Fair trade activists, farmers and labor unions delivered "wake-up calls" to the US Congress in January to demand that representatives break the silence around secret negotiations to create "NAFTA for the Americas." Formally called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the initiative proposes to expand NAFTA to all 35 countries in the western hemisphere, with the exception of Cuba. "We reminded Congress that FTAA is NAFTA all over again, and that we won't stand for sending living-wage jobs to union-busting sweatshops to save Big Business a buck, for endangering regulations that protect public health and safety and the environment, and the 'investor-to-state' rules that allow corporations to sue governments -- at taxpayer expense! -- anytime they feel that laws designed to protect people and communities limit their profit margins," Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch said.
A bipartisan group of 63 members of Congress have sent a letter to the White House, demanding that the US Trade Representative start consulting Congress about the negotiations, as required by the Constitution, and that the negotiations process be opened so that all documents on FTAA are available to the public. But George W. Bush is seeking "fast track" authority on trade deals and negotiators are going ahead with planned meetings this April on FTAA without input from citizens or elected representatives. Trade ministers and heads of state of the Western Hemisphere will hold their annual trade meeting in Buenos Aires on April 4, to be followed by the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in mid-April.
The AFL-CIO Executive Council on Feb. 14 called on union "members to make their voices heard in Quebec City as part of the international actions, and join in activities to 'Localize the Movement for Global Justice' in partnership with Jobs With Justice and other allies in communities across the country."
The labor federation and other fair trade activists fear that if negotiations continue along their current path, they will yield an agreement that further undermines workers' rights and environmental protections, exacerbates inequality in the hemisphere, and constrains the ability of governments to regulate in the interests of public health and the environment. Any hemispheric agreement must incorporate enforceable workers' rights and environmental standards; protection of the rights of countries to regulate the flow of speculative capital; debt relief for poor countries; public health as the highest priority in trade disputes; equitable market access rules; and a democratic process for the negotiation of the FTAA and for the implementation of any regional agreement.
Katherine Ozer of the National Family Farm Coalition, said family farmers oppose granting new fast-track authority, which is expected to come up in Congress before Bush submits FTAA. "A 'free-trade' export-driven policy has not worked for family farmers, whether in the United States, Canada or Mexico. Current farm policy lowers farm income for commodities and in turn lowers the prices for farm products around the world. The same corporate buyers of commodities -- whether in the US, Canada or Mexico -- have seen record profits during the past five years while family farmers in each of those three countries continue to go out of business."
Global Trade Watch appealed for those who want to stop NAFTA for the Americas to get a meeting with their Congress member when they come home. For talking points, sample letters and other information, see www.tradewatch.org.
Call your representative and senators at their district offices or through the Capitol Switchboard (202-224-3121) to ask them to commit to oppose "NAFTA for the Americas." Also, write a letter to the editor of your hometown newspaper. And let Global Trade Watch know what your representative or senators tell you about their positions. Phone 202- 546-4996 and ask for the Global Trade Watch field team, or email email@example.com.
Common Frontiers and the Réseau québécois sur l'intégration continentale (RQIC), representing two coalitions of labor unions, international cooperation organizations, environmental groups, research groups and other grassroots organizations, are organizing the Second Peoples' Summit of the Americas, to be held in Québec City from April 17 to 2. For information, see the People's Summit Website: www.peoplessummit.org or call Cassie Watters at Jobs with Justice, 617-524-8110
TAX GIVEAWAYS COULD PAY FOR SENIORS' MEDS. The Bush administration's proposed tax cuts aimed at the wealthy would drain Federal funding away from a comprehensive Medicare prescription-drug benefit for all seniors, according to a report produced by USAction and Citizens for Tax Justice. "Bad Policy, Bad Medicine" points out that Bush's plan would give the richest 1% of Americans $563,000 each over ten years, almost 43% of the total tax cut. The $774 billion tax giveaway for one million millionaires would deprive 39 million seniors of the Medicare prescription drug coverage they deserve, according to the report. "This is outrageous and irresponsible at a time when seniors are being ripped off by drug companies," said William McNary, president of USAction.
That amount, plus the ten-year cost of Bush's inadequate "Immediate Helping Hand" drug proposal, is more than enough to pay for a truly comprehensive Medicare prescription drug plan covering all seniors and having enough purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices. By contrast, Bush's drug proposal would cover only the 1% of Medicare beneficiaries who spend over $6,000 per year out of pocket. It also fails to address the high cost of prescription drugs.
The report is online at www.usaction.org.
SUBURBS HAZARDOUS. Americans consume only 100 more calories a day than they did 20 years ago. And, the amount of fat in our diet has dropped from 42% to 34%--about where it should be. So why are we so fat? Or, as a British newspaper recently put it, why are we "the fattest people on the planet"? You'll find the answer in the suburbs. "Such delicacies as the stuffed crust pizza and triple bacon cheeseburger have played their part," writes James Langton in the London Daily Telegraph, "but the main culprit for the ever-expanding American waistline seems to be the way modern suburbs are built." A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report finds that years of uncontrolled suburban sprawl built around cars has left us unable to walk anywhere. In their structure, most suburbs explicitly discourage walking. They have no sidewalks. The corner store has disappeared. Even the most ordinary purchase requires at least a three-to-five mile trip in the car. (Leif Utne, utne.com)
NURSE DERAILS GENETIC TESTING. Questions by a railroad laborer's wife caused the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. to suspend a genetic testing program on workers who claim their jobs gave them carpal tunnel syndrome, but not before the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission went to court to stop the railroad from subjecting the track laborer to a disciplinary hearing over why he refused the tests. The case of Gary Avary, 46, who complained of numbness in his hands from the use of an impact wrench, could lead to the first court test of the agency's 6-year-old position that the Americans With Disabilities Act protects workers from genetic discrimination, the Los Angeles Times reported Feb. 25. Three members of Congress have renewed an effort to outlaw the use of genetic information against people in the workplace or in obtaining health insurance. "Genetic testing is a real and frightening problem, and it is happening right now," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said when he reintroduced the Genetic Nondiscrimination in Health Insurance and Employment Act. "And the testing was being conducted by one of the largest railroads in the country."
FARM SALMON ESCAPE IN MAINE. A big storm in December rocked Maine's Machias Bay, buckling steel cages that held thousands of farm-raised fish and uprooting the pens' moorings, the Boston Globe reported Feb. 23. By the storm's end, conservationists' worst fear for this burgeoning industry had come true: More than 100,000 fish swam out of the pens into the wild -- the largest known escape of aquaculture fish in the eastern United States. Some of the young fish were quickly consumed by hungry seals. But an unknown number have the potential to severely weaken future generations of wild salmon in three Maine rivers. If the young fish make their way to the rivers when they get older, they may mate with the wild salmon. The conservation groups Atlantic Salmon Federation, Trout Unlimited, and Conservation Law Foundation called for a moratorium on new fish farms and an overhaul of the entire regulation system.
MONEY ACCOUNTS FOR BUSH HANDS-OFF CAL POWER. Nine power companies and a trade association that stand to gain the most from President Bush's hands-off policy in California contributed more than $4 million to Republican candidates and party committees during the last election, and some of the company heads have close personal ties to Bush, according to a new Public Citizen report. Three of the companies -- Enron, Reliant Energy and Dynegy -- are based in Texas and gave more than $1.5 million to Bush's campaign, his inauguration committee, and the Republican National Committee, which served, in effect, as an arm of the Bush presidential campaign. Two companies -- Enron and Reliant Energy -- are headed or steered by Kenneth Lay and James Baker III, both close Bush advisors.
According to the report, the contributions and personal relationships could explain why the Bush administration refused requests by bipartisan groups of eight western governors and 20 members of the California congressional delegation to intervene in the California and regional power crisis, and cap wholesale electricity prices. The companies and the association more than doubled their contributions in 1999-2000 compared to the last presidential cycles, as they pushed for deregulation in Congress and across the nation.
The Bush administration has the authority to intervene in the crisis through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which can impose "just and reasonable" wholesale prices, according to federal law. However, Bush has declined to call on FERC to act in the face of price-gouging by and skyrocketing profits of wholesale power companies. Recently, FERC imposed such price caps in the Northeastern United States.
Public Citizen's analysis is available on the Web at www.citizen.org. The top three contributing companies were Enron, Southern Company and Reliant Energy. The remaining seven entities are the Edison Electric Institute (an industry association), Williams Companies, Duke Energy, Arizona Public Service, Dynegy, AES Corp. and Calpine.
Under California's deregulation, the government could cap the rates utilities charged consumers but was not permitted to control the prices wholesalers charged the utilities. As a result, the utilities threatened to file for bankruptcy because they cannot charge customers enough to cover what they owe wholesalers.
The price of wholesale electricity in California was 276% higher last year than in 1999, and the top 10 sellers and marketers posted profits that were 54% higher in 2000 than in 1999, according to the companies' published financial reports.
Three of the Houston companies -- Enron, Reliant Energy and Dynegy -- reaped huge profits last year. According to company financial reports filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Enron posted a 42% increase in profits last year, while Reliant's profits rose 55% and Dynegy realized a whopping 210% profit. Profits for the other six companies ranged from 3% (Southern Company) to 240% (Calpine).
Meanwhile, a group of environmentalists, consumer groups and community activists on Feb. 21 called for California's elected officials to sever their financial ties with the energy companies that fund their campaigns and seize of the state's power plants by eminent domain.
SS RAIDS COLLEGE NEWSPAPER. The US Secret Service came down hard on a college student who wrote a satirical editorial asking Jesus to "smite" President Bush. The editorial was published Feb. 7 in the Stony Brook Press at the State University of New York campus in Stony Brook. Written by Glenn Given, 22, the managing editor, it was titled, "Editorial: Dear Jesus Christ, King of all Kings, All I ask is that you smite George W. Bush." It also asked Jesus to strike down Bush, his cabinet and MTV personality Carson Daly. The Feds were not amused as agents reportedly threatened Given's arrest when they showed up Feb. 14 to interrogate him. They had him sign waivers authorizing them to check his medical records, asked him to submit to a psychological evaluation, threatened to charge him with a crime and searched his apartment, according to a letter of protest sent to the Secret Service by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
"The editorial was clearly a form of satire and political hyperbole" in response to Bush's well-publicized devotion to Christianity, the letter said. "We believe it is inappropriate to harass a journalist, editor, writer or citizen for exercising his or her right to free speech."
Given said his work was "a piece of absurdity."
A Secret Service spokesman in Washington, Tony Ball, told the Dow Jones Newswires the agency had received the letter, but declined to discuss the case. "We take all threats seriously," Ball said. "We don't have the luxury to do otherwise."
UNIONS ARE COOL. A poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc. for the AFL-CIO found that 51% of 462 potential union members said they definitely or probably would vote against a union if an election was held tomorrow. But of workers under 35 years old, 53% would vote for a union. The result matches a similar poll from two years ago, the Wall Street Journal noted Feb. 20. For young workers, "unions are cool," says Andy Levin, an AFL-CIO organizing official, who cites turnout by pierced and tattooed 20-somethings at a recent Washington labor demonstration. Randel Johnson, a US Chamber of Commerce official, says it shows older workers, "the most experienced in the workplace, are less inclined to join a union."
PUBLIC CITIZEN: FDA LEGALIZED IRRADIATED FOOD EARLY. Public Citizen is urging Dr. Bernard Schwetz, acting commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, to deny all pending applications to "treat" food with ionizing radiation until new and up-to-date toxicology tests on irradiated food are performed. In legalizing irradiation, the FDA relied on tests from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Conducting modern tests is critical, because among the pending applications is a request from the food industry to irradiate ready-to-eat foods, which comprise more than one-third of the typical American's diet. Since 1983, the FDA has legalized the irradiation of numerous classes of food, including beef, poultry, pork, lamb, fruit, vegetables, eggs, juice and spices -- at the equivalent radiation dose ranging from 33 million to 1 billion chest X-rays. Public Citizen has detailed its research in the recent report, "A Broken Record," which is available at www.citizen.org.
HOG FARMERS WANT PORK CHECKOFF ENDED. Hog farmers of the Campaign for Family Farms (CFF) on Feb. 22 blasted new US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman for failing to complete the termination of the mandatory pork checkoff program, under which farmers are assessed a fee for every hog they sell. They charged that Veneman is letting the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and other checkoff-funded groups run her administration. They called on Veneman to publish the final rule terminating the checkoff tax, and demanded that she immediately fire Al Tank, NPPC's CEO who is serving on the Bush Administration's agriculture transition team. USDA is involved in a Michigan lawsuit that was initiated by NPPC after former Ag Secretary Dan Glickman announced on January 11 that hog farmers voted 53% to 47% last August and September to end the mandatory pork checkoff program. Collection of the checkoff was supposed to end no later than 30 days after the referendum results were announced. The US District Court in Michigan on Jan. 31 allowed USDA to issue a final rule terminating the program, but also set a preliminary injunction hearing for March 16. Mark McDowell, an Iowa hog farmer and member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said Veneman's inaction was costing hog farmers $1 million a week. "We don't support the pork checkoff tax. Veneman needs to terminate the program now," he said. "The pork checkoff is a failed and unpopular tax, voted down by the majority of people who pay it. Read our lips, President Bush. Cut this tax," said Monica Kahout, a Minnesota hog farmer and member of the Land Stewardship Project.
PACIFICA THREATENS TO SUE CRITICS. Pacifica Foundation has said it will sue to force two groups embroiled in a controversy over the radio network to dismantle Web sites critical of Pacifica. A lawyer representing Pacifica sent letters last week to Friends of Free Speech Radio in California and WBAI Listener Network in New York, demanding that the two groups abandon the use of their domain names and relinquish all rights to those names by today, Feb. 19, or face legal action. Pacifica is claiming that the groups, which operate www.savepacifica.net and www.WBAI.net, are violating trademark laws. Representatives of the two groups have said they will not dismantle the sites. Public Citizen, a consumer organization which champions First Amendment rights on the Internet, will represent the groups if Pacifica sues.
The controversy stems from a conflict between Pacifica's management and station employees and members over the network's future. Management is viewed as seeking to sacrifice programming for profits, while employees and many community activists say they don't want to give up the progressive programming for which Pacifica is noted.
In its Feb. 14 letters, Pacifica Foundation attorney Tanya Vanderbilt, of Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. in Washington, D.C., claims that the use of the Web site domain names is a trademark infringement, could confuse people who go to the Web to look for Pacifica's site and restricts Pacifica from conducting business on the Internet under its own name.
But Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen Litigation Group who has represented people in several similar cases, said Pacifica's threats would not hold up in court. Trademark infringement occurs when a company's name is used in a misleading way to profit from consumer confusion about whether the company has sponsored the message, he said. This clearly didn't apply in this case, because both sites are clearly non-commercial, he said.
In a similar recent case, Public Citizen represented an airline passenger who was so upset about how Alitalia handled his lost luggage complaint that he launched a Web site entitled www.alitaliasucks.com. The airline sued for trademark infringement, among other things, but dropped the suit shortly after a judge demanded that a top company official, such as the president, come to court to explain why the company brought the case.
RICH DEFEND ESTATE TAX. Responding to a Feb. 14 New York Times article about wealthy business and philanthropic leaders opposed to estate tax repeal, led by William H. Gates, Sr, over 200 wealthy people have signed on to Responsible Wealth's "Call to Preserve the Estate Tax," bringing the total to over 320 signers. New signers include Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems; Paul Newman; Norman Lear; Julian Robertson, Jr., founder of the Tiger Fund; former Sen. Frank Lautenberg; Terrance and Judith Paul, founders of Renaissance Learning, Inc.; and Frank Greenberg, retired Chairman and CEO of Burlington Industries.
Responsible Wealth is a national network of businesspeople, investors and affluent Americans concerned about deepening economic inequality and advocating widespread prosperity. For more information, see www.responsiblewealth.org.
CASTRO OFFERS MEDICAL TRAINING FOR AMERICANS. Fidel Castro has offered six years of free medical education and training in Cuba to hundreds of low-income minority students from the United States, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported Feb. 16. The offer was welcomed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus who helped arrange the deal, but is being greeted more skeptically by some American medical educators. The Cuban leader extended the invitation after a meeting last year with members of the legislative caucus. He said that if the lawmakers could recruit some students, he'd provide their education for free.
Students, who must be high-school graduates under the age of 26, would have to agree to return to their communities to practice medicine. In addition to medical education and training, they would receive free meals, housing, and textbooks in Cuba. American Medical Association officials have raised concerns about the quality of education and training the students would receive, and whether they would have a tougher time getting licensed when they returned to the United States.
Fernando Garcia Bielsa, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section, which represents Cuban diplomats in Washington, said the offer was "a goodwill gesture" from a country that has too many physicians and regularly sends medical assistance to impoverished areas of the world. "Ours is a poor country without a lot of resources, but this is one way we can help other people," he said.
ASHCROFT FIGHT BRINGS NASTY COUNTERATTACK. Throughout Senate hearings on the nomination of John Ashcroft for Attorney General, Ashcroft's right-wing defenders decried what they claimed were unfair attacks. Opposition to Ashcroft by People For the American Way and other groups based on public documents from Ashcroft's long record as a public official was termed "a campaign of lies and misinformation," "smears," and "anti-religious bigotry," and the groups and individuals presenting the facts were called "racist" and "demagogic." Utah Senator Orrin Hatch called the battle over Ashcroft's nomination "[O]ne of the worst cases of 'Onward Trashing Soldiers' I've ever seen." Meanwhile, Religious Right groups like Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) and leaders like Pat Robertson showed themselves to be the true masters of the "politics of personal destruction."
Well-known conservative William Buckley went so far as to call People For the American Way an "un-American" organization and columnist Charley Reese wrote that "People for the American Way [is] a misnomer if there ever was one. Sleaze In, Christianity Out would be a better name." Pat Robertson, on his television program, The 700 Club, remarked, "People For the American Way were founded by the creator of Archie Bunker. Do we want Archie Bunker determining what the United States Senate votes for?"
The charge that opponents of Ashcroft's confirmation were motivated by religious bigotry was repeated by many of his right-wing defenders. Senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) addressed the issue in an op-ed, saying, "Opposition to Ashcroft's nomination does not imply concern about his deep faith. It is possible for moderates to respect and even admire his religious devotion--I do--and still be alarmed by his secular views and the consequences of their implementation."
Tied to the "religious profiling" charges leveled against adversaries of Ashcroft's confirmation were allegations that it was only the "extreme" left that had concerns about Ashcroft's confirmation.
Conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote, "It is something to behold, this collection of extremists, bullies, and character assassins that has lined up to destroy John Ashcroft's reputation."
Richard Lessner of American Renewal alleged that opposition to Ashcroft was delaying a Senate vote on his nomination "to give the extremist organizations on the far left more opportunity to pound on him and to come up with baseless allegations and trumped up charges and all kinds of demagogic attacks on him."
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union called Ashcroft opponents a "band of terrorists."
Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition lashed out at Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee, saying, "The hostile anti-Ashcroft statements made by Senators Feingold, Schumer, Leahy and Kennedy, showed that they have little understanding of our nation's Christian heritage-or an appreciation of how badly our nation needs godly men and women in government."
American Enterprise Institute fellow Michael Novak asserted that "Extremist liberals seem to have a special hostility toward evangelical Christians. The religious bigotry among the extremist liberals assaulting John Ashcroft is now visible to all, their lack of respect for his faith tradition, their desire to shackle the conscience of John Ashcroft as they would not tolerate the shackling of their own."
Concerned Women for America put out a press release that included the charge: "With Sen. Ashcroft's impeccable record and character, liberal extremists' real objection is shown in their unified disgust for people of Christian faith."