Feb 4, 2019
Last week saw the worst cold snap in decades descend on the northern U.S., as a wobbly polar vortex swept arctic temperatures into the upper Midwest.
Temperatures plummeted Wednesday and Thursday, falling well below zero in Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit, while wind chills reached as low as negative 60 degrees. By Friday, these temperatures were moving into the Northeastern states. Seventy-five percent of the country was below freezing.
The onslaught of extreme cold was expected days in advance. Given the advance warning and the extreme danger of such weather, you would think steps would be taken to protect life and limb. But that is not what we saw. Instead, we saw the population’s exposure to harm by a social system incapable and unwilling to address such an emergency.
A lot of sound and fury was made – much noise that amounted to warning people to stay indoors if they were at all able.
But most people have jobs that demand they come to work no matter what the temperature or road conditions. And so, to guarantee their bosses continue making profits, most workers risked life and limb to show up at work those two days.
Some workplaces offered employees the option of staying home – but did not offer to pay those workers who did stay home. So, the option was, be safe, or get paid. Most people saw no choice whatsoever – and went to work. Because of this, hospitals across the region reported huge spikes in emergency room patients reporting injuries from frostbite and other cold-related injuries. Thousands were stranded in their cars and in danger of freezing to death; the Illinois State Police assisted more than 1,300 drivers on Wednesday, more than 10 times the normal number. At least 21 people were reported to have died of exposure across the region, though the true number is surely much higher.
Right there, we can see what the true priority in this society is – to force people to produce profit, regardless of the danger.
In addition, we saw infrastructure failures across the region. Water mains broke. Freeways were flooded and closed when they froze over. Power plants failed. And in Michigan, a fire and explosion took place at a Consumers Power compression station, endangering the ability of millions of families to heat their homes. Only the extraordinary measure of asking everyone in the state to turn their thermostats down below 65 degrees stopped many people across Michigan from losing heat completely. No explanation has been given as to what caused this fire and explosion – but it is clear that the current system could not handle the demand for fuel.
Many people found themselves without furnace heat entirely and were forced to use dangerous space heaters or open fires to keep warm. One family in Wheeling, Illinois used a charcoal grill to heat their home; all nine, including a 2-month-old infant, were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning.
These polar vortex cold snaps are happening more frequently and have been more extreme. Scientists are concluding that the cause of this is in fact global warming – the melting of the polar ice caps changes the flow of air currents and dislodges the vortex. The increase in incidents of this extreme cold is another consequence of climate change, along with more extreme storms and hurricanes, more coastal flooding, more drought, and more extreme wildfires.
Capitalism is incapable of addressing these changes, because to do so would mean massively shifting the economy, the production of power and the use of technology across the world to curtail warming effects and to protect the population. The rulers of this society will never agree to give up their profits to do this. We can fully expect that under capitalism, these extreme weather events will become more frequent and more extreme; and this society will be increasingly incapable of dealing with them.
Something CAN be done, but it would mean taking control out of the hands of the capitalist class – and using their accumulated wealth to make that change.
We have the power to do this. If we are to see any kind of future at all, we absolutely must do this. And we must do it quickly!
Feb 4, 2019
Public schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. are short 28 nurses and have been short for years, the district reported in December. Nurses dash from one school to another, trying to cover the district. Statewide, Maryland schools on average fall under the recommended level of one nurse for every 750 students. Nationwide, the lack is even higher. Some big cities and states like Michigan don’t even have one nurse for every 4,000 students.
Federal funding tripled the number of school nurses by the late 1960s, pressured by the rebellion of the black population. But districts reduced the number of school nurses again as part of cutting back on public service budgets, especially since 2000.
The advantages of nurses in schools were shown over a century ago. School nurses can test for hearing, vision, dental, asthma, diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol and other problems and signs of disease. They help families find treatment for medical problems. They can give immunizations and treat for special needs and emotional problems. Access to these services is often not available for working-class children. Nurses free teachers to focus on education. And students who get medical care miss fewer classes.
Feb 4, 2019
Type 1 diabetes patients spent almost twice as much on insulin in 2016 as they did four years prior. They spent $5,705 on average in 2016 compared to $2,864 in 2012, according to a study by Health Care Cost Institute.
These kind of price increases result from the control of insulin production by only a handful of pharmaceutical companies. Three companies control around 90% of the insulin production around the world: U.S.-based Eli Lilly, France-based Sanofi, and Denmark-based Novo Nordisk.
Diabetes patients need insulin to live. While insurance may cover some of the cost of insulin for some, some patients nevertheless have a difficult time affording their medication due to the drastic price increases. Some low-income patients try to stretch their insulin supplies by cutting their doses, which doesn’t work. Some patients have died as a result.
The problem is only likely to increase. Insulin use is expected to rise 20 percent worldwide by 2030, according to a study by Stanford University. The study predicted 79 million people will need insulin by that time, but less than half will have access to it.
We live in a society that puts profits over human lives. People have begun protests against the huge price increases by these pharmaceutical giants, out of necessity. Ultimately, only the elimination of profits from the healthcare system can put an end to such practices.
Feb 4, 2019
A week after 30,000 Los Angeles public school teachers walked out, the strike was settled by a few “negotiators” behind closed doors. The union leadership triumphantly announced that the contract had passed with an 81-percent “yes” vote. But in reality, the union leaders had rammed through the ratification vote in a matter of a few hours.
Only after the vote did teachers begin to discover that they had gained almost nothing from the strike. The raise was no different than what the school district had offered before the strike. As for the cap on class size – certainly a big reason for the strike – the district is now promising to reduce it by four in three years; meaning it will still be over 40 in high schools, close to 40 in middle schools, and 35 in elementary schools! The district is also promising to hire additional librarians and nurses – but still not enough for each L.A. school to have at least one full-time librarian and one full-time nurse. And the new, “improved” average student-to-counselor ratio will be still more than 800 to 1!
It can be surprising that the teachers so quickly accepted this meager settlement, especially since they had been so active, with the support of the parents, students and the broader community. In fact, from first to last, including the demonstrations and picket lines, the strike was controlled by the union bureaucracy. And that bureaucracy is completely tied to the Democratic Party, that is, the very same politicians and officials who have been starving the public schools of funding in order to hand ever more tax money over to the capitalist class. These union bureaucrats were not about to buck these officials or the entire profit-making system that these officials serve.
Right after the settlement, school district officials tried to turn the settlement against the teachers and the other employees, with claims that the settlement was supposedly so “costly” it would bankrupt the school district. Of course, this is a bold-faced lie. The school district is sitting on a cash reserve of about 2 BILLION dollars. But it does mean that district officials are already preparing new attacks.
Therefore, teachers and entire working-class communities in Los Angeles are going to have to mobilize again in order to defend their interests. And so it is very important that they draw lessons from the strike that just ended.
In that strike, teachers mobilized. They gained support from the wider working class community, who saw it as a fight for their kids to gain an education.
But in the future, if the fights are to win, the teachers are going to have to control their own strike. They will have to make decisions themselves in a democratic fashion. And they must be prepared to oppose the union bureaucracy, when the politicians and government officials begin to pull the bureaucrats’ strings.
Feb 4, 2019
The following article was translated from Lutte Ouvrière, the newspaper of the French revolutionary workers’ group of that name.
On the night of January 1, 2019, containers from the ship MSC Zoe were washed overboard in the North Sea during a storm with high winds. This calamity strewed cargo that washed up on the Frisian Islands near the German coast, spreading the remains for miles along the beaches. Containers and boxes of stuff sank to the sea bottom, but some material floated on the surface. There it constitutes a danger to shipping in this area, among the busiest sea lanes in the world. Pieces of all these goods that sank polluted the waters. Three missing containers held explosive chemicals that could emit dangerous gases.
Since it launched in 2015, the MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) Zoe ranks among the largest container ships in the world, able to carry 19,000 containers. It is longer than four football fields end to end. And it is part of the second largest group among shipping firms in the world.
The storm on January 1st is the kind that can be expected in the North Sea at this time of year. So this kind of event, losing containers, is normal, even expected with these container ships. Containers falling off giant ships happens every time the winds are strong.
The loss of containers is not the worst problem with these giant ships. On such enormous ships, with a crew of 30 people at best, it’s impossible to intervene when there are problems. And it's impossible to know what is in the containers, thanks to commercial secrecy. No one knows when the containers represent danger. In 2018, two ships were lost, with five mariners dead, thanks to spontaneous combustion in some containers, leading to a deadly fire.
The problem is the size of these container ships, the heights to which they are stacked, the fact that ships are not capable of maneuvering in case of heavy seas or storms. It’s as if people blind and deaf have to steer across shipping lanes that are crowded – just like 18-wheeler trucks maneuvering on the roads.
No tug boats are powerful enough to come to the rescue when such big ships have trouble in the Channel. And worse, these big container ships, burning heavy fuel oil, discharge enormous amounts of fine particles, a major cause of ocean pollution. Even the big insurance companies hesitate to deal with these monster ships because, including their cargoes, they are valued at something like two billion dollars apiece.
At least 5,000 container ships circle the globe, of which 136 are these giant ones, capable of carrying more than 18,000 containers apiece. Over three-quarters of the big ships are owned by three shipping groups. In the past 40 years, with world production tripling, marine transport has increased six times and for some materials, like coal, minerals and agricultural products, it has increased seven times as much as used to be carried on ships.
Giant container ships may be the latest technology, but they are also ticking bombs, worked by a skeleton crew. Designed to exploit the labor of the worst situated workers, these great ships are the image of capitalism in the 21st century.
Feb 4, 2019
The following article was translated from Lutte Ouvrière, the newspaper of the French revolutionary workers’ organization of that name.
On January 1, 1959, the dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba. One week later, on January 8, Fidel Castro entered the capital, Havana, at the head of an army of guerillas and insurgent peasants.
The island had been under the thumb of U.S. businesses, which owned 80% of the services, mines, ranches, and oil refineries, 40% of the sugar industry, and 50% of the trains. The Mafia had made Havana the brothel of the Americas, with casinos and nightclubs. It was also a country of prison, torture, and death for opponents of the regime. A wave of jubilation swept the country when Batista fell, and the international press discovered The Bearded Ones, the guerillas with their facial hair grown long. France, Germany, and Great Britain recognized the new regime.
Castro and his followers wanted an end to despotism and corruption, an improvement in the living conditions of the population, the re-establishment of parliamentary democracy, and the end of the country’s dependence on the United States. The prime minister Jose Miro Cardona was a pro-U.S. business lawyer, and the leaders of the guerillas, Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara, did not figure on immediately becoming ministers.
Hoping to make an agreement, Castro went to the U.S. in April, but the U.S. government refused to receive him. Addressing the press, Castro made his position clear: “Capitalism sacrifices humanity. The Communist state, with its totalitarian conception, sacrifices human rights. This is why we do not agree with either.” He called himself a humanist, and hoped to establish cordial relations with the U.S.
It was not until later, when it became clear that Washington only wanted to impose its will on Havana, that Castro discovered that he was a socialist; and only because this allowed him to get from Moscow the aid which Washington had refused him.
In May 1959, Castro launched a moderate agrarian reform, which essentially applied the old Cuban constitution of 1940. This reform distributed unused land to peasants, and paid its owners for it. But the U.S. wanted more money for the land, and sooner. Castro did not give in, and the Cuban army seized the lands of U.S. companies.
In March 1960, the Eisenhower administration prepared to overthrow Castro. The CIA was told: the Cuban revolution could become a model “because the social and economic conditions in all of Latin America encourage struggle against the authorities in power and social agitation in favor of a radical change.” Other guerillas tried to follow in the footsteps of the Cuban revolution, but they did not meet with the same success. Castro’s movement triumphed because the guerillas, who had for years remained isolated, hidden in the mountains of the island, had finally linked up with a peasant uprising against the big landowners. They had also benefitted from help in the cities, where underground fighters had increased their attacks against the dictatorship, and from workers’ struggles that had undermined the regime. But they insisted that the cities, and by extension the working class, not take the leadership of the struggle. The guerillas had also been a state apparatus in embryo that was outside the control of the workers and peasants, and that, after 1959, was able to fuse with part of the old state apparatus.
In April 1960, the first Soviet oil tanker arrived. The U.S. companies refused to refine the oil, and Castro seized them. The U.S. Senate reduced the orders for Cuban sugar. In reaction, Castro nationalized some U.S.-owned property: the telephone and electric companies and some sugar refineries. And in reaction to that, Washington imposed an embargo on U.S. exports to Cuba.
The nationalizations were not the result of some socialist ideology of the Cuban leaders, but a pragmatic response by the leadership of a country defending its sovereignty against imperialism. It was the hostility of the U.S., which was trying to strangle Cuba, that pushed its leaders, in search of economic aid, into the arms of the Soviet Union.
On January 3, 1961, the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. On April 17, it launched a military invasion at the Bay of Pigs. This invasion was a fiasco for the anti-Castro forces, the CIA, and the Kennedy administration, and it showed the level of popular support for the regime. The population mobilized to defend the island and drive the anti-Castro “gusanos,” or worms, into the bay.
Washington has continuously tried to overthrow the Castro regime, but without success. If the links between Cuba and the Soviet Union served as a pretext for the embargo, those ended in 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared. But the U.S. reinforced the embargo, and without any exterior aid, the 1990s were very difficult – but Cuba did not give in. In 1999, the Clinton administration lifted sanctions against some “terrorist states,” but not Cuba. The island nation had to wait until 2009 when the Obama administration moderated the embargo, without lifting it altogether.
Since the beginning, the political perspective of the Cuban leaders has been limited to defending the independence of their island in the face of U.S. imperialism. At this level, it makes sense to support them. Certainly, they were in favor of other radical nationalists taking power. For example, they exchanged the know-how of Cuban doctors for oil from Chavez’s Venezuela.
But, because they were not militants of the workers’ movement, because they were courageous radical nationalists, but not socialist and communist internationalists, they never addressed or thought of seeking the support of the working class of their neighboring countries and certainly not of the most hostile country, the United States.
Because the Cuban revolution pulled the descendants of the black slaves of Cuba with it and put them in the forefront of the fight, it found an echo among millions of black workers in the citadel of U.S. imperialism. The Castro regime took the side of Cuba’s black population in order to find support, perhaps a decisive support – but this was not the reason Castro and his comrades fought. So this revolution, born out of their nationalism and the defense of the sovereignty of the Cuban state, remained isolated behind its borders, and despite the progress and advances that it gave to many people in the region, it remains unable to escape the pressure of imperialism.
The fact that the Cuban leaders have been able to resist for more than half a century, at least partially, is to their credit. But the socialist revolution remains to be accomplished. Only the conscious and organized working class, at the head of all the oppressed, can carry this out, in Cuba as elsewhere.
Feb 4, 2019
On January 23, Venezuela commemorated the fall of a military dictator, Marcos Perez Jimenez, overthrown in 1958 by a popular uprising. This year, there were two separate parades in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital: one for the supporters of the regime of president Nicolas Maduro, Hugo Chavez’s successor, and the other for his opponents. And that was the day chosen by the president of the national assembly, Juan Guaido, to proclaim himself president of Venezuela.
Guaido, an engineer for 35 years, is at the head of the right-wing opposition because the more experienced leaders are under house arrest or have fled the country under threat of arrest, mostly for corruption. This party leading the opposition is called “Popular Will,” but it should be named Will of the Bourgeoisie, because it represents the interests of the businesspeople, large and medium-sized, who, after 20 years, want to overthrow the regime of Chavez and Maduro.
No surprise: a few minutes after he declared, Guaido got the support of Trump and the right-wing governments of Latin America. The European leaders got in on this meddling in Venezuela’s government. All these big supporters of democracy find a deputy who proclaimed himself president more democratic than Maduro, who won the May 2018 election with 30 percent of all the voters who were eligible voting for him (he won 67.8% of the vote, with 46% turnout).
But the next day, January 24, the Minister of Defense, General Padrino, star of the general staff, gave his support to the Maduro regime: a reminder that it is necessary to deal with the army.
The right-wing opposition has once again resumed the offensive, with the support of U.S. imperialism, as it has done each time the Chavez or Maduro regimes have faced a crisis. In order to find a way to bring the army over to its side, the opposition has proposed an amnesty for soldiers who rally to it.
They are wooing the army in part because it controls the base of the economy, and above all the oil, which represents 96% of Venezuela’s exports. Because it controls the border, it also takes its part of all the trade with neighboring countries. For now, the army has judged that it is still profitable to support the regime of Maduro. But the threat of a U.S. blockade could make it change its mind.
General Padrino also declared, “the devil is in the barracks.” Because the situation of the higher ranks, who continue to prosper under Maduro, is not at all comparable with that of the ordinary soldiers and their families, who have the same difficulties as the rest of the population. The inflation rate has already reached one million percent, and it could go up ten-fold in 2019! There is a reason three million people have left the country, that workers are demanding that wages be fixed to prices, and that soldiers are deserting.
And some of those who have appreciated the regime’s policy of redistributing oil revenues to the ordinary population have now turned away from the regime, because of the extreme difficulties that have hit the country since the fall in the price of oil. Some of these imagine that the return of the right to power might save them. It is an illusion, because this would mean a return to the time when the bourgeoisie and those near to it took all the oil income for themselves.
The opposition reproaches the supporters of Maduro for not getting the economy off of its dependence on oil exports, for not having diversified industry and for having wasted a real chance when the price of oil soared. But Chavez and Maduro did not invent Venezuela’s oil dependency – they inherited it. If Chavez had stayed an obscure army officer and if the right and left politicians had continued to govern the country, they would have found themselves in a similar situation when the price of oil crashed.
The crisis that is hitting Venezuela is above all caused by the capitalist system that speculates on everything, including primary materials like oil. Neither Chavez nor Maduro tried to attack this system. When they were in a strong position, they were satisfied to maintain the status quo with the bourgeoisie.
In the past, the workers and the ordinary layers of the population have mobilized to stop the politicians closest to the bourgeoisie when they tried to seize back power, like in the two coup attempts of 2002. This mobilization saved the Chavez government and allowed it to take control of the country’s oil industry. The workers still have the force to stop the return of the jumble of politicians whose discredit opened the path to power for Chavez 20 years ago. And also to impose on the regime the demands of the working class, indispensable for their survival.
Feb 4, 2019
The following article is the editorial from The SPARK’s workplace newsletters, for the week of January 28, 2019.
35 days – and the shutdown came to an end. Not because the bully in the White House came to his senses. He didn’t. Not because the Republican party stood up to the bully who heads their own party. They didn’t. And not because the Democrats finally developed a real sense of empathy for the people being ground up in the mess the two parties had created. And, no, they didn’t either.
The shutdown was shut down by the people it had most affected: the federal government workers. Employees who were supposed to work without pay stopped coming in to work. Some who had been laid off, also without pay, and who were now ordered to report, didn’t. Cities around the country saw thousands of federal workers demonstrating – and others lining up at food banks or food pantries, carrying signs as they did.
Some of the demonstrations were union-organized demonstrations, with printed signs. Some featured homemade signs, with just a few people standing outside a federal facility.
It wasn’t really a very organized action.
It was a practical outpouring. Workers who couldn’t come in, didn’t. After missing two paychecks, workers didn’t have the money to buy gas or pay a baby-sitter. But behind practical problems was a sense of outrage by people who go to work every day, only to see themselves treated like hostages in a gang war.
Both parties had their toes burnt a little, held to the fire of the workers’ anger.
So the two parties both stepped back. But no one should believe that either party will make its priority the needs of the population or of the federal workers.
Almost as soon as Trump announced the end of the shutdown, he insisted that he would still have “his wall,” and that if he didn’t get it in three weeks, there could be another shutdown.
The Democrats, busy celebrating for making Trump back down, made it clear what their issue is. They’re pleased their party outlasted Trump, and that Pelosi kept their party in line, while the Republican party crumbled.
If you want to see what the two parties will do, consider the workers’ lost pay. Federal workers are supposed to get paid for days they worked without pay – but they won’t be paid for at least another week. Trump, who threatens to issue an order declaring a national emergency in order to get “his wall” built, wouldn’t issue an order to get 800,000 workers paid immediately. The two parties in Congress, which swiftly passed ten bills funding the government, didn’t pass legislation calling for immediate paychecks for all the time lost.
None of them recognized the many more people who lost wages during this shutdown – all the government contractors who work for the federal government, but weren’t considered part of the “furlough.” Just like every other employer in the country, the federal government hires out much of its work to private companies. People working to clean facilities, or provide food in them, or repair buildings, or program computers or research the weather – they all work for private companies. They were laid off, and they aren’t to be paid.
If anything can come out of all this, it won’t come from any politician in either party.
It will come from what the workers did. The federal workers weren’t engaged in a strike – not in the ordinary sense of the word. But like every strike, what they did showed that for work to get done, the workers have to be there. It’s a pretty simple, obvious idea, but profound. It shows the potential power that workers can have.
Like every strike, it carried the potential to infect other workers – because it made other workers feel a sense of solidarity with those under attack; it let them see they have a common enemy. The future – if there is to be one – can only belong to the whole class to which most federal employees belong: the working class.
Feb 4, 2019
Chicago’s crossing guards were told to report to work during the dangerous cold snap. Mind, their job is outside, at the coldest time of day. But were they given extra equipment? Were measures taken to keep them safe? No – just reminders to “wear hats, layers and drink warm beverages.” So helpful! Not!
School had been canceled two days in advance – but management wanted to ensure safety for any children who showed up. Guards who showed up reported no one out on the streets in the dangerous weather. A firefighter allowed them to stay in his car to keep warm.
Management at first ordered the guards to come back out for the afternoon shift. But they saw the light after some guards went on CBS News, and they got a call from the union.
Feb 4, 2019
In Michigan, education spending from 1995 to 2015, adjusted for inflation, is 82 percent of what it was in 1995. No other state came “close to a decline in this magnitude,” new research at Michigan State University says.
A study at University of Michigan found that between 2003 and 2015, Michigan ranked dead last in student improvement in proficiency test scores.
What is the connection? Funding goes down and scores go down. Could it be any more clear that tax breaks for corporations are destroying the future of children in Michigan?
Feb 4, 2019
The contract workers, janitors, security guards, cooks, and those who shoulder other jobs for the Federal Government of the United States of America, won't receive back pay because the U.S. government, the most powerful and wealthy government in history, will not compensate a single penny for the work lost due to the government shutdown.
It’s not the first time. Back in the 2013 two-week closure, about 1,200 cleaners, security guards and food-service workers in the Washington area were not compensated for the lost work the closure caused.
Today, more than a million federal contract workers live paycheck to paycheck, because the Federal Government pays little more than the minimum wage to these workers: between $450 and $650 each week. Following the shutdown, these workers have lived on the edge of disaster for five weeks, facing eviction, power shut-offs, hunger and even lack of lifesaving medications, according to the Washington Post.
One worker, Audrey Murray-Wright, who worked for the Federal Government for 15 years, explained to the Washington Post that her debt was mounting, $156 for the gas bill, $300 for electricity, $2,000 for the mortgage. She could no longer afford her blood pressure pills and had to ration the groceries to feed her children.
Why are these workers paid so little? Why are they contractors, and not government employees? Why can’t they get their back pay? Because the Federal Government wants to stiff its workers to give more to the rich, their companies and their stinking profits?
What a Great Government!
Feb 4, 2019
NASA recently announced the discovery of a cavity about 1000 feet high, covering an area about two-thirds the size of Manhattan, that has developed under the top of the ice in the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. They think this cavity developed in just the last three years.
Researchers have expected for some time that there were melted-out holes at the bottom of the glacier where it rests on bedrock. But the size and rapid growth rate of this cavity has shocked them. They now estimate that the roughly 14 billion tons of melted ice from this cavity and other melting of the Thwaites Glacier account for 4 percent of all the global sea level rise that has occurred so far.
But the entire Thwaites Glacier is the about the size of Florida. If this glacier melts entirely as global warming continues, it will cause an increase in world sea levels of about 2 feet. And if other ice sheets that this glacier now blocks slide into the sea, an additional 8 feet of global sea level rise will result. This would cause a catastrophe for humanity. Researchers are now warning that this could happen within our lifetimes.
The big cavity in the Thwaites Glacier was revealed using ice-penetrating radar mounted on planes flying over the glacier, supplemented by data from German and Italian satellites. Luckily, U.S. and British research organizations are about to begin a five-year study to answer questions about the Thwaites Glacier.
We shall see what they discover.
Feb 4, 2019
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection last Tuesday, in anticipation of huge legal claims due to very deadly and destructive California fires sparked by its electric power lines.
PG&E is the largest utility company in California, providing natural gas and electricity to 16 million people. This very profitable company charges its customers more than companies in other states. California's residential electricity prices are 19 to 40 percent higher than those in neighboring states of Arizona, Nevada and Oregon.
PG&E officials argue bankruptcy is the only option because they cannot pay for their liabilities. But PG&E currently has a lot of money in its hands. It hides $1.5 billion in cash or cash equivalents in its coffers. It has already arranged $5.5 billion from the banks to fund its operations during bankruptcy. The California Public Utilities Commission also unanimously approved the company's request to take on $10 billion in emergency financing.
PG&E is surely seeking bankruptcy protection as a scheme to avoid its liability and continue to profit. It did the same thing in 2001. At the time, the company said it needed relief from $9 billion in debt, incurred after a failed deregulation plan that allowed Enron and other energy traders to manipulate markets and fleece their customers. It took nearly three years for PG&E to come out of the bankruptcy. Meanwhile, state regulators allowed PG&E to boost its profits for years to come. Customers paid skyrocketing utility prices, and PG&E's shareholders pocketed the profits.
Energy experts say PG&E's rates will probably increase when the company emerges from its current bankruptcy, as they did in 2001.
Also, claiming it’s broke, PG&E has already stopped honoring settlements with the 2,900 victims of the 2015 Butte fire. Victims of 2017-2018 California fires would not get anything, allowing PG&E to avoid its liabilities.
In sum, if this bankruptcy scheme goes through, customers will pay higher rates, and PG&E will continue to profit as before, as if nothing happened.
Feb 4, 2019
More than 115 people burned to death in Mexico when gasoline they were stealing from a pipeline caught fire.
Gasoline thefts from pipelines are common in Mexico. According to the Mexican president, 3 billion dollars a year in fuel is stolen from pipelines each year. Everyone knows that breaking into a pipeline is dangerous, but for poor people, the temptation is hard to resist. There are no steady jobs. Prices are very high. So people take the risk in order to make a few bucks. The local priest where people were burned explained: “The people don’t like to steal, it’s not something they enjoy, but they look up and see so much corruption, so much injustice, and they see that their hands are empty.”
And there is a big black market for stolen fuel in Mexico. At the top, the cartels and corrupt officials buy and sell the stolen gas. One investigator estimated that more than two billion dollars in stolen fuel money had been laundered through the financial system, by officials of the state oil company, gas station owners, and other wealthy business people. They are the ones who profit from the risk the poor take. But they are not the ones who burned to death.
The new president of Mexico, Lopez Obrador, says he wants to stop this gasoline theft. He even offered to help pay for the funerals of those who burned to death. But poor people will continue to take the risk, and some will continue to burn to death, as long as there are no decent ways to survive.
The real criminals are not the poor who steal gas: they are the wealthy and corporations from Mexico and the U.S. who have looted Mexico for more than a century, including the country’s oil wealth. They have made it impossible for ordinary Mexican people to live decently in their own country. And it will take much more than a president’s nice words to take on these criminals.
This is what capitalism means in Mexico. Poor people burning to death, while the rich profit from their crimes.