The Spark

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

Issue no. 745 — February 21 - March 7, 2005

Let the politicians keep their filthy hands off Social Security!

Feb 21, 2005

Bush is touring the country, whipping up fears that Social Security is in "crisis." At one stop, he declared: "I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt." The fateful day when this happens, according to Bush, is in 2042.

It's as big a lie as Bush's claims about weapons of mass destruction.

Social Security will NOT run out of money in 2042. Even the Bush administration's own projections show that. In 2042, Social Security would simply need a small subsidy from the regular government budget to keep paying everyone at the regular level – much smaller than the amount Bush says he will need to fund individual private accounts.

And why shouldn't the government subsidize Social Security for a few years? It has borrowed from Social Security for decades to cover the deficits it created by wars and tax cuts for the wealthy.

And those projections themselves are wrong. Just one example: They greatly understate the number of immigrants who will be brought into the country to fill in the workforce as more older workers retire – paying money into the Social Security system.

One administration after another has been predicting Social Security would run out of money for decades – and it still hasn't happened! That's because there was NO Social Security crisis. And there is NONE. In the past, there was only propaganda aimed at convincing us to let them increase Social Security taxes so they could use the surplus to cover part of the deficit the government ran up subsidizing corporate profits.

Today the talk about a "crisis" in Social Security is aimed at convincing us to let them gut the program – reducing our benefits so they can take our retirement to pay for still more handouts to the corporations.

This country already offers much less Social Security protection than other countries do. We retire much later. France, for example, lets people take a full retirement at age 60, not 66 or 67 as it is here now. We get a smaller portion of our wages back in Social Security than other countries do. And we get much less medical coverage than do retirees in any other industrial country.

The people who talk about a "crisis" want us to believe that this country, the richest in the world, cannot afford what other countries afford. They pretend that the wealthiest country in the world cannot provide a decent retirement for all the people who put in so many years working.

That is the biggest lie of all!

The real crisis coming in Social Security is the one the politicians are trying their damnedest to create. The Bush administration has already written a proposal that would make us work longer; that would cut benefits for future retirees by over 40%; and that would severely cut inflation protection for current retirees.

Every politician who today talks about a Social Security "crisis" is just laying the groundwork for these cuts.

But remember this: The politicians must be afraid of what the population might do if they cut Social Security. Otherwise they wouldn't have to carry out such a big campaign of lies.

It's possible for the population to make things too hot for the politicians. It's possible to back them off. That depends on us, not on them.

Pages 2-3

Maryland - DC region:
Flu hits hard; hospitals ill-prepared

Feb 21, 2005

This year's flu season has been a series of disasters and mishaps. First there was a severe shortage of vaccine at the time when flu shots should have been given to be effective as a preventive measure. When some vaccine finally appeared, did health officials take advantage of it? Did they push a big campaign to make up for lost time? Did they immediately set up free clinics and free flu-shots at workplaces and schools in time to build immunity for an illness that kills thousands every year? Hardly.

As a result, in Baltimore in late January and early February, so many students were sick with the flu, a couple schools and one college were closed down a few days. At the Maryland state office complex in Baltimore, the flu spread like wildfire among state workers. It wasn't until two weeks later that the state scheduled a "flu shot day."

When the cases jumped, did hospitals add staff and technical equipment to beef up their emergency rooms? Quite the opposite. In early and mid February, 24 Maryland hospitals were either on yellow alert – diverting non-critical patients to other hospitals, or on red alert – with critical beds completely full, non-essential surgery cancelled, and some people turned away. In DC and Maryland hospitals, ER hallways were crowded with beds and people had to wait many hours to be seen.

As for the future? Is the government planning ahead to avoid a chaotic mess for next year by putting more funds into public health programs? Are you kidding? Bush proposed in his 2006 budget to make sizeable cuts for training health professionals and in epidemic-control programs. And the budget proposes a 9% reduction for the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, the one public health agency that could develop and co-ordinate a nationwide, intelligent plan.

The flu vaccine shortage was only one symptom of a very sick medical system.

Lots of cuts in the governor's "no-cuts" budget

Feb 21, 2005

A few weeks ago, Maryland Governor Ehrlich submitted a budget to the state legislature that he claimed included no significant cutbacks in state services. Yet among other things, this budget calls for the termination of all state employees involved in enforcement of Maryland's minimum wage and overtime laws. It eliminates funding for six Baltimore City housing inspectors and a lawyer whose job it is to enforce the state's lead paint laws. It reduces Medicaid payments to nursing homes so much that both the nursing home owners and leaders of Medicaid advocacy groups say that it will lead to a significant reduction in the care provided to residents.

Finally, the governor proposed to eliminate a program that provided prescription drugs to thousands of senior citizens in the state, because he claimed the new federal Medicare drug prescription program will make it unnecessary. In fact, even the governor himself now admits this is not true.

When the governor said this budget proposes no significant cutbacks he must have been thinking about all rich friends. There certainly were no cuts in it for them.

Terrorizing lawyers who defend the rights of all

Feb 21, 2005

Lynne Stewart, 65, long a public defender of the rights of the poor and those who would oppose the government, was entrapped and railroaded to perhaps 30 years in jail for representing an Islamic sheik charged with terrorism.

The U.S. Justice Department indicted Stewart in 2002, accusing her of conspiracy and providing support for terrorism by her client, Sheik Omar Rahman. On February 10, 2004, she was convicted by a jury that was subjected to every form of pressure and intimidation that the federal government could bring to bear, including arranging the trial to be held only blocks from Ground Zero. And although nothing in the trial dealt with Osama bin Laden, prosecutors filled the proceedings with his name and images, hoping to prejudice the jury. In this they were successful.

But what did Lynne Stewart actually do? To keep his case public, she gave to Reuters one press release by her client. And she was present while others took down statements made by her client. For those two acts, which are perfectly normal things that lawyers have always done as part of their legal duties to clients, Stewart now faces 30 years in jail.

But of course, she was not prosecuted for those acts or for any other, except for one: she dared to defend someone that the U.S. government did not want defended. It was for that reason that the U.S. Attorney General violated the Sixth Amendment by secretly ordering the taping and recording of every meeting Stewart had with her client, and using that as evidence in court. It was for that reason the U.S. Attorney General violated the First Amendment by prosecuting Stewart for a press release.

In the end, Stewart was framed up as a warning to every other lawyer who may dare to defend whomever the government wants to put away. Trying to terrorize the lawyers only shows the government has no case – despite its wild claims.

Authorities protect L.A. cop who killed 13-year-old joyrider

Feb 21, 2005

"I was a single parent raising a son in an affluent, all-white area of San Diego in the 1970s. It was a challenge. While a teen, he stole a car and went joyriding for a week.... The people from whom my son stole the car did not press charges. The police 'sentenced' him to washing police cars on weekends.

"When I see the grief on the face of Devin Brown's godmother, I thank God that I did not have to share her grief. Were things different for us because we were white, living in an upscale neighborhood? ... Devin Brown is some mother's son. My heart bleeds for her."

These are the words of a woman, written to and published by the Los Angeles Times. This is the only reasonable human reaction anyone could have to the February 6 murder of a 13-year-old black joyrider by a Los Angeles cop.

But this was NOT the reaction of the authorities and news media. Their reaction was to protect a trigger-happy cop. For several days, every official report about the incident, repeated by the media, emphasized that "the car was stolen." This may not be true, but even it is, it's irrelevant – because the cop who killed Devin did not know it at the time of the shooting!

The cops say they started to follow Devin's car because they thought he might be drunk.

What kind of excuse is that for killing an unarmed 13-year-old whose only "crime" was joyriding in the car of a family friend?

Those who say over and over "the car was stolen" or "where were Devin's parents?" are simply trying to avoid the issue. Devin is dead because he was black, and because he did his joyriding in a poor, black neighborhood.

Pretending to "look into the situation," the authorities are protecting murderous cops. That's all there is to it.

That's exactly why there is never an end to such racist police shootings in U.S. cities. This is exactly why racist cops can still feel that they have a license to kill anyone whose skin is dark when they are in a poor, working-class neighborhood.

Detroit students protest school closing plans

Feb 21, 2005

Hundreds of Detroit students demonstrated last week, protesting the decision of the Board of the Detroit Public Schools to close their schools at the end of the year.

On February 14, most of Chadsey High School's 866 students left their classes and demonstrated in front of the school. Holding signs, they chanted, "We won't go! We won't go!"

The next day, over 400 students of the Communication and Media Arts High School walked out of their classes and staged their own protest.

These demonstrations come in the wake of the announced plan to close 34 elementary, middle and high schools at the end of the school year. This would be the largest number of schools ever closed by a single school district at the same time. It's a huge attack on the quality of education of over 10,000 students who will be displaced by the closings. And it's only the beginning of what they have planned.

The Board says they need to cut over 560 million dollars in the next five years. But the 34 closings will save only about 10 million dollars a year. Clearly, the schools themselves are not the cause of the budget problem.

What the Board refuses to address is all the service contracts going out to private companies owned by themselves and their good friends. And they don't in any way propose that Detroit students and their parents take on the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan, to get them to cough up the tax money they reserve for major corporations.

The students at these two schools are absolutely right to protest this attack. And the idea of thousands more young people taking to the streets of Detroit is exactly what could make the Board – and the city, and the state – find that money real quick!

If the state of Michigan is broke, why the surplus?

Feb 21, 2005

When employee wages and benefits were being negotiated, the state said they expected a terrible budget deficit. How did things turn out?

For the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2004, the state of Michigan ended up with a budget SURPLUS of 155 million dollars.

And for the new fiscal year so far, REVENUES are UP for at least seven different categories of taxes the state collects.

With tax revenues up, it didn't take long for politicians to start promising more tax cuts to big business and corporations. Granholm is proposing to cut the Single Business Tax, which is the main tax on corporations. No wonder the state has budget problems.

If you thought that Democrat Granholm would restore money taken from state workers and the poor, think again.

No. Granholm proposed more cuts in state programs which are already threadbare, programs like Medicaid.

Drug advisory panel ignores painkiller risks

Feb 21, 2005

A federal drug advisory panel just recommended that the Food and Drug Administration allow the painkillers Vioxx, Celebrex, and Bextra back on the market.

Last summer David Graham, the science director at the FDA Office of Drug Safety, presented findings showing that the painkiller Vioxx increased the risk of cardiovascular disease. Graham's evidence, along with findings of its own that Merck had kept from the public, was enough to force Merck to pull Vioxx off the market.

When Graham tried to get his findings published, the FDA threatened to fire him. When he tried to get whistleblower status, someone at the FDA accused Graham of having bullied them.

When Graham asked to present his findings at the recent drug advisory panel meeting, the FDA refused. The Lancet finally went ahead and published Graham's findings. In the article, Graham wrote that Vioxx caused an estimated 88,000 to 140,000 cases of serious coronary heart disease, with 44% of them being fatal.

Embarrassed by the publicity surrounding the whole affair, the FDA reversed itself, allowing Graham to present his findings to at the drug advisory panel meetings. So what did the advisory panel do with his findings? They ignored them.

The panel proclaimed that the benefits of these painkillers to people with arthritis and other illnesses "outweigh the risks" of heart disease that come with them. It may be true that the benefits of these drugs outweigh the risks – in some people, with very serious illnesses. But these drugs were marketed and given widely, to anyone with even a twinge of knee pain.

Drugs like Vioxx, Celebrex, and Bextra were touted as replacements for aspirin because they supposedly avoided the problem of stomach ulcers linked with aspirin. Unfortunately, they do not have the same ability as aspirin of thinning the blood. On the contrary, they can cause blood clotting.

The drugs will now again be marketed widely. At most, they might carry a strong warning, but that is not the same as restricting them for narrow use. Nor is it a real balancing of benefits against risk.

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Kyoto treaty:
A way to avoid doing anything about global warming

Feb 21, 2005

After 15 years of delay, the Kyoto Protocol came into effect on February 16. By the terms of this treaty on "greenhouse gases," 141 nations have promised to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases [coming from carbon dioxide] by some 6%. But even this weak promise is not to be reached until the year 2012.

Furthermore, richer countries are allowed to sell the "right to pollute" to poorer countries. Or a corporation could sell old polluting equipment to a poorer country when it installed new pollution controls, thus gaining credit for "reducing" pollution.

The United States has refused to join the Kyoto Protocol. By itself, this country is the world's biggest producer of "greenhouse gases," contributing one QUARTER of the world's pollution from its industries, cars and trucks. And the situation is not improving: the International Energy Agency just reported that U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide have increased by 17% since 1990 when this discussion began.

Why be concerned with global warming? Around the world, there are one hundred million people living along oceans, where rising water levels due to global warming could cause even more deaths and even larger disruptions than were seen in December's tsunami disaster.

Another study, dealing only with France, Austria and Switzerland, said in those three countries alone more than 40,000 deaths EVERY year could be attributed to the air pollution from these greenhouse gases. A recent study in the U.S. showed that for every 10 parts per billion increase in ozone levels, the death rate rises a half a% and even more for those who already have heart or lung problems. Just for the few cities studied by Yale scientists, there were almost 4,000 excess deaths from pollution each year.

Scientists concerned about the damage done by "human interference" and "human-induced climate change," as the Union of Concerned Scientists put it, pushed world governments to discuss global warming starting two decades ago. Left on their own, the governments of countries rich and poor alike have shown their total disregard for their health of their populations.

On top of the global governmental cowardice in the face of corporate and energy industry pollution comes the anti-scientific attitude of the current administration. At a conference on global warming this past December in Argentina, the current U.S. Undersecretary of the State Department, Paula Dobriansky, asserted, "Science tells us that we cannot say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided." And she said this rubbish without breaking into hysterical laughter!

Of course scientists do not give an exact date on which global warming will reach a point of catastrophe, nor EXACTLY how much of it has been caused by human-created pollution. They are not in the business of reading crystal balls.

But the amount of climate change already seen suggests the coming disaster. A study released by Scripps Institution of Oceanography this month provides the strongest evidence seen so far that global warming is caused by human activity – exactly the point the Bush administration wants to deny. The data examining climate changes and their causes came from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

After the study was released, one of the Scripps marine scientists put it clearly. Said Dr. Tim Barnett, "The debate about whether there is a global warming signal now is over, at least for rational people."

Exactly. The scientists have more than enough evidence about the problem to propose solutions. But the U.S. government isn't listening.

Hariri is dead, but the Lebanese people still pay

Feb 21, 2005

On February 14, the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in the middle of Beirut. He and 15 others were killed when a car was blown up.

The Bush administration hints that Syria might be to blame – when it is not hinting that Shiite terrorists did it. Whoever they finally decide to blame, they all agree that Hariri was the person responsible for rebuilding Lebanon after its devastating civil war, which lasted from 1976 to 1990.

Rebuilding? In a manner of speaking! Hariri, a multi-millionaire, first made his fortune in the construction business in Saudi Arabia. He used this fortune and the ties it gave him to become prime minister in Lebanon in 1992, leading the government until 1998 and then again between 2000 and 2004.

The reconstruction Hariri led built up the central city of Beirut with fancy apartments and luxury hotels for the wealthy from all over the region. The poor population, the great majority, were pushed aside into shacks and slums.

After September 11, business boomed in Lebanon, the rich reduced their travel to the United States and Europe, often heading to Beirut instead. The number of visitors to Beirut shot up 30% in 2002 and again in 2003. The upper classes of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and the Arab Emirates flocked to Lebanon to buy apartments and land.

Hariri's development plan runs through the year 2018. The majority of the building contracts have already been awarded to Solidere – the company in which Hariri was the largest stockholder. Solidere holds 60% of all the contracts financed by the central bank of Lebanon.

Not surprising then that under Hariri's rule, Lebanon's debt soared to twice the gross national product. Despite this overhanging debt, the world's rich countries, led by the United States and Europe, supported Hariri and his policy. Instead of complaining and pressuring Hariri to reduce this huge debt as they do with other governments, these governments decided in 2002 to refinance Lebanon's debt, giving him an additional four billion dollars in credit.

But these creditors demanded that the Lebanese government impose more austerity measures on the general population, in order to pay back the increased debt. The Lebanese government has attacked the social security system and increased taxes on the population. Electricity is cut off regularly so the government can spend less on oil purchases.

Hariri is now dead, but his replacement will undoubtedly follow similar policies. The population of Lebanon will be asked to pay for what Hariri established while he was alive and in power.

The people of Iraq can expect a similar result if the bombs ever stop falling in their country.

After the elections, the war is bloodier than ever

Feb 21, 2005

The official results of the Iraqi elections were announced on February 13, two weeks after the voting. The United Iraqi Alliance, led by Shiite clerics, got 48% of the vote and 140 of the 275 seats in the national assembly. Seventy-five assembly seats will go to the alliance of the two major Kurdish parties, which received 26% of the vote. The list of the current U.S.-backed prime minister Iyad Allawi came in a distant third, with 14% of the vote and 40 seats in the national assembly.

The information available makes a thorough and detailed analysis of the election results difficult, if not impossible. What can be said with certainty, however, is that the results are not a victory for "democracy," as George Bush wants us to believe.

First, the voter turnout was definitely not as high as initial reports suggested. The Sunni population either boycotted the elections, or was prevented from voting. Anbar province, for example, where the U.S.-beleaguered cities of Fallujah and Ramadi are, reported a whopping TWO% participation! But Shiites, who make up 60 to 65% of Iraq's population, apparently didn't show up at the polls in keeping with their numbers in the population either. In Baghdad, for example, where Shiites overwhelmingly populate the poor neighborhoods and make up a majority of the city's population, the reported turnout was only 51%. And in Baghdad, there were many reports of people being warned they had to vote in order to get their food ration. The official voter turnout is 58%, mainly thanks to the high participation reported from the Kurdish areas in the north.

Secondly, far from unifying Iraqis, as Bush would have us believe, the elections were obviously based on the existing ethnic divisions in the country. The Shiite alliance has gained a slight majority in the national assembly, but the Kurdish slate will have enough votes to veto any cabinet or legislation it doesn't like.

In any case, violence continues unabated since the elections. In the past three weeks, at least 43 U.S. soldiers and 330 Iraqis have been killed. And, more and more, the attacks bear the signs of an ethnic and religious civil war. On February 18 and 19, which marked the Shiite holy day of Ashura, for example, at least 85 people were killed. Most of the deaths resulted from bombings that targeted crowds gathered near Shiite mosques, and one Sunni funeral procession.

If more U.S. troops are not getting killed and wounded, it's only because they have retreated to their fortified quarters for the moment. Given the growing opposition to this war in the polls back home, it is not surprising that the Bush administration and the military want to avoid high casualties. Will the U.S. eventually decide to intervene in the rising civil war, at the cost of higher U.S. casualties? Or will it decide to pull out of Iraq and let the different ethnic armies fight it out amongst themselves at the expense of the people of Iraq?

It remains to be seen. If the Bush administration decides to pull out of Iraq, it wouldn't be the first time that the U.S. is forced to pull out of a war it started halfway around the world. Nor would such a civil war started by an outside power be a new thing for Iraq – the British did the same thing about 90 years ago when they occupied the country for four years. The British eventually pulled out, but the seeds of division they sowed in Iraq paved the way for decades of violence, as well as the repressive dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The U.S.-led invasion and occupation have made things only worse for the people of Iraq.

The charade of a supposedly "democratic" election and other obvious lies of the Bush administration, shamelessly parroted by a complicit news media, cannot hide this obvious fact.

China's miners:
More than 200 dead in a methane explosion

Feb 21, 2005

On February 14, a deadly accident in a Chinese mine officially counted 213 dead. The Sunjiawan coal mine where the explosion occurred is in one of the oldest mining regions in northeastern China. Many more miners were burnt in the explosion or poisoned by carbon monoxide.

The government says the precise cause of the catastrophe hasn't been determined. But mining conditions in China are so bad that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao officially intervened after two previous mining catastrophes. In October 2004, 148 miners were killed in an accident in Henan province, and the next month another 166 miners were killed in a mine in Shaanxi province. In January, the prime minister felt obliged to say he supported better safety conditions in the mines.

Government statistics say that 6,027 miners were killed last year. But China Labor Watch, an organization based in Hong Kong, says the true number is 20,000 deaths a year. China gets 80% of its electricity from coal. The growing demand for energy has led to a brutal exploitation of miners. Several times the government promised to shut down dangerous mines, but thousands of private mines continue to produce coal under extremely dangerous conditions. And the government-controlled mines are no safer. The recent explosion in Fuxin was in a state mine! Labor regulations in China are fictions on a piece of paper. Mine owners push speed-up on their poorly paid laborers. And the Chinese government pretends to take responsibility ... while setting a goal to reduce the number of mine deaths by ... 3%!

This is the reality behind the famous 9% a year economic growth admired by economists and envied by the western world. Just like previous centuries in industrial Europe and the U.S., it is built on hunger and blood.

How Bush "supports" the troops

Feb 21, 2005

The new year brought an unwelcome change for hundreds of wounded Iraq War troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Outpatient soldiers receiving treatment lasting more than 90 days started being charged for their meals at the hospital!

These long-term outpatient troops, living on the hospital grounds or in nearby hotels, have little choice but to buy food at the hospital. They frequently have serious injuries like head wounds, amputations and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many will never return to actual military duty. But because they are technically still "active military," in what is called "medical hold" status, they have to line up for daily formations and buy new uniforms despite their injuries.

They were warned they would be disciplined for saying anything negative about their treatment. But a soldier recovering from a broken neck anonymously told a reporter, "I don't starve, but it might be beans and weenies or a cup of noodles. I'm not going to starve, but it really sucks."

Bush calls on people to "support the troops" – even as he nickels and dimes them every way he can.

Support them yes – but by bringing them home!

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NO rights in U.S. meat industry

Feb 21, 2005

Human Rights Watch just published a study of the U.S. meat and poultry industry that records the inhuman working conditions and illegal efforts to crush union organizing at meatpacking companies. It interviewed workers who cut up carcasses for meat at a rate of 25,000 hogs per day in South Carolina or five million chickens a day in Arkansas or 50,000 cattle a day in the Midwest.

The report documented repetitive motion injury and life-threatening wounds. It showed the way the biggest corporations use immigrant workers – threatening them with calling the Immigration services if the workers complained about any conditions. It detailed corporate maneuvers against unionization efforts over a period of years.

There are three corporations at the heart of this report. One is Tyson Foods, which calls itself "the world leader in producing and marketing beef, pork and chicken"; another is Smithfield Foods, half of whose South Carolina hourly employees are immigrants; and a third company is Nebraska Beef, founded by a former executive of a beef processor which had closed down. Then the new owners re-opened the plant when they obtained multi-million dollar tax credits.

Human Rights Watch is known for documenting torture in many parts of the poorer parts of the world. If they choose to spend time and money on a study of the U.S. meatpacking industry, it is an indication of the depth of the problem.

But while the conditions in producing meat are particularly appalling, the world's richest country has plenty of other industries in which conditions for workers are growing worse. U.S. workers experience speed-up, intimidation against organizing and company avoidance of existing laws in all kinds of jobs.

Still, the meatpacking bosses not only appear among the worst; they are returning workers to conditions documented a century ago! In a book called The Jungle, which came out in 1906, author and socialist, Upton Sinclair, was commissioned to write about the horrors faced by the mainly immigrant workers at Chicago's meat-packing companies.

Workers in this industry and others began more than a century ago to organize unions, first the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in the early 1900s and then the Packinghouse Workers in 1937. There was an enormous upsurge of factory militancy at that time. Workers found out they could fight the companies every step of the way. They also discovered they couldn't count on politicians for a thing.

Meatpacking workers will have to return to the militancy of their grandparents before their working conditions will improve.

Union Wal-Mart campaign is counterproductive

Feb 21, 2005

The AFL-CIO and six unions, including the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), have stated their intention to unionize Wal-Mart. They've launched a 25 million-dollar campaign to inform the public about just how bad Wal-Mart is.

There's plenty to point out. Wal-Mart sales clerks average just over $13,000 in annual wages – almost a thousand dollars less than the official poverty level for a family of three. Wal-Mart regularly hands out Medicaid forms to its employees, who can't afford to cover their children under its high-priced health plan.

In addition to publicizing facts like these, the unions plan to work with other groups to block the construction of new Wal-Mart stores. They also propose to distribute flyers and hold pickets out in front of existing Wal-Mart stores across the country, calling on people not to shop at Wal-Mart.

But one thing seems to be missing from the AFL-CIO's planned activities: the active participation of the Wal-Mart workers themselves.

It's understandable that an attempt to unionize the company might begin outside the workplaces. Wal-Mart is notoriously anti-union. Any workers in any individual store who attempt to unionize know their jobs will be in jeopardy. Earlier this month, Wal-Mart announced that it plans to close its store in Jonquiere, Quebec – a recently unionized Wal-Mart store – and the only one in North America. Whether Wal-Mart actually closes that store or not, the threat shows something of the difficulties Wal-Mart workers face in organizing a union.

There's nothing wrong with picketing a store from outside, asking customers to respect the workers' wishes – IF the workers themselves have asked for that kind of action.

But whether help comes from the outside or not, organizing the company depends on the workers themselves.

It's almost as if the AFL-CIO, the UFCW, and the other unions hope to use public opinion to pressure Wal-Mart to accept the union, without the workers' participation.

Effectively, by picketing against the stores themselves without the engagement of the workers inside, trying to get the customers to leave, the unions are saying that they want to close down those stores – to take away the Wal-Mart workers' jobs in order to protect union workers' jobs elsewhere. They make it seem like the unions' interests are entirely separate from those of the Wal-Mart workers.

In so doing, the unions end up pitting themselves AGAINST the workers at the stores they picket.

And by fighting against the building of new stores, they're pitting themselves against the residents of the poorer areas where Wal-Mart tends to build its stores – areas where workers are desperate to find any kind of job, and there are precious few places to shop already.

Companies like Wal-Mart use propaganda depicting unions as some well-paid elites feeding off of other workers. It's not true. But this new AFL-CIO campaign reinforces this picture for Wal-Mart workers.

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Movie Hotel Rwanda

Feb 21, 2005

The new movie Hotel Rwanda is set in the African country that went through horrifying episodes of ethnic cleansing a few years back. While the movie doesn't directly take up everything that happened, the horrors of the period can be seen through the lives of the people in the movie. Its story is based on a real incident that took place during the massacres there in the early 1990s.

A Rwanda hotel manager saved the lives of over a thousand people while terror reigned all over his country. The manager Paul did not set out to be a hero in doing his job for a luxury hotel owned by the Belgian airlines.

But he comes home one night to find his family hiding in the dark. The power is out and the murders have begun. There begins his unintentional heroism, taking in refugee after refugee fleeing the terror.

His son has witnessed some horror we can only guess and is so traumatized that he does not speak. Such a personal look at how this civil war touches individuals can make the situation far more clear than newspaper headlines. The viewer feels what is happening to this family, this father, to their country.

Later in the movie, when Paul goes out in the hotel van to try to get food for all the refugees he is hiding, the van goes over bumps. It is not the road that is bumpy – it is dead bodies of his slaughtered countrymen, Tutsis.

There are two main ethnic groups in Rwanda, the Hutus (Paul's group) and the Tutsis (his wife's group). The two groups talk the same language and often intermarry. But this war pits one group against the other.

The movie goer can feel Paul's sense of betrayal as he realizes that no one is coming to help Rwanda and the Rwandans – not the UN, and certainly not the Belgians, who fomented ethnic violence to solidify their control over the country. A character playing a UN colonel makes it clear that Europeans don't give a damn about the miseries of Africans. The Rwandans can only count on themselves.

When the water is cut off in the city, the people hiding in the hotel are forced to use the water from the swimming pool. The pool is like their plight: the more empty the pool, the more desperate the situation.

This must-see movie gives you a picture of the nightmare the Rwandans endured. A similar atrocity seems underway in other nearby countries.

We can learn from a movie like this that the capitalist system only has these kinds of nightmares to offer the poorer people of the entire world. Humanity requires something different if it is to survive.

Arthur Miller:
One who stood up

Feb 21, 2005

On February 10, the famous playwright, Arthur Miller, died at age 89. While obituary writers lavishly praised this Pulitzer Prize-winning author of plays such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, they glossed over or failed to mention entirely that today's esteemed writer was in 1956 hauled before Senator McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Miller was accused of being a Communist, of associating with Communists, and ordered to finger his associates as Communists. Miller stood up to McCarthy and refused all of HUAC's demands. He was given a one-year suspended sentence for contempt of Congress and fined $500.

But the attack on Miller's livelihood – and the livelihoods of others like him – was far more vicious than the legal penalties. In the three years before Miller's subpoena, dozens of personalities in the writing and film industries had actually been jailed for doing as Miller did. Careers by the hundreds were ruined by the "blacklist:" no writer, actor, filmmaker or stage hand could get work if their name was on HUAC's list. The actor, singer and athlete Paul Robeson was blacklisted and his passport revoked so he could not go outside the country when huge audiences around the world were ready to attend his concerts.

Some performers – including Charlie Chaplin – moved to other countries to escape. Directors and producers had already refused to put on Miller's own plays unless he changed them to tell stories that would not offend HUAC. So it was in full knowledge of the consequences that Arthur Miller said NO to Senator McCarthy.

A few others were notable for saying NO. Coleman Young, later mayor of Detroit, Michigan, debated the racists and witch-hunters of HUAC and made fools of them. Tape recordings of Young's appearance circulated widely in the black community and secured his reputation for years to come.

It was also in l952 that union officers of Ford Local 600 were subpoenaed.

The first HUAC hearings, 1947-1951, had only set the stage for its real target: the newly organized and combative labor movement. From l952 through l957, the bosses and their HUAC lead dog attacked the new militant leaders of the CIO. Thousands of workers who had fought the battles to "organize the unorganized," who had led the vast wave of sit-down strikes of the l930s, were removed from union office, jailed, blacklisted, ruined.

A few stood up to the blacklist. When 23 of the UAW's Ford Local 600 officers were subpoenaed, not only did the officers refuse to cooperate, but tens of thousands of Detroit workers rallied in downtown Detroit to demonstrate against the witch-hunt.

One of Miller's most famous plays is The Crucible, written in l953, set during the Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft trials. Of course it was a condemnation of the witch-hunting anti-Communism of the day, led by HUAC. Arthur Miller said of writing The Crucible: "My basic need was to respond to a phenomenon which, with only small exaggeration, one could say paralyzed a whole generation and in a short time dried up the habits of trust and toleration in public discourse."

His work since then never retreated from this stance. In 1956, Arthur Miller joined the proud company of those who accepted the risk of the blacklist, in order to demand their personal rights, honor and dignity. Those who leave this history out of his obituary are, in their own way, taking the other option.

Democrats in words, then "action"

Feb 21, 2005

When President Bush signed the Class Action law, the Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi said it was "a payback for big business at the expense of the consumers." Democratic Representative Jay Inslee of Washington said, "This bill is the Vioxx protection bill, it is the Wal-Mart protection bill, it is the Tyco protection bill, it is the Enron protection bill."

You would think the Democrats did everything in their power to stop it. False!

In the Senate, the Democrats needed only 40 votes to prevent the bill from being voted on. They have 44 seats, more than enough. Not only did they do nothing to block the bill, 41% of the Democratic Senators voted for it! In the House of Representatives, a third of the Democrats voted for the law.

This is what the Democrats mean when they say they take the side of the working people!