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. 649 — January 22 - February 5, 2001

Editorial:
The new president's speech covers up the same old capitalist attacks

Jan 22, 2001

"And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity." So said George W. Bush in his inaugural address on January 20, in rhetoric that we have all come to recognize as the typical inaugural address of Republicans and Democrats alike.

In short strokes, the speech contained an entire sermon in words meant to inspire. Of course, what counts more is what was hidden behind the "inspiring" words. But that was left unsaid.

First, Bush called for unity, a call that conveniently masks the growing class divisions in the society and the growing gap between rich and poor, capitalist and worker, exploiter and exploited.

Bush, like those who held the office of president before him, is a representative of the capitalist class. His job is to get the workers to identify with the interests of the capitalists. His aim is to tie the workers behind the capitalist class.

Bush called on the government to deal with big problems that everyone can even agree with. But he was very vague, allowing everyone to read whatever they want into his words.

Thus Bush decried the conditions of the schools and called for educational reforms. But he didn't reveal that his reforms aim to open the public schools to greater control by private companies so that they can make more profit off them.

Bush said that he wants to "reform Social Security and Medicare." But Bush did not propose to raise Social Security benefits, so that the elderly could retire in comfort, security and dignity. No, his plan is to hand these funds over to Wall Street, so that big financial companies can whittle and chisel away at the huge reservoir of Social Security money through their high fees and commissions.

Bush said he wants to reduce taxes, to "reward the effort and enterprise of working Americans." Sound familiar? Just eight years ago, Clinton too came into office promising a "middle class" tax cut, only to raise working people's taxes, while cutting the capitalists' taxes –in two major tax packages. Bush intends to do the same.

Finally, Bush spoke of "building our defenses beyond challenge." This is another way of saying that he intends to funnel ever more tax money to the big military contractors. But beyond that, the core of the government is the military, which in the name of protecting freedom is used to protect the U.S. corporations' interests all over the world, from the Persian Gulf to Latin America, from the Pacific to Africa. And who fights and dies in these wars and conflicts, but the sons and daughters of the working class?

When Bush said that we "will confront weapons of mass destruction," he forgot to mention that most of those weapons are held by the U.S. military, and they are used to terrorize ordinary people all over the world.

Under the guise of defending idealism, education, retirement and health care, Bush defends raw profit. When he speaks of preparing for peace and freedom, he means building up the instruments of war and destruction. And he does it all, while wrapping himself in both the flag and the altar cloth of the church. Like presidents before him, he wants us to believe it is the sacred duty of the capitalist class to exploit us, and the rest of the people of the world.

Many commentators claimed that Bush's speech was a command performance. It was. And the capitalists must be pleased and proud that they have a brand "new and improved" president to do their bidding.

But no one says that the working class has to follow obediently.

Pages 2-3

A CEO like all the others

Jan 22, 2001

In 1999, Congress passed a salary increase for the nation's chief executive officer, doubling his salary to $400,000 per year. The increase goes into effect with this new administration.

Of course, $400,000 is only the beginning. In addition, the president gets free rent at the White House, free transportation wherever he goes, free medical care from the finest doctors, and a hefty expense allowance, not to mention personal servants.

$400,000 per year is 16 times the average yearly wages in this country, and it puts the president right up there with the top one% of all wages and salaries. That's where presidents feel most comfortable, of course, with all their rich buddies.

Ashcroft nomination:

Jan 22, 2001

Words are cheap, especially in the mouths of Democrats

John Ashcroft, President Bush's choice for Attorney General, faced a more difficult confirmation hearing than any other of his cabinet nominees. Democrats pointed out that Ashcroft has long opposed the Roe vs Wade decision, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. They also brought up his opposition to racial desegregation of schools and black voter registration efforts in his home state of Missouri when he was first the state's attorney general and then the governor there.

Several Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed doubts that Ashcroft could be counted on to enforce laws related to abortion, civil rights and other matters in light of his outspoken opposition to these very same laws over the years.

Nevertheless, even before Ashcroft's confirmation hearing ended, a few Democratic Senators dropped their opposition to him and announced that they would vote for his confirmation as head of the Justice Department, since he is an "honorable" man, Republican leaders said that they would have the support of all 50 Republican members of the Senate.

Of course, Kennedy and a few Democrats hinted they might filibuster against Ashcroft's confirmation in the full Senate. But Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican member of the Judiciary Committee declared that if Democrats in the full Senate filibustered against Ashcroft's nomination, such a step would be "tantamount to outright warfare."

Eight years ago, the Republicans were ready to take that step. The Democrats then controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. Yet the Republicans made Clinton withdraw nominees they considered to be "too liberal."

The Democrats are now in a stronger position than the Republicans were then, with the Senate split evenly between themselves and the Republicans. Yet they are not willing to do what the Republicans did.

In other words, the Democrats are ready to say they are on the side of women who want to protect their right to abortion, on the side of black people who want to protect their right to vote and send their children to decent public schools.

But they aren't ready to act on it!

California power crunch:
investing less in electricity and more in speculation

Jan 22, 2001

Over the last several months, California has been hit by a power shortage that has gotten increasingly worse. In the middle of January, northern and central California were hit by rolling blackouts. People were trapped in elevators and traffic was snarled. Up and down the state, schools and businesses closed, sending hundreds of thousands home.

From Monopoly to Deregulation

California was the first state to go ahead with the deregulation of its electrical utility industry. Prior to deregulation, most of the electricity in California was provided by three large utility companies that were vertically integrated monopolies, that is, they owned the production, transmission and distribution of electricity. The rates they charged were regulated by the government, which saw to it that they were guaranteed a relatively high profit.

The deregulation law, passed by a unanimous vote in the state legislature in 1996 and in effect by March 1998, changed the structure of the industry. The big private electric utilities sold off most of their power plants to other companies. Power brokers, often the same companies, were allowed to buy and sell electricity like any other commodity, like pork bellies or orange juice. As for electricity customers, they were supposed to be given a choice between different companies supposedly competing to provide them with power.

The promise was that by bringing in many more companies, "deregulation" would bring more competition and efficiency, pushing the high prices down. The reality obviously is just the opposite, and could only have been that. After all the electric utilities not only agreed to the law, but also wrote most of it.

From Production to Speculation

The electric utilities had been preparing for deregulation for quite some time. They had not invested in new capacity to produce electricity for over a decade, and no new plants had been built in California for almost two decades. Of course, this did not stop them from still charging consumers for the cost of new investment, and pocketing the difference. At the same time, given that the demand for electricity was still growing, due to an expanding population and economy, it meant that the utilities' older, obsolete plants were worth more. So when deregulation came, the utilities sold them for a premium. The companies that bought them up –only to then sell the power they produced back to the utilities –took on big debts, so they added the price of these debts to what they charged the utilities for electricity.

Deregulation left the utilities as distributors and traders of electricity in California, no longer producers of it. As for the billions of dollars that the electric utilities received for selling their plants, they used that to buy back millions of shares in their own stock, buy up land, and buy up other utility companies in other parts of the country and all over the world. In other words, with deregulation, the electric utilities freed up a large investment in the production of a basic commodity, electricity, for the greener pastures of financial trading and speculation.

Today, these same utilities claim that they are going bankrupt because they are being squeezed by the power crisis and that only government aid will save them and the entire California economy from disaster. In fact, they arranged to let the utilities go bankrupt by all the financial dealings and double dealings they engineered. As for their financial "investments," they have carefully shielded them.

This divestiture by the utilities of their power plants was also an attack against their workforce. The utilities laid off most of their work force, which was highly unionized and better paid, while the companies that bought the power plants brought in a non-union workforce, paid much less.

The Public Pays the Cost

The power crisis in California today is hardly a problem of simple "supply and demand," as the public is told over and over again by all those in positions of responsibility, from public officials to the news media to the spokespersons for the big companies. Instead, it is a result of the policies of the utility companies, with the complicity of the politicians and the government regulatory agencies that were supposed to be overseeing them.

Of course, it is not hard to figure out what the electric utilities want: the public will be made to pay, through big electricity rate increases and surcharges, and the diversion of billions of dollars of tax money that should be going to such basic social needs as education and health care, sending it instead directly into the pockets of the utilities, electric generating companies, electric traders, etc.

This problem is not limited to California. All through the country, electric utilities have been quietly disinvesting in electric production, and 27 states have already passed some form of deregulation similar to California. As big companies increasingly look to invest in production less, while depending more on financial speculation for profits, people all over the country face worsening service, potential power crises, and certainly much higher costs for electricity.

We will pay ever more for a basic necessity that no one can do without. This is what capitalism has to offer as we begin the new century and the new millennium.

The drop in crime slows down
–to only five times the rate in other countries

Jan 22, 2001

The government's crime index fell by a small 0.3% in the first half of 2000. Since the economy began to pick up in 1992, the index has dropped on average by 7% a year, so the small drop in 2000 meant a change. "We seem to have hit the bottom," according to James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

But this bottom is still dreadful. In many workers' neighborhoods, house break-ins continue, as do the stealing of cars, the ripping out of car radios, violence on the streets, rape, not to mention drive by shootings in the poorest neighborhoods. There were 627 murders last year in the city of Chicago, almost two a day; 671 in New York, 236 in Washington DC and 533 in Los Angeles through December 23. Andrew Karman, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, pointed out, "The murder rate very much reflects conflicts among poor people. Without really tackling poverty, which has remained stable, we can't get murder rates down very much lower."

If crime has come down at all, it did so during a period when jobs became more available. They paid very poorly, but young people at least had some income.

Now however, the experts tell us the crime rate won't go much lower. The capitalist system, based on the exploitation of labor, requires poverty at the bottom of society –and even with more jobs, poverty remains. That's why crime still remains with us.

This country is the richest in the world, but it also has the biggest gap between rich and poor. Not surprising then, to see that the rate of crime is much higher here than elsewhere.

Clinton plays the game to the last minute

Jan 22, 2001

In his last days in office, President Clinton issued 800 pages of guidelines for managed care programs under Medicare and restrictions on animal waste runoff from giant feedlots of hogs and cattle.

The day of Bush's inaugural the new President directed that these last two orders not be published in the Federal Register, which means they can't take effect.

If Clinton had wanted these measures, he could have issued them a bit earlier in his eight years in office. Especially given the fact that when he took office in 1993, he did the exact same thing to the last orders of the elder Bush.

Speaking of career changes

Jan 22, 2001

Bush's nominee for secretary of state is former General Colin Powell. Since Powell left the army seven years ago, he's had a new career giving speeches. He gets at least $59,500 per speech, and sometimes more. Last year Coca-Cola, Goldman, Sachs and American Express were among corporations that each paid him over $100,000 for a speech.

And what is the former general speaking on? He urges others to volunteer their time –and gets paid very well for it. Nice work if you can get it!

Pages 4-5

Venezuela:
A populist president hostile to workers

Jan 22, 2001

In early December, voters in Venezuela approved a referendum which requires the existing union leaderships to be replaced and all labor unions to be consolidated into a state-controlled federation.

The union leaders had called for a boycott of the vote, which had been called by President Hugo Chavez. Many voters seem to have followed this call: while the referendum passed by a two-thirds majority, voter participation was less than 25%.

Since being elected president two years ago, Hugo Chavez has remained popular among Venezuela's poor. That's certainly a big political asset in a country where officially four of every five people live in poverty, while the country itself is one of the leading oil exporters in the world.

Chavez, a former army officer, gained the support of the poor mainly thanks to a failed coup attempt he led in 1992. Three years earlier, in 1989, austerity measures imposed on Venezuela by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had been followed by a massive popular uprising, known as the "caracazo." The government had crushed the uprising brutally, killing 4,000 people. So while Chavez failed to seize the power and was imprisoned, his criticism of the corruption among politicians and government officials fell on receptive ears.

After being pardoned, Chavez used this popularity to come to power through the channels of the existing system. He ran against the political elite of the two mainstream parties that had run the country for four decades. He presented himself as the candidate of the poor against the "corrupt oligarchy" which pocketed the country's wealth. He won by a landslide, receiving 56% of the votes. Last August, he consolidated his position by repeating his success in a "mega-election" which replaced elected officials at practically all levels throughout the country.

Internationally, Chavez adopted a similar posture of defiance against the "rich and powerful." He openly criticized the U.S. for providing a 1.3-billion-dollar military aid package to Venezuela's neighbor, Colombia. Chavez argued, reasonably, that this would cause the war waged by the Colombian government against rebel guerrilla armies to escalate and spread into the whole region. During his tour of fellow oil-exporting countries, Chavez visited Libya's Ghaddafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, two designated "enemies" of the U.S. And, finally, last November he hosted Cuba's president Fidel Castro and signed an agreement to provide oil to Cuba, in defiance of the 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo against that country.

Behind his rhetoric against the rich and powerful, however, Chavez has also made every effort to assure the same rich and powerful that he is ready to work with them. Since becoming president, Chavez has visited the U.S. five times, meeting with corporate executives and trying to encourage them to invest in Venezuela. He has filled government posts with military and business figures –for his vice-president, for example, he recently chose a banker.

Chavez's attitude towards workers, on the other hand, has not been any different than that of his predecessors, whom he harshly criticizes. When oil workers went on strike last October, for example, Chavez swore that he would never give them the wage increase they demanded –even though the country's oil revenues sharply increased last year thanks to high oil prices. The workers did eventually win a wage increase after paralyzing the oil production, which provides about 80% of the country's export income. Unable to stop the mobilization of the working class, Chavez ordered a referendum, accusing union leaders of corruption. Some union leaders may be corrupt, but that's not the issue. The December referendum is obviously part of an effort aimed at bringing the unions under the control of leaders loyal to Chavez.

This contradiction between what Chavez says and what he does is neither accidental nor unusual. In fact, it is a common feature of politicians who use a nationalist and populist rhetoric to gain the support of the workers and poor.

Every move Chavez has made so far in his political career, on the other hand, shows that he is in fact outright hostile to the idea of the self-organization of the workers and poor, whose interests he professes to represent. But it is only through the independent organization and mobilization of the masses of toilers that the working people will defend themselves and their interests, while Chavez defends the interests of the wealthy.

Haiti's bad weather:
A heavy balance sheet of misery

Jan 22, 2001

Translated from the December issue of Voix des Travailleurs (Worker's Voice), Trotskyist publication in Haiti.

In the course of the months of November and December, bad weather hit the northern and southern areas of the country, as well as the big panhandle area (Grand Anse). The results were heavy for the poor population in the affected places: several deaths, several more reported missing, dozens of little houses destroyed, animals carried off, crops ruined on the plantations. In Cap-Haitien, several poor neighborhoods situated close to rivers or to the sea were completely carried off by the rising of the waters at Cayes; entire areas were a disaster, as well in the panhandle of the country where the poor population was sorely tested.

Once again, the victims were blamed for having built their slums too close to the edge of the sea or near riverbeds, as if the poor could choose to live in beautiful neighborhoods next door to the bourgeoisie, to high officials, ambassadors, CEOs of industry, or the church hierarchy. As if a worker who makes 36 gourdes per day, or the 70% of the population laid off, could choose to build solid houses on good land, or as if the workers could rent one of those beautiful houses advertised in the Haitian newspapers each day for American dollars.

And still the politicians, the so-called intellectuals, the boot-lickers of the ruling class never tire of digging up the same old story that nobody should build a home just any old place, rather houses should be built according to the plans of the town. Such talk is all the more shocking for the workers or the homeless since it reflects nothing of their reality.

In truth, only the small minority of the rich in this country who make their fortunes from shameless exploitation of the workers, or from speculation on the currency, or from the ridiculously high prices of necessities like rice, corn, peas, etc., from plundering the coffers of the state –can afford beautiful, well-equipped houses. They can make themselves less vulnerable to the caprices of the weather. But the big majority of the population which stagnates in misery, which lives from day to day by resourcefulness, or those the fruit of whose work is stolen from them, are obliged to live in conditions approaching those of beasts of burden. Their lives thus are fragile, vulnerable, with little resistance to natural catastrophes.

This is certainly the picture of societies dominated by capitalism, societies where the most modern technologies, like the Internet and cell phones, remain the possession of only a handful of individuals, while the majority, living in frightful misery, have only the ground to sleep on.

On the other hand, the terrible problems of the population allow the authorities to play the demagogue, pretending to be concerned about the problems of the poor. In November, Haitian national television showed the prime minister journeying to Cap-Haitien, where he declared, "at the express order of his excellency the president of the republic, alerted to this catastrophe, I am here on the spot to make an immediate account to him." And like the salesman he is, he promised the earth to those devastated by the weather. But a month after, certain Cap habitants complained that they had received nothing and others that they had got too little. The same was the situation of other poor people who were also victims of the weather.

In fact, this situation shows us the outline of the solution to the problem of housing. There is land suitable to build solid houses; building materials like sand, cement and iron are available. To deal with immediate emergencies, there are even big houses inhabited only by rats. What has been lacking –up until now –is the will to attack the sacred private property in the means of production which these lapdog politicians of the bourgeoisie swear to uphold.

Book Review:
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance

Jan 22, 2001

Rohinton Mistrey has written a novel about India during the Emergency Period of dictatorship imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975. India is a country of a billion people which is often portrayed as the world's biggest democracy. It is true that India has many political parties and they alternate in power in the government of the countries and various states. But the reality of India is far from democratic. This novel gives a vivid feel of this reality.

The novel revolves around an older man Om, and his nephew Prakash. Om and Prakash's father grew up as "untouchables" in a small village of India. When India obtained its independence in 1948, caste distinctions formally were abolished. Castes were rigid occupational groups that people were born into and couldn't move out of. The new government of India said caste distinctions were illegal, but they continued to exist in reality. The two brothers were born into an untouchable caste that skinned animals and tanned leather. The upper caste landlords in the village beat up the untouchables in order to keep them subordinate. They were beaten when their "unclean eyes" met the eyes of an upper caste Brahmin, when they walked on the wrong side of a temple road and supposedly defiled it, or when they went too near a prayer meeting, overhearing the sacred text.

Prakash's father dares to ask for his own election ballot, instead of just giving his fingerprint and allowing the landlord to vote for him. In response, the upper caste landlord sends his goons to whip the father, urinate on him, put burning coals put on his genitals, and then stuff the coals in his mouth. The goons then go on a rampage beating up untouchables at random in their quarter. The family of Prakash's father is pursued, his two grandchildren are knifed to death, and then the house of the family is set on fire, burning up the six in it.

In a nearby city, Om takes refuge where he finds assistance from a Muslim friend from the village. He comments that he has more in common with the Muslim than with the wealthy of his own religion. But soon the city is engulfed in violence between Hindus and Muslims. We get a feel of what's behind it. "A slumlord called Thorkay, who controls everything in this area –country liquid, hashish, bhung. And when there are riots, he decides who gets burned and who survives."

Om and his nephew can find housing only in a slum erected illegally on government land. The entire government is involved in bribery. The slum lord bribes the police, water inspector and electricity officer to allow it to operate. The police damage a taxi because the driver is late with his weekly bribe.

A large picture of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi hangs in a store window, "That's the goddess of protection. Her blessing is a business necessity. Her presence keeps my windows from being smashed and my shop from being burned." Om and Prakash, along with tens of thousands of other poor people, are rounded up on their way to work, forced to get in buses and then wait in the hot sun at a political rally until the Prime Minister descends in a helicopter to give her speech. They are told they will get four rupees for attending, along with tea and a small cake. They will lose 30 rupees by missing work for the day. After the long day they receive three rupees –one was taken out for the tea and cake, even when they didn't get it because it ran out!

The uncle and nephew get caught up in "democratic" India's family planning program of sterilization. The government decided to pay the patient to have the operation, but the money goes to the police boss of the area. Government workers are forced to produce two or three people from the village for sterilization each month, otherwise they aren't paid. So the upper caste political boss has the school teachers, tax collectors, and food inspectors pay him a bribe. Whoever pays the most is allowed to be considered finished with the round-up for sterilization that month. As the government gets more insistent on sterilizations, finally all the men in the village are rounded up by force to be sterilized. When a doctor hesitates to sterilize a young man without children, all it takes is a whisper from a political boss threatening his job. Prakash had returned to the village to get married, but the political boss has his testicles cut out.

Om and Prakash become beggars. We learn about the beggar master who beggars pay for protection, who in turn bribes the police, and who protects the beggars against attackers and thugs. A family sells their ugly daughter to be a beggar. Numerous beggars have their deformities worsened to turn in more money.

All this is told through vivid characters we get to know. We meet beggars, poor tailors and middle class people striving to advance in this society. It's a gripping book, extremely well written, that will hold the reader. It also puts the lie to all the claims we hear about democracy in India.

Pages 6-7

Maryland:
No one should work in bad air!

Jan 22, 2001

Officials from Baltimore County and the State of Maryland finally announced in December that state and county workers would be moved out of the Investment Building in Towson, Maryland –but not for another six months.

In total, almost a thousand people work in the building. Dozens of them have experienced illnesses that are connected to the quality of the air in the building. One woman has already won a worker's compensation case in the matter. Another quit her job after three years in the building left her with asthma. Another worker has developed lung and heart problems tied to the lack of good air. But the worst case was that of a worker who contracted Legionnaire's disease in 1999. This disease, which can be deadly, is contracted in buildings with poor ventilation. And, although they have not yet developed Legionnaire's disease, several other workers are carrying the bacteria which caused it.

Four years ago, the building's owners had agreed to replace aging ventilation units. But they didn't begin any work until the past year. Nonetheless, county and state officials continued to pay rent for the offices until just three months ago. Even now the rent, $90,000 per month, is being set aside and held for the company in an escrow fund until the work is completed.

Workers have been complaining for years. But it was not until the summer of 2000 that state and county officials finally called in Occupational Safety and Health inspectors.

Even after the inspectors' reports confirmed a problem, government officials still delayed and may never have done anything if it hadn't been for a lively demonstration in front of the building in early December. About 100 workers rallied, holding aloft a banner demanding, "All we want for Christmas is our health." The rally drew a lot of attention –and to the governor's consternation, unfavorable to him.

The government's announcement may have been a ploy to put an end to embarrassing publicity, but it was also an indirect admission of the problem. But it certainly wasn't a serious answer to the problem. Workers remain in a building which has made some of them sick. The landlord's rent accumulates in a bank account, ensuring his profits.

Let the workers be sent home until the problems are solved. Let them be paid for every day they miss. If governments can pay the landlord who is responsible for the problem, they can certainly pay the workers who were victimized by it. And it's what they would have done long ago if they really represented the population.

One more budget crisis in Baltimore's public schools

Jan 22, 2001

Mid-December it was announced that Baltimore city schools faced a deficit of 22 million dollars. In early January, an audit showed a bigger deficit of 36 million dollars. Last year there was a similar budget crisis. School chief Carmen Russo has been on a media blitz, declaring that whatever cuts need to be made, the quality of education would not be affected. She pledged not to touch money spent on instruction, teachers or classrooms.

Then came the list of cuts: 100 layoffs of temporary custodial workers; suppression of 38 vacant positions in the repair shop and engineers; eliminating six central administrative positions. Custodial cuts were carried out immediately. The last day of work for 100 custodians was January 5.

While Russo made light of these cuts, the impact of custodial-and-building-related cuts and permanent vacancies is not negligible. Principals and teachers are the first to say that when classrooms, hallways and bathrooms are not kept up properly, it affects the morale of the entire school.

Even if teachers weren't directly cut, neither were more teachers hired. And the schools are woefully short of teachers.

A school board member expressing frustration, said "$50,000 buys us a good teacher –and I want money for teachers. It drives this board nuts when we don't have money to give the kids what they deserve." The deteriorating public school system drives teachers and parents and students nuts, too.

The real question is why there is this constant crisis and haggling over budget deficits in Baltimore's public school system. Why isn't there adequate money to ensure the funding of quality education for all Baltimore children and teenagers in the public schools?

There is plenty of money in and around Baltimore. But it boils down to what those in power deem priorities. Cranes are operating up and down east Harbor Place as far as the eye can see with development projects. Each company has been rewarded by the city to the tune of millions of dollars in tax breaks and money for infrastructure –while school officials search for ways to scrimp and save to make ends meet on their already insufficient 850 million dollar budget.

When developers Paterakis or Marriott or Angelos or Rouse ask for multi-million dollar tax break for their latest projects, city officials never say to them, "Sorry, we can't afford that now. We need the money for our schools. First things first."

You bet they don't. Clearly, providing a good education for the children of the working class and poor is not one of their priorities.

Flint nurses' courage pays off

Jan 22, 2001

Striking nurses in Flint, Michigan voted a resounding "yes" on a tentative agreement between AFSCME Local 875 and McLaren Healthcare Corporate Board, on January 19th.

The 600 nurses had been on strike 73 days, maintaining round-the-clock picket lines despite one of the coldest winters on record.

The agreement bettered management's previous "final offer."

"Overtime is not an issue and it's not negotiable," had said hospital spokeswoman Laurie "Pinocchio" Prochazka.

"Two%" is our FINAL offer had been heard from both negotiator Bernie "I-broke-the-Hamady's-Supermarket-strike" Hoffman and CEO Philip "Love-Me-I'm-a-Big Democratic-Party-Contributor" Incanati.

But the workers prevailed. The national shortage of nurses may have helped. But so did the fact that the nurses stood together during these 73 days.

The new contract gives three% raises, retroactive to September, a one% ratification bonus, and seniority for time served on the picket line. All nurses are guaranteed their same shift and department. Scabs must post for any jobs that are left over.

Prior to the strike, many nurses were made to work 16 hours a DAY. This agreement offers better definitions of overtime and a 16-hour-a-MONTH cap on mandatory overtime.

That wasn't all the nurses gained by striking. The nurses gained confidence in themselves and each other. They won broad support from area workers and even doctors.

They got to know each other and enjoy each other's company, for once.

Workers learned about their rights and how to defend them. Nurses now speak of a readiness to organize floor by floor to see that the new overtime rules are followed.

WHO Needs Professional Help?

Jan 22, 2001

The new agreement says nurses must attend "anger management" classes (re-orientation) before returning to work.

Let's see –McLaren management paid roughly $5,000 a week for each of their 200 or so scabs, for 73 days, spending (wasting?) more than 73 million dollars. Why? Because they HATE unions. So WHO needs anger management classes???? Maybe some money management classes, too.

Soaring gas prices another "success" for deregulation

Jan 22, 2001

In the last few weeks, heating gas bills have skyrocketed in many areas around the country. Workers with moderate sized homes in the Chicago area, for example, have received bills of $300, $500 or even higher –for one month's heat. It has become a real question how they can pay their bill. Last March, Peoples Gas was charging 30 cents per therm, the measure of gas, but today 98 cents, more than three times as high.

The official reasons given for the sharply higher price of gas is that demand has grown faster than supply. The government's Energy Information Administration says of the increased price for gas at the wellhead (140% higher than a year ago), "This increase reflects a competitive market reaction as supply has lagged in its response to a recent surge in demand."

The problem is the official figures don't show a big surge in demand. The last month for which U.S. consumption is available is December 2000. In December 2.6 trillion cubic feet were consumed, up only a bare one and a half% from January 2000, the height of last winter. December's consumption of gas is only 0.6% higher than the previous peak month of January 1999. Yet prices have tripled since then, so what's up?

Deregulation

For a couple of decades now, the U.S. government has been deregulating the natural gas industry. In 1978, under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, caps were removed on the price the producers of gas could charge. In 1984, under President Reagan, the pipeline companies had to start selling to other customers than the ones they had exclusive agreements with. In 1992, under George Bush, the pipeline companies were given the right to charge simply to transmit the gas on their pipelines; they no longer had to buy and sell it. And in 2000, under President Clinton, all government restrictions setting a top price for short term sales through pipelines were removed.

Deregulation was presented as a way to introduce competition and so lower prices. Reality was quite a bit different. As The Wall Street Journal of January 3 said "Marketers emerged as a new breed of middlemen that took more profits without boosting gas production." A big part of their operations consisted in using the "futures" market at the New York Mercantile Exchange, where speculators bet on the future price of natural gas. For example, Apache Corp. recently locked in high prices for two years, getting a contract to deliver gas at $6 per thousand cubic feet, while at the same time buying up gas reserves in the southwest at $2 per thousand cubic feet. It's not surprising that its profits have risen 353% over the last year.

At the consumers end, People's Gas in Chicago is repeatedly telling its customers it has to pay higher gas prices to its suppliers. This is so, but it didn't stop Peoples Gas from taking in 86 million dollars in profits last year, plus paying its top executives millions of dollars in salaries. The biggest supplier of Peoples Gas is Natural Gas Pipelines of America, which turns out to be owned by Occidental Petroleum, which just happens to own gas fields besides pipelines. When Chicago consumers prices went up by three times, Occidental took in 1.2 billion dollars in profits to make a rate of profit on its investment an incredibly high 41.1%, after taxes!

In the Chicago suburbs, Nicor Corp. is the gas company. Besides getting gas from Occidental Petroleum, it gets it from El Paso Natural Gas, which is owned by El Paso Energy Corp. This pipeline company had profits for the last nine months of 525 million, much of it coming directly from the checks of overwhelmed bill payers. Nicor also buys from Enron Corp., a new energy middleman, operating in both natural gas and electricity, with over 40 billion dollars in sales. Its profits for the last nine months were 919 million dollars, up a third over the same period the previous year.

Deregulation in the natural gas field, as in so many others, turned out to be a way to raise gas prices sky high, rather than to lower them. The robbery of the consumers of gas isn't caused by an excess of demand for gas, but by excess profits going to all the companies along the gas distribution chain.

Emergency room crisis:
Caused by more than flu germs

Jan 22, 2001

Throughout the country, hospital emergency rooms are seeing twice as many patients as they were only three years ago. When ERs can't handle more patients, ambulances are diverted from one hospital to another, as, for example, during flu season. Now for the first time, some hospitals in urban areas are diverting year-round. On extremely busy days, hospitals can refuse ambulances several times within one day.

Ambulance drivers are sometimes forced to stay with their patients on stretchers in the ERs because the hospital has no more place to put patients while they wait for hours. Some patients, after a long wait, leave without being seen.

One cause of this problem is the growing number of uninsured people, including contractual and temporary workers who have no benefits. Other people work full time for companies that provide no health insurance. Nationwide the number of uninsured is 43 million. In Washington, DC, close to one out of every five people are uninsured, including many children.

This has a spiralling effect. When children or adults don't get timely and adequate primary care, small problems... become serious problems... become emergencies... and people head for ERs. Even for less acute problems, without medical insurance, people often don't have a doctor. They have no choice but to go to an ER.

So what are hospitals doing about this growing crisis? Instead of increasing the coverage available to fill the need, hospitals, especially ERs, discourage people from coming in for treatment. Washington DC's one public hospital, DC General, recently laid off 300 workers and pared down several units.

Every other industrialized nation in the world considers it the responsibility of society to provide to its entire population at least some measure of basic health insurance and primary care. Only in the U.S. do we have this outrageous situation, where a significant proportion of the population, many who have jobs, get inferior medical care, or no care at all.

What use is it to live in the richest country in the world, the one which has the highest level of medical technology, when it's not available to many working people?

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