The Spark

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

Issue no. 716 — December 1 - 15, 2003

There is no "light at the end of the tunnel"

Dec 1, 2003

Rushing into Iraq Thanksgiving Day, Bush stayed just long enough to have his picture taken carrying a tray of turkey and to be heard telling the troops to hang in there. It was a bit of a come-down from his seemingly triumphant "photo op" on May 1, when outfitted in a flight suit, saluted by ranks upon ranks of sailors on the wide-open deck of an aircraft carrier, he declared combat operations over.

Not only is the war not going well today, it's going from bad to worse.

In the month of November alone, the administration ran through three different plans for setting up an Iraqi puppet regime – with no success so far in finding enough puppets to agree to be part of it. The same month, November, was marked by the largest number of U.S. fatalities since war started last March – that is, more than in any other month of either the official war or the post-war war. But what was perhaps most significant, at least in a symbolic way, was the attack on the two U.S. soldiers in Mosul beaten by a crowd of teenagers. Despite U.S. claims that the resistance is centered in the Sunni triangle, Mosul is not part of this famous triangle. Despite U.S. claims that the attacks on U.S. troops come from hardened remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime hiding in the shadows or from "foreign fighters," the attack in Mosul was carried out by parts of the Iraqi population itself, by very young Iraqis. And it was carried out in broad daylight, in the midst of traffic, on a crowded street – and cheered by pedestrians.

Was it a horrible death, the death suffered by those two soldiers? Yes. But every death is horrible – the deaths suffered by the almost 500 other U.S. and allied troops, the deaths suffered by the tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Will Bush's propaganda trip work? Will he make the population here at home, not to mention the troops themselves, forget what they know about this filthy war?

Not likely, if we can gauge by letters that U.S. troops have been writing to their families and comments they make to reporters "embedded" with the army. Large numbers of troops understand they are not welcome in Iraq. Many are angry at the deceit and lies used to push them into this war.

Today, the morale of the troops is bad – even Stars and Stripes, the official military newspaper for the troops, admits it. The question is, what will happen tomorrow? Where will this demoralization take them?

Today, the U.S. troops (like the Iraqi people) may seem only to be victims of this war, pawns in this violent game carried out by the U.S. ruling class to put its hands on Iraqi oil. But, like the Iraqi people, they have every reason to want the U.S. out of Iraq. Of course, they are joined in wanting an end to the U.S. war on Iraq by their friends and relatives here at home, along with everyone else outraged by this terrible war. But, along with the Iraqi people, they have the most reason to want an immediate end to the U.S. aggression against Iraq.

In Viet Nam, the U.S. government decided there was no "light at the end of the tunnel" when large numbers of U.S. troops went from being simply demoralized to actively expressing resistance to that war. That's when the U.S. government concluded it could no longer carry on that war.

The troops today in Iraq don't have to remain demoralized victims used against another people who are not their enemy.

Pages 2-3

Reforming Workers' Comp - on the backs of the injured

Dec 1, 2003

California passed a new workers' comp "reform," supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

The new law puts a cap on the number of visits for vocational rehabilitation and therapy; it slashes drug payments and restricts outpatient surgery. These cuts are estimated to save businesses up to six billion dollars per year, or close to 20% of their workers' comp costs.

Such a "reform" is nothing new. In 1993, during the last "crisis" in workers' comp, workers' benefits were also slashed mercilessly in California. As a result, claims declined by 20% between 1996 and 2001.

This is part of a national trend. Over the past 10 years, workers' comp benefits in relation to wages throughout the country have been cut by 36%. Thus if there is a workers' comp crisis, it's not because workers are getting better coverage. On the contrary, injured workers are getting lower benefits, when they are allowed benefits at all.

If costs are rising, blame the big providers who control the system, the insurance and health care companies. In California, the prices of the private hospitals, outpatient clinics and medical groups that service workers' comp claims have increased four to five times faster than general health care costs over the last five years. The private insurance companies didn't complain – they themselves often have very tight ties and business arrangements with the health care businesses.

At the same time, the insurance companies themselves have added to the giant price increases. In the mid-1990s, after deregulation, many insurers entered the California market, engaged in an all-out price war to win market share. At the same time, they threw the premiums they collected into the speculative frenzy on Wall Street.

With the stock market crash, dozens of insurance companies fled the state or went out of business, leaving just a few big insurance companies dominating the market. And these companies hiked their rates astronomically, starting in 2000.

As a result, the insurance companies racked up big increases in profits. AIG, the largest workers' comp insurer in the state and the second largest in the country, just reported 3rd quarter 2003 profits that were up 27%. The other top insurers announced profits that doubled over the last year.

It's outrageous. Big companies carry on business in ways that guarantee workers will be injured and sickened. But instead of seeking to compensate the people business harmed, the state adds to their pain.

Medicare "reform:
" An enormous attack

Dec 1, 2003

Right before Thanksgiving, Congress finally passed the massive 400 billion dollar bill – and then had the nerve to proclaim it a "historic Medicare reform."

For ordinary people: Tiny benefits and big costs

The centerpiece of this so-called "reform" is the prescription drug benefit, which is estimated to cost 228 billion dollars of taxpayers' money over the next eight years, a huge amount of money. Little of this will actually benefit ordinary people.

Someone who spends $800 annually on prescriptions would actually lose money by participating – through a combination of co-payments, monthly premiums and a $250 deductible. Seniors with drug costs as high as $5,000 will still end up paying $4,000 out of pocket. There are all kinds of restrictions, complicated and torturous rules and regulations, premiums, deductibles and co-payments. The lawmakers even threw in an enormous $2,850 hole, or, as they like to call it, a "donut," in which there is no coverage at all. This bizarre patchwork serves to hide how little benefit most people will get.

Congress is expected to RAISE the cost of the drug coverage every year to seniors, through higher premiums, co-payments and deductibles. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that after eight years, these costs will be practically twice as high, effectively reducing the tiny benefits to next to nothing. By that time, most seniors will lose more than they gain from this program.

Those with the most to lose are the poorest and most vulnerable seniors, six million of whom now receive drug benefits on Medicaid. Under the new "reform," these seniors will lose their Medicaid benefits and be pushed into the Medicare drug program. Although the government promises to compensate them with some form of subsidy, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that no matter what, they will be much worse off, both because of higher co-payments and because they will lose access to particular drugs not covered by Medicare.

What the drug companies stand to gain

Someone does benefit from Medicare "reform," however – the pharmaceutical companies. They will receive 228 billion dollars over eight years' time, with almost no strings attached. Of course, this money is supposed to go to pay for drugs. But under the reform, the government will not control or regulate the prices that the drug companies charge. And, as an added bonus, the government ban on importing cheaper drugs from Canada will continue. So, the drug companies will be free to continue to charge whatever outrageous price they want.

The drug companies will pocket the lion's share of the 228 billion dollars. According to a recent study done by the Boston University School of Public Health, "Medicare reform" will bring a windfall of 139 billion dollars in increased profits over eight years for what is already the world's most profitable industry.

In other words, 139 billion dollars out of 228 billion will go into profits, not drugs. The real centerpiece of "Medicare reform" is not drug benefits for ordinary people but pharmaceutical company profits for the bourgeoisie.

Leaving no capitalist behind

The drug companies are not alone in gaining huge benefits from Medicare reform. To the big hospitals and medical groups, Medicaid payments will be increased, rules and regulations will be relaxed, even while the traditional Medicare premiums and deductibles paid by the individual will increase.

Medical insurance companies will gain 12 billion dollars in subsidies either to administer the Medicare drug benefit program or to provide private insurance that includes drug benefits to seniors who opt out of Medicare. The government will not regulate the service that these companies provide, nor will it penalize them for dropping seniors whenever the companies decide it is not profitable enough for them.

What else could the insurance companies want?

The Medicare "reform" also provides new, more profitable options for the big industrial companies, which have been moaning and groaning about the rising costs of retirees' health care. The government will give them 70 billion dollars in subsidies if they keep drug benefits for their retirees. But if the companies decide that this is not enough, they can always drop them. And, in fact, the Congressional Budget Office has already admitted it expects almost four million retirees to lose drug coverage from their former employers, as a result of this "reform." That's one third of all private sector retirees who currently have drug coverage.

Medicare "reform" is aimed essentially at "reforming" – that is, boosting – the profits of many sectors of private industry. While it provides little or no help for ordinary people who are increasingly being crushed by rising health care bills, it does stick us and future generations with the bill that will come due in higher taxes and calls for further reductions in social programs, public services and education.

Most of the seniors know it. Certainly, none of them were seen celebrating or demonstrating in favor of the "Medicare reform" that was supposed to be done for them. On the contrary, every opinion poll shows strong opposition among seniors to this "reform." The day after the "reform" passed the Senate, one headline in the New York Times said it all:"Some Experts Foresee Revolt by Elderly over Drug Benefits."

Don't let the Democrats fool you

Of course, the Democrats are already posturing and positioning themselves to take advantage of this discontent for electoral purposes. Certainly this "reform" was pushed through by the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress. But this bill could not have been passed without a section of the Democratic Party's support. In the Senate it had the support of key Democratic Party leaders – and not just well-known conservatives, like John Breaux of Louisiana – but Dianne Feinstein from California, a liberal with the full backing of senior organizations and the AFL-CIO as well. Moreover the Democrats, when they controlled the presidency and the Congress, never made any serious attempt to add a real drug benefits program to Medicare.

This bill is an attack against ordinary people by the two big capitalist parties in the service of the bourgeoisie. Whether or not that whole rotten bunch gets away with it depends on what people do, whether or not they actually "revolt" as "some experts foresee."

Drug companies attack

Dec 1, 2003

In November a judge for the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals closed down Rx Depot, a business set up to provide lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada. The judge said the business was engaged in "illegal activity determined by Congress to harm the public interest."

What is the public interest that was harmed? The U.S. government claims that drugs imported from Canada don't meet the supposed high standards demanded in this country. A Food and Drug Administration spokesperson claimed, "We can't ensure the safety and quality of those products."

What a joke! What standards? In recent years, the FDA has been relaxing its standards so that drugs can get more quickly to market. As a result, the number of deaths and severe reactions caused by new drugs has increased several times over.

Three hundred fifty-four times last year, the pharmaceutical industry recalled drugs after suits, multiple deaths or doctors' protests.

The legal drug industry pressures Congress to keep the importation of prescription drugs illegal. Does this protect the consumer from poorly manufactured drugs? The answer was "NO" – at least 354 times that the industry itself was forced to admit. The only interests this recent court ruling protects are those of the drug manufacturers. The real issue here is not standards. It's prices – and therefore profits.

Prices charged in Canada are between 10 and 50% lower, even when the drugs sold in Canadian pharmacies come directly from these same U.S. drug manufacturers. And the drug manufacturers make profits in Canada too – just not as much as they can make here. The drug industry's profits are five times higher than the average profits of all the Fortune 500 largest U.S. corporations. The FDA, the Congress, the administration and the courts gang up together to give U.S. pharmaceutical companies free rein to make a killing – literally and figuratively.

Congress acts to protect the criminal

Dec 1, 2003

Congress is considering setting up a trust fund for workers who have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is made of very tiny fibers, which can float in the air and be taken into a person's lungs. The human body cannot break down the fibers, so exposure to asbestos can cause a variety of diseases, including cancer and asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs that makes it hard to breathe.

One lawyer representing asbestos victims said, "Science knew about the dangers going back to the '30s and '40s, and businesses didn't even put warning labels on their products until the '70s. The amount of deceit and the amount of misconduct, gross negligence, is staggering."

It's not out of any consideration for the victims of this criminally murderous conduct that Congress is acting now to set up the trust fund. No – it's to protect the corporations who used asbestos in their production long after its hazards were known.

Under the proposed bills, the corporations and their insurance companies would have to pay into the trust fund. But the amount they would have to pay is much less than what they could lose in a court suit. In recent years, juries have awarded asbestos victims and their families over 10 million dollars from their employers. One of the bills being considered would set up a fund that could pay no more than $180,000 to a victim.

Ten million can't compensate for the loss of life or a lifetime of pain and inability to work! Nothing can. But the fact that the government will set $180,000 as the limit shows that once again, Congress sides with the criminal and not the victim.

Pages 4-5

The population is victim of bombings

Dec 1, 2003

In Istanbul, Turkey, 26 people were killed and another 300 wounded November 15 in an attack against two synagogues. Five days later, additional suicide attacks against the English consulate and the headquarters of a British bank called HSBC killed another 32 people and wounded 450 more, for the most part workers and employees at the bank and consulate.

At the beginning the attacks were attributed to al-Qaida, and then to various fundamentalist Turkish groups which aid al-Qaida, like the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders Front or Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, which is implanted in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, was used in the 1990s by the Turkish state to assassinate militants of the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist group which was waging an armed struggle for national liberation. Proof that the Turkish state used Hezbollah was found in January 2000, when it turned out that weapons taken from Hezbollah had serial numbers issued to the Turkish Ministry of the Interior. In addition, an ID from the Turkish secret service was found in the possession of a leader of the military wing of Hezbollah when he was arrested in 1996.

In fact, the Turkish state has a long history of such practices. In the 1960s and 70s, it used terrorists coming from all sorts of fundamentalist groups against the Kurds, against the working class and against the communist movement. It's similar to what happened with the U.S. and bin Laden. During the 1980s the U.S. armed and supported bin Laden against the Soviet Union during its war on Afghanistan. Like bin Laden, the Islamic fundamentalists armed and aided by the Turkish government are using what they got from the Turkish state yesterday to play their own game today.

It is obvious that whichever terrorist group or groups are behind these attacks, the victims of which are usually workers, their aims surely do not defend social justice. In fact they dream of establishing a reactionary regime, like that of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where women and workers will be pushed back to the level of slaves.

The population in general and especially the workers cannot count on the Turkish state in any way to defend them against this type of attack. All the more so since the Turkish state is obviously already trying to use these attacks to increase its repressive practices.

Who can end the violence?

Dec 1, 2003

In the middle of November, four former heads of Israel's security service, Shin Bet, issued a joint statement condemning the Sharon government for its tough military policies toward the Palestinians. One of them, Ami Ayalon, declared, "Many Israelis thought we could defeat the Palestinians by military means, and this would solve our problems. But this hasn't worked. Our economy is deteriorating and we have to change directions."

This follows similar criticisms expressed by the chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon in October. He said then that the comprehensive travel restrictions and curfews imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli government "increase hatred for Israel and strengthen the terror organizations." He added that "there is no hope, no expectations for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, nor in Bethlehem and Jericho."

It's certainly unusual that top officials in the Israeli state publicly break ranks and voice such criticism of the government policy. And it's also certain that these officials are not alone in seeing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hardline policy against the ongoing Palestinian uprising as counterproductive.

These five Israeli officials are not criticizing Sharon because of concern for the hardships faced by the Palestinian population. They are worried that Sharon's heavy-handed tactics are backfiring.

Since Sharon became prime minister in 2001, the Israeli army has routinely been assassinating Palestinian political leaders and activists, bombarding civilian areas, besieging Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps, arresting thousands of residents, demolishing houses and shutting down its borders to Palestinian areas, depriving tens of thousands of Palestinian workers from jobs across the border in Israel. Sharon's government is now constructing a two-billion-dollar fence through the West Bank to shut off the entire Palestinian population there.

All these repressive measures, however, have not stopped the uprising. In fact, they have only provoked further reactions from the Palestinian population. So now official Israeli voices are heard in favor of working with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority to try to control this revolt. Yaalon himself made this clear, saying: "In our tactical interests, we are operating contrary to our strategic interests."

If the Israeli government eases its policy toward Arafat and asks for his cooperation, it will certainly not be doing it for the first time. A decade ago, Israel concluded the U.S.-sponsored Oslo Agreement with Arafat's PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). Arafat was allowed to go back to the occupied territories as head of a newly-formed Palestinian Authority. This was an admission on Israel's part that its mighty army, one of the world's best-trained and best-equipped, had not been able to stop the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising, which had started in the Gaza Strip and West Bank in 1987. A Palestinian police force, under the command of Arafat, was supposed to help with that task.

But police measures alone – whether Israeli or Palestinian – did not stop the Intifada. This uprising has taken deep roots in the population. The stone-throwing teenagers, who have come to symbolize it, have seen their parents' and grandparents' generations spend their entire lives in refugee camps, without land, without jobs – without a hope for the future. They seem determined to carry this fight to the end, and they have awakened that kind of fighting spirit in their parents' generation also.

On top of that, Israel never respected the Oslo agreements. It not only continued direct military repression in the areas now supposedly under Palestinian control, it also has continued to expand the Jewish settlements, cutting deeply into those areas. The frustration of the Palestinian population with Israel and its junior partner, the Palestinian Authority, exploded three years ago into a new upsurge of the uprising, now dubbed the Second Intifada. Since then this uprising and Israel's all-out repression against it have resulted in the deaths of 900 Israelis and over 2500 Palestinians.

In the face of this spiraling violence, there are signs that the Israeli people are getting tired of living in a constant state of war, not only in the occupied territories but in Israel itself. In September, 27 fighter pilots signed a letter calling airstrikes on Palestinian population centers "illegal and immoral" and saying that they would no longer participate in such operations. Some parents of slain Israeli soldiers have also condemned the army's operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Then, on the first of November, 100,000 people showed up at a rally commemorating the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin eight years ago. The event was advertised as a peace rally, and there were large banners at the rally calling on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Even if limited, these signs of dissent within the Israeli population are much more significant than any public disagreement within the ruling elite about how to most effectively suppress the Palestinian revolt. The workers and poor in Israel, who make up the rank and file of the Israeli army, can break with the policy of their government which has increasingly sunk Israel and the occupied territories into a vicious cycle of bloodshed. They can start taking steps toward building a peaceful future with the Palestinian workers and poor, within a new political framework which will recognize the right of all workers and poor in the region to a decent future regardless of race or ethnicity.

Anti-war protests in Great Britain

Dec 1, 2003

The demonstration organized against Bush's visit to London on Thursday November 20 was really a notable success, with 100,000 participants according to the police and 200,000 according to its organizers. These figures were especially significant given that the demonstration took place in the middle of the day when people were working.

Contrary to the image given by the media, the highpoint of this demo was not pulling down the statue of Bush erected in the middle of Trafalgar Square (to imitate pulling down the statue of Hussein after the U.S. troops entered Baghdad). The most striking aspect was that three hours after the march got under way, it was joined by large numbers of workers coming from their work places to join in the ranks of the demonstrators. Their numbers were really impressive at the back of the procession, especially since people came in their uniforms. The postal workers, rail workers, construction workers appeared much more obvious than those in previous demonstrations on Iraq, which were dominated by the middle class.

But it is necessary to say that the organizers of this demonstration took care to make it a protest against Bush's visit and not against the policies of Blair. The official signs of the marchers made no demand for a break with Blair's Labor Party – although slogans on signs made spontaneously by demonstrators did.

In any case, the demonstration was significant, clearly reflecting the very sizeable majority of the British population that wants Britain out of the war on Iraq.

Foreign policy - family style!

Dec 1, 2003

The divorce proceedings of Neil Bush, a younger brother of President George W. Bush, brought to light his business dealings with Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (GSMC), a Chinese computer chip manufacturer. According to a contract signed between them, Neil Bush receives two million dollars over five years, to "provide GSMC from time to time with business strategies and policies; latest information and trends of the related industry, and other expertized advices."

It turns out that, in signing this contract, Neil Bush was only following a long-standing family tradition. One of the founders of GSMC is the son of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. The friendship between the Jiang and Bush families goes back to the mid-1970s, when Neil's father, George Bush, was ambassador to China. Later, during the presidency of the first George Bush, Asset Management, a company with ties to his brother Prescott Bush Jr., was the only American firm that was able to beat U.S. sanctions and sell communications satellites to China.

The political relationship between the U.S. and Chinese governments may have its ups and downs. But when it comes to doing business, the Bush family and their Chinese partners have had only a steady, profitable relationship.

There's no reason to think that the Bushs are the only members of the U.S. ruling class who use politics to fill their pockets. In fact, they are not even one of the major beneficiaries of the deals made between U.S. capitalists and their business partners in China. Just recently, for example, Boeing and General Electric signed a 2.4-billion-dollar contract with Chinese officials for airplanes and airplane engines, while the Big 3 car manufacturers completed a 1.7-billion-dollar deal to sell cars in China. But the fact that Neil Bush and his family can get away with such "consulting" contracts shows how much business U.S. bosses are doing in China.

While the bosses tell U.S. workers that the Chinese are "stealing our jobs," they obviously have no problems running away with the billions of dollars they make off of China.

Conditions for workers in Iraq

Dec 1, 2003

For the Iraqi population, the current war is not about Saddam Hussein, it is about survival. An estimated seventy% of the population has no work. There is no system of unemployment.

For those working, the average wage is only $60 per month, at a time when the war and occupation have caused the price of everything to rise – food, fuel, housing that isn't destroyed. If wages were no better before the war, the workers had subsidies to their wages in the form of food and housing allowances. This support has been eliminated by the Coalition Provisional Authority that controls Iraq.

The Bush administration is trying to turn over state-run industries – such as the airlines, health care and telephones – to private corporations. If these plans go through, thousands more jobs will be eliminated.

The one thing the Coalition Authority did maintain from Saddam Hussein's regime was his 1977 ban on labor unions and his 1987 ban preventing workers in state-owned enterprises from bargaining for contracts or forming unions. And Paul Bremer's administration this summer added a legal prohibition on all strikes.

Of course, given all the prohibitions against strikes in this country and all the elimination of jobs, none of this should come as a surprise. This is the "democracy" the U.S. is trying to export to Iraq.

Spying on the population in the name of "liberty"

Dec 1, 2003

When Bush was asked, after the November London demonstration, why so many people demonstrated against him, he said, "I fully understand people don't agree with war, but I hope that they agree with peace and freedom and liberty." He then declared he was happy to be in a country where demonstrations were freely allowed and that such a policy was what the U.S. had in mind for Iraq.

Demonstrations freely allowed? Not in Iraq, where demonstrators are regularly fired on. "Peace and freedom and liberty" for the Iraqi population? That's hardly what prompted the orders to search, destroy, arrest and shoot throughout Iraq, leading to the deaths of thousands of civilians, including children.

Meanwhile, back in the "peace and freedom and liberty" of the United States, the FBI issued orders to local police – just 10 days before the big anti-war rallies in October – to collect information on "suspicious activity" at protests. Which suspicious activities were being investigated throughout the "land of the free"? Such activities as denouncing the war or trying to raise funds on the Internet to sponsor anti-war demonstrations. The memorandum which was sent to law enforcement officials all over the country talked about such threats as "the formation of human chains," which means demonstrators linking arms and walking together, or videotaping arrests of demonstrators – which supposedly "intimidates" police.

The attorney general instructed the FBI to attend political rallies, as well as mosque services and other public events. The use of cameras and videos to film demonstrators was publicly announced by the government. In addition, some anti-war critics have found their names were placed on a "no-fly" list of those not allowed to board airplane flights.

Are these restrictions going to ferret out terrorists? Of course not. They are designed to shut up all protests of Bush's wars and policies. They have not succeeded – and should not.

Looking for an "exit strategy"

Dec 1, 2003

Plans for Iraq's future have been coming out of the White House fast and furious lately. There will be "self-rule" in Iraq with a constitution written by the U.S. and then some kind of elections – but not until the end of 2004. No, there will be "self-rule" by the end of June 2004, but there won't really be elections. Well, maybe there will be elections, but the candidates will have to be nominated by local councils the U.S. appointed. No, it doesn't seem like that one will fly either.

Behind all these calculations lurk two realities: one, the sinkhole which the U.S. created in Iraq when it invaded becomes wider and deeper by the day; two, U.S. elections are coming up next fall. Bush is trying to preserve his tattered presidency, and wants at least to give the appearance of getting out of Iraq while the U.S. ruling class is trying to find a way to impose its rule over Iraq so it can control Iraq's oil. But with the situation in Iraq spinning more out of control, neither Bush nor the American bourgeoisie find a ready answer to their problems. According to the New York Times, "American policy makers say that hostility to the American occupation is growing so fast that if Iraq does not become self-governing quickly, attacks on American forces could increase." In fact, those attacks already are on a very steep increase. The number of U.S. troops killed in November was nearly half the total number killed in the "official" war, the one that ended when Bush declared combat operations over on May 1.

This is what explains the U.S. rushing from one plan to another, almost in a kind of panic. The editor of a daily paper in Beirut Lebanon, referring to the most recent revision of the "plan," commented: "It was a document that looked like some treaty between the United States and the Indians in 1882. To think they put this thing together in a couple of White House meetings with everyone in panic mode, it's humiliating."

Humiliating it may be – but more to the point, it demonstrates what the U.S. media tries to obscure, when it talks about "exit strategy." The U.S., which has created an enormous disaster in Iraq, and more broadly the Middle East, is now beginning to feel a very tiny part of its consequences.

Pages 6-7

Rouge Steel and its workers, used up and junked

Dec 1, 2003

In October, Rouge Industries, Inc. of Dearborn, Michigan added itself to the long list of steel companies using the bankruptcy courts to cut workers' wages and nearly to eliminate the pensions and benefits of those who are already retired.

When Rouge Steel filed for bankruptcy, it claimed that it had reached agreement with a Russian steel company, OAO Severstal, to sell its assets. The very same day, the chairman of U.S. Steel said his company was still interested in buying Rouge – at fire-sale prices, to be sure, and under the condition that the new buyer would not be responsible for any payments whatsoever to retirees.

This means that Rouge simply becomes the latest in a string of steel companies that have used bankruptcy to shuffle ownership in such a way as to leave workers out in the cold. By going through bankruptcy, companies can legally stop paying for retirees' pensions and benefits. Regardless of previous commitments, Rouge Steel is allowed to get away with cutting off retirees' health care plans. For the retirees' monthly pensions, they are left at the mercy of the government's Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

Changing owners through bankruptcy also allows companies to evade whatever union contracts they have signed. And this is actually the heart of the matter: the big companies want to inflate their profits by drastically cutting workers' wages and benefits. At the same time, they expect to benefit by dumping onto others the costs of upgrading obsolete plant and equipment.

What is today called Rouge Industries, Inc. was for 65 years an integral part of Ford Motor Company. In those years, Ford recouped its steel-making investment many times over, and did so partly by running the place into the ground. When it judged that the steel works were squeezed dry, Ford turned it into a separate company and sold it off in 1989, using the sale to swindle the workers into a lower level of wages and benefits.

The present owners are simply following suit. If bankruptcy threatens to have more severe consequences for the workers who are caught up in these manipulations, Ford paved the way into bankruptcy court.

L.A. transit:
Mechanics' strike ends without resolving the healthcare issue

Dec 1, 2003

After a 35-day walkout, mechanics of the Los Angeles MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) voted on November 19 to go back to work. The settlement between the MTA board and the mechanics' union ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union), however, is not complete. The issue of healthcare benefits, which in fact was the main point of disagreement between the company and mechanics, is still not resolved. An arbitration panel is to come up with a compromise for both sides to consider. But since the union was ready to accept some kind of cut on healthcare benefits even before the strike, whatever "compromise" the arbitration process produces will mean an even bigger loss for the mechanics.

The wage increase offered by the new, four-year agreement is actually a loss. The mechanics get only a 2% raise for the two first years of the contract, starting from last year when the old contract ended. Then there will be a 2.5% raise for each of the following two years. In other words, this raise actually doesn't keep up with the inflation rate. And the workers will not get the quarterly wage adjustments they used to get.

Not surprisingly, many strikers were not satisfied with the terms of the settlement. When, during a meeting before the vote, some mechanics criticized their local president for handing the health care issue to arbitration, their comments drew loud applause.

Nonetheless, the union leaders reported that the contract passed with an 85% vote. It's obvious that many of those who voted to go back to work did so because they didn't see real prospects if they continued to strike.

For good reason. Throughout the strike, the pickets were mostly routine events. Unlike the MTA strike three years ago, there were no rallies called by the union, letting the strikers demonstrate their determination and measure their own strength. There was no attempt to gain the support of other workers who face similar attacks themselves. There was no attempt to reach out to the community either, especially to the commuters who faced the hardship of having no transportation. No meetings were held to inform the strikers about the progress of the negotiations, let alone to enable workers to discuss their possibilities and give direction to their strike. Strikers were left feeling that they had no control over the outcome of their strike.

A strike like this can seem to the workers like nothing but a nuisance, or, what's worse, something imposed on them to make them accept a bad contract. Many workers voiced the opinion that local president Neil Silver had been forced to call the strike because he will be up for election later this month.

Of course, the issue is not over yet. According to the settlement, either side can reject the arbitration with a 60% majority vote. And the bus drivers, who stayed out with the mechanics during the strike, are still without a contract themselves. So, another strike against the MTA is possible.

If that turns out to be the case, for the strike to have any prospects, the mechanics and drivers themselves will have to make it a real fight, not a trap like this one was.

Currency traders expose some of Wall Street's dirty linen

Dec 1, 2003

Forty-seven currency traders were arrested for fraud November 19. They were employed at some of Wall Street's biggest investment banks, including J.P. Morgan and UBS. Discovered in a sting arranged by the FBI, they were accused of charges ranging from money laundering, extortion, trafficking in weapons and drugs, as well as fraud. Losses were said to run in the millions of dollars, affecting not only the big banks they worked for, but thousands of small investors.

Some of those arrested were said to have been carrying out similar schemes for more than 20 years, without ever being caught. If they were able to get away with these schemes for so long, it's because of the way that Wall Street itself functions. Every day, 1.2 trillion dollars are traded there, most of it via telephone or computer. There are few controls, and the ones that do exist control little or nothing. The stock exchange is marked by wheeling and dealing. Officials of the brokerage houses, the big banks, insurance companies and any number of capitalist institutions spend their days speculating, trying to put their hands on more money than the next guy. They are ready to rob each other, and ready to use every dirty trick in the book to do it.

If it were only that, let them be –

Sniper suspect sentenced to death:
The state organizes another revenge killing

Dec 1, 2003

The Washington, D.C., area sniper trial ended in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with the suspect, John Allen Muhammad, being sentenced to death.

Muhammad didn't make a great effort to plead innocence. In the first days of the trial, when he was acting as his own lawyer, Muhammad said that he was at the scene during one of the shootings. His accused accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, who is being tried separately, admitted to the shootings and testified that he was with Muhammad when they happened.

Of course, the random shooting of people at public places is an utterly heinous act. But these shootings have been used by state authorities and politicians as a justification and an advertisement for the death penalty, that is, the organized killing of people by the state. And that's also heinous.

From the beginning, officials acted like they were out for blood. "We're going to go to Virginia, where Mr. Muhammad is going to be killed." These bloodthirsty words came from none other than U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft even before Muhammad was found guilty. Although most of the shootings Muhammad and Malvo are accused of took place in Maryland, the trials were moved to Virginia because the courts in Virginia hand down death sentences much more easily and more frequently – including against minors, as Malvo was at the time of the shootings.

Obviously, the death penalty doesn't deter individuals who commit such crimes. The prosecutors themselves have repeatedly said that they don't know the exact reasons why Muhammad may have decided to shoot people at random. Muhammad's former wife testified that after Muhammad came back from the first Persian Gulf War of 1991, his business and family life started to crumble, and things spiraled down from there. The reason, or reasons, for this can be many things, including traumatic experiences Muhammad may have had during the war.

The fact that no effort was made to understand Muhammad's motives shows clearly that putting him to death is nothing more than a mere act of revenge – and that's an inhumane, barbaric act like the sniper shootings themselves. In fact it's worse. For one can argue that an individual like Muhammad may have gone insane under the pressures of a stressful life or certain traumatic experiences. But how can one explain the organized revenge killing of human beings by the state? Especially a state that sends young people off to wars – wars known to create all kinds of mental problems in participants – and provides no help when these people come back and have to deal with these problems.

No matter how horrible the sniper shootings were, executing the accused is not a solution. The only solution is to create a more humane society where individuals, who find themselves trapped in desperate situations, can get help – so that they don't turn on other human beings.

That would be a society that respects and values human life. The very fact that state officials and politicians consider it a career move to promote a revenge killing is proof that we don't live in that kind of society.

Warren Michigan Truck Assembly:
No Means NO!

Dec 1, 2003

Workers at Chrysler's Warren Truck Assembly recently turned down a local contract proposal by an overwhelming 90% "NO" vote.

Once again, Chrysler and union heads were trying to sneak in parts of what they had once called an MOA (modern operating agreement), which aimed at making it much easier for the company to get more work out of fewer workers. "MOA" had come to symbolize the vast range of concessions Chrysler was trying to push through at the local level, and it stood for everything the workers didn't want. So the company long ago dropped the term, but kept trying to push it through under other forms.

This year, once again, local and international officials agreed with the company to try to impose some of those terms on workers at the Truck Plant.

Workers, when they heard, quickly objected – especially to a provision that would have let the company force workers to take their vacation when the company wanted to close the plant down for maintenance, changeover or anything else. With so few weeks of vacation, auto workers have long looked to the lay-off periods as a second vacation, paid for by unemployment funds. But for their own vacations, they wanted to take them when they wanted, so they could co-ordinate with other family members, etc.

The new contract would have done away with that. Effectively, it took away two vacation weeks. That's what prompted the big "NO" vote – so big that union officials could not even pretend that the agreement had passed.

After the vote, local officials indicated they would take a new vote on the same contract, and this time, they let the workers no, the vote WOULD be "yes."

They began to spread a range of rumors – the main one being that if workers didn't vote for the contract, they would be forced to strike. (It used to be that the union threatened the company with a strike – these union officials, however, think they can use it to threaten the workers.)

In fact, this is a threat that can be turned back against the company – and against any union official who does the company's dirty work. If union officials push a strike, then the workers can take advantage of it for their own demands – and not only to defend their vacation weeks. Jobs at the Truck Plant are overloaded. More workers are needed in every department, more janitors, more hi-lo drivers, more medical relief people. More time off is needed. Violations of overtime restrictions need to be stopped. Etc. etc. etc. Workers, sitting down together, could come up with a list of similar items, hundreds and hundreds of them.

If there's going to be a strike, make good use of it!

Page 8

The California supermarket strike:
A bigger mobilization is needed

Dec 1, 2003

The Southern California supermarket strike has now entered its eighth week. In many of the 859 stores on strike, picket lines continue to be very visible and well-manned. Despite the hardship of a long strike with no end yet in sight, it's obvious that many strikers have kept their determination and fighting spirit.

Three days before the Thanksgiving holiday, responding to the request of the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers), the Teamsters union announced that the 8000 truck drivers who work for the three companies being struck would start honoring picket lines at warehouses. The Teamsters had already been refusing to cross picket lines at the stores since the beginning of the strike.

The strike continues to enjoy visible support not only from the truck drivers but from other workers – and from customers in general. People from the neighborhood around a store often visit and join picket lines, buying snacks and drinks for the picketers. The strike is definitely a topic of discussion in other workplaces and working-class neighborhoods. Workers in other industries not only sympathize with the strikers but identify with their fight. Many workers have been facing the same kind of attacks – cutbacks on wages and healthcare benefits, introduction of two-tier wage scales, loss of retirement benefits – or they fear similar attacks coming.

It's this widespread support, combined with the strikers' own militancy, that gives the strike its real possibilities in the face of a really tough attack carried out by the companies.

From the beginning, the companies – Kroeger, Safeway and Albertsons – put up a kind of united front against the strikers. When the UFCW struck the Vons and Pavillions stores owned by Safeway, the other two companies immediately locked out their workers. The companies were ready to lose business so they could gang up on the workers. Obviously, they can afford the loss: these are the three biggest supermarket chains in the country. The companies agreed between themselves to share the financial burden of the strike. They can depend on the support of financial interests on Wall Street, which in fact encouraged them to take a hardline stance against the workers to increase the companies' profitability and stock value. And the supermarkets have support from other companies who want to take medical care benefits away from their workers – the main concession demanded by the markets.

Faced with this front, the strikers need to use every weapon they can mobilize, which means the active support for and participation in this strike by other workers. So far, however, the strike has not been organized to do that. The UFCW may have called on customers not to cross picket lines, but the financial backing the chains have amassed will allow them to outwait any consumer boycott.

The UFCW has not even tried to mobilize all of its own members working in grocery stores – not even those working on different contracts for the same companies being struck. To the contrary: two weeks into the strike, the union took a step back by pulling the pickets from the Ralphs stores owned by Kroeger. Now the UFCW says it's using its "trump card" by calling on the Teamsters to honor the pickets at the warehouses – but why not do this from the beginning? Why leave the strikers out on the picket lines for six weeks without mobilizing all the forces and support available?

Despite all the interest shown by other workers, almost nothing has been done to involve them actively in this strike. Instead of engaging in a real fight like this, the UFCW filed a consumer lawsuit against the three companies for violating anti-trust laws. We know what the courts do. Even if they ruled in the workers' favor – not likely – the case won't work its way through the courts for years. This does nothing but divert workers from the fight that needs to be made.

The bosses certainly don't limit their attacks to workers at a few companies or even in one industry. It's an all-out war they are waging on the workers' living standard in order to increase their already high profits. The working class can defend itself against this kind of all-out attack only by mobilizing its forces in return. All of its forces.

Report from State of Michigan workers

Dec 1, 2003

Of 9,278 votes cast, in the state workers' vote on concessions organized by the UAW, 7,143 voted yes on the state's revised demand for concessions and 2,135 voted no. 7,700 more workers did not vote at all.

The yes vote was not a majority vote of the membership. The concessions passed with only 42% of the workers in favor of it.

Many who had opposed the state's concession demands since early last spring were disappointed with the vote. In fact, they can be proud that their activity made the state back off as much as it did.

The demonstrations in Detroit in April 2003 and September 2003 – in the hundreds – then the demonstration in Lansing in October – in the thousands – changed the situation. Those demonstrations, meetings organized in branch offices, and other activities made the state back off from its original demand of $4,100 from each worker, bringing it down to an average of $2,400.

Workers know this is a rotten deal

The final concessions – which take the form of unpaid work days that are to be banked and may be used for leave later on – were referred to as the BLT plan. This plan put workers between a rock and a hard place – either vote yes on BLT, accumulate some leave and keep accruing benefits at the 40 hour rate, or the state would impose 37½ hours with less pay, less benefits accrual and no banked leave.

Faced with a majority of local and international union leadership who argued that the workers had no choice but to accept the concessions, the membership finally voted for what they perceived to be the lesser evil.

There is no need for workers to have bad feelings based on how any one of us voted.

Get ready

A new contract is coming up next year. State workers don't have to wait until then to show how unhappy we are with the governor's concessions package. We can "vote" anew every day through our actions.

First and foremost, we can decide together to do only the work that a reasonable human being can get done in one workday, and stick together. These unpaid furlough days are surely the type of thing that can really throw someone's work rhythm off kilter ....

The governor and the legislators will want more cutbacks similar to what they originally demanded and what they took from exempt workers who aren't in a union. State workers can put up a front now so we don't give up any more. And so we prepare to get back what we lost.