Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama’s team prepares escalated bloodletting in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Obama’s new foreign policy team prepares escalated bloodletting in Afghanistan and Pakistan

By Patrick Martin

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In a series of meetings and public appearances Wednesday and Thursday, and with the first military strikes of his administration, President Barack Obama has given a clear signal that he plans intensified bloodshed in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the US escalates its military intervention in Central and South Asia.

Missiles fired from unmanned Predator drones struck two targets inside Pakistan Friday morning, killing at least 18 people. As is always the case with such exercises in remote-controlled murder, US officials claimed they were targeting Al Qaeda, although even US media accounts admitted that the majority of those killed were local residents.

Three missiles struck the village of Zharki in North Waziristan, killing ten people, of whom five were described by US "security sources" as Al Qaeda militants. A few hours later, another missile hit a house in South Waziristan, killing eight people whose identities were not known.

The strikes were the latest in a series of more than two dozen such attacks since last August, and Pentagon officials said they had carried out the attacks under existing authority from the outgoing Bush administration, while keeping the new president fully informed of the action.

The death toll from the missile campaign, according to Pakistani government figures, numbers at least 263 people. Even US government officials claim only a handful of those killed had any ties to Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

The attacks on sovereign Pakistani territory are blatant violations of international law, which the regime in Islamabad protests verbally, while continuing to accept billions in US subsidies to the country's military.

Obama and his newly confirmed secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, staged what amounted to a political rally at the State Department Thursday, at which they announced the appointment of two new US pro-consuls to the region.

Former senator George Mitchell is to reprise his role from the Clinton administration as the US envoy to the Middle East. Former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is special US representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The different titles reflect different roles. Mitchell has been given responsibility for reviving and supervising negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as between Israel and neighboring Arab states. His job is strictly diplomatic.

Holbrooke is to work with the US-backed regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the US military command in Kabul, to coordinate joint action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. He is not labeled an "envoy," according to the State Department, because he will have input into military policy as well as diplomacy, and because he will not be negotiating with the Taliban—a rebuff to pleas for such talks by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and some European countries.

Clinton called the two appointments "a loud and clear signal ... that our nation is once again capable of demonstrating global leadership." Obama said the two would "convey our seriousness of purpose" in both areas.

Mitchell chaired the negotiations in Northern Ireland that led to the 1998 Good Friday agreement, under which the IRA disarmed and Irish Republican politicians have joined the provincial government. He later chaired a commission on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whose report, delivered in April 2001, was ignored by the incoming Bush administration because it called for a freeze on Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

Israeli officials, and particularly the right-wing Likud Party, which is favored to win the country's February 10 parliamentary elections, have openly expressed their distrust of Mitchell, who is partially of Lebanese-American ancestry (his mother was a Maronite Christian).

Mitchell's appointment cannot disguise the fundamental policy of US imperialism in the region, which makes use of the Zionist regime as its military spearhead against the Arab masses. Both Obama and Clinton, to whom Mitchell will report, have made clear their support for the 24-day Israeli onslaught on Gaza, in which more than 1,300 Palestinians lost their lives, and over 5,000 were wounded.

The selection of Holbrooke is even more ominous, since he has long served as one of the most ruthless representatives of American imperialism, going all the way back to his early days in the Foreign Service in Vietnam. He came to public notice as the leader of the US diplomatic team at the 1995 talks on the crisis in the former Yugoslavia, held in Dayton, Ohio, that concluded with a US-imposed settlement in the civil war in Bosnia.

In his encouragement of ethnic cleansing by the Croatian regime of Franjo Tudjman, which drove a quarter million Serbs out of the Krajina region of southern Croatia in a 1995 offensive, Holbrooke could deservedly face war crimes charges. He later boasted, in his memoir of the Dayton talks: "Tudjman wanted clarification of the American position. He bluntly asked for my personal views. I indicated my general support for the offensive ... I told Tudjman the offensive had great value to the negotiations. It would be much easier to retain at the table what had been won on the battlefield than to get the Serbs to give up territory they had controlled for several years."

Holbrooke was fully aware at the time of the Dayton talks that the Croatian Army was carrying out atrocities against the Serbs, and was later quoted saying, "We ‘hired' these guys to be our junkyard dogs because we were desperate. We need to try to ‘control' them. But this is no time to get squeamish about things." He will now seek to find new "junkyard dogs" to do the dirty work of American imperialism in south and central Asia.

In his remarks at the State Department rally, Obama reiterated his concern over what he called a "deteriorating situation" in both Afghanistan and Pakistan," a region that is "the central front" of the struggle against terrorism. This language, echoing George W. Bush's description of Iraq, underscores the new administration's commitment to military subjugation of the Afghan population and wider attacks on the Pakistani population of the border region, largely Pushtun-speaking and linked by tribal ties to the majority Pushtun population in Afghanistan.

Clinton said that Holbrooke's mandate would be to "coordinate across the entire government an effort to achieve United States' strategic goals in the region." These goals have little to do with the remnants of Al Qaeda hiding out in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The real focus of the intervention, under Obama as much as under Bush, is to establish the United States as the principal power in the oil-rich region of Central Asia.

The renewed focus on military problems in Afghanistan was signaled as well by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has been retained in his position during the transition from Bush to Obama. He told a press conference Thursday that US goals in Afghanistan had been "too broad and too far into the future. We need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years, in terms of reestablishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al-Qaeda, preventing the reestablishment of terrorism."

There is mounting anxiety in the Pentagon over the viability of US supply lines to Afghanistan, especially if the force on the ground is doubled, as Obama plans. Two-thirds of US supplies go through Pakistan and convoys through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan have come under repeated attacks. General David Petraeus, the former Iraq commander who was promoted to head the US Central Command, with responsibility for war planning throughout the region, recently completed a trip through Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, seeking agreements on expanding US supply shipments through those countries. He reported on his findings to the Obama White House on Wednesday.

According to a report in the New York Times January 22, another major concern of US military authorities in Afghanistan is the strengthening of Taliban influence in the southern provinces around Kandahar, patrolled now mainly by British, Canadian and Dutch troops, who are spread thinly through a vast area.

The Times reporter noted worriedly: "It is perhaps in Kandahar, one of the provincial capitals, where the lack of troops is most evident. About 3,000 Canadian soldiers are assigned to secure the city, home to about 500,000 people. In a recent visit, this reporter traveled the city for five days and did not see a single Canadian soldier on the streets. The lack of troops has allowed the Taliban to mount significant attacks inside the city."

We'll have to go begging to the IMF, says Britain's Cameron

We'll have to go begging to the IMF, says Cameron

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Britain risks bankruptcy and a humiliating bailout by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) because of Gordon Brown's borrowing, David Cameron said yesterday. With official confirmation that the economy has entered recession expected today, the Tory leader delivered his strongest warning yet: "If we continue on Labour's path of fiscal irresponsibility, at some point – and it could be very soon – the money will simply run out."

His speech to the Demos think-tank in London raised the spectre of the 1976 bailout, when James Callaghan's Labour government was forced to make deep public spending cuts in return for a £2.3bn loan from the IMF.

His remarks are bound to provoke Labour accusations that he is running the country down. Mr Cameron insisted he was not predicting a date by which the Government would "end up back at the IMF". But he added: "What I am saying is that we are running the risk of those things happening and those are risks that no government should responsibly run."

The Tory leader added: "We are borrowing, according to the Government's current estimates, 8 per cent of our GDP in the next financial year. That is the same percentage that Denis Healey [the then chancellor] was borrowing when he went to the IMF in 1976."

In his speech on "progressive conservatism," Mr Cameron suggested that an incoming Tory government would not adopt Thatcher-style spending cuts which could "give rise to anger, hurt and social division," but would address the economic problems "in a way that brings the country together, not drives it apart".

As in 1976, investors' concerns are putting sterling under severe selling pressure. So far the depreciation of the pound – down to 23-year lows against the dollar and the subject of discussions within the G7 – has failed to bring in more export orders. UK car production has slumped 47 per cent on last year, it was revealed yesterday.

The human costs of the downturn are being laid bare. Repossessions almost doubled in the third quarter of last year, according to the Financial Services Authority. A total of 13,161 properties were reclaimed by banks and building societies during the three months to the end of September – 92 per cent more than during the same period of 2007, with arrears also escalating. An increasing number of families are turning to their local authorities to house them, with the number on council waiting lists now 1.77 million – up 100,000 on last year.

"With the banks overstretching their credit facilities, it could mean that in the coming months that councils will have to help pick up the pieces," the Local Government Association's housing spokesman, Paul Bettison, said.

Shelter's chief executive Adam Sampson added: "The rescue schemes announced by the Government recently will help just a fraction of those in trouble. Since Labour took power 12 years ago, the council house waiting list has risen from 1 million to almost 1.8 million, showing this Government has failed to build anywhere near the number of social homes Britain desperately needs."

Matters are unlikely to improve while business confidence remains low. The CBI's latest industrial trends survey shows confidence at its lowest ebb since 1980. Some 16 years of continuous growth shuddered to a halt in the second quarter of 2008, the economy shrank by 0.6 per cent between July and September, and the decline is expected to have accelerated to between 1 and 1.5 per cent in the closing months of 2008.

The economy is expected to stumble further during 2009 – by as much as 2.8 per cent, according to the European Commission forecast on Monday. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, declared earlier this week that the world economy had "fallen off a cliff" in recent months, a verdict few seem ready to dispute.

Where You Won't Shop In 2009

Where You Won't Shop In 2009

Tom Van Riper

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While industry executives and shoppers will remember 2008 as the year the party ended, figure 2009 to be the year of the hangover. Already, Circuit City, Linens 'N Things and Mervyn's stores are going away. Sharper Image is too, though the company will continue to sell some of its high-end gadgets through license agreements with other retailers.

More pain is on the way. One-third of U.S. women recently surveyed by America's Research Group said they plan no clothing purchases--none--in 2009. Normally, it's just 4%. That means the market is still far too saturated with stores.

Expect closings to rattle the likes of Lane Bryant, Gap, and Starbucks. It's the inevitable counterpunch to the days of retailers fighting hand over fist for market share during an era of loose credit and minuscule interest rates.

In Pictures: 10 Retailers Set To Shutter Stores

Those days are over, probably for a long time. While accelerating unemployment will only last so long, consumers' debt loads and credit access don't figure to recover to pre-party levels for quite awhile.

"I don't think we will live the same way for 10 years," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of New York-based retail consultant and investment bank Davidowitz & Associates. "People are so scared they're starting to save."

Retailers at risk in 2009, he thinks, include outerwear specialist Eddie Bauer and teen-apparel-seller Pacific Sunwear, along with Zales, the big jewelry chain. All three shuttered at least 8% of their U.S. stores last year, with many more closings expected.

The same is largely true of Charming Shoppes, the owner of Lane Bryant, Catherine and Fashion Bug, which closed 150 stores last year. With a mountain of debt and losses totaling over $260 million over the most recent 12-month reporting period, the company will close another 100 locations this year.

Chief Financial Officer Eric Specter insists there is no cash squeeze, pointing out that the bulk of the company's debt isn't due until 2014. "We will have no problems meeting our obligations," he says.

Another possible casualty: Sears Holdings, operator of Sears and Kmart stores. A key to hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert's 2005 merger of the two chains was in the underlying real estate. But with those values down 30% or so since then, slumping sales hit even worse.

"I'd be surprised if Sears-Kmart makes it through the year," says Britt Beemer, who runs retail market-research firm America's Research Group.

Non-apparel specialists like Starbucks and Sprint Nextel won't be going away, but they will close hundreds more stores during the coming year, Davidowitz predicts. Narrow specialties (Sprint's cellphones) and high prices (Starbucks' coffee) are tough sells as the consumer mood turns thrifty. What plagues Starbucks will also affect other upscale goody chains like Mrs. Fields' Cookies, and causal dining outlets like Applebee's and Cheesecake Factory. Any of the neighborhood outlets for those restaurant chains could be a casualty this year. For too many customers now, it's McDonald's or bust.

Davidowitz doesn't think a huge government stimulus will help. Better to let things bottom out naturally before regrouping. "Obama's plan will make it worse," he says. "We got into this by borrowing and stimulating, now he wants to borrow and stimulate more."

Icelandic government becomes first to be brought down by the credit crunch

Icelandic government becomes first to be brought down by the credit crunch

By Graham Smith

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Geir Haarde

Quit: Iceland's Prime Minister Geir Haarde called a general election for May. He also revealed he has cancer and will not be standing for re-election

The government of Iceland today became the first to be effectively brought down by the credit crunch.

After several nights of rioting over the financial crisis, Prime Minister Geir Haarde, surrendered to increasing pressure and called a general election for May.

A poll would not normally be held until 2011.

Haarde also revealed that he had been diagnosed with a malignant tumour of the oesophagus and would not seek re-election.

'I have decided not to seek re-election as leader of the Independence Party at its upcoming national congress,' he told a news conference.

The global financial crisis hit Iceland, which has a population 320,000, in October, triggering a collapse in its currency and financial system under the weight of billions of dollars of foreign debts incurred by its banks

The economy is set to shrink 10 percent this year and unemployment is surging.

Critics wanted Haarde, the central bank governor and other senior officials to resign.

Some senior figures in his party have also said they favour an early election, but Haarde had up to now vowed to defy plunging popularity and stay on.

Protests had been held weekly since the crisis broke last year, but since Tuesday have been held every night.

On Thursday, police used teargas on demonstrators for the first time since protests against the North Atlantic island's entry into the NATO alliance in 1949.

Special forces had to rescue Haarde from his car after he was surrounded by an furious mob hurling eggs and cans outside the government offices, in Reykjavik.

Enlarge Protesters clash with police in Reykjavik during a demonstration against the Icelandic government's handling of the country's financial crisis

Protesters clash with police in Reykjavik during a demonstration against the Icelandic government's handling of the country's financial crisis

Riot police huddle together as projectiles are thrown at the Parliament building behind them in downtown Reykjavik

Riot police huddle together as projectiles are thrown at the Parliament building behind them in downtown Reykjavik

The seething crowd spattered the building with paint and yoghurt, yelling and banging pans, hurling fireworks and flares at the windows and even lighting a fire in front of the main doors.

'There were a couple of hundred (protesters) when they had to use the gas,' police spokesman Gunnar Sigurdsson said. 'It went on for two hours or so. There were no arrests. Some injuries, but not serious.'

Latvia, Bulgaria and other European countries hit hard by the global economic meltdown have also seen unrest.

Protesters carry a placard of Iceland's Justice Minister Bjorn Bjarnason and a sign reading 'death power' during demonstrations

Protesters carry a placard of Iceland's Justice Minister Bjorn Bjarnason and a sign reading 'death power' during demonstrations

Unseen Gaza

Unseen Gaza

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Channel 4 Video Report - Broadcast - January 22, 2009

Is what has been presented on our screens and in our papers a true reflection of events on the ground in Gaza? And how do these reports differ to those aired in other countries?

With reporters unable to enter Gaza, attempted media manipulation from both sides and strict regulations governing what images that can be shown on British TV, Jon Snow asks a range of journalists from at home and abroad about the challenges of getting the full story.

Featuring images that haven't before been aired on mainstream television, Jon also examines the difference between the coverage at home and that in the US, Europe and the Middle East. He compares the coverage available on terrestrial channels with satellite TV and the internet and investigates the extent to which some British Muslims are by-passing the mainstream British media and looking elsewhere for their information.

To what extent does the choice of news outlet affect opinion of the conflict?

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Gaza war ended in utter failure for Israel

Gaza war ended in utter failure for Israel

Gideon Levy

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On the morrow of the return of the last Israeli soldier from Gaza, we can determine with certainty that they had all gone out there in vain. This war ended in utter failure for Israel.

This goes beyond the profound moral failure, which is a grave matter in itself, but pertains to its inability to reach its stated goals. In other words, the grief is not complemented by failure. We have gained nothing in this war save hundreds of graves, some of them very small, thousands of maimed people, much destruction and the besmirching of Israel's image.

What seemed like a predestined loss to only a handful of people at the onset of the war will gradually emerge as such to many others, once the victorious trumpeting subsides.

This did not cease until the war's last day. It was only achieved after a cease-fire had already been arranged. Defense officials estimate that Hamas still has 1,000 rockets.

The war's second objective, the prevention of smuggling, was not met either. The head of the Shin Bet security service has estimated that smuggling will be renewed within two months.

Most of the smuggling that is going on is meant to provide food for a population under siege, and not to obtain weapons. But even if we accept the scare campaign concerning the smuggling with its exaggerations, this war has served to prove that only poor quality, rudimentary weapons passed through the smuggling tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip to Egypt.

Israel's ability to achieve its third objective is also dubious. Deterrence, my foot. The deterrence we supposedly achieved in the Second Lebanon War has not had the slightest effect on Hamas, and the one supposedly achieved now isn't working any better: The sporadic firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip has continued over the past few days.

The fourth objective, which remained undeclared, was not met either. The IDF has not restored its capability. It couldn't have, not in a quasi-war against a miserable and poorly-equipped organization relying on makeshift weapons, whose combatants barely put up a fight.

The heroic descriptions and victory poems written abut the "military triumph" will not serve to change reality. The pilots were flying on training missions and the ground forces were engaged in exercises that involved joining up and firing weapons.

The describing of the operation as a "military achievement" by the various generals and analysts who offered their take on the operation is plain ridiculous.

We have not weakened Hamas. The vast majority of its combatants were not harmed and popular support for the organization has in fact increased. Their war has intensified the ethos of resistance and determined endurance. A country which has nursed an entire generation on the ethos of a few versus should know to appreciate that by now. There was no doubt as to who was David and who was Goliath in this war.

The population in Gaza, which has sustained such a severe blow, will not become more moderate now. On the contrary, the national sentiment will now turn more than before against the party which inflicted that blow - the State of Israel. Just as public opinion leans to the right in Israel after each attack against us, so it will in Gaza following the mega-attack that we carried out against them.

If anyone was weakened because of this war, it was Fatah, whose fleeing from Gaza and its abandonment have now been given special significance. The succession of failures in this war needs to include, of course, the failure of the siege policy. For a while, we have already come to realize that is ineffective. The world boycotted, Israel besieged and Hamas ruled (and is still ruling).

But this war's balance, as far as Israel is concerned, does not end with the absence of any achievement. It has placed a heavy toll on us, which will continue to burden us for some time. When it comes to assessing Israel's international situation, we must not allow ourselves to be fooled by the support parade by Europe's leaders, who came in for a photo-op with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israel's actions have dealt a serious blow to public support for the state. While this does not always translate itself into an immediate diplomatic situation, the shockwaves will arrive one day. The whole world saw the images. They shocked every human being who saw them, even if they left most Israelis cold.

The conclusion is that Israel is a violent and dangerous country, devoid of all restraints and blatantly ignoring the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, while not giving a hoot about international law. The investigations are on their way.

Graver still is the damage this will visit upon our moral spine. It will come from difficult questions about what the IDF did in Gaza, which will occur despite the blurring effect of recruited media.

So what was achieved, after all? As a war waged to satisfy considerations of internal politics, the operation has succeeded beyond all expectations. Likud Chair Benjamin Netanyahu is getting stronger in the polls. And why? Because we could not get enough of the war.

The Little Unions That Couldn’t

The Little Unions That Couldn’t

Card check is worth fighting for—except for the "card check" part.

By T. A. Frank

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As Barack Obama prepares to get a stimulus plan launched this winter, carefully planting seeds of cross-party warmth and nurturing each rare shoot, he may wish to avoid unrelated matters that cause bitter partisan showdowns and lay waste to the whole damn thing. At least, that seems wisest when you’re asking for a trillion or so in new spending. So people understood why Rahm Emanuel, during a meeting with the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council last November, dodged an inquiry about a contentious piece of legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act. "Let me take your question and go somewhere else," he said to laughter.

EFCA carries no visible price tag. It’s simply a revision of existing labor laws that makes forming a union easier for employees. But if anything is likely to unite a dispirited Republican minority, EFCA is it. (Recall that United Auto Workers wage scales were what rallied Republican senators to defeat the auto industry bailout bill in December. A leaked Republican National Committee memo described that vote as a "first shot against organized labor.") For big business—and the GOP—the threat of a revived labor movement elicits far more terror than health care reform or stimulus packages. After all, health care and federal spending can be good for the bottom line; unions, not so much.

Contentious as it may be, though, EFCA is also one of the first pieces of legislation that congressional Democrats, or at least those closest to organized labor, want to see passed. The bill would strengthen a variety of laws and procedures that govern how employees choose whether or not to join a union. These are technical issues—ones that most voters, especially affluent ones, never think about. But they’re huge for millions of low-wage workers and the companies that employ them.

In Washington, the rhetoric over EFCA has centered on one specific element of the legislation called "card check." Under the proposed new law, if a majority of employees fill out cards authorizing a union to represent them, the union is automatically certified. Currently, employers can demand a secret-ballot election among employees to reaffirm the results. EFCA would eliminate this option. Republicans have called this a threat to liberty and democratic values. Democrats counter that it’s essential to protecting workers against employer coercion. But this squabble is a distraction. In reality, card check is the least important part of a very important bill. The following story should help explain why.

The setting is Lancaster, California, a city in the Antelope Valley, about seventy miles north of Los Angeles. If there’s anything charming there, I imagine the mayor would like to know about it. The landscape is one of long avenues with warehouses, malls, fast-food outlets, and ubiquitous young colonies of brown-stucco villas born at the height of a destructive housing mania. (And why such a dismal shade of brown? And how many thousands were built?) It’s in cities like this that specialists apply green spray paint to the dead lawns of foreclosed homes in order to keep up neighborhood appearances, such as they are. The area enjoyed a boom after California made it a special enterprise zone in 1997, but that ended when the real estate bubble did. Jobs here have long been scarce.

In 1998, the drugstore chain Rite Aid Corporation broke ground on a million-square-foot distribution center, constructed on eighty-eight acres of land purchased from the city of Lancaster for $1. The following year, the distribution center began to hire. "It was very exciting," recalls Angel Warner, who landed a job in production before switching to inventory control. "For a long time, this area had been depressed." The number of employees grew from several hundred to over a thousand.

These were decent jobs. Employees started at a modest $10 an hour, but they received benefits, and after a few years some workers could earn over $15 an hour. Carlos Rubio started as a temp in 2000, and then, after a few months of probation, he was hired as a full-time employee at $10 an hour. "I put in so many hours my wife thought I was cheating," Rubio recalls. Like most of his coworkers at the time, he liked the company and his supervisors. "We had a manager, Rick, a nice guy, who inspired us," he says. "Even though things were crappy, he inspired us." In 2002, the Teamsters tried to organize workers at the warehouse, but Rubio, like most of his coworkers, voted against the effort. "They were too pushy," he says. Besides, he was content with his employer.

But Rick left in 2004, and a new management team came in. Surprisingly quickly, the atmosphere changed from collegial to hostile. Mandatory overtime increased, which was good for those who needed extra money but bad for those who had children and needed predictable hours. Managers no longer listened to employee feedback. "They treated you like crap," Rubio says. "They talked to you like you were a kid." One manager became known for saying, "If you don’t like it here, you can work at McDonald’s." Worst of all, to boost employee performance, Rite Aid had introduced productivity reporting software called ProRep. Each task would carry a certain code, which corresponded to a quota. Rubio says the software was "awesome," but that Rite Aid implemented it in a way that was unfair and inflexible. Soon, workers at the distribution center began to fear for their jobs.

For instance, suppose that your job was to pull boxes—a task that consists of driving a forklift over to the merchandise, elevating yourself in an operator’s cab, and venturing out onto the pallet to load it with boxes. According to ProRep, workers were responsible for loading 100 boxes an hour—whether the boxes were twenty pounds apiece or fifty pounds apiece. Another problem was that ProRep measured employees by weekly totals, regardless of how many days they had worked. If you called in sick one day—or were asked to stay home—the software made no allowance. So you’d miss your quota. Sometimes the codes didn’t correspond to a given task, so an employee could do exactly as instructed but still fall short on numbers.

Younger employees tended to adjust—they could summon the extra energy to lift fifty-pound boxes at a twenty-pound-box pace, or work through their breaks—but the older ones had more trouble. So did employees who were out of favor with management, because they tended to be assigned to more strenuous or disagreeable tasks. Soon, firings began, in a grim public ritual in which the unlucky employee was summoned over the intercom system, marched past his fellow employees on the factory floor, and soon after escorted from the building.

As a rule, dismissals were triggered when you failed three times to meet your quota. This, while harsh, is legal, but an important safety net exists for employees who are dismissed for insufficient productivity: they must receive unemployment benefits. But, the workers told me, the company usually found a way out of this. When ex-employees filed for unemployment, Rite Aid would counter that they had been dismissed for some reason other than productivity—errors, or insubordination, or truancy, or anything that didn’t require unemployment benefits to be paid. Rite Aid isn’t responsible for paying unemployment benefits of former employees, of course, but its premiums for unemployment insurance will rise if more ex-employees collect benefits. A few workers contested their cases and won, but most simply accepted the bad luck and moved on. (A Rite Aid spokesperson declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing contract negotiations.)

By 2006, with morale plummeting and management unwilling to listen to employee complaints, Angel Warner reached out to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, or ILWU, and before long a union campaign was under way. The ILWU took a patient and fairly low-key approach to the effort. "[The ILWU] saw the need for union representation," Warner says. "They also saw the need to educate workers." Union organizers held meetings once a week at a local hotel. Every worker who was interested in joining up was asked to sign a union authorization card—a card with an employee’s signature authorizing a given union to represent him or her.

By June of 2006, about three months after starting their campaign, ILWU organizers had gathered authorization cards from about a third of the warehouse employees. And now this story will feature a brief but crucial technical interlude on how things work when you’re trying to certify a union. If you have union authorization cards from at least 30 percent of the workers at your site, then you can file them with a federal agency called the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB. Once the NLRB has verified that the cards are genuine, then it will hold an election at the workplace a couple of months later and allow workers to vote a union in or out. If more than 50 percent of employees vote yes during the election, then the union is certified as the sole bargaining representative of the employees, and negotiations on a contract can begin.

Back to the story: The Rite Aid organizers filed their union authorization cards with the NLRB, setting the ground for an election. And then things got ugly—and illegal, too. Floor supervisors would pair up, isolate an employee, and grill him about the campaign. Do you intend to vote yes or no? How about your buddy Bob? Workers noticed managers trying to listen in on their conversations. And union supporters started to get fired—accused of errors or insubordination or other offenses.

Struck by Rite Aid’s response, ILWU organizers chose to delay the election and instead file charges of unfair labor practices with the NLRB. Eventually, the NLRB racked up so many complaints that it planned to take Rite Aid to trial on forty-nine violations of federal labor law. In the summer of 2007, though, Rite Aid chose to settle instead, agreeing to rehire two fired union supporters with back pay and to post a notice in a common area promising not to engage in thirteen types of illegal anti-union activity.

Despite the NLRB vindication, things didn’t improve. Rite Aid seemed to be creating turnover in the workforce faster than the ILWU could keep up with it. "The same things were happening," Rubio recounts. "Eventually we said [to the ILWU], If you hold us back now, we’re going to lose everybody. Let’s just go for it." It was now late in 2007, and, once again, union supporters gathered up union authorization cards. This time, however, more than half of the distribution center workers signed them. Now, here comes one more nuance of labor law: when a majority of employees signs union authorization cards and files them with the NLRB, an employer may choose to recognize the union immediately. But the employer can also insist on a secret-ballot workplace election to confirm the results.

Rite Aid insisted on an election, and the date was set for March 2008. Once again, the company did what it could to persuade workers to vote against the union. HR staff conducted mandatory hour-long sessions with employees once a week. They would lecture at length on why unionization would be damaging to workers. They would warn employees that the union would require high dues and stand in the way of healthy communication between management and labor. They would show videos about plants being shut down after becoming unionized. Meanwhile, by Warner’s count, more than 100 union supporters had been dismissed since June of 2006—although never, of course, for the explicit reason of having supported unionization. "We had a list of our people," she says. "And one by one we kept watching them get fired." By contrast, Warner says, only about ten non-union-supporting employees were let go in the same stretch.

Still, the ILWU was in luck. It won the March election, becoming the sole bargaining representative of the warehouse employees. And yet, the day after, things got worse. "The company turned overnight," recalls Elizabeth Trevino, a clerk in inventory control. "They were so angry you could see it in their faces." Managers began to use ProRep in a manner that now seemed designed to punish employees, and they enforced work rules even more strictly. "If you were late back from break even once, they would take disciplinary action," Trevino says. By August, thirty-nine more employees had been dismissed. Trevino, who had voted against ILWU membership, experienced a change of heart and began to attend union meetings. Eventually, she even ran for a union office.

Today, nine months later, Rite Aid and the ILWU have not yet come up with a contract. At meetings, Rite Aid has been pushing aside contract negotiations in order to discuss other things. Legally, Rite Aid is supposed to bargain "in good faith," but such terms are highly subjective and difficult to litigate. Work conditions for the warehouse workers remain much as before, perhaps even worse. And that works to Rite Aid’s advantage—for when a union fails to deliver, its members may lose faith in it and vote it out.

W hy did Rite Aid take so many chances with the law? Perhaps because it made economic sense. While the company’s actions may have been illegal under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, they were also nearly cost-free. If a company illegally undermines a union campaign by threatening to fire workers, or by spying on them, or by promising to shut down the facility, the most serious penalty it can expect to face is being ordered to post notices in the workplace promising not to engage in such activities in the future. If a company illegally fires a worker, and the worker can somehow prove his or her case, the penalty is a requirement to reinstate the employee with back pay—minus whatever the employee has earned elsewhere in the meantime. And if a company negotiates in bad faith, it can perhaps expect an order from the NLRB to start negotiating in good faith. Such punishments are the equivalent of punishing shoplifters by asking them to put the merchandise back.

This is what lawmakers have sought to remedy in devising the Employee Free Choice Act. For all the controversy, EFCA is a surprisingly modest bill, with provisions aimed at strengthening existing labor laws rather than altering them substantively. Under EFCA, if Rite Aid had been found guilty of making illegal threats or of spying or of intimidation, it could have faced a monetary penalty—up to $20,000 per incident in cases of repeated violations. If Rite Aid had been found to have illegally fired a union supporter, it would have been required to pay not just the back wages, but three times the back wages. And if contract negotiations were being conducted without results, either party could seek federal mediation after ninety days. If, after thirty additional days, negotiations were still stalled, then an arbiter would be able to impose a contract settlement that would last two years. This would prevent employers (or employees) from running out the clock with bad-faith talks.

Finally, the bill would have prevented a lot of the troubles experienced by Rite Aid workers simply because the second filing of union cards with the NLRB—in which over half of employees had signed up—would automatically have led to the certification of the union. This, again, is the card check provision of EFCA.

As a rhetorical matter, opponents of EFCA have seized upon card check with relish. "I think [EFCA] is a threat to one of the fundamentals of democracy," John McCain recently declared. Countless Republicans—and, curiously, even George McGovern—have voiced similar attacks. Of course, as the story of the Lancaster distribution center shows, workplace votes on unionization certainly don’t resemble a healthy election as most Americans would understand the term, with both sides able to plead their case. But this has become a powerful line of argument.

The question, then, is how much of a fight the card check provision merits. And the answer is probably a little, but not a lot. What most undermines the secret-ballot process is that employers can violate the law in numerous ways without consequences. Under EFCA, however, every illegal action has the potential to be costly, so firings, spying, threats, or other forms of intimidation would be less likely. Also, there is an alternative way to preserve the secret ballot while guarding against company malfeasance: expedited elections. Under current law, months can go by between when NLRB announces the results of a card check vote and when a secret-ballot election is held. If, however, this campaign window were reduced to just a few days, employers would have less opportunity to intimidate union supporters into changing their minds. Workers I spoke to in Lancaster seemed content with this alternative. And some savvy people in the labor movement I spoke to feel the same way—provided that employers either refrain from captive-audience campaigning or else grant union members equal access to the workplace during a campaign.

Given that card check is substantively minor, why has it come to define the entire debate about EFCA in Washington? Because it is the one element of the bill that its opponents can object to and still seem principled—it’s easier to stand up for "democracy" than for the right of companies to break labor laws without consequence. And all of this factors into the gamesmanship that’s likely to take place on Capitol Hill over EFCA. Commentators like Marc Ambinder have called the fight "a quandary" for Democrats, one that carries a risk of disastrous failure. But must it come to that? Deploying political capital wisely means fighting over what matters most, not what matters least. Perhaps the bill’s proponents in Congress intend to stand firm in their defense of the card check provision of EFCA. But if they strategically retreat, at just the right moment, like a matador lifting his red cape, will liberals accuse Democrats of selling out labor? Or will they realize that, with or without card check, EFCA will still accomplish what’s most needed—finally, at long last, restoring the rights of workers who seek to organize?

NSA Whistleblower: Wiretaps Were Combined with Credit Card Records of U.S. Citizens

NSA Whistleblower: Wiretaps Were Combined with Credit Card Records of U.S. Citizens

By Kim Zetter

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NSA whistleblower Russell Tice was back on Keith Olbermann's MSNBC program Thursday evening to expand on his Wednesday revelations that the National Security Agency spied on individual U.S. journalists, entire U.S. news agencies as well as "tens of thousands" of other Americans.

Tice said on Wednesday that the NSA had vacuumed in all domestic communications of Americans, including, faxes, phone calls and network traffic.

Today Tice said that the spy agency also combined information from phone wiretaps with data that was mined from credit card and other financial records. He said information of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens is now in digital databases warehoused at the NSA.

"This [information] could sit there for ten years and then potentially it marries up with something else and ten years from now they get put on a no-fly list and they, of course, won't have a clue why," Tice said.

In most cases, the person would have no discernible link to terrorist organizations that would justify the initial data mining or their inclusion in the database.

"This is garnered from algorithms that have been put together to try to just dream-up scenarios that might be information that is associated with how a terrorist could operate," Tice said. "And once that information gets to the NSA, and they start to put it through the filters there . . . and they start looking for word-recognition, if someone just talked about the daily news and mentioned something about the Middle East they could easily be brought to the forefront of having that little flag put by their name that says 'potential terrorist'."

The revelation that the NSA was involved in data mining isn't new. The infamous 2004 hospital showdown between then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General James Comey over the legality of a government surveillance program involved the data mining of massive databases, according to a 2007 New York Times article.

But there was always a slight possibility, despite the suspicions of many critics, that the NSA's data mining involved only people who were legitimately suspected of connections to terrorists overseas, as the Bush Administration staunchly maintained about its domestic phone wiretapping program.

“There’s no spying on Americans,” former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell insisted to the New Yorker last year.

But Tice's assertions this week contradict these claims.

With regard to the surveillance of journalists, Tice wouldn't disclose the names of the specific reporters or media outlets he targeted when he worked as an analyst for the NSA but said in the part of the program he covered, "everyone was collected."

"They sucked in everybody and at some point they may have cherry-picked from what they had, but I wasn't aware of who got cherry-picked out of the big pot," he said.

The purpose, he was told, was to eliminate journalists from possible suspicion so that the NSA could focus on those who merited further surveillance. But Tice said on Wednesday that the data on journalists was collected round-the-clock, year-round, suggesting there was never an intent to eliminate anyone from the surveillance.

New York Times reporter James Risen, who co-authored that paper's 2005 story on the warrantless wiretapping program with colleague Eric Lichtblau, suspects he could have been among those monitored, because Bush Administration officials obtained copies of his phone records, which they showed to a federal grand jury. The grand jury is investigating leaked information that appeared in Risen's 2006 book State of War about a CIA program, codenamed Operation Merlin, to infiltrate and destabilize Iran's nuclear program. Risen doesn't know if his records were obtained by the FBI with a legitimate warrant or through the NSA program that Tice described.

Risen told Olbermann that the NSA program to monitor journalists was likely intended to be used to ferret out and intimidate possible sources "to have a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers in the government to make them realize that there's a Big Brother out there that will get them if they step out of line."

Who else might have been among those targeted by the NSA?

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) said, in a separate interview, that he could very well have been targeted, too.

Rockefeller was speaking to MSNBC host Chris Matthews and gave a cryptic reply when Matthews asked him what he thought about Tice's spying allegations (see 4:14 in the video below).

"I'm quite prepared to believe it," Rockefeller said. "I mean, I think they went after anybody they could get. Including me."

Matthews replied, "They didn't eavesdrop on you, did they Senator?"

"No," Rockefeller said shaking his head, "and they sent me no letters."

If Rockefeller were among those who were spied on, it would be very ironic, since he was instrumental in helping the Bush Administration obtain retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies that are accused of aiding the Administration in its warrantless surveillance program.

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