“Change to Win” May Do Just That

In my earlier post I expressed the fear that the formation of the new Change to Win labor coalition might split the labor movement so much that in its already weak state it would fragment. It’s impossible to predict one way or the other, but I’m slowly coming around to a more hopeful view and I’ll give my reasons below. First of all, I should re-emphasize that I am somewhat naive and untutored on the US labor movement. But I do believe that an anti-corporate, internationalist domestic polity based on solidarity is a necessary condition for a world order that respects human rights and true democracy, not to mention produces a just and equitable society. The Change to Win coalition promotes this kind of polity, in an institutional setting in which millions of US workers are engaged. That alone should garner the support (or at least the interest) of US progressives.

But of course the real question is: While the coalition works towards building “a movement for working people that can confront and restrain corporate power in both the workplace and the community,” (from the coalition’s Constitution) and ensuring “that global corporations respect [international] workers’ freedom to form unions and negotiate agreements that raise living standards toward their highest level”; and while the coalition works towards ending “Wal-Martization” (“a global phenomenon” for which “a global approach is required,” according to the group’s manifesto)– will the coalition be contributing to the breakup of the already weak US labor movement?

Some say yes, and I focused on that side of things in my previous post. My particular fear came from the statement by Business Week that “a split in the labor movement would be a boon to corporate America.” Clearly, this is a true statement. But I allowed myself to see through corporate eyes, which perceived that trying something different will lead to a split in the movement. This might not be the case at all.

Jonathan Tasini, who operates the Working Life website says that the media are interpreting the formation of the new coalition as a “split” perhaps prematurely and in general are not asking the right questions.

[N]ot a single reporter asked about any of the organizing plans the new coalition has afoot. The answer might have been–we’re still working on that. But, heck, ask the question. Because the media rarely spends this much energy on labor issues, consumers of the information have no context in which to understand the complexities of how the labor movement operates (or doesn’t operate).

Those making the most of the potential split are “16th Street [AFL-CIO headquarters]…, …a small circle of labor leaders and activists, and…the press.” Tasini proposes the following scenario:

[What if] the Change To Win Coalition actually is able to try some interesting campaigns or projects. Maybe one or more unions leaves the AFL-CIO and the coalition evolves into a new umbrella. It should, then, be judged on its success or failure. If it succeeds, workers have more power. If it fails, it goes away or becomes irrelevant. End of story.

Sound worth a try to me.

And it’s not so clear to me that the business community is rubbing its hands with glee at the new coalition’s founding. Tasini published a memo by union-busting law firm Morgan Lewis that warns its clients

It is now likely that next month’s [AFL-CIO] convention will be a watershed event. The Change To Win Coalition unions say they are planning to submit a series of resolutions and constitutional amendments designed to create a labor movement of “real power and true strength” for employees…

What happens next will begin to define the future of the labor movement, and could significantly impact employers. If the Coalition’s members follow through on their threats to disaffiliate from the Federation later this year, employers can expect an increased interest in union organizing. This could be especially true for the nation’s largest non-union employers [read: Walmart]. For employers with existing unionized workforces, this means increased pressure to execute some form of neutrality and card-check recognition agreement. For employers with unions from both competing factions at their facilities, competition for better wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment is likely… The last several years also have seen a significant increase in the amount of collaboration between U.S.-based unions and their international counterparts. That collaboration could increase significantly. Finally, more union mergers should be forthcoming.

This is encouraging. What is also encouraging is that this movement to reform or leave AFL-CIO is being led by the SEIU, a union which has had incredible success in recent years, particularly in my home state of California. While overall US union membership has decreased from 35% of the workforce in the 1950s to about 10% today, the SEIU has tripled its membership in the past 25 years. Monday’s LA Times, gave a brief overview of some of the SEIU’s successes. For example, the well-known Justice for Janitors grassroots organizing and solidarity campaign which brought together thousands of poor workers to fight for their rights.

Since taking to the streets of Los Angeles with massive protests in the mid-1990s, …Local 1877 has grown to represent 28,000 janitors throughout the state [of California]. Most have won substantial raises and fully paid family health insurance under new contracts.

Similar campaigns have been waged for workers in hospitals, nursing homes, building security, commercial laundries and tourism — all areas that are likely to expand in the service economy.

Each one started with a carefully considered game plan that examined the strengths and weaknesses of entire industries and the major players in them. The unions then looked for ways to help cooperative employers while pressuring those who resisted in every way they could — working with political and community allies behind the scenes, staging attention-getting public protests, contacting customers and suppliers of targeted employers, running boycotts and sometimes launching well-financed strikes.

The goal typically was to win an agreement from employers to not fight the union’s attempt to sign up members.

Not all efforts have panned out. Faced with rising healthcare costs and intense competitive pressures, and convinced that a union would only add to their burdens, many employers are determined to keep organizers out.

But the campaigns that have succeeded prove that organized labor can grow even in a tough political and economic environment…

It’s possible that the new coalition may succeed where the ponderous AFL-CIO has failed. Rather than splintering unionized employees into two increasingly powerless and adversarial camps, maybe the formation of the new coalition will force the AFL-CIO to change to stay afloat. Regardless, the SEIU has already shown that it can increase the quantity of union members, improve the democratic and grassroots quality of union activism, and build solidarity across borders. These elements of the Change to Win manifesto are prerequisites for a better society at home and a dismantling of the US corporate-imperial juggernaut abroad.

The “Invisible Hand” of the Market

The Financial Times was recently caught purveying a new kind of advertisement on its web site — invisible ads! (New York Times, Alternate Link) The ads consisted of links to other commercial sites, printed in white on a white background. Harmless you might think, but think again. The ads aren’t for human visitors to the sites, but for web search engine programs like Google that travel the web and rank some pages by (among other things) the number of external links to them by “trusted sites” like the FT.

Ken McGaffin, in an article on how he discovered the FT’s hidden links, explained:

Google will regard a site such as FT.com as a trusted authority and any site that FT.com links to will get a significant boost to its ranking. The site will move towards the top of search engine results, bringing more visitors and more lucrative business as a result.

So the FT was servicing its advertisers by building up the likelihood that web searches would pull up their sites, which violates Google’s “quality guidelines.” The Financial Times pleaded ignorance. A spokesperson for the newspaper said (New York Times):

the invisibility had been a matter of aesthetics. “They just didn’t want to clog up the real estate with an overt link,” she said. “As soon as we figured out it was something we weren’t supposed to do, we took it right down immediately.”

I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether or not to believe this.

McGaffin runs a “link building and online marketing service,” LinkingMatters.com, which helps companies make money off of links. The company’s web site holds that

Link building should be at the heart of any online marketing campaign. Here’s why:

  1. Links drive qualified traffic to your site.
  2. Links improve your search engine rankings.
  3. Links establish your market position.

Apparently the Financial Times took this advice to heart, but in a way that the company McGaffin was consulting for decried as “unfair competition.” Consider it the “invisible hand” of the market…

Thanks to Angsuman Chakraborty for bringing my attention to this.

Khalilzad Targeted

Yesterday’s averted plot to kill US ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (Washington Post) shows that anti-US forces in Afghanistan (and in Pakistan, the alleged base of the assassins) are getting smarter. No longer are they targeting the puppet, Afghan president Hamid Karzai, but the man who holds the strings.

Still in confirmation hearings in the Senate for the post of Ambassador to Iraq, Khalilzad leaves behind a legacy of dirty dealings and democracy thwarting in Afghanistan. The New Standard has a nice profile of his career. In my April article I argued that a Khalilzad move to Iraq might be an attempt by Bush et al. to bring the country under control using uncharacteristic subtlety and diplomacy. If Khalilzad uses the same tactics that proved so useful to US power in Afghanistan, the country’s politics may look a lot more like those of Afghanistan when he’s done. A possible scenario, I wrote, is that he might “with one hand build up the Islamists until they are seen as more of a threat to the Iraqi people than the US military; with the other strengthen the US position with more moderate elements and justify its continued occupation.” Iraq doesn’t have entrenched fundamentalist warlords like Afghanistan yet, but it isn’t so unrealistic a thought anymore.

At the same time, in terms of public reaction to the US presence, Afghanistan is beginning to look a lot more like Iraq. Anti-US violence and demonstrations in Afghanistan have been increasing steadily in the run-up to the Parliamentary elections scheduled this October. Parts of the country look a lot like they did pre-9/11, with pieces of land being conquered by the Taliban, only to have it taken back by the US and the Afghan army (Reuters). Added to this are attacks on Afghans working with foreign agencies and on election workers. These elections are much more contentious than the presidential elections, since most warlords consoled themselves with the thought that they could form a nice legitimate “opposition party” (like the one run by second-place presidential candidate Yunus Qanooni) and strong-arm their way into parliament using local clout and threats. For more on the situation of political parties in Afghanistan, see “Political Parties in Afghanistan” by the International Crisis Group.

This reported in the Associated Press:

On Monday, U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts said foreign militants backed by networks channeling them money and arms had come into Afghanistan to try to subvert the elections. He said that for “operational security reasons” he could not identify the networks or who was backing them.

“Through our intelligence, working with the government of Afghanistan, we have identified outside influences coming in here to Afghanistan and trying to instill fear in this country,” he said at a news conference.

This reported by Voice of America:

U.S. military spokesman Colonel James Yonts, speaking in Kabul Monday, said foreign groups have been responsible for recent attacks in Afghanistan.

“There does exist proof of outside influences here in Afghanistan trying to establish a base…,” he said.

Obviously the Americans and the would-be Khalilzad assassins are on the same page – both are fighting “outside influence” in Afghanistan. As is usually the case, both seem to have forgotten the Afghan people.

New NASA Head Supports “Space Business”

Mike Griffin, the new administrator of NASA, recently made a candid admission of one of the most important unspoken purposes of NASA and other government agencies that fund science and technology research. That is, testing technologies, techniques, and theories risk free before they are given to corporations to make a profit.

(I work for a NASA-funded lab at Caltech, so technically Griffin is like the CEO of the company that employs me. I didn’t go to his talk, but read about it in Universe, the newspaper that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory distributes to its employees.)

Griffin told an audience of employees at JPL that “Government, including the federally funded research and development centers, exists to expand the range of what human beings know how to do.” This is certainly true in some cases, but other comments by Griffin make the case that, once public money is expended to figure out how to do new things, the natural home for the capability is private industry. Companies (called “contractors” by the government) could waste a lot of money developing new techniques, but

I don’t want a contractor doing something new and innovative that they probably don’t know how to do. I don’t want contractors losing money; that’s not healthy for the space business…[W]e take in tax dollars from the working public and try to turn it into good products for them. Federal dollars should be spent to acquire knowledge, technology, and processes that we do everything in our power to hand out to the rest of the public.

Obviously, NASA doesn’t just “hand out” technology to the “public” for free. Newly-developed technology can only be integrated into useful items by those with the means of production. So he really means research and development funded by “tax dollars from the working public” are used to develop “good products” that are “handed out” to corporations and wealthy individuals. The products can then be bought (again) by the “working public.” John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, was right when he said of Griffin, “The intersection between politics and the aerospace industry is territory he’s quite familiar with.”

No surprises here, just nice to see someone being this honest about the way the system works.

Divided they Stand…or Fall

The formation of a new coalition of 5 unions within the AFL-CIO looks like it may have serious consequences for the US labor movement. I admit to being out of my league when it comes to the politics of labor, but from what I’ve been reading, if the “Change to Win coalition” follows through with its threat to leave the AFL-CIO, it is probably not going to benefit US workers in the long run. Labor in the US is already so fragmented (unions represent about 12% of all workers, and 8% of those in the private sector) that a split of this size (the coalition represents about 35% of AFL-CIO membership) might precipitate further collapse.

In Los Angeles, labor would become extremely divided, according to the Los Angeles Times:

If a split indeed goes forward, the implications for local labor are huge. The dissident unions represent more than half the members of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, including thousands of militant, recently organized immigrant workers. The county federation, a local body of the AFL-CIO, would be financially crushed if it lost dues from those unions.

I still don’t feel I know enough about this to predict the implications for US progressive/antiwar/left movements. My first reaction was, this will shake up the stodgy AFL-CIO, whose national has been extremely compliant with Bush administration policy regarding the war in Iraq (although local branches, such as Philadelphia, have condemned it). One critic in the International Labor Communications Association noted that, during the election campaign last year, the union

had nothing to say to the millions of union voters who were deeply concerned about national security and had disturbing questions about what the Bush administration was doing in Iraq.

Some 5,000 union staff people were deployed to work full-time in the major battleground states, with instructions to stick to domestic issues. The unions distributed 32 million leaflets, but they contained not a word about the war or the problems of homeland security.

This is in marked contrast to the behavior of the SEIU, the largest union inside the AFL-CIO, and one of the members of the new Change to Win coalition. Last year, the SEIU called for the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

Unfortunately, the platform of the new coalition, like the AFL-CIO it is meant to influence, is also silent on Iraq. It does make some sensible points about lack of union membership being the key impediment to labor power in the US, and the need to put more resources into expanding the number of members. It also recommends that the AFL-CIO should work harder to coordinate between unions in the same sector “to deter the ‘race to the bottom’ caused by employers seeking to use one affiliate as a means of protection from another.” This includes ensuring “that global corporations respect workers’ freedom to form unions and negotiate agreements that raise living standards toward their highest level” and building “global labor unity to fight for trade agreements that improve labor, worker rights, and environmental standards.” The SEIU’s internationalist approach is at least evident in one respect.

A thorough analysis of the potential changes caused by a possible labor split would include an examination from the perspective of the owners and managers. Business Week paints a not-so-pleasant picture of the possible outcome:

A splintered labor movement would be a boon to Corporate America and the GOP. While unions continue to shrink as a share of the U.S. workforce, they still sign up hundreds of thousands of new members every year. Warring camps could undercut those efforts if unions raid each other for members, as officials on both sides threaten to do.

A breakup would also undermine labor’s vaunted political machine. Its ability to bring millions of union voters to the polls in recent elections has been one of Sweeney’s chief successes. Already the unhappy unions have demanded that the AFL-CIO remove their members from its master list of names, which has been crucial to labor’s mammoth get-out-the-vote election drives. Since labor typically swings Democratic, a division of the house would probably weaken opposition to President George W. Bush and other Republicans.

In refusing to mention Iraq in its last election drive, the AFL-CIO may already have “weakened opposition” to Bush et al. It is not clear that the new coalition will be any better in that regard.

What the Rich Get Out of Debt Relief

What do the rich gain from debt relief?

Not to say that it is bad that the wealthy nations of the world have agreed “to stop demanding payments from 18 of the poorest countries in Africa” (Under the Same Sun), but why did they do it? Why is Paul Wolfowitz on the same side of this issue as Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, the patron of Jubilee 2000? I can think of four reasons.

  1. Popular pressure/it looks good. The rich get to appease a popular movement that has gathered steam for over a decade and appear benificent at the same time.
  2. Subsidies to banking. It looks like part of the debt cancellation plan includes rich governments paying off the creditor institutions (IMF, World Bank, and the African Development Bank). According to the Financial Times,

    The agreement, covering $40bn (£22bn) of debts of 18 heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC) with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank, will cost rich countries $1.2bn a year for the next three years…As part of the weekend deal the industrialised nations promised more resources for the World Bank and African Development Bank for the next three years and made political commitments thereafter.

    This could be a quick way for the banks to get some cash up front, which of course will be re-loaned in due time.

  3. It gives the rich more leverage with the poor. An opinion piece in The Nation (Nairobi) by James Shikwati argues that both debt and debt relief are a kind of assertion of dominance of the poor by the rich.

    Each country is assigned a certain value, for instance, the industrialised counties have the highest value and the poor nations have the lowest value. With this approach, only the wealthy nations can salvage countries that have low value. To validate this argument, poor country elites are normally trained to believe in foreign support as the main way to get out of underdevelopment.

    (Shikwati runs the Inter-Region Economic Network, a group that promotes an interesting mix of neoliberal free market fundamentalism and anti-imperialism.)

  4. Coopting the popular movement. Since the anti-corporate globalization movement has been so successful in using odious debt to highlight financial domination of the poor by the rich, some neo-liberals think that eliminating the debt would take away a major propaganda crutch of the left. (As in, “we cancelled the debt, what more do you want?”)

    The weblog “Exploit the Worker” (this is the real title) by Jonathan Dingel has a very serious and thoughtful piece from the pro-capitalist perspective on why debt forgiveness should be “a free-market manifesto.” Dingel says that,

    Should market liberals fail to prioritize the issue of debt cancellation, anti-globalization activists will retain a powerful weapon in their arsenal, for the problem of indebtedness attracts many compassionate persons to their cause…Diffusing the anti-globalization movement by agreeing with them on common causes would be an excellent way to promote global welfare while preventing the anti-capitalist Left from doing economic damage.

What does the “anti-capitalist Left” want that might do “economic damage”? And who would suffer the damage? I leave it to my readers to figure that one out…

The Downing Street Memo and the Queen’s English

The “Downing Street Memo” confirming that the Bush administration was intent on invading Iraq as early as July 2002, 8 months before the actual invasion, is finally getting some coverage in the mainstream US media. The US self-censorship on the memo was so bad, according to the London Times, that “ombudsmen of The Washington Post, The New York Times and National Public Radio…have questioned the lack of attention the minutes have received from their organisations.” Most of the current coverage is inadequate; some of it is almost defensive. In the inadequate category, the Washington Post focused mostly on the memo’s revelations that the British thought the US was unprepared to take over Iraq, thus converting the issue into one about US imperial qualifications, not about the illegality of the war in the first place.

My favorite entry into the defensive category is the quibbling about the use of the term “fixed” in the following passage from the memo:

Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.

To many readers, this was taken to mean that the policy of removing “Saddam, through military action” came first, and the “intelligence and facts” were developed later, to fit the policy. The best detective work on the memo was done by Mark Danner, who summarizes the meaning of the above excerpt:

What the Downing Street memo confirms for the first time is that President Bush had decided, no later than July 2002, to “remove Saddam, through military action,” that war with Iraq was “inevitable” — and that what remained was simply to establish and develop the modalities of justification; that is, to come up with a means of “justifying” the war and “fixing” the “intelligence and facts…around the policy.” The great value of the discussion recounted in the memo, then, is to show, for the governments of both countries, a clear hierarchy of decision-making. By July 2002 at the latest, war had been decided on; the question at issue now was how to justify it — how to “fix,” as it were, what Blair will later call “the political context.”

But, there are some in the US who refuse to see this interpretation. Focusing on the term “fixed,” they argue that it should be interpreted, not as in the American meaning of “dishonestly adjusted” to a less incriminating “British” meaning. For example, Mark Memmott of Gannett News Service, quotes Robin Niblett of the Center for Strategic and International Studies as saying,

it would be easy for Americans to misunderstand the reference to intelligence being “fixed around” Iraq policy. “Fixed around” in British English means “bolted on” rather than altered to fit the policy.

A commentary in the Weekly Standard had a similar critique of the interpretation of “fixed”:

“Fix” here is clearly meant in its traditional sense, in the sort of English spoken by Oxbridge dons and MI6 directors–to make fast, to set in order, to arrange.

Blogger Kevin Aylward of wizbangblog.com criticizes the “overreach of the left,” saying, “Those pushing the Downing Street Memo have built their house of cards entirely on” the writing style of Matthew Rycroft, the Private Secretary who wrote the memo.

Clearly an understanding of …Rycroft’s writing style and contextual use of the word “fixed” might help shed light on the meeting notes and further the understanding of the meaning of that oddly worded line.

Aylward then digs up an email of Rycroft, in which is written, “This is now fixed for 0800 in John Scarlett’s office tomorrow morning,” referring to a scheduled appointment. Aylward concludes,

In the U.S. the word “set” would usually be used instead of “fixed.” It seems that Rycroft uses the word fixed, when talking about making something set. Rewriting the sentence with the word set takes a lot of air out of the sails of those pushing the memo.

Ignoring the fact that, like many of us, Rycroft may use a given word in different ways, it’s rather weak to think the meaning of one word could dismantle the wealth of evidence in the memo and elsewhere about the US intention to invade Iraq and the lack of justification. The London Times’s own estimation of the significance of the memo is a lot more in line with interpretation of the “overreaching” left. Michael Smith, who wrote about the memo when it was first released, published two pieces in today’s Sunday Times, “The Leak that Changed Minds on the Iraq War” and “Ministers Were Told of Need for Gulf War ‘Excuse’,” the first of which states that “Tony Blair committed Britain to war in Iraq months before parliament was consulted.” The paper simultaneously leaked an additional secret document today, a Cabinet Office Paper on the Conditions for Military Action, which contains “the damaging revelation that Bush and Blair agreed on regime change in April 2002 and then looked for a way to justify it,” according to Smith. The scenario put forward by this new leak, as well as Smith’s analysis of it, is very much in line with Mark Danner’s dissection. On “fixing” the facts to fit the policy, the leaked briefing paper states,

The US Government’s military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace. But, as yet, it lacks a political framework. In particular, little thought has been given to creating the political conditions for military action, or the aftermath and how to shape it…[I]t is necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action.

Danner had said that “the idea of UN inspectors was introduced not as a means to avoid war, as President Bush repeatedly assured Americans, but as a means to make war possible.” This squares with the briefing paper:

This leaves the route under the UNSC resolutions on weapons inspectors…We need to set a deadline, leading to an ultimatum…In practice, facing pressure of military action, Saddam is likely to admit weapons inspectors as a means of forestalling it. But once admitted, he would not allow them to operate freely….It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community. However, failing that (or an Iraqi attack) we would be most unlikely to achieve a legal base for military action by January 2003.

Smith reveals that, as the UK government worked hard on a legal justification for the “inevitable” invasion/regime change, along with a political scheme to make sense of it to the public, the US and UK were stepping up the bombing in Iraq that had been in progress since the original Gulf war. This explains a line in the original memo that the “US had already begun ‘spikes of activity’ to put pressure on the regime.” From Smith’s article today:

No bombs were dropped on southern Iraq in March 2002 but by July, with the “spikes of activity” in full flow, about 10 tons of bombs were being dropped a month. The problem was that the Iraqis didn’t retaliate. They didn’t provide the excuse Bush and Blair needed.

So at the end of August the allies started the air war anyway. The number of bombs dropped on southern Iraq shot up to 54.6 tons in September alone.

The authenticity of these figures is not in doubt. They were obtained from the government by parliamentary questions put by the Liberal Democrats so they are up on the Hansard website for all the internet bloggers to see.

They show that Bush and Blair began their war, not in March 2003 as most believed, but at the end of August 2002, six weeks before Bush received his congressional backing, and more than two months before the UN vote.

That is why the wave of public awareness sweeping America is so dangerous to Bush and why he has refused to answer a letter from 89 Democratic congressmen asking if the intelligence was “fixed” and precisely when he and Blair actually agreed to go to war.

According to Smith, “both Blair and Bush have a lot to apologise for.”

Debt Relief – Should We be Relieved?

The late breaking announcement that the US and UK have agreed on the cancellation of the debt for 18 mostly African countries should be seen as the successful culmination of years of activism. At the same time, it would be foolhardy not to see this as only a small piece of a larger struggle fought by democratic forces against the corporate imperialism of the United States and its allies.

The British government-sponsored Commission for Africa Report blames Africans for most of their problems: “internal factors have been the primary culprit for Africa’s economic stagnation or decline over the past three decades.” Then the report mentions that “external forces have been an important influence too,” including the debt “incurred by dictators…who were supported during the Cold War by the very countries now receiving debt repayment.”

The decision to cancel the debt should be publicized as an admission that the loans were never legitimate, but were given under “odious” circumstances. According to the Christian Science Monitor, “Since the United States has already persuaded other countries to forgive loans made to Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the logic goes, then debts made under other former dictatorships, from Nigeria to the Philippines, deserve similar treatment.”

“We are looking for 100 percent debt cancellation without conditions,” said Marie Clarke, national coordinator of Jubilee USA Network. When the rich aid the poor, however, it is never a case of “no conditions.” In a June 7 press conference with George W. Bush, Tony Blair made it clear that the debt relief package “is a two-way commitment” between “the African leadership” and its benefactors. “What we’re not going to do is waste our country’s money,” he said. Associated Press quotes him as adding, “It’s not a something-for-nothing deal.” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, “We believe that it’s very important that in return for getting this kind of assistance, this debt relief, that those countries need to be moving forward on good governance and transparency and rule of law, and promoting economic growth, free market policies.”

The main instrument that the US uses to enforce “free market policies” in Africa is the so-called “African Growth and Opportunity Act.” Any debt relief for African countries should be seen in the context of this piece of legislation. Among other things, the AGOA is a subtle push to weaken the African textile and apparel industries and force African countries to produce items which do not compete with those made in the US. The AGOA allows unlimited exports of textiles from Africa, provided they are made from fabrics and threads produced in the US, but the Act limits the amount of exports made from fabrics produced in Africa or elsewhere. African-made fabrics will not be allowed at all after 2008. And just in case the African industries get too successful, a “tariff snapback” allows the US to impose tariffs on African textiles “in the event that a surge in imports…causes serious damage or threat …to domestic [US] industry.”

AGOA came online under the Clinton administration, about 8 years before the 2005 expiration on WTO quotas on textile trade. This end of quotas makes it harder for African producers to compete with the mass production abilities of more advanced industries in China, India, and other Asian countries. The US Trade Representative’s 2005 report on AGOA insists that “AGOA-eligible countries must move beyond apparel and diversify their exports to maximize AGOA benefits by producing any of the over 6,000 products eligible for duty-free treatment.” The US is not only dictating economic policy for African nations, but what industries they should shift to.

Meanwhile, apparel manufacturers are cutting wages and firing workers in an effort to stay competitive . In the case of Kenya, according to the East African Standard, “relatively high wages coupled with high-energy costs, …have fast edged out Kenya from the lucrative US market.” This business perspective on Kenyan wages contrasts with the fact that, in the poorly-regulated “Export Processing Zones” set up under AGOA, workers earn as little as $2 a day. The Nation (Nairobi) noted in 2003 that “strikes by Export Processing Zones employees have raised questions about the Government’s stand on labour interests against the need to attract foreign investment.”

If current events are anything to go on, foreign investment is a much higher priority for the Kenyan government than labor interests. The following is from a press release of the Kenyan Association of Manufacturers (KAM):

“Now that the quota is no more, it is important to take steps to reduce the cost of doing business in Kenya by 20% to ensure that there are enough firms located in Kenya to attract buyers from the US,” asserts KAM chief executive, Ms. Betty Maina.

Singling out labour as the highest production cost, the sector is asking the government to freeze ceremonial wage increases announced on Labour Day and be allowed to introduce performance-based piece-rate wages…

The apparel manufacturers add that labour productivity is affected by unprogressive attitude of trade unions that promotes withholding of labour, under-performance and a tendency to seek increased payments through over-times without commensurate productivity.

The Kenyan government recently complied with KAM’s demand and rescinded its annual minimum wage increase:

the [apparel] sector received respite when the finance minister revealed the government has applied the brakes on the annual wage increment, which had threatened to drag the firms to their deathbed. [East African Standard]

In addition the Kenyan apparel sector recently cut 2000 jobs. If I were optimistic, I would hope that the debt relief would free up government money to restore the wage increase and the lost jobs. More realistically the money will probably be used to “reduce the cost of doing business in Kenya by 20%” and accomplish other “free market reforms.”

Heterosexual White Males and Pornography

We rarely see progressive activists, especially men, deal with the issue of pornography, but they should. One writer who has influenced me on this subject has been Robert Jensen, a friend and colleague who makes the case that pornography is not only sexist and subtly racist, but that it is damaging to heterosexual white males, the primary customers. By purchasing or renting pornography, you become “someone who is willing to buy women for sex, someone who sees sex as a commodity, someone who has traded his own humanity for an orgasm.”

Many men and women on the left respond to such critiques by saying that to denounce pornography is to belittle the choices made by the workers, the women who are filmed having sex, not respecting their decisions to enter into the business relationships they want to. But since when have we thought it necessary to restrain ourselves from critiquing an industry that exploits people, out of respect for workers’ choices? Sweatshop workers also have a degree of choice and agency, but solidarity work with them has always included an attack on the root of the problem: the industry itself and the customers that create a need for the product. Why should it be any different with pornography? (Bob Jensen has a good analysis of this.) The approach to sweatshops is obvious to leftists as a critique of the industry, not the workers. A left critique of pornography would follow much the same lines, unlike the standard right-wing critique of pornography, which targets the “loose morals” of the workers, not the industry.

Another writer who has done a lot of good work recently is Lucinda Marshall, whose blog on ZNet at one point had a heated debate on the subject of pornography. Some of the men who responded were verbally abusive, showing how personally men take the subject of their sexual behavior, and how their critiques of capitalist, racist, or sexist behavior often stop at the bedroom (or on the video screen).

People on the left who have illusions that the pornography industry is a bastion of free speech and source of potential anti-war allies should read “Hustling the Left” by Aura Bogado, a friend and colleague of my wife’s, and the anchor for Free Speech Radio News. This piece is Aura’s response to an ugly smear campaign by Hustler magazine, started when she asked the anti-war organization Not in Our Name (NION) to remove her from their email list after discovering they were working with Larry Flynt, Hustler’s publisher.

This should cause progressive activists to really think about why the endorsement of Flynt is worth having. He’s against the war in Iraq, but so is Zbigniew Brzezinski. Flynt’s main claim to left wing fame is his stand on the rights of free speech, but I would say free speech was not a leftist value, but rather a libertarian one, and is trumpeted by people on both the left and the right. “Democracy Now!” asked if Flynt was “The Country’s Greatest Defender of Free Speech or a Woman-Hating Pornographer?” Why can’t he be both? (Not that I would give him that much credit…) More importantly, Aura says, “if we build bridges with racists and sexists, we will burn bridges with women of color and others who oppose oppression at every level of class, race and gender.”

Hustler doesn’t just have degrading images of women in their magazine, now they’ve found a woman to be their regular punching bag. I have seen some of the anti-Aura cartoons that the magazine has produced (she describes some of them in her article), and they are chilling. Not only do they have implicit sexist, homophobic, and racist imagery, they target sexually Aura herself, all because she publicly criticized the magazine. Perhaps even worse was a series of photographs of women tied up with ropes from head to toe, in what looks like painful positions, attached to automobiles as “hood ornaments,” under the caption, “This One’s for You, Aura.” Is this an incitement of Hustler’s readers to commit violence against Aura?

Hustler’s rejoinder to Aura’s critique can be found on Larry Flynt’s web site larryflynt.com (I’m not linking it because I don’t want to drive traffic to the site). The intellectual caliber is quite low, actually. Aura and my wife Sonali Kolhatkar are denounced as part of a “cadre of Stalinists who have wormed their way into KPFK,” the radio station where both work. As Aura mentions, if we wanted to play that game, we could easily point to Flynt’s alliance with NION, an organization run mostly by the followers of another fascist dictator, Mao Tse Tung.

Aura’s criticism of Hustler in particular, and pornography in general, is referred to by the magazine’s editors as a “hate-addled, racist rant against Anglo heterosexual males.” Thus Aura is lumped with hate groups and white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-nazis; and pornographers like Hustler, all of which derive their existence and continued power from institutionalized racism and sexism. The last time I checked, there were zero institutional impediments to white heterosexual men living a life of their choosing. That is, unless they’re poor or disabled, in which case they face the same institutional barriers that all poor or disabled people experience, but without the added burdens of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

As a white heterosexual “Anglo” male I am not offended by Aura’s writings on Hustler. As far as I can tell, when she criticizes white males she is criticizing white people who benefit from racism, and men who benefit from sexism. This kind of critique is not racist or sexist, it’s institutional. And it’s necessary. And more white heterosexual males – we who derive privileges as a result of institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia – need to do it if we are truly interested in a world without domination.