there was mold and rodents.

Someone like Gen. Weightman may take the fall for Walter Reed, and there will no doubt be other scapegoats trotted out for public humiliation when other identical scandals related to the care and treatment of wounded veterans surface. But behind the scapegoats is a long line of culprits who are equally or more guilty of gutless behavior, criminality, greed and malfeasance. The buck should find its way to that big desk in the Oval Office where “the decider” works.

Understandably, given the scope, level and breadth of corruption that has characterized the past six years of this administration, there is a kind of institutional attention deficit disorder infecting the nation. There is just too much going on to wrap the public’s mind around. We’re grateful to Rep. Waxman for his quick response in scheduling hearings on the Walter Reed matter. We’re now asking congressional leaders from both parties to make veterans issues, especially the treatment of wounded veterans a top priority and to hold extended hearings nationwide to bring this whole sordid mess to the top of the heap. We invite union members from the Metal Trades to share their stories with us and give us an opportunity to bring them forward for official scrutiny.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Metal Trades Department

The Metal Trades Department is a trade department of the AFL-CIO. It was chartered in 1908 to coordinate negotiating, organizing and legislative efforts of affiliated metalworking and related crafts and trade unions. Twenty national and international unions with a total membership of over 5,000,000 are affiliated with the MTD today. More than 100,000 workers in private industry and federal establishments work under contracts negotiated by MTD Councils. Workers retain membership in their own trade unions.