The Spark

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

Issue no. 778 — July 10 - 24, 2006

Editorial:
Growing medical care crisis
– and there’s no good reason for it

Jul 10, 2006

Forty-seven% of all workers in private industry were not covered by health insurance in 2005. That’s right, 47% – almost half – had no coverage whatsoever for their medical needs. This translates into 45 million people. And it’s rapidly getting worse. In 1990, only 25% working in private industry went without coverage.

Most of those who do have coverage pay through the nose for it: on average about $273 a month in premiums for a family – not counting deductibles on payments for services, co-pays on services, co-pays on prescription coverage, etc.

For the most part, regular federal, state and city workers maintain their coverage – but they, too, are paying more for it. Plus, government at every level has developed a clever way to dump their responsibilities: contract work. Governments hire contract workers, providing minimal or even no benefits whatsoever. No medical, no pension, no vacation – other than unpaid; no holiday pay even. Technically, according to government lawyers always on the lookout for a new scam to run, they’re not workers – they’re “independent contractors.” Self-employed business people – just like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. With only a hundred billion or so difference in wealth!

But, at least, there’s Medicare! Yes, and so what? The part of his or her income that the average retiree pays today for medical care is greater than what the elderly paid in the days before Medicare.

What’s the leading cause of bankruptcy today? Medical bills – including for many who had medical insurance, at least when their illness began. In just one year alone, 2001, a little more than two million people were driven into bankruptcy by medical bills.

The U.S. spends more than twice as much per person on medical care as any other country – but its population gets far less back for it. Less coverage – and much worse health. On almost every measure, the U.S. is far down the list of countries for its population’s health. Most of the problems come from not getting regular check-ups, not having a doctor who follows your health and advises you as you go along to change certain habits, not having the money to see someone when you are sick, etc. etc. etc.

The “best country in the world,” as politicians loudly trumpet? Far from it. It’s the wealthiest country in the world – but its wealth does not go for improving the situation of its people. It goes to improve the wealth of a tiny handful of people. The big medical care providers, insurance companies, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies have all seen double digit increases in their profits from one year to the next. They are accumulating still more wealth off inferior medical care.

U.S. capitalism’s failure to provide medical coverage to its population stands as an indictment of the whole system. This economy – the biggest and most powerful in the world – has the means to provide the coverage. It chooses not to do so.

The choice of what should be done in this country cannot be left in the hands of people who use profit as their guide for what to do. Working people who build everything, produce everything and provide the services needed are the ones who must decide how the economy should run. But to do so, the working class has to take power away from those who wield it for personal gain.

Pages 2-3

Merger talks:
GM, Nissan and Renault prepare to attack their workers again

Jul 10, 2006

Kirk Kerkorian is urging Renault and Nissan to each buy up 10% of General Motors stock. Not so long ago, Kerkorian himself bought up 10% of GM stock. General Motors is at least going through the motions, agreeing to talks with Nissan and Renault.

The papers all talk about what a good idea this could be for GM – because they say it could learn something from Carlos Ghosn, the man who is credited with “saving” Nissan.

And how did he “save” Nissan? By cutting 22,000 workers.

In terms of attacking his workers, though, Ghosn has nothing on GM.

Just in the past year alone, GM itself has rolled out a number of attacks on its workers. It stopped wage increases that had been scheduled for this year. It made attacks on retiree pensions and health care. Over the last decade, it cut tens of thousands of workers – while producing only slightly fewer cars, which means a big speedup. And, it outsourced work that had paid $27 an hour to places paying anywhere from $14 down to $8 an hour!

If this deal goes through, it will be used as yet another sledge hammer against workers at all three companies. Workers will all be pushed to sacrifice once again – this time to “allow the new mega-giant to survive.”

With or without this deal, all three companies will find new pretexts to attack their workers even more. A merger would just serve as just one more excuse.

No matter what the media says, this deal has nothing to do with any problems at GM, or how efficient Nissan is, or how well these companies would fit together. It simply shows how much money is floating in the world’s financial circuits, doing absolutely nothing productive.

One mark of how much money is floating around is the big jump in mergers. GM, Nissan and Renault aren’t the only companies that have attacked their workers recently. And they aren’t the only companies that have made huge profits from those attacks.

This year has already seen a record high number of mergers with companies buying up other companies, with billions of dollars changing hands in the process. And the year is not yet over. The amount of money involved could top 3.5 TRILLION dollars by the end of the year.

Another mark is the jump in the amount of wealth held by the wealthiest. Last year there were 793 billionaires in the world, and 8,200,000 millionaires. All these people together hold more than 33.3 trillion dollars in wealth. That’s almost three times the entire Gross Domestic Product of the United States, the largest in the world, or 14 times the size of the U.S. government budget.

These billionaires keep gathering more and more trillions of dollars in their hands because the companies they own cut the wages, benefits and working conditions of more and more workers.

This is how things work in this capitalist society, with the economy controlled by a dictatorship of industrial and financial corporations. An economy managed to benefit the private interests of a few people is leading society to a catastrophe.

It’s long overdue for that society to be replaced by one where the interests of the whole population come first.

Billionaire charities:
Like a vampire donating blood

Jul 10, 2006

Warren Buffett, the second richest man in the world, is going to give 85% of his 44 billion-dollar fortune to Bill Gates’ foundation. Gates, the richest man in the world, said that from now on he’s devoting his time and a part of his fortune to relieving misery. Gates and Buffet are going to spend three billion dollars a year fighting infectious disease in poor countries. This is more than is spent each year by the World Health Organization, which is financed by governments and operates under the U.N. The Gates foundation has at its disposal 30 billion dollars, while UNESCO last year was given only 610 million dollars.

So there are individuals who are richer and more powerful than the majority of countries and international bodies and who have the power to give or not give a part of their fortune to charitable foundations. The health and even the lives of millions of children threatened by hunger and disease depend on the desire of a U.S. billionaire to buy his place in heaven.

When Buffett announced his charitable donation, he referred to Andrew Carnegie, the billionaire who died in 1919. Carnegie made similar proclamations about his good intentions, saying that since he owed his fortune to society he had to return it to society. Carnegie financed many foundations, and established 2,500 libraries carrying his name, plus concert halls, museums and theaters. Carnegie may be known today for all these things named for him. But in his time he was one of the “robber barons.” He constructed his industrial and financial empire through theft, violence, stealing public funds and the extreme exploitation of workers. Carnegie is notorious for regularly using armed Pinkerton guards to kill striking workers.

Buffett is made of the same stuff as his model. His fortune didn’t come from establishing businesses and employing workers, but from speculation, that is, buying and selling stock in many companies and drawing off their profits – made from increasingly severe exploitation of their work force.

He currently owns an important part of ConocoPhillips, one of the biggest oil companies in the world, which along with the other “Majors” is responsible for the pillage of raw materials, corruption, the support of dictators and wars which flow from international oil investments. Buffett also owns a big block of WalMart, the world’s biggest store, well known for its low wages, lack of health care and inadequate hours, which is quick to suppress any union activity. He owns stock in Nike, where he profits from the labor of children ... for whom charity will come too late, if ever.

Buffett’s 44 billion dollars and Gates’ 50 billion exist only due to the economic system that governs the planet. But the sum of misery, tragedy and wars engendered by this economic system which gives Buffett and Gates such great fortunes totally overwhelms what their foundation could do, even if all of it were distributed to charity.

In the supposed good times, hunger increases

Jul 10, 2006

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the number of people who had trouble finding money for food in 2004 was 38 million, up 15% from 2000. Many of these people eat only due to charity. Second Harvest, a network of more than 200 food pantries and emergency kitchens, says it served 25 million people, many of them in families where at least one person worked. They say high heating costs, gas prices and medical prices didn’t leave people with enough money for food.

Another charity program is trying to deal with kids who don’t eat over the weekends. At Friday school lunch, children begin to panic because they won’t get enough to eat over the weekend. At Monday morning’s breakfast in school, some children have grabbed the food of the kids next to them. Today some 70 food banks are sending home backpacks filled with food, but it’s a small amount compared to all the hungry children and parents.

This is a picture of working class reality today during a time of record profits for the corporations.

Supreme Court gives drug giants okay to delay production of generics

Jul 10, 2006

The U.S. Supreme Court just put its stamp of approval on deals made by drug giant Schering-Plough to keep generic versions of K-Dur off the market.

The whole case goes back to 1995 when two companies, Upsher-Smith and American Home Products filed applications with the Food and Drug Administration to begin marketing much cheaper, generic versions of K-Dur, a blood pressure medicine.

Schering-Plough blocked the production of the generics by filing suit against the companies, which automatically triggers a two-and-a-half year hold on FDA approval of the generic.

With the two and a half years expiring, Schering-Plough came to an agreement with the two companies. It paid them NOT to manufacture their drugs – until 2001 for Upsher-Smith and until 2004 for American Home Products.

These agreements also prevented other companies from producing their own generic versions, since no other company can legally market a new generic drug until 180 days after the first company starts selling it.

We are often told that capitalist competition lowers prices. In reality, big companies have all sorts of tricks to keep prices artificially high. And the state has all sorts of mechanisms to let them get away with it.

Deals like Schering-Plough’s that allow pharmaceutical companies to keep their prices artificially high may not be the main problem with medicine today. But they are certainly a symptom of a system which uses medical care to make profit, rather than to improve the health of the population.

A billion and-a-half dollars a year
– for doing what?

Jul 10, 2006

Alpha magazine printed the salaries of the top 26 hedge fund managers.

James Simons, the head of Renaissance Technologies, got a salary of 1.5 billion dollars last year. That comes to $171,000 an hour for every hour of the year. T. Boone Pickens got 1.4 billion dollars for running BP Capital Management. George Soros of the Soros Fund got 840 million dollars.

What are these small, little known companies doing that they can reward their executives with so much wealth? They are speculating! That’s it. The ordinary Wall Street investment banks claim they bring capital together, helping businesses invest in order to produce goods and services and thus create jobs. In fact, this is only an insignificant part of what they do, and it’s overshadowed by the way they rip off the rest of society.

But hedge funds can’t even claim that. They are pure speculators who buy and sell, trying to make ever more money. They are a parasitic growth on society, sucking out wealth, creating nothing and simply engorging a few leeches at the top. They are one more revolting symptom of capitalist society wasting away with disease.

Detroit:
Taxing the poor to pay for the rich

Jul 10, 2006

In June, the Detroit City Council agreed to impose another fee on city residents – $300 a year for trash and garbage pick-up, with an additional $100 for every additional trash barrel used at a residence. This same pack of political vultures had already agreed to completely suppress the monthly bulk trash pick-up, requiring residents to take their own large items – such as old mattresses, worn out TVs, etc. – to central dumps in the city.

In reality, this $300 is nothing but a tax shift, since the mayor is proposing to eliminate the 3 mill property tax currently levied on home-owners to pay for trash pick-up.

With homes valued at half their actual price for tax purposes, anyone whose home is worth less than $200,000 currently pays less than $300 a year. What they pay will go up.

The others will see their taxes go down. A person, for example, whose home is valued at one million for tax purposes – and today is paying $3,000 on that property tax – will get a $2,700 tax cut. (And, on yes, there are those very expensive homes hidden away in little enclaves in the city).

In Detroit, where most homes are worth less than $200,000 – many less than $100,000 – the city’s poor and working class residents are being forced to pay for another tax cut being given to the wealthy.

In the recent city elections, these politicians masqueraded as the defenders of the city’s poorest residents. They barely waited until the votes were counted to show their true colors!

Pages 4-5

U.N. report:
Pervasive brutality by U.S. of detainees both abroad and home

Jul 10, 2006

In May, the United Nations Committee against Torture issued an 11-page report, documenting U.S. policies and methods of torture used against detainees around the world.

The report harshly condemned the torture and degrading treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and numerous other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. It called for the investigation of senior military and civilian officials for their complicity in authorizing inhumane techniques, for the closing of Guantanamo, and for an end to secret prison sites in other countries.

When the report first came out, the U.S. media covered this part of the report. But this was only half the report. There was no mention of the other half, pointing to brutal treatment, often amounting to torture, of prison inmates right here in the United States. Other than a brief mention on BBC ... not a word on radio, TV or in newspapers. Not a squeak from politicians who have access to the full report.

The report had an extensive list:

1. It pointed to the Chicago Police Department for acts of torture and degrading treatment of prisoners by law enforcement personnel and called for prompt investigation.

2. It criticized authorities for allowing rape and sexual assaults against inmates, commonplace in detention facilities across the country.

3. It pointed out that on all levels of detention – from immigration detention to pre-trial confinement to serving sentences in penitentiaries – “minorities, immigrants and persons of differing sexual orientation are particularly vulnerable” and meted out for violent and degrading treatment.

4. It criticized the practice in Supermax prisons of inmates being thrown into isolation cells for very long periods.

5. It described sexually humiliating treatment of women prisoners and denounced the shackling of women during childbirth.

6. It criticized the practice of putting children under 18 in with adult inmates during pre-trial and after-sentencing detention. And it showed that the U.S. is one of only a few countries which sentences large numbers of children to life imprisonment.

7. While the report did not take a stand against the death penalty, it condemned methods of execution, especially “lethal injections, as causing severe pain and suffering.”

No one believes the U.N. will do anything about U.S. government treatment of its own population. But the report at least demonstrates what many people in this country know: there is no “American dream,” only a nightmare for the poor.

Israel in Gaza:
A people that oppresses another can never be free

Jul 10, 2006

On June 25, Israel sent tanks and soldiers back into the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he wanted to make the lives of 1,400,000 Gazans miserable and he did. At least, 44 Palestinians have been killed, with hundreds wounded. Israeli jets flew bombing raids overhead, dropping death and terror. The Israelis destroyed the main Palestinian power station, cutting off electricity for Gaza. Not only don’t homes have power, neither do hospitals. Some tried to keep going with gas powered generators, but the gas has run out.

The trigger for these attacks was the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. Hamas militants said they would exchange him for the Palestinian women and children held by the Israelis. Israel claims this is blackmail – all the while it has arrested – at gunpoint – 8 Hamas cabinet members, 23 legislators and 33 Hamas militants. And the Israelis are holding 10,000 Palestinians in prison, many without charges.

“Israel has the right to defend itself,” proclaims Bush. With support from the big U.S. superpower and its own technical and military superiority, Israeli applies the law of the jungle.

The imperialist powers are concerned about Middle East oil. They back Israel with arms and money in order not to depend on such reactionary Arab regimes as Saudi Arabia or Jordan, which could be toppled by their own oppressed populations.

All the political and social contradictions of this region are focused on the Israeli-Arab conflict. The leaders of Israel, instead of looking for ways to get along with the Arab people, have always chosen to be allies of the West against them.

The Islamic organization Hamas gained control over the Palestinian government by winning the last election. The great powers – which pretend to defend democracy – decided to starve the entire Palestinian population to punish it for giving Hamas a majority. And Israel tightened its grip over the Palestinian people.

The horrors suffered by the Palestinian people for decades are first and foremost the responsibility of the Israeli state supported by the imperialist powers. But the Palestinians are also being destroyed by the nationalist policies of their leaders. And Hamas’ coming to power harms the Palestinian people by adding a further reactionary pressure to the oppression they already experience from Israel.

The fights made by the Palestinians against their oppression have turned them into living symbols for the other oppressed people of the Middle East, from Libya to Egypt and Jordan.

The imperialists fear that the Palestinian uprising could inspire the poor and working classes of the entire region to resist their oppression, first from Israel, but also from the Arab dictatorships, which are no better. But the nationalists leading the Palestinians have kept the uprisings in check, refusing to make the struggle of the Palestinians the start of a much wider struggle, engaging the poor in other countries throughout the region. They have thus made it easier for Israel and the imperialists to keep the peoples of the whole Middle East under control. These nationalists – even the most radical and secular among them – have led their people to a dead end, helping the reactionary religious party to take over.

The Palestinian people pay a heavy price for these policies. They are enclosed in a tiny strip of land, surrounded by barbed wired and the wall, devastated by unemployment and poverty, threatened with death by Israel. But the Israeli people don’t live in peace either. A people that oppresses another can never be free.

Nevertheless, there is place in this region for two peoples to live together, on the basis of social and political equality. But in a system dominated by imperialism based on oppression which generates conflicts and wars, it will take a social upheaval to make this possible.

Election standoff in Mexico:
A dispute over who will serve the rich

Jul 10, 2006

Four days after Mexico’s presidential election, Felipe Calderón, the candidate of the ruling party, the PAN, was officially declared the winner by less than a one% difference. The opposition candidate, Manuel Andrés López Obrador, accused the PAN of fraud and promised to challenge the election result in the courts. He also called for a mass protest on Saturday, July 8, to which more than 100,000 people showed up.

Media reports indicate that the two leading candidates got their votes from different layers of the population – Calderón from the middle class and well-to-do, López Obrador from the working class and poor.

Conditions for Mexican workers and poor have certainly continued to deteriorate during the last six years under the current president, Vicente Fox, of the PAN. Today, 51 million people – that is, almost half the population of Mexico – live in households with a daily income of $4 or less per person, according to a study done by UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico). Sixteen million of these are children, three million of whom are undernourished. Another study shows that, of the 30 million Mexicans between the ages of 15 and 29, half are unemployed.

Worsening conditions in Mexico are reflected in the increasing immigration to the U.S., which has depleted Mexico of nearly 10% of its population over the last 15 to 20 years. But millions of working-age people are not the only thing Mexico is drained of – so is much of its wealth. Many industries in Mexico are dominated by U.S. corporations, which take advantage of the low wages there and make enormous profits. Attached to the U.S. corporations is Mexico’s wealthy elite, which has also enriched itself handsomely in the past few decades.

While the gap between the rich and poor has been widening, López Obrador has nurtured his image as a “friend of the poor” throughout his career. At his last post as mayor of Mexico City, the capital and largest city of Mexico, for example, he made a public point of extending some financial aid to the elderly. And he regularly employs a populist rhetoric.

For the little crumbs he has thrown to the poor to maintain his populist image, however, López Obrador has certainly served big slices of the cake to the wealthy. As mayor, for example, he gave large tax breaks to construction companies and eased zoning regulations in Mexico City. The resulting construction boom included the “gentrification” of parts of the old city, for which López Obrador struck a partnership with billionaire businessman Carlos Slim, known as the richest man in Mexico.

If all this sounds familiar to what’s going on in big U.S. cities, here’s more: López Obrador hired former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani to devise a “zero-tolerance policy” against crime in Mexico City, with the “private sector,” that is, López Obrador’s corporate buddies, paying Giuliani’s salary.

The U.S. ruling class may still prefer Calderón as the next president of Mexico, since this would basically be a continuation of the current Fox administration. But the U.S. can certainly use López Obrador also to keep the population under control. Because what really worries the U.S. ruling class is the possibility of a lengthy election standoff giving way to open public discontent, possibly even a popular revolt. A New York Times editorial on July 7 clearly expressed this concern: “While election officials need to do everything to assure voters the count was fair, the candidates must behave responsibly as well. Mr. López Obrador has occasionally furthered his political career by inviting supporters to take to the streets. He has called for a rally Saturday, but he should resist inciting mass protests, which would harm Mexico’s stability and add to his image as a less-than-committed democrat. Mr. Calderón, for his part, should not oppose a recount. If the result favors him, he should be able to govern more effectively.”

The question for Mexican workers and poor is, do they see the possibility of a popular revolt as well? Not as a way to get López Obrador, another politician tied to the Mexican ruling class, into office, but to take matters into their own hands and defend their own interests. Recent labor struggles in Mexico, for example a countrywide miners’ strike following a mine explosion in February and a 1½-month strike by steel workers last summer, which won concessions from the bosses, show that this is not a far-fetched idea.

In any event, that’s the only way the tide will turn in Mexico and at least some of the wealth produced by Mexican workers be used to improve the conditions for the workers and poor, not to make a handful of billionaires in Mexico and the U.S. even richer.

King George loses his crown

Jul 10, 2006

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 28 that Bush’s administration had overstepped both federal law and international law about enemy combatants, known as the Geneva Conventions.

The majority ruling, which was part of an appeal by a detainee at Guantanamo, says that the president or the “Executive [branch] is bound to comply with the rule of law that prevails in this jurisdiction.” Five justices criticized the administration because it had not allowed defendants to attend their own trials, and its trial methods allowed unsworn testimony and evidence obtained through coercion, that is, by torture.

But, as the commander of Guantanamo’s military detention center put it, “I think the direct impact will be negligible.” Truer words were never spoken!

The courts did not oppose holding detainees forever in the “war on terror.” In fact, the Supreme Court is not even challenging the fact that only ten of the hundreds held have been brought to trial in the last five years. All the court has done is say that Bush first has to get the approval of Congress to do what he has done.

In other words, George cannot publicly act like a king. First he must get the okay from Congress. And Congress rushed to give it to him. Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised to revise the law as soon as Congress returns from its July 4th holiday.

If King George had his wings clipped a little, he’s far from facing a new American revolution. That will have to come from the population.

Pages 6-7

Judge gives Northwest right to impose terms on flight attendants

Jul 10, 2006

The judge in Northwest Airlines’ bankruptcy case gave the company the right to impose its own terms if the flight attendants do not reach an agreement with the company by July 17.

The company did all kinds of arm-twisting to convince the flight attendants that they needed to accept a contract containing 21% wage cuts and increased health insurance premiums for a total reduction of 40% in wages and benefits.

Northwest has played off its various workers against each other by implying that those who agreed to concessions sooner might get a better deal and that none of the concessions would be imposed until the company got concessions from all of its workers.

It got a 15 per pay cut from its pilots in 2004, and then came back for another 24% cut on top of that in May. The company took an 11.5% pay cut from ticket agents in March and got similar concessions from ramp workers in June.

Of course, during all of this the airline has used the example of its mechanics. The mechanics rejected the company’s drastic cuts and went on strike – only to have the company replace them while the other unions watched and did nothing.

The flight attendants were apparently not cowed by all this. Eighty% of them voted against the company’s offer last month.

So what did the company do? It did what companies always do – it went to court and got a judge to give it the right to impose its terms on the flight attendants.

Proving once again that in the class struggle between the bosses and the workers, the courts always take the bosses’ side.

L.A.:
A slap on the wrist for a strike-breaking company

Jul 10, 2006

The Ralphs grocery chain in Southern California agreed to plead guilty on a series of federal charges for illegally hiring more than 1000 workers during the supermarket strike and lockout nearly three years ago. Ralphs admitted that, in order to hide its illegal hiring, it used fake names and Social Security numbers, thus violating federal laws regarding identity fraud, pension reporting and Social Security and Internal Revenue Service record-keeping. It also pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy.

To settle this long list of charges, Ralphs agreed to pay a 20-million-dollar fine to the federal government, and another 50 million dollars into a restitution fund to the 19,000 Ralphs clerks and meat cutters who were locked out during the four-and-a-half month long strike. The UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) estimates that some workers would receive up to $3000 from the settlement. But in fact, this would cover only a tiny part of the pay and benefits that the workers lost during the strike. Nor does it make up for the massive concessions that the supermarkets were able to impose on the workers in Southern California as the result of using scab labor.

At a news conference, Rick Icaza, the UFCW president of Local 770 in Los Angeles, hailed the agreement. So did labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor at University of California at Santa Barbara. Said Lichtenstein, “The fact that Ralphs had to plead guilty and admitted to the tactics they used during the long dispute is clearly a victory for the union. But it’s also a shot across the bow to businesses who think the days of the Wild West have returned in labor relations.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. A victory for the workers could have meant a complete reversal of the concessions and repayment of all lost moneys.

During the strike itself – when it mattered – the federal government ignored Ralphs’ violations of the law – even though it was obvious from the very beginning what Ralphs was doing. The U.S. Justice Department said only that it would open an investigation – which dragged out for years, in contrast to how quickly the courts and prosecuting attorneys and even the White House act against strikers.

As for the supposed penalty that Ralphs will have to pay – it is just a slap on the wrist. The two million dollars Ralphs is to pay is about one tenth of 1% of the sales of Ralphs’ parent company, Kroger. And the corporate executives responsible for several felonies are not going to jail – on the contrary, they have been rewarded handsomely.

Rather than making “a shot across the bow to business,” the government is merely doing what it always does – watching the big corporations’ back in their continuing offensive against the U.S. working class.

“Legacy costs”:
Secrets and lies

Jul 10, 2006

Get this. GM has led the whole world to believe that “legacy costs” – like high pension costs for UAW retirees at GM – have bled the company dry.

Well, the Wall Street Journal just revealed that executive benefits are what is “playing a large and hidden role in the health of America’s pensions.” The well-kept secret.

Come to find out, GM’s pension plan for UAW workers is over-funded. It contains about nine billion dollars more than is needed in years to come. GM’s UAW pension plan investments produced 10 billion dollars in income for GM in 2005 alone.

The pension plan that is under-funded at GM is the one for executives! Theirs is under-funded by 1.4 billion dollars. GM lumps their deficit in with workers’ surplus and then cries about “legacy costs.”

And what’s true for GM is true for other companies as well. An increasing share of future pension payments are going to go to executives rather than ordinary workers. Exxon-Mobil will have to pay out 1.3 billion dollars just for the pensions of a handful of executives. General Electric will be paying out 3.5 billion dollars for its executives’ pensions. Sometimes companies are planning to pay 100 million dollars in pensions to one executive!

Another widespread development is the reduction of pensions for ordinary workers and the increase for executives. BellSouth Corp. reduced what it’s going to pay for workers’ pensions by 3% since 2000, but will pay 89% more for executives’ pensions.

When a company claims its pensions are underfunded, look first at its juicy pensions for its own executives.

Page 8

Lt. Ehren Watada refuses the war in Iraq

Jul 10, 2006

Ehren K. Watada, first lieutenant U.S. Army, refused orders to deploy to Iraq on June 22. He is the first commissioned officer to take this stand publicly.

Watada stated, “I am wholeheartedly opposed to the continued war in Iraq, the deception used to wage this war, and the lawlessness that has pervaded every aspect of our civilian leadership.” Such statements resulted in Watada being charged with expressing contempt against officials and conduct unbecoming an officer. He has also been charged with refusing to be deployed.

Watada is confined to base at Fort Lewis, Washington awaiting trial.

Watada’s mother stated that her son could not participate in a war so clearly wrong, and “to order his men to participate in a war of aggression multiplies his guilt a thousandfold. Implicit in his oath as an officer is the duty to disobey all unlawful orders.”

The troops will come home, as they should, when Bush and his commanders find themselves with an army that no longer cooperates in their dirty, thieving, murderous war.

Few soldiers so far have taken the public stance chosen by Lt. Watada. But there is a growing number whose actions make it clear they want nothing to do with this war. Just as the ranks of the Reserves and the National Guard are being depleted for the same reason.

Movie review:
An Inconvenient Truth raises the question, but doesn’t answer it

Jul 10, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth is a documentary about global warming, narrated by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. The movie certainly has the air of self-promotion by a politician, but it does lay bare the consequences we could face if earth temperatures continue to rise.

As Gore points out, measurements show that the earth’s average temperature has been steadily rising in the past few decades. In this sense, “global warming” is a fact, and we are already seeing some of its consequences. Most particularly, polar ice caps are melting at an even faster rate than scientists had first predicted. It’s even possible that the recent spate of intense tropical storms, floods and droughts is tied to this increase in temperatures.

If this trend continues, we can expect big disruptions in the earth’s climate patterns and thus in agriculture; the rising of sea level up to 40 or 50 feet, causing the flooding of many major population centers and creating hundreds of millions of refugees. And all this perhaps as soon as within the next 50 years.

Most scientists think that this warming trend is the result, at least in part, of human activity – in particular the burning of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, natural gas), which has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere abnormally in the last few decades. Gore joins them, and then says that we are doomed if we don’t reduce carbon dioxide emissions as soon as possible.

There is a level of sensationalism in what Gore is doing – for his own purposes, no doubt. But still, the risk involved in continued warming is so serious that, at this point, any rational society would start doing everything possible to address the problem, including by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

In fact, we are in a good position to do that. Technology to make the burning process more efficient in power plants and car engines has existed for a long time. And the technology exists to build safe nuclear power plants, which produce no carbon dioxide at all. Widespread public transport systems would further reduce exhaust from cars.

But all this technology is not used by the corporations that run this society, because they are narrowly focused on maximizing profits and nothing else. And the politicians, who are intimately tied to big corporations, have never held them accountable.

Being one of these politicians, Gore doesn’t go there either. Instead, he tries to put the responsibility on individuals. Gore’s list of “things you can do” at the end of the movie includes: “Call your Congressman, and if that doesn’t work, run for Congress.” Gore himself counts as living proof that this doesn’t work. Another suggestion is: “Buy a hybrid car” – which, Gore admits, not everyone can. And, finally, “Pray”!

In other words, after sounding all those alarm bells, Gore turns around and tells us that we are helpless.

No, we aren’t. Not if we stop allowing a handful of individuals, whose only concern is profit, to make decisions that concern the future of humanity.

Rape and murder in Iraq:
The brutality of war and occupation

Jul 10, 2006

On July 7, former U.S. Army Pfc. Steven Green was indicted for crimes he committed while stationed at a checkpoint in a small Iraqi town 20 miles south of Baghdad. Green and at least two other members of his unit are charged with taking a man, woman and their 7-year-old daughter into a room at gunpoint and shooting them to death. He and at least one other soldier raped their teenaged daughter, killing her and setting her on fire. Green’s accomplices now admit they planned the rape and murders. Other soldiers have also been implicated directly or indirectly.

How did the U.S. army deal with this horrific crime? They covered it up as long as they could and shuffled Green out of the service quickly. Today army officials claim they thought at the time that Iraqi “insurgents” were responsible. A complete pack of lies, because if the U.S. army had thought it could pin blame for something this horrible on Iraqi insurgents, it would have proclaimed it loudly to the entire world.

In fact, what forced the story to come apart was that the entire neighborhood knew what had happened to this Iraqi family. The teenager murdered had already told others about the sexual harassment she experienced from U.S. soldiers at the checkpoint.

Now the U.S. high command is trying to minimize the impact of the brutality carried out by its troops. Those responsible always claim it was just a few “bad apples.” Green may have had a homicidal “personality disorder” even before he joined the army – as the army now says. Nevertheless he was handed weapons, trained and given the authority to use them in Iraq by this same high command.

This hideous treatment of an Iraqi family is just one story that has come to light. How many more girls and women have been raped, although their stories have not yet been made public? And there will be more such brutal attacks. It is the exact consequence of this – and every – war and occupation, especially when an occupying army is fighting against the population.

The main task of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops occupying Iraq and Afghanistan today is to try to repress the opposition of the population to the occupation of their country by the U.S. To repress such opposition requires systematic brutality, which U.S. troops are organized to carry out.

Green and his buddies are not the only soldiers to become brutal animals. Even those who don’t are often harmed psychologically by what they have been forced to do. Such atrocities won’t end until the troops are gone.