Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine flu outbreak raises wider questions

The death of a 23-month-old toddler in Texas yesterday was the first U.S. death in the swine flu outbreak that has killed 159 people in Mexico so far. It adds to the mounting worry here and abroad about the spread of this potentially deadly virus. It also raises many questions about the sustainability of food production on the corporate model.

But predictably, the ultra-right in the U.S. is trying to hijack the issue for its racist and anti-immigrant agenda.

The first appearance of the new virus strain, with genetic elements from human, swine and avian flu varieties, was reportedly in a 5-year-old boy in the village of La Gloria near the town of Perote, in Veracruz state, Mexico, in March. Public health officials say that although many people in La Gloria at that time were suffering from flu-like symptoms, only the 5-year-old child had the new swine flu variety, among those tested.

Outsiders tend to associate Veracruz state with lush vegetation, lively harp music and steamy beaches. But the Perote area is actually inland, up on the high central plateau, and is cool and dry. Many area residents make a very long commute to Mexico City to work. So if the current outbreak started in La Gloria, it could have quickly spread to Mexico City.

The dry climate creates a problem of windblown dust, which is also a big problem in Mexico City, much of which sits on an old lakebed. This is hard on respiratory systems, weakening their defenses against infection. But it also creates a danger of viral infections when dried fecal matter mixes with the dust and is inhaled (A few years ago there were a number of deaths in the Southwestern U.S. from hantavirus, spread via dried wild rodent feces).

Smithfield, hogs and health

La Gloria is next to a major pig raising and pork production operation, consisting of 16 farms run by Granjas Carroll (Carroll Farms), which is half owned by the giant Smithfield agribusiness corporation based in Virginia. For some time, residents of the area have been protesting what they say are unsanitary conditions caused by the way that Granjas Carroll keeps its pigs and disposes of pig fecal waste. Not only are there unbearable smells, residents say, but the vast amounts of pig excrement in open, inadequately lined pits have created massive swarms of flies which bedevil the inhabitants, who blame them for health problems.

For its part, Smithfield/Granjas Carroll denies any relationship between the flu outbreak and its operations, and claims that it keeps its pigs healthy and vaccinated and follows proper rules for waste disposal. It has also sued five leaders of local protests for defamation. But the people of La Gloria are not convinced.

Many people in the U.S. can relate to the complaints about the way pork is produced, and about Smithfield specifically. In Virginia and North Carolina, where Smithfield has had major operations, and in other areas of the country where other corporations have large pig farms, complaints about odor and public health dangers have arisen time and again. In 1997, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million for water pollution caused by its methods of disposing of pig waste. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit Eastern North Carolina, causing massive overflows of ponds owned by Smithfield subcontractors, flushing vast amounts of dangerous waste into the waterways and killing millions of fish.

These complaints by local residents and environmentalists coincide with serious labor troubles in pork production operations, for example at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, N.C., where Smithfield pulled out all stops to prevent workers from being organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. In addition, animal rights activists denounce the brutal way in which pigs are kept practically immobile in company pens.

Industrial animal factories

Smithfield says it has cleaned up the problems, but there is a larger issue, namely the danger created by modern methods of raising pigs, chickens, turkeys and other animals for mass consumption. When you have such large animal populations crammed into relatively small spaces (with the resultant stress weakening their resistance to infection), it creates a danger of incubating viruses on a vast scale. That in turn increases the possibility of mutations dangerous to humans — the more the virus breeds and spreads, the higher the probability of mutations.

We have seen this before.

The 1919 flu epidemic which killed 50 million people probably started in poultry. The SARS scare of 2003 may have had its origin among masked palm civets, wild carnivores that are eaten in China and were being kept in large numbers in unsanitary conditions in food markets. The bird flu or avian flu virus, H5N1, is a source of serious worry to public health officials worldwide, because of its potential for mutating in domestic poultry populations and then jumping into the human population. Massive research and bird vaccination efforts have been mounted all over the world to stave off this potential disaster.

Inadequate public health systems

Another issue that the current outbreak raises is the inadequacy of public health systems in poorer countries.

In Mexico, there are already criticisms of the speed with which the government responded. Evidently the Mexican ministry of health had to send its samples to a Canadian laboratory for analysis, which took an extra week. It boggles the mind to think of what epidemics could come out of countries that have even more ramshackle public health systems and even worse living conditions.

But we in the United States are in no position to gloat.

The Centers for Disease Control did not realize the danger until six days after Mexico began to take emergency measures. If an outbreak on the scale of the one in Mexico happens here, how will we cope? Millions of people in the United States have no health insurance and are likely to delay seeking health care when they feel sick, simply because even a short stay in the hospital may mean financial ruin.

And if everybody who got sick in such an epidemic were to seek medical attention, would there be enough doctors, nurses, clinics, hospitals and medications to go around? Moreover, Republicans in Congress demanded and got the removal of $900 million for preventing epidemics from the recently passed stimulus package, considering it a sort of “pork” (ahem!). Many Democrats went along.

Right-wing diatribes

The foaming-at-the- mouth crowed on cable TV and talk radio immediately launched into massive diatribes against Mexico and Mexican people. Some of these comments have been gathered on the useful web site of “Media Matters for America," http://mediamatters .org.

Right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin, for instance, was quick to blame the relatively small number of cases reported in the U.S. so far on “illegal immigration,” in spite of the fact that the cases in New York, which are most numerous so far, were found to have started with private school students returning from spring break in Cancun. Others called for a complete cutoff of immigration and trade with Mexico.

Commenters on Internet articles on the flu outbreak have taken up the call, calling Mexicans cockroaches that should be exterminated by atomic bombs and even rejoicing at the deaths as being so many fewer “illegal aliens” who can now try to sneak into the United States and get on welfare. This increases the danger that psychologically unbalanced people will commit acts of violence against Latino people here.


The solution lies in a global program for sustainable and safe food production that avoids the brutal corporate model, plus the building up of public health resources worldwide and especially in the developing countries.

Every country should have up-to-date facilities for detecting and stopping pathogens the moment they appear, a capacity now blocked by the extremes of wealth and poverty among the world’s nations. This is in the interest of the people of the U.S. and other developed countries, as the present alarm clearly shows.

However, it will be fought tooth and nail by the corporate monopolies in food production, pharmaceuticals, etc., and their political flunkies.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Love your mother—Mother Earth

Reprinted from the People's Weekly World

Earth Day, April 22, is sandwiched between Tax Day, April 15, and Workers Memorial Day, April 28. Just around the corner is May Day, May 1, the international workers day and a day for flower baskets and maypoles. What do they all have in common?

An economy powered by two toxic pollutants: oil and corporate greed. Misplaced priorities that send more than half of our tax dollars to military spending that kills people, ruins lives, pollutes the planet and wrecks our economy. Damaging foreign policy driven by a quest to secure oil. Workers’ lives lost and health destroyed because of corporate greed. A system that puts profit before people and ravages the earth along the way. And the need for workers and people of the world to unite, to love and preserve our planet and to build a better world.

It’s clearer than ever that the present system can’t continue. It’s not sustainable, either economically or environmentally. Vast parts of our country are industrial wastelands —empty factories, mills, warehouses and storefronts testify to jobs gone forever. In too many places, military bases and industries, or prisons, are the best or only jobs around. Toxic “brownfields” and Superfund sites dot urban and rural landscapes. Open green space, family farms, woods and wetlands have been plowed under for wasteful exurban sprawl and industrial “parks” — many now sporting “for lease” and “foreclosure” signs. Industrial agriculture has brought degraded and tainted food, pollution and toxic working conditions.

Turning this around means getting our economic system in sync with Mother Nature — greening our economy. It means a massive national undertaking to invest in sustainable, non-polluting energy, industry and transportation systems; in well-planned, vibrant and sustainable “green” cities, towns and rural communities; in education, health care and culture to produce an informed and involved citizenry. Of course, that means putting people, and nature, before profits. This won’t happen without a fight.

Earth Day and May Day remind us to breathe the beauty of the flowers of spring and the roses of summer and struggle. “Love your mother” — planet Earth, and, in the words of labor organizer Mother Jones, “fight like hell for the living.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A first for N. America: A union contract at Wal-Mart

Canadian workers at the Wal-Mart store in Saint-Hyacinthe, Qu├ębec became the only Wal-Mart employees in North America to be covered by a union contract when an arbitrator April 8 ruled in their favor more than four years after they voted to certify the United Food and Commercial Workers as their union.

People in the labor movement are keeping a close eye on the situation since the retail giant has a history of continuing to fight unionization efforts even long after workers win a battle for union representation. The company has closed entire stores in order to avoid having to deal with unions.

Andrew Pelletier, vice president of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Canada said he couldn’t speculate on any store’s economic future, when asked about whether the Saint-Hyacinthe store would close. “We’ll have to see,” Pelletier said, “Our objective has always been to run a viable store in Saint-Hyacinthe.”

Pro-labor support groups are cheering the ruling in favor of the workers.

“We’re glad to see that these employees finally have a union contract,” said Meghan Scott, director of “They voted to be represented by a union, and that choice should be respected. After nearly four years of legal stalling by Wal-Mart, the employees at this store finally have a voice on the job.”

The support group is warning, however, that workers can expect Wal-Mart to resort to its usual anti-union tactics. “While this is a victory for the workers,” the group said, “it looks like Wal-Mart will use the same old dirty tricks to avoid treating the workers fairly.

“Wal-Mart has a history of simply shutting down stores when its workers win union representation.” The retail giant already shut down an auto shop in Gatineau and an entire store in Jonquiere when workers at those locations voted for union representation.

Union supporters believe that Pelletier’s comments leave open the door to a similar shut-down scenario in Saint-Hyacinthe.

Wake Up Walmart said, “Closing the store down would mean employees there would not just lose a rightful voice in the workplace, it would mean they’d lose their jobs. Walmart cannot be allowed to fire hundreds of employees because they voted for union representation.

“We hope Wal-Mart keeps the Saint-Hyacinthe store open and honors the contract with its workers. It is the right thing to do, and Wal-Mart has a responsibility to their employees. Firing hundreds of workers rather than allowing them a voice on the job would show a gross disregard for that responsibility.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Out of the Crisis: Building a new era of justice and peace


Welcome to everyone in Winston Unity Center and to everybody on line.

We are living in very turbulent times. The world is in transition. An old era — an era of neoliberalism, financialization and rightwing extremism — is fading away and a new era is being born.

But no one is quite sure what the new era will look like. It resists easy prediction. It is safe to say that the future of both our country and the world is still to be written.

As bad as things have been over the last three decades, few thought they could get much worse. But they have. Depression economics has entered our vocabulary not simply as a historical event, but as a lived experience for millions.

Only a short time ago most economists said the economic cycle had been tamed. In 2004, in a speech titled “The Great Moderation,” Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke said we live in an era in which macroeconomic instability has been eliminated.

Fast forward five years and the Great Moderation has turned into the Great Crisis. That which few thought would ever happen again has happened again, and without much warning.

The social fabric is rupturing. The terrain on which billions of people earn a living and raise their families feels foreign, even unrecognizable. Haven’t you heard more than one person say, “Is this the country I grew up in?”

Much the same is happening across the planet as billions try to adapt and give meaning to gut-wrenching shocks.

And yet while old certainties and markers are melting away and while no one really knows what tomorrow will bring, hundreds of millions of people haven’t given up on the future. As ominous as this moment feels, it is also a time when the parameters of the possible have expanded geometrically.

I hear warnings about a future of rightwing authoritarian regimes and even fascism. No one should rule out such scenarios, but in my view the arc of history is bending more towards justice and peace, towards respect for each other and the earth.

A future worthy of humankind is possible. Is there any reason to think that millions in motion can’t transform this country and world into the just, green, sustainable and peaceful “Promised Land” that Martin Luther King dreamed of? It would be a profound mistake to underestimate the progressive and socialist potential of this era. The American people have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity within their reach.

It will take, of course, new ideas and energy, practical activity, and arms that reach across the divides of race, gender, sexual preference, income, border, oceans, religions and generations.

And, above all, it will take united action. Broad objective forces and challenges will shape our future, but human actions and choices will decide humankind’s fate.

Had the elections turned out differently, I might be less hopeful and enthusiastic. But because of the outcome, a friend of labor and its allies sits in the White House and enjoys high approval ratings. Larger Democratic majorities control Congress. A feeling of renewal and hope is in the air. And after a short holiday pause, the labor and people’s movement that was so instrumental to the election’s outcome is getting in gear – albeit not yet at full throttle, but more about this later.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party is on the defensive, its grassroots constituency is dispirited, and its governing philosophy is discredited.

for complete speech