Saturday, May 3, 2008

US payrolls shrank by 20,000 jobs in April

US payrolls shrank by 20,000 jobs in April

Net job less in 2008 at 260,000

By Barry Grey
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The Labor Department reported Friday that the US economy lost a net total of 20,000 jobs in April, marking the fourth consecutive month of overall job losses. The employment report, combined with other data on economic growth, retail sales, consumer spending and wages, provides a picture of an economy sinking deeper into recession and a population in increasingly desperate financial straits.

While the net job loss reported by the Labor Department was lower than most economists’ predictions, it nevertheless confirms that the crisis ignited by the collapse in the housing and credit markets is dramatically impacting production, sales and consumption, and driving down working class living standards.

April’s job losses followed upwardly revised losses of 81,000 in March and 83,000 in February. Payrolls also fell by 76,000 jobs in January.

The payroll decline would have been far worse except for a spurt of new jobs in the generally low-paying service sector. Service industries added 90,000 jobs, the most since last December. Most of them came in the health care and professional technical services sectors.

Massive job losses continued in construction and manufacturing. A net total of 61,000 construction jobs were lost in April, the largest number for that sector since 103,000 were cut in February 2007. Since peaking in September 2006, some 457,000 construction jobs have been lost.

Goods-producing businesses cut 110,000 jobs, the largest number of job reductions since January 2002. This followed a loss of 88,000 jobs in this sector in March.

Factory payrolls slumped by 46,000 workers. Retail payrolls declined by 26,000, after falling 19,300 a month earlier.

The report confirmed that wage growth has slowed dramatically and is trailing behind inflation. Workers’ average hourly earnings rose in April by 1 cent, or 0.1 percent, the least since October. In a separate report issued on Wednesday, the Labor Department revealed that wages and benefits, adjusted for inflation, were down 0.6 percent in the first three months quarter of 2008 compared with a year earlier.

Employers are reducing work hours and overtime, further slashing take-home pay. The average work week declined to 33.7 hours from 33.8 hours. Average weekly hours worked by factory workers deceased to 40.9 from 41.2, while overtime fell to 3.9 hours from 4.0 hours. That brought average weekly earnings down by $1.45 to $602.56 last month.

The official unemployment rate for April declined marginally to 5 percent from 5.1 percent in March. However, this reduction was the result of an increase in part-time jobs. The number of workers with full-time jobs actually declined.

An alternative Labor Department measure of the unemployment rate, which includes people who have stopped looking for work and those working part-time because they can’t find full-time work, rose a tenth of a percentage point to 9.2 percent. Moreover, the number of people remaining on jobless rolls—called continuing claims—rose 74,000 to 3.02 million, the first time in four years the number has exceeded three million.

Since midweek, a number of major companies have announced plans for layoffs.

* General Motors on Wednesday said it was slashing production of full-sized trucks and SUVs, eliminating 3,550 jobs.

* Home Depot announced a major retrenchment on Thursday, saying it was halting plans to open about 50 new US stores and closing 15 existing stores over the next seven weeks. As many as 1,300 employees could lose their jobs.

* Sun Microsystems posted a net loss of $34 million for its third quarter and announced plans to cut up to 2,500 jobs.

* Health care giant Johnson & Johnson announced Wednesday it was eliminating 400 sales jobs in the US by the year’s end.

These job cuts are in addition to ongoing layoffs in the financial sector. Wall Street banks and securities firms have slashed 48,000 jobs in the past ten months.

A raft of other data released over the past several days indicates that the economic slowdown is accelerating and points to even bigger job losses in the coming weeks.

The Commerce Department reported on Wednesday that the US economy had grown by an anemic 0.6 percent in the first quarter of 2008. But even this marginal growth was due entirely to a rise in exports, resulting from the sharp decline in the value of the dollar, and a buildup of inventories.

Excluding inventories, US gross domestic product shrank at a 0.2 percent pace, the first contraction in more than 16 years. Excluding both inventories and exports, the economy contracted at a 0.4 percent rate, the first such decline since the end of 1991.

The underlying data on consumer spending, business investment and construction all showed a sharp contraction. “You’re seeing a sharp slowdown in domestic demand,” Michael T. Darda, chief economist at MKM Partners, told the Wall Street Journal.

The buildup of inventories portends a major pullback in the coming months. As the New York Times noted on May 1, “If business does not swiftly improve, allowing factories to sell the products they have piled up, firms are likely to lay off workers at a more aggressive clip.

“Even if business picks up and orders materialize, averting broader layoffs, factories will probably not need to produce as many new things in coming months, prompting some to trim working hours and purchases of materials.”

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) issued a report this week showing a continuing slowdown in manufacturing. Its index of factory activity for April was 48.6, the same as the month before. A number below 50 indicates contraction. The index, based on a survey of purchasing managers, showed a retrenchment in new orders and production, as well as a rise in prices paid to suppliers.

The impact of soaring food and gasoline prices on consumer demand has hit the auto industry particularly hard. Industry figures released Thursday showed that autos sold at a lower-than-forecast rate of 14.4 million units per year in April, the slowest since 1998. GM officials estimated that the industry’s seasonally adjusted annual selling rate in April was at its lowest since 1992.

A Commerce Department report released Thursday showed an accelerating decline in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of GDP in the US. Consumer spending grew by only 0.1 percent in March, when adjusted for inflation, after remaining flat in February.

Sales of big-ticket items declined in March. In the first quarter, sales of those goods plummeted 6.1 percent.

“What you’ve got here is a very dramatic consumer slowdown,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief United States economist at High Frequency Economics. “It’s much more severe than anything we saw in 2001,” he added, referring to the last recession.

Slumping consumer spending is wreaking havoc among major retail firms, sparking a wave of bankruptcy filings, store closings and the cancellation of expansion plans. Besides Home Depot’s announcement of store closings and layoffs, homes goods retailer Linens ‘n Things on Friday said it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and disclosed plans to close 120 stores. The company employs 17,500 people.

This followed bankruptcy filing announcements by Sharper Image and Lillian Vernon in February.

Foot Locker plans to close 140 stores over the next year, Ann Taylor will close 117, and the jeweler Zales will close 100. Women’s clothing retailer Charming Shoppes, which owns Lane Bryant and Fashion Bug, is closing at least 150 stores. Wilsons the Leather Experts will close 158. Pacific Sunwear is shutting a 153-store chain called Demo. Starbucks will close 100 stores.

JC Penney recently announced it will open 36 stores this year, down from the 50 initially planned. Lowe’s said it was delaying the opening of 20 stores this year, mostly in California and Florida.

The International Council of Shopping Centers predicts 5,770 store closings in 2008, up 25 percent from 2007.

The store closings and delayed openings will have a ripple effect throughout the economy, depressing sales tax revenues and eliminating work for commercial construction firms.

While the deepening slump is having a devastating impact on working class families, Wall Street is celebrating a major stock market rally. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed Friday at 13,058, its high point for the year.

The stock market is up almost 11 percent in the last few weeks, and high-yield, low-grade junk bonds are once again soaring, along with bank stocks and credit derivatives. As the New York Times put it on Friday, “Main Street may be struggling, but Wall Street is on a bit of a roll.”

“There has been a huge change of sentiment in all of the markets,” said William Knapp, investment strategist for MainStay Investments, a division of New York Life. “A lot of the fear has been gone.”

It is no mystery what has caused this remarkable shift in market sentiment. It began with the Federal Reserve’s rescue of Bear Stearns in March and its decision to directly lend money to the big Wall Street investment banks.

This was a signal that the US government would marshal all of its resources to prevent a collapse of a major Wall Street financial house and rescue the financial elite from the consequences of its own reckless pursuit of super-high investment returns by means of vastly inflated home values and the creation of a huge credit bubble.

The reverse side of this coin is a deepening assault on the jobs, wages and living standards of working people, in order to place the full burden of the financial crisis on their backs.

While hundreds of billions of dollars have been made available to Wall Street firms—indeed, only minutes before the jobs figures were published on Friday, the Fed said it would increase its auctions of cash to banks and expand the collateral it takes on from bond dealers—virtually nothing has been done either by the Bush administration or the Democratic Congress to provide relief to families facing the loss of their homes, crushing debts and soaring food and gasoline prices.

It is estimated that 10 million American home owners are “under water”—meaning they owe more on their mortgage loans than their homes are worth on the market. Foreclosure filings are soaring, having risen in the first quarter of this year more than 112 percent over the same period in 2007.

But the Bush administration’s housing relief program, FHA Secure, has so far aided only about 2,000 homeowners who were clearly behind in repaying their loans. The administration insists that only “deserving” home owners should be helped—a standard that clearly does not apply to bank CEOs, who have appropriated hundreds of millions in compensation while running their companies into the ground.

The Democrats, for their part, are promoting a bill that would help a mere fraction of distressed home owners refinance their mortgages, while providing no relief for the hundreds of thousands who have already lost their homes. To qualify, home owners would have to prove their ability to repay new, federally insured loans.

Democrats promoting the bill, such as Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, say it could help up to 1.5 million home owners. (In fact, they know the bill will not be enacted due to opposition from the Bush administration and Republican legislators).

But there were already 1.2 million loans in foreclosure as of January, and one analyst at Credit Suisse projects that falling home prices, tighter lending standards and job cuts could lead to an additional 2.8 million foreclosures in 2008 and 2009.

For Striking Factory Workers, US-First Pledge Falls Flat

For Striking Factory Workers, US-First Pledge Falls Flat

By Michael A. Fletcher

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Detroit - American Axle and Manufacturing employees viewed their boss Richard E. Dauch as a hero. He bet against the odds when he led a group of investors who bought five decrepit auto parts plants 14 years ago. An outspoken champion of American manufacturing, he backed his words by pouring $3 billion into modernizing the old factories. The strapping Dauch often walked the assembly line, stopping to arm-wrestle employees or to ask about their children.

But times are changing, and Dauch is reneging on a critical part of the wager. The America-first chief executive says he can no longer afford the $73 an hour his employees cost. Without worker concessions, he said American Axle's five major U.S plants could be forced to close.

His employees aren't buying it. They walked out Feb. 26 after rejecting the company's demands that the union said would cut wages in half. The job action has idled not only the 3,650 striking employees but also tens of thousands of workers in related industries. "This is not a trivial effect," said Brian A. Bethune, an economist with Global Insight.

Beyond the immediate economic impact, the strike raises uncomfortable questions about the future of the best-paying factory jobs in the United States. As high-quality manufacturing is increasingly done more cheaply and efficiently from Mexico to India, the U.S. advantage that Dauch promoted as the main factor justifying higher American wages has eroded, taking salaries with it.

"Mr. Dauch is just doing what he has to do to survive," said Hank Cox, a vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers. "Something's got to give if those jobs are going to stay in the United States."

For years, Dauch told his workers that if they embraced technology and were dedicated to making better axles, they would prosper with the company. By most every measure, American Axle has made good products. It invested substantial sums in worker training and new manufacturing systems. Orders poured in to make parts for sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks that provide the bulk of its business. Workers did well, too, averaging $28 an hour in wages, with generous benefits.

But as SUV sales have fallen, even Dauch could not continue business the same way in the face of competitors who pay their workers far less for the same work. Two of Dauch's largest U.S. competitors that fell into bankruptcy, Delphi and Dana, have negotiated labor agreements that are less than half as costly as Americans Axle's, according to the company. Meanwhile, foreign firms that operate in the United States, including Bharat Forge, have far cheaper labor deals. Auto parts plants overseas have even lower labor costs.

"Quality is just the price of doing business, a starting point," said Renee Rogers, American Axle's spokeswoman. "We also have to be competitive economically."

The strikers see the job action as a last stand for the kind of factory wages that have supported the middle-class lifestyles of millions of manufacturing workers. Some have lashed out against free trade in response to the company's threat to move work out of the country to save money. If a profitable company refuses to maintain their wages, the workers ask, who will?

"If we accept this offer, it would set a precedent for everyone else," said Karl Schaffer, 39, as he picketed outside the gleaming headquarters the company built next to its refurbished Detroit plant four years ago. "The company is making money."

Officials at the United Auto Workers union said they understood that the auto industry was rapidly changing and that global competition was adding cost pressures. They said they were willing to give back some wages and benefits, as they have in recent contracts with Detroit automakers and the parts factories that supply them. They doubt that workers cost the $73 an hour the company says, and in any case, they said they couldn't go as far in giving up wages as American Axle has proposed.

Four years ago, the UAW negotiated a two-tier wage structure that would pay new American Axle workers far less than veteran workers. But the company said it saved little money with the plan because it has hired few new employees.

Union leaders chafe at granting more givebacks to a firm that remains profitable - if only marginally. After losing money in 2006, American Axle cleared $37 million in profit in 2007 on $3.25 billion in sales. Dauch, meanwhile, made $10.2 million - a 9 percent increase over his previous year's salary - an increase the company said was warranted because of his leadership in returning the firm to profitability in a fiercely competitive business.

"The stakes are our livelihood - simple as that," Bill Alford Jr., vice president of UAW Local 235, said of the dispute. "We're trying to hold on to a middle-class way of life."

Union officials said the company's demands would eliminate guaranteed pensions in favor of 401(k)s, reduce health benefits and cut wages for current workers to an average of $14 an hour. "I know the auto industry is hard and I am willing to compromise," said Frank Franklin, 33, who started at American Axle shortly after it was launched in 1994. "But $14 an hour? I can't do that. I'll go back to school and start over first."

The company has offered buyouts for those who do not want to work for lower salaries and cash "buy downs" to ease the transition for employees forced to take the deep wage cuts being proposed.

Two months in, the workers are still not biting. Last week, the company issued a statement reiterating its determination to hold out for a "market competitive" contract and again threatening to shutter the plants that workers are striking. The UAW responded with a boisterous rally outside the company's annual meeting last Thursday.

Morgan Stanley analyst Jonathan Steinmetz said the strike was probably not going to be settled until General Motors was drawn in. But, so far, the work stoppage has coincided with a large backlog of GM's SUVs and pickups, easing pressure on the automaker. Yesterday, GM, which has reduced or stopped work in 30 plants, said the strike has cost it $800 million and the production of 100,000 vehicles. Like other automakers, GM reports revenue when a vehicle is shipped from the factory, not when it is sold, so lost production shows up as lost revenue.

Steinmetz said an extended walkout could work to the advantage of American Axle, which has begun hiring lower-wage workers in anticipation that many of its striking employees will take buyouts. "A longer strike could give [American Axle] the leverage necessary to extract a better deal from the UAW, which in the long run, could more than offset the financial impact of the strike," he wrote in a report last month.

American Axle has the ability to move some production to four of its plants in Michigan and Ohio that are not on strike and that operate under less costly labor agreements - or out of the country altogether. After starting in 1994 with five plants in Michigan and Upstate New York, American Axle now operates in 29 locations in 11 countries.

The firm had 7,500 workers when Dauch started the business. But attrition and two buyouts have reduced American Axle's hourly U.S. workforce to 5,300, even as the company has been expanding overseas, where it has 3,800 employees and far lower labor costs.

Still, many workers view moving work elsewhere as a betrayal. "The feeling among workers is that 'You have all of those international locations because of us here in Buffalo and here in Detroit,' " said Arthur C. Wheaton, a workforce specialist at Cornell University. "Now you say you're paying us too much and you want to get rid of us. Where is the love? Where is the appreciation for all we've done?' "

Employees who once praised Dauch as a self-made man willing to stand up for U.S. manufacturing workers have turned increasingly sour toward him as the strike has worn on. "This company has always been a good company to work for," Alford said. "But now it just seems like Mr. Dauch's lost touch."

UAW preparing agreement to slash American Axle workers’ wages, close plants

UAW preparing agreement to slash American Axle workers' wages, close plants

By Joe Kay
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The United Auto Workers union is close to reaching an agreement with American Axle & Manufacturing that will accept company demands on every major issue, including cutting wages and closing at least two plants. More than 3,600 workers have been on strike at AAM for ten weeks.

Details of the agreement have been reported on blogs run by American Axle workers and in the media. The Detroit Free Press reported on Thursday that a framework for a settlement was near, and would include the closure of two plants, substantially lower pay for all workers, and the breaking up of the national agreement into separate plant-by-plant contracts. The newspaper cited "people briefed on the talks" as the source for its information. Talks are expected to continue throughout the weekend.

According to the Free Press, wages would be cut to $17 an hour for production workers, $14 for non-production workers, and $25.50 for skilled trades workers.

Before the strike, American Axle workers earned $28.15 an hour, with skilled trades at more than $30 an hour. The terms outlined above would mean a pay cut of between $11 and $14 an hour (or upwards of $25,000 a year) for most workers.

Prior to the strike, the UAW had agreed to substantial wage cuts that would have given workers a few dollars an hour more than what they would receive under the framework reported by the Free Press.

Two forging plants would be closed—at Tonawanda, New York, and in Detroit, Michigan. A third plant in Three Rivers, Michigan could also be closed.

Shutting down the Detroit forge plant would mean the loss of hundreds more jobs in a city that has been devastated by the decline of the US auto industry and the outsourcing of labor to cheaper locations in the US and internationally.

The closure of the Tonawnada plant would likely mean the end of American Axle's operations in the Buffalo, New York area, further devastating a region that, like Detroit, has been hit by the destruction of its manufacturing base. Tonawanda employs about 400 workers, and a companion finishing plant, whose future existence is also questionable, employs about 110. Last year, American Axle idled a plant in Buffalo that once employed over 2,000 workers.

According to reports on blogs run by American Axle workers, the company was prepared to keep the forge plants open if the workers accepted $10-$14 an hour wages for production workers. If the forges are shut, the work there will be replaced by low-wage plants in the US and Mexico.

The closure of these plants will leave only two remaining—the manufacturing facilities in Detroit and Three Rivers, provided that the latter remains open. Extremely significant is the proposal to break up the remaining plants into separate contracts. This framework, which has been adopted by the UAW at other auto parts suppliers, would serve to pit the different plants against each other in a competition for lower wages and benefits, under the threat of closure.

AAM is reportedly threatening to close Three Rivers in one year if the concessions are not high enough. The company is insisting on a clause that would allow it to shut the plant down if the company's financial situation worsens.

Over the past 25 years, the UAW has worked to impose concessions by blocking any mobilization of workers across the auto industry. Separate contracts are negotiated at separate companies, and concessions at one become the foundation for demanding concessions at another. This model is now being extended within each company itself, as a means of breaking up any solidarity among the rank-and-file.

In an attempt to push through the concessions, American Axle and the UAW are reportedly discussing a $140,000 buyout and $90,000 buy-down package. Workers who accept the buyout package have little opportunity for gaining decent-paying employment elsewhere, and also face the loss of health benefits.

Wall Street responded positively to the Free Press story, interpreting the news as a sign that major concessions could be won from the workers, thereby boosting investor profits. Lehman Brothers auto analyst Brian Johnson wrote in a note, "We believe that the implication from the emerging details of the agreement being worked out between AXL [American Axle] and the UAW is bullish for AXL."

On Friday, workers on the picket line in Detroit reacted with anger to the contract terms reportedly being discussed. Scott, a worker with 14 years' seniority, said, "They want to buy us down to Third World wages. With the rising cost of gas and groceries, it is going to have a devastating effect. There are people out here who will not be able to live off $17 an hour, people who have homes and car payments to make."

About the role of the UAW, Scott remarked, "The policy is—win for the company lose for the blue collar."

Dwayne responded by saying, "To me it seems like American Axel preferred a strike. They knew they could get the work from the plant in Mexico and they are saying you can stay on strike for as long as you want. I believe AAM and General Motors had this worked out. They decided they were going to wear us down to get what they wanted."

One worker told the WSWS, "This betrayal is the fault of the international union. When they cancelled the rally last Friday we knew they were selling us out. We knew from this act alone that the bottom was falling out. We are not as dumb as they think."

Another worker said, "They say they are for us, but they aren't and we know it. How can you have unity in the union when workers are paid two different wages for the same job?"

Plans for a sellout underscore the fact that there is no way for workers to oppose the demands of American Axle so long as the strike remains under the control of the UAW bureaucracy. While workers face an enemy in the form of American Axle's corporate management and CEO Richard Dauch, they face a no less bitter foe in the UAW.

It is critical that strikers elect rank-and-file committees to take the strike out of the hands of the UAW bureaucracy. These committees should make a direct appeal to workers throughout the auto industry—in the United States and internationally—to wage a common struggle against the concessions imposed by the corporations. The committees should organize opposition to any proposed concessions contract and prepare to mobilize a "no" vote.

The issues facing American Axle workers are of a piece with those faced by workers throughout the country and internationally. Fundamentally, auto workers confront the consequences of the failure of capitalism, a social system defended by the unions and both big business parties. A new political movement of the working class is necessary, and the SEP urges American Axle and other auto workers to attend our May Day Meeting to discuss the basis of this movement:

May Day 2008: Capitalism, socialism and the working class

Sunday May 4, 3 pm
Wayne State University
Bernath Auditorium, David Adamany Undergraduate Library
5155 Gullen Mall
Detroit, Michigan

The California budget and the crisis of public education

The California budget and the crisis of public education

By Dan Conway and Kevin Martinez
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In school districts all over California there has been an outpouring of angry demonstrations by teachers, parents and administrators against Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent plans to cut more than $6 billion from the state’s public education system in his proposed 2008-2009 budget.

The proposed $4.8 billion cut from secondary education and $1.3 billion from higher education are the result of the governor’s proposed 10 percent across-the-board cuts in state social programs to address, in part, the state’s projected $16 billion deficit. The governor himself declared a “fiscal emergency” in early January to deal with the projected shortfall, which at the time was $14.5 billion.

The budget situation is not unique to California. Twenty-two other states already face a combined budget shortfall of approximately $39 billion for fiscal year 2008-2009, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This is double the number of states that reported a deficit six months ago.

Schwarzenegger is scheduled to release a revised budget proposal on May 15 after tax receipts are collected and tabulated. Many analysts have projected a sharp decline in property tax revenue, which would only intensify the current budget crisis and perhaps lead to even greater spending cuts. Schwarzenegger has adamantly refused to raise taxes of any kind, particularly on the state’s wealthiest residents, whom he cynically claims simply don’t have the ability to make any additional contributions to the state’s coffers.

Schwarzenegger’s proposals have already led to layoff notices for more than 20,000 teachers and school employees in the K-12 (kindergarten through high school) system alone. Should his current budget request be passed, another 87,000 K-12 teachers and staff will most likely lose their jobs.

The cuts will also have a dramatic impact on the state’s public university system, leading to further decreases in spending, increased tuition and student fess, along with possible staff layoffs. California students were once able to attend these institutions free of charge, but have now seen their tuitions grow by more than 100 percent within the past four years alone.

Thousands of teachers, support staff, administrators, parents and students have held rallies all across the state to oppose these trends. Within the past two months, hundreds of students walked out of their classes in Encinal High School near San Francisco; 4,000 teachers, parents and students rallied in Mission Viejo; 1,500 university students marched the state capitol of Sacramento on April 21; and on April 18, more than 2,500 students from 40 high schools across the state participated in rallies and walkouts to protest the cuts.

These demonstrations must be viewed in the appropriate historical context. With an economy standing precipitously on the edge of disaster and two deeply unpopular wars being waged, a situation is unfolding where broad masses of people are in direct confrontation with the political establishment as they are being asked to pay for crises for which they are not in the least bit responsible.

A global phenomenon

The right to a free, quality education is also under assault all over the world.

In countries like Great Britain, the old social democratic parties like New Labor have abandoned any pretense of social reform and are leading a fight to privatize education and cut teachers’ wages. On April 24, more than 200,000 British teachers mounted a work stoppage to protest, in part, salary increases that remain well below the rate of inflation.

In France, tens of thousands of students have protested in recent weeks against education reforms proposed by the Sarkozy government, which would include the sacking of more than 11,200 teachers and substantial reductions in course offerings. The protests have occurred across the country and have been met with severe police repression, while the leaders of Sarkozy’s ostensible opposition in the Socialist Party and the student unions have done nothing more than applaud only the most cosmetic changes to his administration’s policies.

The cuts in California are an assault on what was once the most progressive state educational system in the country. This legacy has roots in the California Constitutional Convention, where in 1849, convention president Robert Semple said, “If the people are to govern themselves, they should be qualified to do it. They must be educated, they must educate their children; they must provide means for the diffusion of knowledge and the progress of enlightened principles.”

Nearly 160 years later, one can safely assume that the “progress of enlightened principles” is the furthest thing from the minds of the current governor and state legislature, and recent statistics are quite telling in this regard. Furthermore, the education cuts arrive on the heels of billions already slashed by Schwarzenegger and his Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, over the past 10 years.

For fiscal year 2006-2007, California had a teacher-to-student ratio of nearly 26.1 to 1, the third highest of US states, and according to Education Week Magazine, which adjusts figures for per-pupil spending according to each state’s cost of living, California ranked 47th in the nation. In terms of total school staff (principals, teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, etc.), the state ranks dead last with only an average of 68 staff members, 76 percent of the national average of 90 school staff.

California teachers also have only the 32nd highest salaries in the country when adjusted for cost of living. And like other teachers across the nation, they are often forced to use whatever money they can spare from their already meager paychecks to provide the most basic of educational needs for their students. Whatever costs they are unable to cover themselves are often defrayed by local Parent Teacher Associations, who often conduct fund drives not to send their children on field trips to museums and farms as they once did, but to simply provide them with the most basic of supplies from computer equipment to stationery.

This phenomenon represents a move towards the de facto privatization of the public school system along with its attendant class stratification, as students at poorer schools are unable to raise adequate funds for such basic necessities.

While more than 370,000 California high school seniors will graduate in 2008, the state ranks only 40th in the nation in terms of the rate of high school graduates entering college. California’s situation is an expression of a much larger educational crisis in the US as a whole. According to statistics recently released by the US Department of Education, each of the 50 largest cities in the country had graduation rates of 58 percent or lower for the 2003-2004 academic year. (See: “An indictment of the profit system: High school drop-out rate in major US cities at nearly 50 percent”)

The Public Policy Institute of California also recently conducted a survey in which 84 percent of Californians responded that affording college is at least somewhat of a problem for students today, while 53 percent called it a “big problem.” Sixty-six percent of those surveyed also believed that the cost of a college education prevents qualified students from pursuing a higher education.

Lastly, the California Postsecondary Education Commission found that 18 percent of public college graduates and 29 percent of private college graduates have debt that would exceed manageable levels by accepting a job with earnings equivalent to a teacher’s starting salary.

Social inequality in California

The immediate cause of the current budget crisis was the collapse of the US housing and high-tech bubbles. However, it also has significant roots in legislative decisions made in the late 1970s, in which the tax burden of the state’s wealthiest residents was significantly reduced, laying the foundation for frequent deficits that required the intervention of the state’s political system against the working class.

The claims made by Schwarzenegger and his political allies, that the state “doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem,” are completely fraudulent. California is the wealthiest state in the country and as of March 2006, was home to 91, or nearly 19 percent, of the world’s billionaires. While this minute social layer continues to accrue astronomical amounts of parasitic wealth, more than 20,000 teachers are being deprived of their livelihoods and millions of youth are being asked to make do with a woefully underfunded—and thus criminally inadequate—system of education.

The present attacks on the public education system will serve to further undermine the living standards of not only all those who work in this industry, but the entire working population of the state, which relies on public schools, colleges and universities to secure a decent education for them and their children. This latest assault comes in the midst of a sharply increasing social inequality and a worsening economic situation for millions in California.

The polarization of wealth and incomes in the United States has taken a tremendous toll in California. A report by the California Budget Office, entitled “A Generation of Widening Equality: The State of Working California, 1979 to 2006,” notes that although many in the state are working longer hours than they did 30 years ago, the number of workers with health insurance and other benefits has declined significantly. More than one in five Californians under age 65 (21.3 percent) did not have health insurance in 2005, compared to 18.5 percent in 1987. The number of workers in the state who have a pension plan has declined from 57.7 percent in the early 1980s to 49.4 percent today. In addition, the study found that approximately 2 million of California’s 9.3 million working families (21.1 percent) were below 200 percent of the federal poverty line in 2005, a miserable level of income that does not adequately provide for the state’s high cost of living.

The Schwarzenegger administration continues the tired mantra of “no new taxes,” while its nominal opposition in the state Democratic Party fundamentally agrees with the governor’s draconian cuts, insisting only that some of the shortfalls be ameliorated with the imposition of regressive taxes.

Democratic state assembly speaker Fabian Nunez, for example, has called for the creation of an Internet tax along with an increase in the annual car registration fee, both of which will disproportionately affect working people and the poor.

The measures being proposed by Nunez and others will serve to exacerbate what is already a thoroughly regressive state tax structure. According to a report by the California Budget Project, the poorest fifth of households in California, with an average income of $11,000, pay an average of 11.7 percent of their income on state taxes. Compare this to the top 1 percent of households worth an average $1.6 million that pay only 7.1 percent of their income in state and local taxes.

Furthermore, no state politician on either side of the aisle has mentioned—much less fought to significantly recoup—the more than $10 billion stolen from the California treasury during the energy crisis of 2001, in which large energy corporations such as Enron illegally manipulated the state’s power supply and energy markets to reap massive profits.

The response of the trade unions

The response of the trade unions to the current situation, as exemplified by the California Teachers Association (CTA), has been pitiful. They have urged parents, teachers and staff to call and e-mail their representatives in the state legislature to express their opposition to the cuts. However, even a veritable avalanche of e-mails and phone calls will not convince any Democrat or Republican legislator that the budget cuts should be rescinded. In fact, this perspective was lent a rather farcical character by Democratic Lieutenant Governor Jim Garamendi, who recently urged parents, students and teachers to continue protesting the cuts and making appeals to state politicians—presumably including himself—to fix the budget crisis.

In addition, the CTA has told its membership that it will fight to keep the cuts away from teachers. In other words, their strategy is to try to shift the burden onto school support staffs, as if this would not have a dramatic impact on teaching conditions in the public educational system and these employees.

Furthermore, public statements made by the CTA leadership make no mention of the impact of the proposed budget cuts on other sectors of the economy, except to imply that only education funding is of any concern out of the dozens of programs slated for the chopping block. A recent resolution states that the “CTA calls on the governor and the Legislature to put our students first” and “reject across-the-board cuts that would damage our public schools.

The CTA, in collusion with the Democrats, has proven itself incapable of leading the struggle for basic public services and democratic rights, such as access to a high-quality education, as its actions over the past few years amply demonstrate.

In 2004, the so-called “Education Coalition,” led by the CTA, agreed to a $2 billion reduction in Proposition 98 funding, the legal mandate that provides a minimum level of funding for K-12 schools and community colleges, in exchange for the governor’s promise that the money would be returned when the state next experienced a budget surplus. Not surprisingly, the money was never returned. Instead, the CTA mounted a campaign accusing Schwarzenegger of abandoning his promises on education, despite the fact that as part of the quid pro quo over Prop 98 funding they supported Proposition 57 (the Economic Recovery Bond Act) and 58 (the California Balanced Budget Act).

The missing $2 billion has never been mentioned during the course of the current crisis by either the CTA or any Democratic legislators.

All these experiences indicate the necessity of making a decisive break with the Democratic Party and its allies in the trade union bureaucracy, including the CTA. The current struggle must be conducted in solidarity with all members of the working class, but particularly with those directly affected by the budget cuts, including administrators, custodians, health care professionals, the more than 7,000 state employees who will soon lose their jobs, and the hundreds of thousands of Californians who depend on state-provided services simply to maintain a decent standard of living.

While the assault on education manifests itself in various ways across the country and around the world, each expression finds its objective roots in the systemic collapse of the world capitalist economic and social order. An independent mobilization of the working class, based on an internationalist socialist program, is required to defend public education and to fight for the reorganization of society to provide for the needs of the vast majority, not the profits of the few.

Tens of thousands march against immigration raids in the US

Tens of thousands march against immigration raids in the US

By Rafael Azul
Go To Original

Tens of thousands of workers and students marched in dozens of US cities on May 1 to defend the rights of undocumented workers and all other immigrants. There were demonstrations in Los Angeles and a score of other cities, including Washington, Milwaukee, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, Houston, Dallas and Detroit.

The protesters denounced government raids on factories and demanded the legislation of the more than 12 million undocumented workers who live in the United States. Many protesters also carried signs demanding drivers’ licenses for undocumented workers, denouncing high gasoline prices, and demanding an end to the war on Iraq. The march included many legal residents with relatives who are undocumented and were afraid to protest themselves.

The marches, set to coincide with international day of workers’ solidarity, were much smaller than in 2006 when nearly 1.5 million workers marched in Los Angeles and Chicago, joined by hundreds of thousands in nearly 100 other cities to protest against legislation passed by the US House of Representatives that would have turned every undocumented worker in the US into a felon, subject to imprisonment. The same bill would have made it criminal for any US citizen, including medical professionals, social workers and teachers, to provide any services to immigrants without visas.

In contrast, the numbers this time were much more modest, with about 10,000 marching in Los Angeles and less than 5,000 in New York City. Sizeable demonstrations also took place in Chicago and Milwaukee, while only a few hundred turned out in Houston and San Francisco. The immigrant marchers were mostly from Mexico and Central America, while other participants came from the Caribbean, South Korea and the Philippines.

No doubt the decrease in the number of demonstrators was attributable in no small degree to the climate of fear created by the record numbers of deportations and immigration raids carried out by the government over the past year, and the generalized demonization of undocumented workers promoted by both major political parties as well as the mass media. According to the figures recorded by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, deportations from the US have increased by close to 60 percent since 2005.

Meanwhile, the virtual militarization of the US-Mexican border has had the effect of trapping Mexican immigrants in the US—estimated at 11 million—cutting them off from the families they left behind in search of work in the north.

This section of the working class has also been hit the hardest by the deepening economic crisis, which has had a particular impact upon construction jobs, a major source of employment for immigrant workers. On the eve of the demonstration, the Inter-American Development Bank reported that some 3 million Latin American immigrants in the US have stopped sending money home to their families over the past two years as a result of the deteriorating economic conditions.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are preparing to introduce new legislation next week to criminalize and persecute undocumented immigrants in the US. The proposed bill would mandate the imprisonment of immigrants caught crossing the border, create obstacles for the undocumented opening bank accounts, and require that all those communicating with federal agencies do so in English. The legislation would also cut federal funding for states issuing drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants, and for cities that do not allow their police forces to arrest people based upon their immigration status.

Those who demonstrated did so in defiance of this wave of repression. In Los Angeles, over 700 high school students joined the protest, together with workers from a factory that was raided by the government earlier this year.

In Milwaukee, marchers chanted slogans demanding that Democratic candidates Clinton and Obama take a stand against immigration raids. Since 2006, Minnesota and Iowa meat packing plants have been aggressively targeted for immigration raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency of the US government (ICE).

In this year’s protests, organizers placed an emphasis on voter registration and the upcoming elections. According to the Los Angeles Times, groups such as the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, the We Are America Alliance and the SEIU, groups that support the Democratic Party are focusing on encouraging legal immigrants to apply for US citizenship and register to vote. At the Chicago protest, some workers indicated that they would vote for whichever candidate has a stronger program on this issue.

This will prove to be a dead-end strategy. Neither of the two contenders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, nor Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate, have shown any inclination to advance policies aimed at ending the repression of immigrants and granting them basic rights as workers.

Clinton has combined tough talk on border enforcement and on the treatment of immigrants convicted of a crime—she is for immediate deportation—with support for some form of guest worker program assuring agribusiness and other sections of employers with a secure supply of cheap labor. Obama’s main disagreement with Clinton on this issue appears to be over drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants—she is against granting licenses, he is in favor.

On the Republican side, McCain, a former supporter of the guest worker program, now favors shutting down the US border with Mexico.

In her comment on the protests, Clinton promised to introduce an immigration bill during her first 100 days in office. Senator Obama refrained from any concrete proposal and instead called on all immigrants to fight for their demands by registering to vote.

None of these candidates have seriously addressed the human cost of the current immigration policy. Over four thousand immigrants have died crossing the US-Mexico border since Operation Gatekeeper was instituted under President Bill Clinton in 1994. This operation, a bi-partisan measure, was designed to severely restrict access for immigrants from Mexico and Central America and served to divert the inevitable flow of migrants into the punishing desert.

Since then Democratic and Republican politicians alike have acted to further repress the movement of immigrants, effectively subordinating the human rights of this section of the working class to the profit needs of US businesses. This is the case both in relation to supposed Democratic liberals like Obama and Clinton and those attempting to appeal to the xenophobia of the extreme right wing, like McCain.

In California and elsewhere across the country, businesses engaged in agriculture, construction and light manufacturing have begun to raise concerns over the increase in government raids and the generalized crackdown on immigrants. According to the Los Angeles Times, last year there were 4,900 raids on factories, 21 times more than in 2001. The number of undocumented immigrants arrested between 2001 and 2007 jumped 870 percent, from 510 to 4,940. In some cases, single parents were unable to return home, leaving their children abandoned.

This year over a dozen raids took place in Los Angeles County. In the suburb of Van Nuys, 130 immigrants were arrested in a raid on Micro Solutions, a manufacturer of ink-jet supplies. That is not good for business, according to Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Development Corporation, which recently released a study that found that tens of thousands of jobs would be lost in the furniture, food and fashion industries if even a few of these companies were forced to leave the state as a consequence of immigration raids.

Despite the protests, ICE raids will continue. Even as immigration rallies took place across the nation, Michael Chertoff, who heads the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in an opinion piece in the Department of Homeland Security Department’s Leadership Journal that “when it comes to illegal immigration, the American people are tired of thirty years of lip service. They want our laws enforced... I have directed my department to pursue that mandate, using all the tools permitted by law.” He stated that the department will “drive businesses to comply with laws against employing illegal workers,” and “when we encounter those who are here illegally,” ICE will remove them.

Another political show trial in Baghdad: Tariq Aziz charged with genocide

Another political show trial in Baghdad: Tariq Aziz charged with genocide

By James Cogan
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The trial that began this week of Tariq Aziz on the charge of genocide is a particularly vindictive act on the part of the Bush administration and its puppet government in Iraq. The court is trying him and seven other former Iraqi government leaders for the 1992 execution of 42 businessmen accused of price-fixing. If found guilty, Aziz faces the death penalty.

After Hussein himself, Aziz was arguably the regime’s best known face around the world. Highly educated and fluent in English, he was a key public spokesman and diplomat for the Baathist regime. He served as Iraq’s foreign minister from 1983 until 1991 and as deputy prime minister from 1991 until the 2003 US invasion. In the lead-up to the war, he frequently appeared in the international media, articulately denying the US lies that the Iraqi government possessed weapons of mass destruction and had links with Al Qaeda. He accused the Bush administration of wanting war for “oil and Israel”. He surrendered to US forces on April 24, 2003.

The Iraqi Special Tribunal—a kangaroo court established by the US occupation to judicially murder Saddam Hussein and other leading Baathists—only announced that Aziz was being prosecuted on April 24. For the past five years, he has been imprisoned without charges by the American military. He is currently being held at Camp Cropper near Baghdad airport. His only public appearance since 2003 has been the testimony he gave during the trial of Saddam Hussein on behalf of several of the defendants. Appeals for his release by his children and by the head of the Iraqi Christian Church, to which Aziz belongs, have been ignored.

During the trial of Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi officials, the WSWS commented that the US occupation of Iraq and its local collaborators have no credibility to try anyone for crimes against the Iraqi people. The Bush administration is responsible for a scale of killing and criminality that far exceeds those of Hussein’s Baathist regime. The 2003 invasion was an illegal war of aggression that has so far cost an estimated 1.2 million Iraqis lives, turned four million into refugees and devastated the country’s economic and social infrastructure. In the past few weeks, American bombs and bullets have slaughtered or maimed well over 3,000 people in the streets of Baghdad’s Sadr City.

Amid this ongoing carnage, the charge of “genocide” levelled against Aziz is an outrage. By all accounts, the 1992 killing of the merchants was ordered solely by Hussein. The only basis on which Aziz is being prosecuted is that he was a member of the Revolutionary Command Council in whose name the executions were carried out. His son Ziad, who lives in exile in Jordan, told the BBC: “Everybody knows that he was not involved in this thing, but the Iraqi government has accused him because of his name, because he is Tariq Aziz. Even though he was part of the regime, everybody knows my father was responsible for foreign relations... he was not involved in this thing about the merchants.”

The state of Aziz’s health makes his prosecution on trumped-up charges even more outrageous. The 72-year-old man is dying of lung cancer and has reportedly suffered several strokes in recent years. He hobbled into court on Tuesday on a walking stick, looking sick, gaunt and tired. He had no legal representation as his lawyer has fled the country out of fear of being murdered by death squads linked to the Shiite parties that dominate the Iraqi government. The proceedings will resume on May 20.

Six of the men who face trial alongside Aziz include: former interior minister Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan; former director of public security Sabaawi Ibrahim al-Hassan; former finance minister Ahmad Hussein Khudier; former presidential secretary Abdul Hamid Mahmoud; former Baghdad governor Issam Rashid Houweish; and Mezban Khedr Hadi, who, like Aziz, was a member of Revolutionary Command Council.

To undermine any public sympathy for the accused, the Iraqi Special Tribunal is also cynically prosecuting Ali Hassan al-Majid for the execution of the merchants as well. Ali Hassan al-Majid is better known as “Chemical Ali” and was one of the most hated figures in the Baath regime after Hussein and his sons. He was sentenced to death last year for his role in the gassing of thousands of Iraqi Kurds during the 1980s.

Under Iraqi law, the death penalty must be carried out within 30 days. In Majid’s case, however, the execution has been repeatedly delayed. The May 1 editorial of the English language Arab News observed: “Chemical Ali has been kept alive, purely to answer these serious but albeit lesser charges, perhaps because the Americans believe that Aziz’s name will be blackened by association with one of the undoubted ogres of Saddam’s regime”.

The prosecution of Tariq Aziz has nothing to do with justice for the victims of Baathism. At one level, the decision to try a dying man is a case of sadistic revenge. Aziz was very much the public face of the Baathist regime who challenged the lies by the US used to justify its invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Moreover, despite intense pressure to do so, he refused in 2006 to testify against the former dictator. Instead, Aziz appeared on behalf of several of Hussein’s co-accused, giving evidence that they had no role in the 1982 execution of 130 Shiite men and boys—the crime for which Hussein was hung.

However, the primary motive for the Bush administration to charge Aziz is to ensure that his intimate knowledge of US crimes in the region goes with him to his grave. Aziz was central in the diplomatic relations between the US government and the Iraqi regime during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988—a conflict that claimed over one million lives and saw the use by Iraq of chemical and biological weapons on the battlefield and against civilian populations.

Hussein ordered his military to invade Iran in September 1980 following the ousting of Shah in 1979. From the outset, Iraq was given financial and military assistance by US allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, who were terrified that revolutionary upheaval in Iran would produce social unrest in their own countries, particularly among Shiites.

By 1982, with Iraqi forces forced into retreat, the US was providing its own extensive assistance to Hussein in order to try to ensure that Iraq was not defeated. Until the end of the conflict, the US funnelled billions of dollars and considerable military equipment to Iraq. In the latter stages, the US military also supplied intelligence to the Iraqi military.

Tariq Aziz could shed light on all of Iraq’s dealings with the Reagan and first Bush administrations. In particular, he would be able to detail the extent of American government involvement in the assistance given by some 150 US, European and other foreign companies to Iraq’s chemical and biological warfare programs. American firms, for example, are alleged to have supplied Iraq with material that could be used in the manufacture of anthrax and other agents, as well as the missile technology to unleash them.

Pat Lang, a Defense Intelligence Agency official in the 1980s, told the New York Times in 2002 that “the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern” to the US. Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy to the Middle East for the Reagan administration, in fact met with Tariq Aziz in Baghdad on the same day in 1984 that the United Nations first indicted Iraq for its use of chemical weapons. Rumsfeld’s main interest was in ultimately failed negotiations for the construction of an oil pipeline from Iraq to Jordan by US transnational Bechtel. (See: “Bechtel awarded Iraq contract: War profits and the US ‘military-industrial complex’”)

US aid to Iraq continued to flow after evidence emerged of the 1988 gassing of Kurdish civilians. The backing of the Reagan White House for Hussein saw it overrule a Senate motion imposing sanctions.

After the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war, the US turned on its former proxy, using the 1990 invasion of Kuwait as the pretext, as a means of establishing a permanent US military presence in the Middle East. Aziz would have been privy to the discussions with US ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, in which she effectively gave Hussein the green light to invade Kuwait. He would have detailed knowledge of the circumstances in which, at the end of the war, the first Bush administration encouraged Shiite and Kurdish rebellions, then turned a blind eye as the Baathist regime savagely crushed the opposition.

A report in the British Times on March 21 that Tariq Aziz has been writing his memoirs may have a great deal to do with why he has been charged. After the virtually inevitable guilty verdict, he will remain in prison until his death—either by hanging or cancer. Either way, his conviction will ensure that he is never questioned in a court or able to speak publicly about Washington’s crimes in the Middle East.

Why We Need to Rise up Against Industrial Agriculture (Again)

Why We Need to Rise up Against Industrial Agriculture (Again)

By Will Allen
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This article is adapted from Will Allen's new book The War on Bugs (Chelsea Green, 2008).

With one member trimming beef in a cannery, and another working in a sausage factory, the family had a first-hand knowledge of the great majority of Packingtown swindles. For it was the custom, as they found, whenever meat was so spoiled that it could not be used for anything else, either to can it or else chop it up into sausage.

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle described the most disgusting practices in the preparation, preservation, and canning of rotten meat. His expos helped create the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which came into being to watch over food safety issues. That was a hundred years ago. Our food supply is now worse than ever, filled with pesticides and pharmaceuticals that are both unnecessary and which are radically harming our ability to survive in an increasingly fragile planet.

As many people know-or at least suspect-the FDA does not do much to protect us from hidden dangers in our food supply. It exists to protect large businesses, large-scale farmers, and corporations that produce various chemicals and pharmaceuticals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plays a similar role, as recent reports document.

When Sinclair wrote the above description, most cows, pigs, and chickens were raised on pastures. Consequently, most animals arrived at the meat packers in a healthy state. That is definitely not the case today.

In the last 15 years the U.S. meat system has changed dramatically. We went from a time when most, if not all, meat animals were still raised on pasture, to the industrialization of our meat supply.

During this same time period, the directors of our federal agencies -- the USDA, FDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- advocated new practices: meat and dairy animals were confined; farms became factories. This gave rise to ever larger operations that required less space. The theory: animals don't lose energy (and weight) foraging for food on pastures so they can be ready for market earlier. Farmers would save money on feed. Everyone wins.

Or do they? In order to confine millions of animals in close quarters it was necessary to use antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks and epidemics. As a result the federal government, many state governments, and universities became cheerleaders for intensive confinement, animal management-and actively promoted the use of chemicals to support its success.

By 2006 there were 97,000 feedlots that produced 78 percent of all the beef slaughtered in the United States. This represented about 28 million head of beef cows.

In spite of the anemic nature of most of our animal regulations, it is still against the law to slaughter for human consumption any animals that cannot stand and walk. But, as the Humane Society documented, the law is meaningless. They exposed USDA inspectors at a feedlot where animals that were too sick to stand were shoved onto the slaughter line with the front-end loaders of tractors.

200 million pounds of beef recalled in just the last twelve months should tell you something about the state of meat production. It is terribly flawed. In 2007, more than 60 million pounds of tainted beef were recalled. In 2008, 143 million pounds of beef have already been recalled.

The haunting question is how many more horrific meat tales are out there without a Humane Society whistle blower or an Upton Sinclair to document it?

Chew on these seemingly disparate facts, which show the results of our growing industrialized, chemical-soaked food supply:

In 1994, 73 percent of U.S. pigs were raised in pastures and pens on small farms. By 2007, 95 percent were raised in large confinement hog operations-that's 57 million heavily medicated pigs.

By 2001 there were 300 million commercial laying hens and 8.2 billion broiler chickens in the United States. It requires a lot of drugs to keep this many chickens alive. Half of 16 poultry workers recently examined in Maryland and Virginia were carrying antibiotic resistant e-coli bacteria, which suggests the chicks receiving the drugs pose a disease threat.

A recent study concluded that exposure to pesticides for more than 215 days in a lifetime doubles the chances of contracting Parkinson's Disease.

Today's use of antibiotics and pesticides are posing an ever-increasing danger to humans. They correlate with growing rates of cancer and neurological conditions. It's a very real problem.

The story of chemicals and pharmaceuticals is an old one. My book The War on Bugs outlines how several powerful entities actively cooperated to promote farm chemicals for more than 160 years. The corporations that pushed these "goods," along with their government accomplices, are responsible for the destruction of rural America.

Chemical corporations continue their propaganda efforts to convince farmers that they cannot make a profit without using chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, and genetically-manipulated crops and animals. These promoters have convinced U.S. farmers that they are the "bread basket for the world," and if they don't use chemicals to get the highest yields, then millions around the world will starve-and they will lose their farms. The pro-corporate arguments and claims are nonstop: antibiotics are safe used in small doses on confined animals and promote good health in crowded conditions. What about growing a sustainable amount of food on available pasture? It's not part of the conversation.

Antibiotic failures, antibiotic resistance, and other problems are inevitable. Recent studies have shown methicillin resistant staphloccus aureus (MRSA) in both pigs and pig farmers. In Canada in 2008, 45 percent of the hog farms had MRSA colonization, while prevalence among the pigs was 24.9 percent. The prevalence of MRSA colonization among pig farmers was 20 percent, nearly as much as the pigs receiving the antibiotics. By 1998 researchers found antibiotic resistant bacteria from hog operations in human drinking water systems. A University of Illinois study, in August 2001, confirmed bacteria resistant to the antibiotic tetracycline were escaping from large hog operations into local groundwater. The most recent study, published in July 2007 found that bacteria resistant to the antibiotics erythromycin, tetracycline, and clindamycin occurred in high levels in surface and ground water down gradient from a large hog operation.

But the danger of what is seeping from our food supply into our environment doesn't stop with antibiotics. The impact of pesticide use on the health of farmers, gardeners, consumers, and their children is also emerging in scientific studies with some alarming results.

For example, three separate tests released in 2005, 2006, and 2008 found that urine and saliva samples of children eating a variety of chemically grown food from supermarkets and grocery stores contained organophosphates, which are neurotoxins associated with pesticides.

These same researchers found that when the children began eating organic food the organophosphates disappeared from their urine and saliva almost immediately. When they began eating chemical food again the organophosphates showed up in their urine and saliva.

Separate researchers found that hog farmers exposed to herbicides and pesticides are contracting non-Hodgkins lymphoma at much higher rates than the general population.

The connection between pesticide exposure and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma emerged in the late 1980s, but has come back into the news with the discovery that children whose parents work around pesticides or who use lawn and garden care pesticides at home have been contracting lymphomas at much higher rates than children whose parents are not exposed to these poisons.

This isn't a secret. Our local paper has printed this information, and maybe you've seen it in your local paper. String the stories together and you get the big picture.

Every week brings new reports of pesticide, antibiotic, genetic engineering, and other farm chemical horror stories. Of course, similar stories have appeared ever since farmers started using arsenic in the 1860s and arsenic and lead in the1890s. Thousands continue to be poisoned with arsenic, lead, cyanide, fluorine, methyl bromide, DDT, 2,4-D, malathion, parathion and all the other farm poisons. When will it stop? Since government regulators refuse to stop the poisonous assault on our food supply we have to conclude that it will only stop when we stop it.

It's important to remember that today's flourishing organic food movement came into being without government or university backing and support. In fact, those powerful interests have done nothing but tried to quash the movement at every turn of the plow.

The factory farm promoters posing as hunger advocates argue that organic food is too costly for poor people to afford. Bunk! Poisoned food costs less at the supermarket but is subsidized, so the second payment comes at tax time, or when sick and diseased workers and their children land in the hospital.

Safe food advocates argue that poisoned food can't be cheap enough. How much should poor people pay for antibiotic-soaked pork, chicken and beef? How much should they pay for produce with neurotoxins? At our farmers markets we take in thousands of dollars in federal food stamp and food coupon sales for organic produce every year. If poor people are given a clear choice between organic and poison foods, we have found that most choose organic.

Today, organic food and products are the fastest growing sector of agriculture. The organic food market has grown by 20%per year since 1990. In the last ten years, organic milk sales are up by an average of 50% per year. That growth is directly related to reports of deaths,illness, cancer, birth defects, the fear of poisoned food, and farmers willing to take the risk of going organic.

Because of these fears, deaths, illnesses, and entrepreneurial gambles we are in the midst of another farm revitalization movement in the United States, but this time it is part of a global movement toward sustainable farming.

In the current movement, the focus is on local agriculture and is guided by the following mantras:

  • Buy your food as locally as you can
  • Don't trade unless you can't produce it.
  • Support your local farmers and merchants.
  • Buy or grow organically grown food
  • Eat food that doesn't rob your mind or bloat your body
  • Preserve traditional cultures and their foods

As never before we need to heed the advice of Rachel Carson and eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to grow our food. The first step is to not buy food that is grown with poisons. When Carson wrote her book, there was not a highly developed organic farming community like we have today. In Carson's day, if you didn't have an organic garden in your backyard, you were stuck with eating poisoned food.

Today's movement encourages consumers to develop and participate in sustainable communities and to support sustainable farms. This is a worldwide movement that rejects miracle rice, high fructose corn syrup, junk food, toxic chemicals, genetic manipulation, irradiated food, food from factory farms, and the McDonald's fast-food culture.

Will Allen is an organic farmer in Vermont, and author of The War on Bugs (Chelsea Green, 2008). He is currently a co-chair of Farms Not Arms, is a policy advisory board member of the Organic Consumers Association, and serves on the board of Rural Vermont.

America's Chemically Modified 21st Century Soldiers

America's Chemically Modified 21st Century Soldiers

By Clayton Dach
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Amphetamines and the military first met somewhere in the fog of WWII, when axis and allied forces alike were issued speed tablets to head off fatigue on the battlefield.

More than 60 years later, the U.S. Air Force still doles out dextro-amphetamine to pilots whose duties do not afford them the luxury of sleep.

Through it all, it seems, the human body and its fleshy weaknesses keep getting in the way of warfare. Just as in the health clinics of the nation, the first waypoint in the military effort to redress these foibles is a pharmaceutical one. The catch is, we're really not that great at it. In the case of speed, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency itself notes a few unwanted snags like addiction, anxiety, aggression, paranoia and hallucinations. For side-effects like insomnia, the Air Force issues "no-go" pills like temazepam alongside its "go" pills. Psychosis, though, is a wee bit trickier.

Far from getting discouraged, the working consensus appears to be that we just haven't gotten the drugs right yet. In recent years, the U.S., the UK and France -- among others -- have reportedly been funding investigations into a new line-up of military performance enhancers. The bulk of these drugs are already familiar to us from the lists of substances banned by international sporting bodies, including the stimulant ephedrine, non-stimulant "wakefulness promoting agents" like modafinil (aka Provigil) and erythropoietin, used to improve endurance by boosting the production of red blood cells.

As the chemical interventions grow bolder and more sophisticated, we should not be surprised that some are beginning to cast their eyes beyond droopy eyelids and sore muscles. Chief among the new horizons is the alluring notion of psychological prophylactics: drugs used to pre-empt the often nasty effects of combat stress on soldiers, particularly that perennial veteran's bugaboo known as post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome. In the U.S., where roughly two-fifths of troops returning from combat deployments are presenting serious mental health problems, PTSD has gone political in form of the Psychological Kevlar Act, which would direct the Secretary of Defense to implement "preventive and early-intervention measures" to protect troops against "stress-related psychopathologies."

Proponents of the "Psychological Kevlar" approach to PTSD may have found a silver bullet in the form of propranolol, a 50-year-old beta-blocker used on-label to treat high blood pressure, and off-label as a stress-buster for performers and exam-takers. Ongoing psychiatric research has intriguingly suggested that a dose of propranolol, taken soon after a harrowing event, can suppress the victim's stress response and effectively block the physiological process that makes certain memories intense and intrusive. That the drug is cheap and well tolerated is icing on the cake.

Propranolol has already been dubbed the "mourning after pill," largely by those who argue that its military use amounts to medicating away pangs of conscience. For the time being, though, we can set aside our dystopian visions of zombies with guns, since the tranquilizing effects of beta-blockers are unlikely to permit their widespread use on the battlefield. But pharmacology moves more swiftly with each passing year -- especially when helped along by defense-research dollars -- and we may need to revive those visions sooner than we think.

The Mediated Soldier

In the new model army, brute force and viscera are out. Cutting edge gadgetry, omniscient surveillance and precision long-distance termination is in. What motivates it all is the type of war we fear we'll be fighting.

On this, the strategists have spoken: with Iraq and Afghanistan as the testing grounds, the conflicts of the future will be guerrilla wars, open-ended, with no battle lines, no rules of engagement and ambivalent or openly hostile civilian populations in which any man, woman or child can turn combatant.

In breeding a future soldier for these future wars, we will inevitably leave behind the mere rectification of human weakness and enter into the realm of the superhuman. Glimpses of this realm have already become commonplace in the form of ceramic-Kevlar body armor and night-vision goggles -- wizardry that transforms squishy pink men into bullet-proof creatures of the night.

Such magic will continue apace under the auspices of dozens of military development initiatives across the globe, creating a species known variously as the Future Force Warrior by the U.S., FIST by the British Army, FĂ©lin by the French. All are merely the human components of broader visionary projects for what has been called "the army after next," the most noteworthy of which being the U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems. With a budget clocking in at $160 billion or so, FCS is not just one of history's most costly weapons programs; it is an all-encompassing modernization program, one that will usher in a total re-imagining of the armed forces. What FCS and its kin have imagined for soldiers is a battlefield experience increasingly mediated by technology, insulated in a cocoon of "force multipliers" -- military parlance for anything that allows you to accomplish more with fewer personnel. In concrete terms, that translates into an array of tools designed to enhance lethality and survivability: next-generation sidearms; headsets that provide live command and control, detailed geographic data and the ability to fire around corners; smart suits equipped with ultralight nanotech armor, micro-climate conditioning, real-time health monitoring and even automated medical care like CPR and drug delivery. Also on the docket are robotic exoskeletons that allow the soldiers wearing them to carry hundreds of pounds -- even while running -- without breaking a sweat, as well as handheld imaging equipment that grants the ability to see targets through walls.

None of these are sci-fi pipe dreams. The DARPA-developed Radar Scope is already in limited deployment, detecting human breathing through a foot of concrete on two AA batteries. Utah-based robotics company Sarcos is expected to deliver its prototype exoskeletons to the Army this year, at roughly the same time that many of the other Future Force Warrior components begin field testing. Full-scale production of a number of the systems is scheduled for early in the next decade.

The Absent Soldier

It is tempting to say that military technology is steadily transforming war into a video game. Yet there's a strange irony in the works: as the games claw themselves even closer to the look and feel of real, down-and-dirty warfare, real warfare is fluttering away into strategic and technological abstraction, effectively taking a step back from its own reality.

For all the PlayStation sexiness of the ultra lethal, force-multiplied warrior, the true fate of the in-the-flesh soldier is to vanish into the abstraction.

The explicit purpose of Future Combat Systems is to progressively supplement, to the point of ultimately displacing, the human soldier with a whole array of automated, autonomous and remote technologies -- things like unmanned surveillance drones, long-range and non-line-of-sight precision-guided munitions, and unmanned air and ground combat vehicles. Though the latter group may never look anything like Schwarzenegger minus skin, make no mistake that what we are talking about here is weaponized robots.

An oft-quoted U.S. Joint Forces Command study from 2003 (rather candidly titled Unmanned Effects: Taking the Human Out of the Loop) predicted that autonomous, networked robots -- faster and more lethal than human combatants -- could become the norm by 2025. That may prove overly confident, but a congressional mandate has already called for one-third of all U.S. military land vehicles to be unmanned by 2015, increasing to two-thirds by 2025.

If the idea of autonomous, homicidal robots dashing into troubled Third-World slums sends a major chill down your spine, you're certainly not alone. Well aware of the nightmarish optics, defense contractors and military brass alike have been presenting a united front, noting that this is about moving soldiers out of harm's way, not about deleting humans from the "kill chain" entirely.

While there is little doubt that protecting soldiers is the central motivation, shifting troops into a distant pixel-pushing role also performs a secondary purpose: it neatly removes obstacles for those looking to wage war overseas while expending as little of their domestic political capital as possible. You can call it a by-product, or you can call it an ulterior motive, depending upon how dismal your outlook is.

Whatever the reasons, as we lose ourselves in the lovely fantasy of sidestepping the maimed veterans and crying widows, we could be walking right into an even nastier pile of shit. During the bombing campaign that accompanied the 2003 coalition invasion of Iraq, satellite-guided munitions caused scores of accidental civilian deaths. If these people had perished at the barrel of coalition rifles, their deaths would have been called massacres; as it stands, they are mere technical glitches and failures of intelligence.

The moral here is straightforward: once the human presence in the kill chain is diluted, so too is accountability. The future's soldier could be one surrounded by an inveigling haze of pharmaceuticals, decision-making robots, errant bombs and faulty surveillance data; the only thing to emerge from this haze will be an exhilarating sense of our own guiltlessness. Alas, the populations against which we use our fancy toys are unlikely to share in the feeling.