Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Employee Free Choice Act—Why workers need it

Employee Free Choice Act—Why workers need it

By Cheryl LaBash

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On Feb. 4, thousands of workers delivered boxes of signed cards supporting the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) to Congress in Washington, D.C. The cards represent more than 1.5 million signers from every U.S. state. On Feb. 5, workers in California marched 10 miles in the rain from downtown Los Angeles to the Westwood Federal Building dramatically demanding passage of the EFCA.

Meanwhile, corporations, banks and business associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are heavily financing public relations and lobbying campaigns to defeat it. The U.S. Senate “millionaires’ club” has even balked at confirming Hilda Solis, President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, because Solis supports the EFCA.

What is the Employee Free Choice Act?

EFCA legislation proposes to block bosses who try to stop or delay union certification through intimidation, threats or firing pro-union workers. Under the EFCA when a majority of workers sign cards and choose direct union certification instead of an election, the bosses will be required to begin negotiations for the initial contract. Binding arbitration can be used to reach two-year contracts if those negotiations fail. For the first time, penalties including triple back pay and fines can be levied against the bosses for “unfair labor practices.”

Both union federations, Change to Win and the AFL-CIO, as well as the independent United Electrical workers—whose members occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in December—actively champion the EFCA.

The fight for union representation at Smithfield Packing in Tarheel, N.C., shows why workers need the EFCA. In December the mostly African-American and Latina/o workforce won union representation with the United Food and Commercial Workers after a 15-year struggle. On a good day, working conditions at the gargantuan hog slaughtering and processing plant are cold, wet, grueling and dangerous.

Union supporter Lorena Ramos’ personal story is on She was arrested in the plant by company police in 2004. Held inside the plant, hit in the face with a folder and told she had “no rights,” even to call and check on her children, Smithfield officials tried to intimidate her to sign documents she did not understand.

One-on-one anti-union meetings with the front line supervisor are forced on workers in 78 percent of organizing efforts (, and even when workers win their right to a union, nearly half of new union certifications never get a contract.

Who’s opposing the EFCA?

The National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and banking interests are all pumping money into a public relations campaign to defeat the EFCA.

The Huffington Post reported that on Oct. 17, Bank of America, only three days after receiving a $25 billion bailout, hosted a conference-call meeting with AIG, Home Depot chief Bernie Marcus, corporate lobbyist Rick Berman and others to raise anti-EFCA funds.

According to, Berman, formerly a labor law director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, currently runs the misnamed Center for Union Facts, which attacks the EFCA. Big business isn’t only anti-union. Berman also opposed the Americans with Disabilities Act, supported using the Alar apple pesticide and backed the tobacco industry.

Struggle won NLRA of 1935

The EFCA is a pro-labor amendment to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Rising out of the economic depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash, by 1935 an upsurge of pitched battles including general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco asserted workers’ power.

Won by workers in the streets, the NLRA for the first time legally recognized workers’ rights to “self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organization, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing ... and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

U.S. unions were formerly outlawed as conspiracies. Still the NLRA did not include agricultural, domestic or railroad workers, thus excluding many African-American, Latina/o and Asian workers.

By developing a framework to mediate the class struggle, the NLRA was a concession to “protect commerce.” Its opening paragraphs state so plainly: “Experience has proved that protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury, impairment, or interruption ... by restoring equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.”

Although today’s mouthpieces for the bosses and bankers claim the EFCA is unfair, it’s only a small step toward overcoming the inherent and extreme bias favoring management in capitalist labor relations. The same corporate interests fighting the EFCA today wrote the anti-union 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.

Taft-Hartley levies steep penalties, including injunctions and fines, if workers and their unions exercise their NLRA rights. It allows bosses “free-speech” rights to interfere in organizing (“Low Wage Capitalism,” p. 251) and encouraged the state-by-state “right-to-work” laws enacted predominantly in the South—with its history of enslaved Black labor—and in the West to create internal low-wage havens.

In “Low Wage Capitalism,” Fred Goldstein notes: “The bosses have the right to get ‘mutual aid’ from other bosses—who buy their products, for example, and thus help them with revenue while workers are losing pay by being out on strike. Big capitalists get lines of credit from the banks in preparation for and during strikes, and thus engage in ‘concerted activity’ against the workers. But workers are forbidden to ask for or receive ‘mutual aid and protection’ through the ‘concerted activities’ of other unions in the form of sympathy strikes or boycotts, etc.”

Passage of the EFCA won’t end the class struggle or repeal Taft-Hartley, but will improve workers’ chances to gain a union.

Organize to fight back now

Organize to fight back now

By Fred Goldstein

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On becoming president, Barack Obama proclaimed his job creation goal to be 3 million jobs over the next two years. Yet in the last two months alone nearly 1.2 million jobs have been lost: 577,000 in December and 598,000 in January. The December figure was revised upward by the government, which had originally estimated it at 533,000. Economists expect the monthly number to be even worse in February.

With each new layoff announcement, the target number for jobs to be created goes up. The latest target is 4 million, even though right-wing Republicans are whittling down the stimulus package.

The official unemployment number has jumped from 7.2 percent to 7.6 percent. But this is not the total unemployment number, which includes those who have stopped looking for work and those working part time because they cannot find full-time work. That has jumped from 13.5 percent to 13.9 percent.

In effect, this means that to achieve full employment for the approximately 154 million people in the workforce, some 21.4 million new full-time jobs would be needed now—and this number is growing rapidly each month.

Every worker should do the math. The so-called stimulus package, even assuming that it could meet its goals, appears more and more anemic compared to the momentum of the crisis, which is growing each week, each month. Creating relatively few jobs at a snail’s pace leaves tens of millions of workers unemployed and underemployed. Tens of millions more are vulnerable to becoming part of the unemployment statistics.

Every new grim announcement by the government on unemployment, foreclosures, evictions, homelessness, the loss of health care, hunger, record numbers applying to hard-pressed food banks, an increase in child poverty, etc., should become a big wake-up call for the multinational working class to get organized for a fightback.

Actions being planned

One important attempt to begin the crucial fightback is taking place in New York City where the Bail Out the People Movement is forging a grassroots alliance for struggle and calling a national action against the bankers on Wall Street on April 3 and 4. While the mobilization is targeting the bankers, it has a broad program with a focus on stopping the layoffs. Hundreds of endorsers and contingents are coming aboard from every region of the country.

Along the same line, a network of local coalitions in cities around the country, from New York to Boston to Los Angeles, is organizing to make May Day 2009 a day of struggle and unity to fight back against attacks on immigrant workers and to strengthen the struggle against the economic crisis. Many of these coalitions played key roles in the great May Day 2006 strike/boycott of millions of immigrant workers.

At this moment a delegation representing 250 workers, most of them immigrants, who sat in at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago is touring the country. These workers occupied the plant for five days until they won their severance pay and back pay. They are telling their inspiring story to standing-room-only gatherings of trade unionists and activists. The workers are from the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers, Local 1110. The tour is sponsored by Jobs with Justice.

The boldness of Local 1110 inspired the solidarity of the labor movement and the political movement. These workers set a living example of reviving a tactic–the sit-down strike—that was used in the 1930s on a massive scale to win the greatest victories in U.S. labor history.

Local 1110 carried out its sit-down strike in Chicago in the midst of a growing economic crisis. But these workers are not unique. All over the country there are rank-and-file workers, lower-level union officials, shop stewards and trade union activists at all levels, as well as sympathizers with the labor movement, looking for a way to fight back.

Vast network of potential power

There are now 16 million workers in the organized labor movement. There are tens of thousands of local unions around the country, thousands of them under attack by the waves of layoffs. There are hundreds of municipal and regional labor councils whose members are under siege or living in fear of layoffs, shortened hours and demands for concessions.

This vast network of potential working class power is lying dormant as the top labor leaders try to avoid mobilizing the workers to push back. The labor leadership is understandably focused for the moment on pushing through a legislative victory for the Employee Free Choice Act, which legalizes the card check system for union organizing. But this measure, important as it is in the day-to-day campaign to organize unions, will not meet the urgent needs of the millions falling under the ax of layoffs or losing their health care and their homes on a daily basis.

Most importantly, these measures fail to blunt future layoffs. The layoffs arise from the urgent needs of the capitalists to preserve their profits and cut their losses.

The rank and file must get organized within their locals, within their unions and within the union movement as a whole and unite with the communities and activists all over the country to develop a genuine fighting force. Neither John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO nor Andrew Stern of SEIU/Change to Win has represented the labor movement or the working class as a whole in this crisis.

French workers set example

These leaders should contemplate what just took place in France, where 2.5 million people, led by the unions, struck and/or marched to demand priority be given to protecting and creating jobs. The French workers shut down major cities, from Paris to Marseilles, as all the unions united for a show of strength. Of course, the French working class movement has a great tradition of class struggle.

But the workers in the U.S. have a history of struggle as well. During the 1930s they carried out marches and rallies of the unemployed. The Workers Alliance and the Unemployed Councils put hundreds of thousands of people who had been evicted back in their homes. They carried out citywide general strikes. The workers initiated hundreds of sit-down strikes. This is a history and tradition that can and must be revived.

The bosses, bankers and their “experts” are fully aware of this history, more so than are most workers at the moment. That is one of the reasons they were so anxious to settle the Republic Windows and Doors sit-down: the fear that it would become contagious in the midst of a layoff crisis.

Each time they announce a new figure for layoffs that is “the highest” since 1983, or 1972, or declare the crisis to be the “worst since the Great Depression,” they keep their fingers crossed that the working class in general, including the oppressed—the African American, Latina/o, Asian and Native communities—will get frightened, demoralized and retreat into trying to deal with the crisis on an individual basis.

But everyone knows in their bones that this crisis cannot be fought on an individual basis. Organization is the most important weapon that the working class and the oppressed have.

The capitalist system is in the midst of a major, global crisis of overproduction. There is a glut of commodities that cannot be sold because the entire capitalist class all over the world, in the race for profits, has lowered wages and increased production. That is what is called capitalist anarchy of production.

In the auto industry the global capacity could produce 90 million autos a year. Present production is 66 million a year. Semiconductors are used in everything from iPods to airplanes, yet the semiconductor industry is operating at 66 percent of capacity. Even the oil industry is operating far below capacity.

Why? Because the masses do not have the money to purchase the vast inventories of commodities that have been built up by their own labor as the bosses race for profits and market share. So production shuts down. Plants and offices are destroyed or sit idle.

The only thing that can change the course of the crisis is the conscious, organized intervention of the workers and the communities to defend themselves–to demand the right to a job, to housing, to health care, to education and to social services of all kinds.

The process of getting organized for struggle is a difficult one. But there is no other course. The only social force that can bail out the workers, the only force that is going to stop the layoffs, the foreclosures and evictions, the racist attacks, the sexist inequality of wages and abuse of women—that is going to stop all forms of oppression—is the might of the organized, multinational working class.

States Push to Take Back National Guard

States Push to Take Back National Guard

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Going on its seventh year, the Iraq war has taken its toll on not only the US military, but also on the states's National Guard units, which were called up when Congress passed the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq. Now a growing state-level movement is working to keep the Guard at home.

Its logic: The AUMF's goals have been fulfilled. The authorization's explicit purposes were to defend the US against the "threat posed by Iraq" and to enforce UN Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq's alleged ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein - along with his supposed threat - is gone, and the UN resolutions are no longer relevant, so there's no longer a mandate to keep troops in Iraq.

The president can call up the states's Guard units in a time of war. But when the mandate for war becomes obsolete, say members of the Bring the Guard Home: It's the Law (BTGH) campaign, sending those troops overseas is illegal. BTGH members and their allies are now sponsoring a chain of bills and resolutions in states across the country, demanding an investigation into the legality of deploying the Guard to Iraq, and a refusal to comply with any illegal federal orders.

"There is not Congressional authorization for the use of the Guard today," Vermont State Rep. Mike Fisher told Truthout. "One Guard member improperly called into federal service to fight a war - that's a real problem. Choosing to go to war is one of the most serious decisions that we make. The very least we can do is follow the Constitution."

The state legislators involved in the campaign argue that it is their duty, along with the governor's, to ensure Guard members' welfare. Although a governor can't order the Guard's return, he or she does have the right to challenge federalization orders (mandates to call up the Guard) in the first place. Every month, another set of call-ups sends more Guard members overseas. Should a state decide to refuse a federalization order, the case would likely be brought to the courts.

"We believe that it would be a good thing for a court to be asked the question of whether a state Guard can be brought into federal service to fight in an overseas war - other than in an emergency - that does not have a proper Congressional authorization," Fisher said.

The campaign began back in 2007, after Fisher had written and passed a resolution in the Vermont legislature to urge the withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq. He wanted to intensify this state-level action against the war by asserting the war's illegality, and relating it back to Vermont law. So, Fisher joined with attorney Benson Scotch, formerly the executive director of Vermont's ACLU, to spearhead an effort that would both advocate for Vermont's Guard members and challenge the legal basis for continued US involvement in Iraq.

The effort is premised on the National Guard's dual chain of command. Usually, the governor is the commander in chief of a state's Guard. With Congressional authorization, the Guard can be called into federal service. However, since that Congressional authorization has expired for Iraq, control reverts back to the states - or at least it should, under the Constitution, according to Scotch and Fisher.

Regardless of legality, the federalization orders continue, with more Guard troops called up every month. The state Guards have seen some of their largest deployments since World War II. In New Jersey, for example, the planned deployment represents about 50 percent of the state's National Guard.

This transfer of the Guard out of state not only reduces its ability to respond to local emergencies, it also fuels a frightening shift in US foreign policy, according to Ben Manski, executive director of the nonprofit Liberty Tree Foundation.

"We're supposed to have a national defense that's based on the citizen soldier, and decentralized as a result," Manski told Truthout. "What the federal government has done, and what states have allowed it to do, is it has transformed the National Guard into the reserve for an expanded military and for a policy of empire building."

In the process, the federal executive branch has taken over many of the rights and responsibilities of both Congress and the states. The War Powers Act of 1973 states that the president can wage war only by Congressional authorization, unless the US is under attack. Now, since Congress's authorization is no longer applicable and troops remain in Iraq, the standard is being set for a very weak Congressional role in war powers, according to Scotch.

Under the current, Bush-conceived system, "Congress can start a war but cannot stop a war, or even impose enforceable limits to a war it authorizes," Scotch, who is now legal counsel to BTGH, told Truthout. "The president in today's US initiates, conducts, limits (or not) and ends wars (or not)."

The Guard legislation promoted by the BTGH campaign reasserts not only the states's power to refuse illegal Guard orders, but also calls attention to the fact that Congress should determine whether or not a war is allowed to continue.

At its heart, BTGH is a push to reverse the quiet ebbing away of the balance of powers that took place throughout the Bush administration. Now is the time to make sure the precedent of executive, federal domination doesn't become set in stone, according to Fisher.

"Article 1 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war and Article 2 gives the president the power to be commander in chief, "Fisher said. "It seems our founding fathers intentionally delivered us this tension, because they understood the dangers of executive power. They also delivered us tension between the states and the federal government - they positioned a large part of the military in the states's control."

The Guard initiative also activates another "branch" of opinion that was neglected throughout the Bush administration: the American people. Since state-level legislation hits closer to home, and since state legislators interact with their constituents more regularly and on a more immediate level, the BTGH campaign intends to provide a new, effective outlet for citizens's voices.

"We had seven years that the most people thought they could do to change foreign policy was to march, to vote or to participate in direct action," Manski said. "At the state level, it's much easier for people to get involved in legislation."

For example, instead of writing letters to members of Congress, advocates for BTGH often request to speak directly with their state representatives or senators. National groups like Military Families Speak Out, Veterans for Peace and Peace Action have worked through their local chapters to communicate with legislators.

Grassroots efforts directly led to Wisconsin state Rep. Spencer Black's involvement in the campaign.

"The issue was brought to my attention by community activists," Black told Truthout. Wisconsin's version of the bill will be introduced in March.

As the new session of Congress gains speed, the Guard legislation is quickly moving forward. Versions of it have been introduced in 14 states, and eight more have active campaigns pushing for the bill's introduction.

In Oregon, bipartisan Guard legislation was introduced last week. Leah Bolger, vice president of Veterans for Peace, is hopeful that the upcoming deployment of 3,000 Oregon Guardsmen overseas will be halted and the case will be brought to the courts.

"Our hope for the campaign is that if just one state can get this legislation passed and stand up to these illegal federalizations of Guard troops, it will have a ripple effect across the country," Bolger told Truthout.

The legislation's sponsors firmly believe it is still relevant under the Obama administration. Bush not only left Obama with a foreign policy disaster to clean up, according to Fisher, he also left him a "legal mess." The state legislation is intended to redirect war powers back to their legal order.

"I have a great hope for Obama - I really believe he is many times better than Bush, in many ways," Fisher said. "But if it was illegal for Bush to demand the state Guard deploy to Iraq, it is for Obama as well. We can't let that precedent stand - that a president can federalize the Guard without Congressional approval."

In fact, according to Scotch, the ascendancy of a new president with "a humane ethic and a sound view of the Constitution" opens up new possibilities for the BTGH movement, just as it does for health care advocates, environmentalists and civil rights activists. Scotch hopes that Obama might become the first president to endorse the War Powers Act of 1973.

"The Bush years and the Iraq war experience teach us that the smart sharing of war powers is still the best response to an increasingly dangerous world," Scotch said.

Obama’s Immigration Conundrum

Obama’s Immigration Conundrum

By Bill Boyarsky

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One of the worst messes facing the Obama administration is the disgraceful state of the federal government’s immigration detention centers.

There are 350 of these centers around the country, housing almost 30,000 men, women and even children waiting for the Department of Homeland Security to decide whether or not they will be deported. Some have been in custody for years. The centers are overcrowded. Newspapers and academic and civil liberties studies tell of physically and mentally ill inmates being denied help.

Given that they are in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, you’d think these people would be suspected terrorists, threats to national security. Many, however, are guilty of nothing except seeking asylum from their native lands. Plenty have been swept up in the increasing number of raids by immigration officers. Some of these are actually here legally but are detained until they can prove it. Others have committed crimes, although some of the violations are so small they would have rated only a light fine or jail sentence in the criminal justice system.

As Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein wrote in The Washington Post last year, “Most are working-class men and women or indigent laborers who made mistakes that seem to pose no threat to national security. ...” The reporters counted 83 deaths in the last five years among those in detention centers and those who had just left them.

The American Civil Liberties Union, on a Web site devoted to the issue, said: “Within hours of their arrest, many immigrants caught up in raids are transferred to remote out-of-state detention centers and pressured into signing removal orders, often without being able to tell anyone where they are; as a result, family and lawyers have no time or ability to provide support and a legal defense. Inhumane and cruel conditions of confinement in the immigration detention centers are pervasive.”

University of Arizona researchers investigated three detention centers in that state, and in a report, “Unseen Children,” said mothers are separated from children in the immigration raids. The report also said the facilities did not provide enough care for the physically and mentally ill. It said inmates were denied chances to meet with lawyers or talk to relatives. And the researchers said noncriminal immigration women detainees were mixed with convicted criminals in some facilities.

Vincent Picard, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told me such mixing “is completely against our policy.” Inmates, he said, were permitted to make free phone calls to their countries’ consulates “and collect calls to anyone else.” Medical care is “excellent,” he said, provided by “an array of doctors, mental health professionals and staff.”

Recently, however, I met with Ahila Arulanantham and Marisol Orihueta, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. They told me a different story. One of their clients, for example, is Diana Santander (full name: Oscar “Diana” Santander Leyva), a transgender person. The ACLU lawyers gave me copies of the court documents they’d filed on her behalf. Her story illustrates how immigrants can be unjustly locked up for long periods.

In her native Mexico, law enforcement officers treated her brutally because of her sexual status. On one occasion, they forced her to perform oral sex on officers, then burned her thighs with cigars. Another time, police officers attacked her with a knife, beat her with a gun butt and called her a “fucking faggot.”

Trying to escape the torture, Santander fled to the United States in 2004, entering illegally. In 2007, she was arrested and convicted of prostitution and trespassing and turned over to federal immigration authorities for deportation. Later, she learned that the brutality inflicted on her by the Mexican cops amounted to torture as defined in the United Nations Convention Against Torture. She applied for asylum.

Government attorneys objected, saying she had been jailed in Mexico more than eight years before on a robbery charge. The immigration judge sided with Santander, citing a lack of evidence that there had actually been a robbery. The judge granted her request for asylum. But that didn’t set her free. The government has appealed, and Santander remains in custody, where she has been for 21 months.

Whether the detention centers will be reformed is up to President Obama’s chief of the Department of Homeland Security, former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. Her record makes you wonder just how far she’ll go.

As the popular Democratic governor of a conservative Republican state, Napolitano had to walk the line between anti-immigrant conservatives and Democrats (including Latinos) who opposed harsh measures. She signed a law imposing tough penalties on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. She has also been allied with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the anti-immigrant sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, the state’s largest city. He became well known for making inmates wear pink underwear, housing them in tents and feeding them green-colored food. She got along well enough with the sheriff for him to endorse her for governor in her first race. This helped her win a narrow victory.

Once in her new Cabinet job, she said she intends to get “criminal aliens” off the streets. Presumably this means off the streets and into mandatory detention facilities, where they will await deportation hearings in the overcrowded centers.

To put them into detention, Napolitano can use laws that have greatly expanded the number of offenses for which mandatory detention is required. Previously, many immigrants were allowed to be free while awaiting their deportation hearings. Now they are just jailed. Diana Santander’s prostitution arrest would have earned her a night in county jail in the criminal justice system, not the months she has spent in jail under immigration jurisdiction.

Those who blame the recent Republican administration for the mess in the detention centers should be reminded that these laws were passed in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton, who was desperately trying to court conservative voters after the Democratic congressional losses in 1994. The law doubled the number of immigrants in detention; the number grew swiftly after the Bush administration moved against immigrants after Sept. 11, 2001.

Don’t expect this mess to be cleaned up soon, especially with Secretary Napolitano sounding like a hard-liner. There is too much anti-immigrant sentiment. The detention centers were built with a bipartisan stamp of approval, with Democrats as well as Republicans supporting their expansion. Finally, given the poverty and low societal status of the inmates, few people will crusade on their behalf.

GM slashes 10,000 jobs

GM slashes 10,000 jobs

By Tom Eley

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General Motors Corp., the leading US auto producer, announced plans Tuesday to cut 10,000 salaried positions within the next year. Of these layoffs, 3,400 will come in the US. Most of the cuts would take place by May 1, GM said in a statement. It will also cut the pay of those salaried workers not fired from the US workforce by 3-7 percent.

The new round of job cuts come as GM prepares to win the approval of the Treasury Department for continuation of $13.4 billion in loans signed into law in December, which the Democratic-controlled Congress made contingent on drastic reductions in labor costs, including layoffs and a lowering of pay that would bring US auto producers in line with foreign-owned auto assembly plants in the South.

GM and Chrysler LLC will submit restructuring plans next Tuesday that will detail how the automakers plan to win concessions from their workforces and bondholders by a March 31 deadline. There are indications that the deadline may be extended, or else the Treasury may determine to allow the two automakers to enter into bankruptcy.

The laid-off salaried workers will not be offered buyouts or early retirement, GM said. This is because Congress included terms in the automakers’ emergency loans that prevent GM from using its pension fund to offer buyouts to salaried employees. Instead, layoffs will take place through GM’s preexisting severance plan, which offers minimal assistance to dismissed employees.

That the pay and positions of layers of management and other white-collar workers are being targeted in the auto industry restructuring, points to the erosion of what was formerly known as “the middle class” in the US. But it also serves as a warning to rank-and-file autoworkers.

In the coming days, the automakers are likely to announce a new round of layoffs and concessions from autoworkers that the Big Three are preparing in collaboration with the United Auto Workers union. The UAW nominally represents the auto industry workforce, but in fact functions as a layer of management. In an unbroken chain, it has accepted all concession demands as far back as the Chrysler bailout of 1979, always in order to “save jobs.”

Last week, GM joined Chrysler in offering buyouts to their combined hourly workforce of 89,000. The deals included vouchers worth $25,000 toward the purchase of a new GM vehicle and $20,000 in cash. This month, the UAW agreed to end its Jobs Bank program, which has functioned as an unemployment insurance program. Three months ago, GM forced retirement buyouts on 5,100 salaried employees.

The UAW has maintained strict silence regarding the current round of layoffs and benefit rollbacks it is negotiating. However, it is anticipated that, in exchange for shepherding through unprecedented concessions, the UAW bureaucracy will be rewarded with stock in the auto companies. For instance, it may agree to forgive cash payments owed by the Big Three to the VEBA (Voluntary Employee Benefit Association) fund it manages in exchange for stock. Such maneuvers will further convert the UAW into a business entity, a process that is already irreversibly advanced. The UAW will thereafter face a more and more pressing cash imperative to reduce the wages, conditions, and health benefits of autoworkers.

But whatever their precise nature, new concessions may prove insufficient to satisfy Washington. An analyst for J.P. Morgan, Himanshu Patel, was quoted in Market Watch as saying that the Obama administration may still allow GM to enter bankruptcy as a preferred method of driving down the conditions and pay of autoworkers. According to Patel, the likelihood of a negative consumer reaction toward a bankruptcy among the major auto companies has been reduced by the economic crisis.

While politicians of both parties have been ruthless in their drive to impoverish the autoworkers, the Obama administration has placed only token limits on the salaries of the top Wall Street executives whose institutions have collectively received trillions in government aid—and whose predatory financial activities have triggered the economic crisis. (See “The American ruling class”)

The preferential treatment shown Wall Street is no accident. Nor is it mistaken economic policy that widespread wage reductions and hundreds of thousands of new layoffs taking place in the US, including those in the auto industry, will further shrink the market for new cars and thus cause further layoffs.

The financial aristocracy that controls both parties, views the restructuring of the auto industry as the leading edge in a far-reaching redistribution of wealth out of the pockets of workers and into the bank accounts of the elite. The “American middle class” will not survive this process, as is suggested by the enormous layoffs and pay cuts carried out on salaried and management personnel in the auto industry and across the economy.

Autoworkers must take leadership of a working class counteroffensive that seeks to break the political and economic dictatorship of the profit system over the vast majority of the population. This struggle must be carried out in conjunction with autoworkers the world over, who are suffering everywhere under similar attacks.

Meanwhile, the crisis of the US and global auto industry continues to intensify.

US auto sales reached a 27-year low in January. Auto research firm R.L. Polk & Co., projects a 19 percent decline in the size of the US market for cars for 2009, after a 17 percent fall in 2008. Last year, GM lost its position as the world’s leading auto producer to Toyota Motor Co., of Japan, for the first time in 77 years. GM shares have lost 89 percent of their value in the space of one year. In January, GM’s US sales plummeted by nearly 50 percent, and China supplanted the US as the world’s leading auto market.

There are currently nearly 3 million new cars for sale sitting on dealer lots in the US. At present sales levels, it would take 118 days to deplete this inventory, according to Autodata.

Last week Chrysler announced plans to halt production at four more plants. Recently GM announced it would fire 2,000 workers at its Lansing, Michigan and Lordstown, Ohio assembly plants. Additionally, GM intends to intermittently idle production at 12 of its plants in North America over the coming months.

No Tough Love for Wall Street

No Tough Love for Wall Street

By Robert Scheer

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What an insipid anticlimax! Rising to “a challenge more complex than our financial system has ever faced,” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner promised on Tuesday to give trillions more to the very folks who profited from that malignant complexity. For all the brave talk about transparency and accountability in the banking bailout, he gave the swindlers who got us into this mess yet another blank check to buy up the “toxic assets” they gleefully created.

According to the Congressional Oversight Panel created by Congress to monitor the bailout, the Bush Treasury Department overpaid by $78 billion of our money in the first 10 purchases of those assets. Yet Geithner tells us “Congress acted quickly and courageously” in throwing that money at Wall Street without requiring any accountability. At the same time, there is still no commitment to directly help what Geithner admits are the millions of homeowners already foreclosed out of their homes, with millions more to come. The leaks from Treasury promise that $50 billion will eventually be allocated directly to helping homeowners, which is a day late and a dollar short in chump change compared to the trillion dollars that Geithner on Tuesday committed to the purchase of more bad bank debt.

The Geithner speech betrayed the buildup to it offered by President Obama in his press conference the day before. I was such a sucker I found myself cheering at almost every line, agreeing that Republicans acted with total irresponsibility in opposing Obama’s plan to stimulate an economy that was wrecked on their watch. But then came the hangover reality of Geithner’s talk. Instead of the promised transparency we were treated to yet another “trust Big Brother” hustle.

How wonderful that Geithner, who as head of the New York Federal Reserve was in on the first wasted $350 billion, now promises a brand new Web site to help us taxpayers follow the action. It means nothing, given that he specifically ruled out any of the serious means of holding Wall Street accountable.

The New York Times got it right: “… the plan largely repeats the Bush administration’s approach of deferring to many of the same companies and executives who had peddled risky loans and investments at the heart of the crisis. …” Geithner and White House economic czar Lawrence Summers won out over David Axelrod and other Obama advisers more loyal to the wishes of grass-roots voters; “… as intended by Mr. Geithner, the plan stops short of intruding too significantly into bankers’ affairs even as they come onto the public dole.”

The word dole is usually applied heartlessly to welfare mothers sustained in their dire poverty by meager government handouts, not to the top bankers now ripping off the taxpayers. But as opposed to welfare mothers, who must survive stringent monitoring, the bankers will be largely self-monitoring. No wonder that welfare rolls, because of onerous eligibility rules, are not rising commensurate to the degree of misery out there. There is no such tough love for bankers.

Much has been made of the proposed $500,000 pay cap that applies only to the most senior executives, who, rest assured, have already salted away massive fortunes made while hustling unsuspecting consumers with teaser loans. But there is nothing from Geithner about replacing those top executives, who presided over the disintegration of financial institutions that the taxpayers must now salvage. Nor is there any “moral hazard” pain planned for the shareholders in those Ponzi-scheme companies of the sort reserved for ordinary folks losing their homes.

Believe it or not, I fully expected this morning to write a cheerleading column hailing Geithner’s reversal of course. Surely the man who as head of the New York Fed sat idly by while the Wall Street giants he was supposed to be monitoring imploded would have learned the error of his ways. Otherwise why would Obama have appointed him?

I don’t have the answer. The Obama of Monday’s press conference, a president in the tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, seemingly deeply feeling the average person’s pain as he movingly speaks of the laid-off workers of Elkhart, Ind., was absent from the next day’s speech by his treasury secretary.

If like me you still get those chatty e-mails from the Obama campaign, it is time to remind them that we voted for the caring community organizer from the streets of Chicago and not some hack carrying water for the predators of Wall Street.

Companies are Marketing Police State Normalcy to Children

Terrifying: Companies are Marketing Police State Normalcy to Children

By Lucinda Marshall

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When I flew home from Washington, DC after a business trip last week, the TSA agent asked to test my laptop. I politely asked what they were testing for. It was just routine she told me. And she's right, it has become routine, a much too routine standard operating procedure designed to make us believe that the usurping of our privacy and human rights is normal and necessary if we are to be secure and free.

The obvious irony is that we are not secure and free if government agents have a right to violate our privacy and deny our rights without cause. I considered protesting but I figured that the best outcome of that would be missing my flight, the worst case being detained incommunicado in an undisclosed location. The likelihood of a plausible explanation for this sudden interest in my laptop was undoubtedly nil. In otherwords, whatcha gonna do and TSA knows that.

My youngest son barely has a memory of when you could get on a plane without having to take off your shoes first. He was in 4th grade on Sept. 11, 2001 and within days his school was decked out in American flags and "I Support President Bush" signs appeared everywhere. For him this is normal, the way things are supposed to be. And that is no accident.

What is particularly disturbing about the normalizing of this notion that it is unpatriotic to question measures that supposedly defend us from acts of terror is the use of entertainment to hawk the message. In addition to the Disney-owned ABC's Homeland Security reality show, there is now a Homeland Security television channel on the internet that bills itself as,

(T)he world's first online, on-demand television network dedicated to homeland security and global development. HSTV is a 24/7 interactive television channel dedicated to producing broadcast-quality video programs on all aspects of homeland security and the role of global development in fighting terrorism.

HSTV is also dedicated to facilitating rapid awareness of new technologies and services, and assisting in the transfer of those technology solutions to the government and critical infrastructure marketplace.

And the U.S. military has spared no expense giving kids every opportunity to play sanitized military video games that helpfully provide links to military recruiting sites. In addition to video games such as "America's Army", the Army recently opening the $12 million U.S. Army Experience Center at the Franklin Mills shopping center outside of Philadelphia where kids can play sanitized military video games."

The Philadelphia center lures recruits with a separate room for prospective soldiers to "fire" from a real Humvee on enemy encampments projected on a 15-foot-high (4.5-meter-high) battleground scenario that also has deafening sound effects.

In another room, those inclined to attack from above can join helicopter raids in which enemy soldiers emerge from hide-outs to be felled by automatic gunfire rattling from a simulator modeled on an Apache or Blackhawk helicopter.

Most insidious however are the toys marketed to preschool and elementary school age children that exploit the war on terror mantra. Playmobil has several toys that fit that bill, including Playmobil Security Checkpoint (for ages 4-7) and Playmobil Police Checkpoint (for ages 10 and up).

The only thing that gives one hope are the product reviews on Amazon where you can buy these propaganda for profit gems. Here is one of the reviews of the Security Checkpoint toy:

Finally a toy that gets our kids used to living in a police state. Benjamin Franklin said that those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. But then again, he lived in France for awhile, so what did he know about anything.

Before this toy came out I was afraid my son would not know how to cope with the new reality of American life; how to prepare him to the future, I was wondering. Boy am I relieved; so many lessons learned! Now he knows that:

1) Some people can make a decent living treating others like cattle, and the best part: the cattle is paying their salaries.
2) You only have the rights that the government gives you; you can move around the country only if you comply with government regulations, no matter how frivolous they might be. No liquid you say? except if in a ziplock bag? Check. Lighter ok because the cigarette lobby fought the no-lighter rule? Swell. All passengers searched but cargo mostly un-scrutinized? No problem.
3) You should always bow to people in uniforms, even though they might be in this job because they could not qualify for police work (because of the rap sheet or the drug abuse).

Unfortunately, this toy comes short in a few areas:

1) It does not show that if you're rich, you don't have to wait in line for hours. If you can travel first class, you get your own fast-track screening. Too bad the terr'ists have plenty of Saudi and Pakistani cash and can easily travel first class should they want to. They should have included another screening set in the box.
2) It does not come with the 300 tired-looking playmobils you would need to show the passengers waiting in line behind the screening area.

However, it does some things very well: for instance, the screening apparatus is not actually functional. This represents faithfully the actual TSA system, which, every time it is tested or audited, fails to catch anything (weapons, even bombs).

So, thank you Playmobil. I hope they will expand their product offering and give us more toys that can help our children prepare for the new reality of a much safer America; specifically, I am eagerly waiting for the Staline-style Guantanamo American gulag set, the North-Korean-style CIA water-boarding set, the KGB-style NSA phone-tapping set. Some people will whine about the loss of their civil liberties, but my son knows that the North-Korean are some of the safest people in the world. They had virtually no fear of terrorists.

Quite honestly after falling out of my chair laughing at a whole slew of reviews in that vein, I began to think that never mind that I was reading this on Amazon, perhaps these were spoofs. However queries to both Playmobil and Amazon confirmed that both products, sadly, are for real.

As difficult as it sometimes seemed to raise sons during the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Ranger years, clearly teaching children the difference between right and wrong has become far more challenging as the toys and games pitched at them become blatant police state propaganda.

The Bank Rescue Plan Is a Disaster in the Making

The Bank Rescue Plan Is a Disaster in the Making

By Brad Reed

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The financial bailout plan unveiled by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner yesterday reminded me of the time my cousin Jethro Billy Rex Reed came over to my house and offered to pay me $50 for the privilege of scraping roadkill off my street.

"Well gee," I said to Jethro. "What are you going to do with all that roadkill?"

"I'm gonna sell it for eatin'," he said proudly. "The market for grilled flattened squirrel is booming right now!"

"But Jethro, there ain't no sane person out there that'll pay any price for crushed squirrel meat!" I said. "What's going to happen if no one buys it?"

"That's the best part," he said. "I figure that if no one buys, then my dad will pay me at least $100 to clean all the roadkill out before it stinks up our basement."

Much like Jethro's stock of roadkill, toxic mortgage-backed securities are now stinking up our financial system and Geithner seems to be willing to pay a premium to just get rid of them. A key part of the plan he unveiled is to have the government create a public-private investment fund that will use government dollars to insure private investors against losses they could suffer from purchasing those bad assets if the economy keeps heading south.

Geithner says that letting private investors bid on these assets -- with government guarantees against large losses -- will allow the market to define concrete prices for them and thus "avoid a program that has government overpaying for a bunch of financial assets."

The trouble with this, of course, is that many of these assets will never be worth what the banks will accept for them. Economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told me that the worst of these assets "have lost value because they rest primarily on underwater mortgages." The only way these assets will ever regain the value they've lost over the past few years, says Baker, is in the unlikely event that the housing bubble makes a comeback.

Economist James K. Galbraith told me that the government is simply in denial if it thinks it can ever recoup the losses it will inevitably take by paying insurance for those "toxic" assets. Instead of trying to sell them off in an attempt to hide the depth of the banks' losses, Galbraith says that the government should instead acknowledge that they are insolvent.

"If someone within the Government Accountability Office does their due diligence on these assets, they'll find that they're not marketable for a reason," he told me. "Many of these securities were backed by mortgages that had sloppy and inadequate documentation."

Another problem with Geithner's plan is that it leaves bank executives and shareholders relatively unscathed. If government dollars are used to prop up bad asset values and thus protect shareholders from being wiped out, then future banks will have more incentive to invest in risky assets, safe in the knowledge that the government will help pick up the tab and leave their executives intact when the next bubble pops.

"This is the issue of moral hazard," says Hale Stewart, a tax attorney and former bond broker who writes frequently about economics at the Huffington Post. "By bailing out banks, the government is rewarding bad behavior. The alternative is to let the banks go broke and probably take the country down with them."

But although letting the banks completely fail is an unacceptable outcome, alternatives to the Geithner plan do exist. While there is no happy solution to a massive financial crisis, many economists have concluded that the United States will have to nationalize its insolvent banks. While that initially involves a government takeover of the banks, Baker points out that it's actually a more market-oriented solution than artificially propping up the value of bad assets and shielding bank shareholders from losses.

Baker adds that the government takeover of the banks isn't permanent: rather, the government removes the bad assets from the bank before reorganizing it and then selling it to the private sector as a healthy bank.

"The normal way to deal with a bad bank is to wipe out the shareholders, fire most of the executives, reorganize it, soak up the assets that are nonperforming and sell them over time," says Stirling Newberry, an economics writer at the Agonist. The end goal of any bank reorganization plan, he notes, should be to eventually "merge the bank with a healthier bank."

Nouriel Roubini, the New York University economist who correctly predicted the current financial crisis long before many economists saw it as a serious threat, recently endorsed nationalizing banks while responding to reader questions over at the Financial Times' Web site.

"Nationalization may be a more market-friendly solution," wrote Roubini, who also noted that the nationalization model was successfully used by Sweden during its banking crisis in the early '90s. "It creates the biggest hit for common and preferred shareholders of clearly insolvent institutions and … it provides a fair upside to the taxpayer."

The biggest danger in not nationalizing banks, Roubini continues, is that many of the banks will become "zombies" that are insolvent but are still being animated by taxpayer money. Without restructuring, these zombie banks would continue to be run poorly, and frozen credit markets would be unlikely to thaw.

So if the nationalization solution presents a better alternative to the Geithner plan, why isn't it being employed?

There are two plausible explanations, and both are depressing. The first explanation is the most cynical one: that Geithner is protecting his friends within the banking industry from suffering the consequences of their poor decision-making. Baker sums up this argument succinctly: "Bankers are powerful supporters of the Democratic Party, and therefore [they think] it is good to help them."

The other explanation is that the Obama administration is so determined to transcend traditional partisan politics that it has bought into the false notion that America is an intractably "center-right" nation that will not tolerate massive government intervention into private institutions. President Barack Obama gave credence to this explanation during a recent interview with ABC News.

"Obviously, Sweden has a different set of cultures in terms of how the government relates to markets, and America's different," said Obama, explaining why the U.S. was not following the Swedish model for financial rescues. "What we've tried to do is to apply some of the tough love that's going to be necessary, but do it in a way that's also recognizing we've got big private capital markets, and ultimately that's going to be the key to getting credit flowing again."

A week earlier, Geithner was even clearer about the administration's priorities when he said: "We have a financial system that is run by private shareholders, managed by private institutions, and we'd like to do our best to preserve that system."

If Obama is sincere about this, then this is indeed a discouraging development. The president who once promised that he'd bypass ideology in favor of "what works" is sacrificing a solution that has worked in the past on the altar of "center-right" ideology.

The GOP's Jihad on Obama

The GOP's Jihad on Obama

By Robert Parry

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Only a few weeks into Barack Obama’s presidency, a threatening political and media dynamic has rushed to the fore cutting short a very brief honeymoon.

The Republicans and their right-wing media allies are doing whatever they can to strangle the Obama phenomenon in its cradle; the mainstream media pundits are stressing the negative so they don’t get called “in the tank for Obama”; and the Democrats are shying away from holding the Bush-Cheney administration accountable for its crimes.

None of these developments is particularly surprising. Indeed, they track closely to the political-media pattern that took shape the last time a young Democrat won the White House, when Bill Clinton became President in 1993.

Then, the dispirited Republicans got a lift from the loud voice of a younger Rush Limbaugh who used his popular three-hour radio show to pillory Bill and Hillary Clinton. That, in turn, encouraged the congressional Republicans to vote as a bloc against President Clinton’s budget and economic plan.

Mainstream journalists also used the early Clinton years to disprove the Right’s old canard about the “liberal press.” As one senior news executive told me, “we’re going to show that we can be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.”

And the Democrats of 1993 also didn’t want to investigate abuses by the Republicans who had just lost power. Despite evidence that the Reagan-Bush-41 administrations had obstructed investigations into Iran-Contra, Iraqgate and other national security scandals, Clinton and Democratic congressional leaders feared partisan warfare if those cases were pursued.

Everyone in that 1993 mix seemed to be operating out of a logical self-interest – the Republicans viewed Clinton as an interloper at their White House; the right-wing media desired larger market share and greater political influence; the mainstream media wanted to shake off the “liberal” tag; and the Democrats hoped to focus on the nation’s deepening economic and social needs rather than on complex historical disputes.

However, the result for the country from that intersection of self-interests proved disastrous.

The Republican determination to destroy Clinton infected the political system with an ugly virus of hyper-partisanship; the right-wing media ramped up its hate talk; mainstream journalism lost its way, wandering into a strange landscape of garish sensationalism and shallow news reporting; and the Democrats failed to counteract the threat posed by the neoconservatives who surfaced during the national security scandals of the Reagan-Bush-41 years.

In short, the dynamic that took shape in 1993-94 carried the United States into the catastrophic presidency of George W. Bush just eight years later. [For details on how this happened, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Little Change

Now, at the other end of the Bush-43 experience, what may be most unsettling is that so little has changed, so few lessons have been learned.

Even some of the key players are the same, with Rush Limbaugh hoping to reprise his role as the bombastic voice that lifts the Republicans out of their post-election funk. And the new GOP players in Congress seem to be following the hand-me-down playbook from that earlier era.

So, House Republicans hailed their unanimous bloc vote against President Obama’s $819 billion stimulus package as their first substantive step back. That was followed by key Republicans – Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Lindsey Graham – refusing to join in any serious negotiations with Democrats in the Senate.

With the Republican Senate leaders vowing to filibuster the stimulus bill – thus forcing the Democrats to round up 60 votes – the Republicans were almost gleeful in their insurrection. The Washington Post quoted key Republicans expressing this exhilaration in a front-page story entitled “GOP Sees Positives in Negative Stand.”

"We're so far ahead of where we thought we'd be at this time," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, a backbencher eager to take a leadership role. "It's not a sign that we're back to where we need to be, but it's a sign that we're beginning to find our voice.”

"What transpired,” said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-ranking House Republican, ”and will give us a shot in the arm going forward is that we are standing up on principle and just saying no." [Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2009]

One excited Republican congressman – Pete Sessions of Texas – went even further, comparing the GOP insurrectionist tactics to those of the Taliban, the radical Islamic group that is battling U.S. forces in Afghanistan and has been allied with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist group.

“Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban,” Sessions said during a meeting with editors of the National Journal’s Hotline. “And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes.”

Sessions caught himself slightly, adding:

I’m not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban. No, that’s not what we’re saying. I’m saying [that] we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with.”

Tight Vote

In the Senate, only three Republicans – Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter – crossed the aisle to support a compromise stimulus bill that gained their support by increasing the proportion of tax cuts and by reducing spending on schools and aid to hard-pressed state governments.

Their votes became crucial for the bill to gain a 60-vote super-majority to cut off debate. After clearing the Senate, 61-37, on Tuesday, the stimulus bill goes to a conference with the House to iron out differences.

Besides the reemerging behavioral patterns of the Republicans, many Democrats also are acting like it’s 1993 all over again. Despite blunt admissions by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that they ordered waterboarding and other brutal interrogation techniques, the Democrats have shied away from any legal confrontation over whether to hold Bush and Cheney accountable for criminal violations.

Instead, there’s been talk about, maybe, a "truth and reconciliation commission" that won’t seek to embarrass anyone and – through grants of immunity – may make any criminal prosecutions impossible. [See’s “Leahy Calls for Truth Commission.”]

Another reflection from the historical mirror of 1993 is the asymmetry of media power. Then, like now, there was a scarcity of well-organized independent or progressive media, only a handful of under-funded magazines and some small FM radio stations up against a fast-growing right-wing media machine.

Over the past 16 years, independent and progressive outlets have gained a toehold in the national debate – mostly through the Internet and a few cable TV shows – but the balance remains heavily tilted toward the right-wing side, which invests vastly more money in virtually every media sector, from books, magazines and newspapers to radio, TV and the Internet.

This imbalance enabled the Republicans to throw the Obama administration onto the defensive by cherry-picking a few questionable items in the stimulus bill and making them the center of the national debate for several days. The independent/progressive media side proved woefully inadequate in countering that initial thrust.

So far, however, the key difference-maker in the economic debate has been the President himself. Despite all the TV jibber-jabber about Obama’s stumbles, he demonstrated his ability to reach past the Washington chatter and connect with an American public that, according to polls, wishes him well and desperately wants him to succeed.

Obama’s town-hall meetings in the hard-hit communities of Elkhart, Indiana, on Monday and Fort Myers, Florida, on Tuesday – as well as his strong performance in a televised news conference on Monday night – left millions of Americans delighted to have a President who could both speak in paragraphs and cite down-home examples of how his stimulus package would help common folk.

People in the audiences nodded at his explanations about money to winterize homes or to modernize schools or to build a first-class infrastructure. A refrain also kept popping up in questions, references to “for the first time in eight years,” an implicit contrast to Bush’s inarticulate oratory.

Obama’s speaking skill and personal charm may go a long way toward blunting Republican hopes for a repeat of the nasty partisan fights of 1993-94 – which ended up with the GOP winning both chambers of Congress, Rush Limbaugh becoming an honorary member of the new House majority, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich launching his “Republican Revolution.”

But except for Obama’s prodigious abilities -- and an American public that may have lost its patience for some of the Washington gamesmanship -- there are eerie parallels to the start of the last Democratic presidency 16 years ago.

A Call to End All Renditions

A Call to End All Renditions

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JURIST Contributing Editor Marjorie Cohn of Thomas Jefferson School of Law says that instead of leaving the door open for the CIA to continue to engage in the rendition of terrorism suspects to other countries so long as the process is somehow handled "humanely", the Obama administration should end renditions altogether and prosecute those who have ordered renditions since 2001...

Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian residing in Britain, said he was tortured after being sent to Morocco and Afghanistan in 2002 by the U.S. government. Mohamed was transferred to Guantánamo in 2004 and all terrorism charges against him were dismissed last year. Mohamed was a victim of extraordinary rendition, in which a person is abducted without any legal proceedings and transferred to a foreign country for detention and interrogation, often tortured.

Mohamed and four other plaintiffs are accusing Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc. of flying them to other countries and secret CIA camps where they were tortured. In Mohamed’s case, two British justices accused the Bush administration of pressuring the British government to block the release of evidence that was “relevant to allegations of torture” of Mohamed.

Twenty-five lines edited out of the court documents included details about how Mohamed’s genitals were sliced with a scalpel as well as other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding “is very far down the list of things they did,” according to a British official quoted by the Telegraph (UK).

The plaintiffs’ complaint quotes a former Jeppesen employee as saying, “We do all of the extraordinary rendition flights – you know, the torture flights.” A senior company official also apparently admitted the company transported people to countries where they would be tortured.

Obama’s Justice Department appeared before a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday in the Jeppesen lawsuit. But instead of making a clean break with the dark policies of the Bush years, the Obama administration claimed the same “state secrets” privilege that Bush used to block inquiry into his policies of torture and illegal surveillance. Claiming that the extraordinary rendition program is a state secret is disingenuous since it is has been extensively documented in the media.

“This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course,” said the ACLU’s Ben Wizner, counsel for the five men.

If the judges accept Obama's state secrets claim, these men will be denied their day in court and precluded from any recovery for the damages they suffered as a result of extraordinary rendition.

Two and a half weeks before Obama’s representative appeared in the Jeppesen case, the new President had signed Executive Order 13491. It established a special task force “to study and evaluate the practices of transferring individuals to other nations in order to ensure that such practices comply with the domestic laws, international obligations, and policies of the United States and do not result in the transfer of individuals to other nations to face torture or otherwise for the purpose, or with the effect, of undermining or circumventing the commitments or obligations of the United States to ensure the humane treatment of individuals in its custody or control.”

This order prohibits extraordinary rendition. It also ensures humane treatment of persons in U.S. custody or control. But it doesn’t specifically guarantee that prisoners the United States renders to other countries will be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that doesn’t amount to torture. It does, however, aim to ensure that our government’s practices of transferring people to other countries complies with U.S. laws and policies, including our obligations under international law.

One of those laws is the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty the United States ratified in 1992. Article 7 of the ICCPR prohibits the States Parties from subjecting persons “to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” The UN Human Rights Committee, which is the body that monitors the ICCPR, has interpreted that prohibition to forbid States Parties from exposing “individuals to the danger of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon return to another country by way of their extradition, expulsion or refoulement.”

Order 13491 also mandates, “The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.” The order does not define “expeditiously” and the definitional section of the order says that the terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ “do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Once again, “short term” and “transitory” are not defined.

In his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder categorically stated that the United States should not turn over an individual to a country where we have reason to believe he will be tortured. Leon Panetta, nominee for CIA director, went further last week and interpreted Order 13491 as forbidding “that kind of extraordinary rendition, where we send someone for the purposes of torture or for actions by another country that violate our human values.”

But alarmingly, Panetta appeared to champion the same standard used by the Bush administration, which reportedly engaged in extraordinary rendition 100 to 150 times as of March 2005. After September 11, 2001, President Bush issued a classified directive that expanded the CIA’s authority to render terrorist suspects to other States. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the CIA and the State Department received assurances that prisoners will be treated humanely. “I will seek the same kinds of assurances that they will not be treated inhumanely,” Panetta told the senators.

Gonzales had admitted, however, “We can’t fully control what that country might do. We obviously expect a country to whom we have rendered a detainee to comply with their representations to us . . . If you’re asking me, ‘Does a country always comply?’ I don’t have an answer to that.”

The answer is no. Binyam Mohamed’s case is apparently the tip of the iceberg. Maher Arar, a Canadian born in Syria, was apprehended by U.S. authorities in New York on September 26, 2002, and transported to Syria, where he was brutally tortured for months. Arar used an Arabic expression to describe the pain he experienced: “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.” The Canadian government later exonerated Arar of any terrorist ties. In another instance, thirteen CIA operatives were arrested in Italy for kidnapping an Egyptian, Abu Omar, in Milan and transporting him to Cairo where he was tortured.

Panetta made clear that the CIA will continue to engage in rendition to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects and transfer them to other countries. “If we capture a high-value prisoner,” he said, “I believe we have the right to hold that individual temporarily to be able to debrief that individual and make sure that individual is properly incarcerated.” No clarification of how long is “temporarily” or what “debrief” would mean.

When Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) asked about the Clinton administration’s use of the CIA to transfer prisoners to countries where they were later executed, Panetta replied, “I think that is an appropriate use of rendition.” Jane Mayer, columnist for the New Yorker, has documented numerous instances of extraordinary rendition during the Clinton administration, including cases in which suspects were executed in the country to which the United States had rendered them. Once when Richard Clarke, President Clinton’s chief counter-terrorism adviser on the National Security Council, “proposed a snatch,” Vice-President Al Gore said, “That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.”

There is a slippery slope between ordinary rendition and extraordinary rendition. “Rendition has to end,” Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, recently told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!: “Rendition is a violation of sovereignty. It’s a kidnapping. It’s force and violence.” Ratner queried whether Cuba could enter the United States and take Luis Posada, the man responsible for blowing up a commercial Cuban airline in 1976 and killing 73 people. Or whether the United States could go down to Cuba and kidnap Assata Shakur, who escaped a murder charge in New Jersey.

Moreover, “renditions for the most part weren’t very productive,” a former CIA official told the Los Angeles Times. After a prisoner was turned over to authorities in Egypt, Jordan or another country, the CIA had very little influence over how prisoners were treated and whether they were ultimately released.

The U.S. government should disclose the identities, fate, and current whereabouts of all persons detained by the CIA or rendered to foreign custody by the CIA since 2001. Those who ordered renditions should be prosecuted. And the special task force should recommend, and Obama should agree to, an end to all renditions.

Leahy Talks To White House About Investigating Bush

Leahy Talks To White House About Investigating Bush

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Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy and White House Chief Counsel Greg Craig discussed on Tuesday the Senator's proposal to set up a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate potential crimes of the Bush administration.

"I went over some of the parameters of it and they were well aware at the White House of what I'm talking about," Leahy told the Huffington Post. "And we just agreed to talk further."

The dialogue between the Vermont Democrat and the president's office is a new phase in a delicate process concerning how best to handle potential crimes in the previous White House. Leahy proposed an investigatory commission on Monday, after which the president -- speaking at his first news conference -- said he did not currently have an opinion on the plan. Obama went on to say that he would rather look forward than backward, but he promised to prosecute any crime -- whether committed was a former White House official or everyday citizen.

Asked about the President's response, Leahy said that he believed the White House was right to maintain its focus on economic matters at this moment. "But I do intend to follow up and talk with him about this," he said. "I'm not wedded to any part of the plan so long as we get all the facts out. I would hate to see us take the attitude that that was then and this is now, let's not worry about any of the mistakes or the abuse of the law and give it a pass ... because it is my experience that you continue to make mistakes until somebody calls you on it."

Leahy did add an important ripple to the story in the interview with the Huffington Post: Congress will likely proceed with investigations regardless of whether Obama is on board.

"Oh yeah," Leahy said when asked if he would go forward without Obama's endorsement. "I think the Senate and the Congress as whole has an oversight responsibility that has to be carried out here anyway. Now it is much easier with the cooperation of the administration. A lot of things with the subpoenas I issued the past few years, we got a lot of information but a lot of it was held back."

This path could create a curious situation for the Obama team, in which the president has committed his administration to prosecuting illegality and the Congress provides the evidence of such.

"What I would much rather see is to see us working together," said Leahy. "We have a common interest, both the Congress and the administration to get this thing worked out ... In this instance, this is so important that our common interest is to get the truth out."