NAFTA EXPANSION PROCEEDS. The US Trade Representative's office has spent several years working behind closed doors to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement to cover the rest of Latin America. Now President Bush has embraced the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) as a top priority of his new administration, according to Global Trade Watch. Officials reportedly hope to have the pact ready for a Summit of the Americas scheduled for Quebec City April 17-21. Based on the seven-year experience of NAFTA, Global Trade Watch said, FTAA likely would result in more challenges of laws and regulations that protect public and workplace health, safety and the environment; it would push for privatization and corporate control of education, water utilities and other essential services; and it would continue the "race-to-the-bottom" where multinational corporations cut living-wage union jobs in the US and relocate in Latin America, where they can avoid labor laws and unions, and exploit sweatshop workers instead.
The main reservations that business lobbyists and the Bush administration may have with trade deals the Clinton Administration have been negotiating are provisions that protect labor laws or environmental standards. Business groups and Republican lawmakers argue that labor and environmental standards antagonize other countries, but unions and environmental advocates say those clauses are needed to stop US companies from exploiting cheap labor or pushing to relax pollution controls in other countries.
Global Trade Watch is recommending that people write their senators and members of Congress to ask about this "sneak attack on democracy, labor and human rights standards, the environment, and public health and safety." Write the White House and the US Trade Representative to demand that they open the FTAA negotiations process to the public and release the draft text and related documents immediately. Also, write letters to the editor of your hometown newspaper, call in to talk radio shows and encourage local fair trade, labor and human rights, environmental and economic justice groups to get involved in the FTAA/NAFTA expansion campaign of inquiry. For more information and sample letters see Global Trade Watch at www.citizen.org or phone 202-546-4996.
WELLSTONE SEEKS THIRD TERM. Declaring that "so much has changed and so much is at stake," US Sen. Paul Wellstone said Jan. 17 that he will seek a third term in 2002, despite his repeated pledge to serve only two terms. The Minnesota Democrat said that Republican control of the White House and Congress, including the first 50-50 split in the US Senate since 1881, will produce a "direct assault" on environment and workplace protections, abortion rights, Social Security and on health and education programs for middle-and low-income Americans, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Now is not the time for me to walk away from this fight," Wellstone said, adding that supporters in the DFL Party and other interest groups had been pleading for him to run.
R'S TARGET CLINTON ORDERS. Democrats may have to mobilize to stop the Republicans from dismantling many of the Clinton administration's executive initiatives, particularly those protecting the environment. The Washington Post reported Jan. 4 that Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah), the new chairman of the House Resources Committee, wrote Bush and Vice President-Select Cheney on Dec. 27 that he hoped to work with them to reverse Clinton's executive orders on everything from a ban on snowmobile use in some national parks to removing some of the national monument designations the president had given public lands in recent years. Hansen also proposed blocking new regulations that would limit hardrock mining -- which allows mining companies to operate on federal lands under extremely favorable conditions -- and rules limiting the number of air tours that can be conducted over the Grand Canyon and other national parks. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the committee, told the Post he was confident that a bipartisan group of Congress members will stop the Bush administration from enacting Hansen's proposals. "The largest bipartisan coalition in the Congress is for environmental protection. It was there under [former House speaker] Newt Gingrich, and it's there today."
Shortly after taking office Jan. 20, Bush issued an order that blocked some of the last-minute executive orders and rules laid down by Clinton, by stopping them from being printed in Federal Register, publication in which is required before rules can take effect. Bush's order was believed to apply to new regulations for managed care programs under Medicare and new environmental rules on runoff from animal feeding operations, according to Reuters. Bush also issued a 60-day stay on regulations that were published in the Register but have not yet taken effect. Some of the rules issued by Clinton in his last days in office angered Republicans, particularly his decision to declare nearly 60 million acres of federal land, mostly in the western states, off limits to logging. Such rules, which came after a lengthy federal review period, would appear to be extremely difficult to withdraw, however.
CAL POWER DEMAND IS DOWN. Demand for electricity during four of the past six months in California was lower than during the same period in 1999, indicating that California's power producers are misrepresenting the facts about energy demand to justify gouging the state's utilities, Public Citizen charged. An analysis of system hourly load data compiled by the California Independent System Operator shows that while demand soared in May, in four out of the past six months -- July, August, October and December -- California saw a lower peak demand than during the same months in 1999. With no increase in energy demand, a major contributor to the recent crisis is that plants servicing California with 11,000 megawatts of capacity have been taken out of service for a variety of reasons, most undisclosed. Now, Public Citizen said, power producers are inappropriately citing increased demand to justify building new plants, and they are hoping to speed the process by suspending California's environment-friendly standards and blocking the ability of communities to oppose new plants.
Public Citizen also noted that while California's two biggest utilities -- Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison (SCE) -- claim to have racked up $12 billion in losses from California losses so that they are facing bankruptcy, their parent companies have spent nearly $20 billion on power plants and other purchases over the past few months. Public Citizen criticized a plan by California Gov. Gray Davis to use the state's credit to buy electricity from power producers and sell it to the two utilities at cost. Rather than assume the utilities' financial risk, Public Citizen said, the state of California should purchase or seize electric generation plants from the owners currently manipulating prices. See Public Citizen's report at www.citizen.org.
UNIONS LOSE MEMBERS. The percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5%, its lowest point in six decades, due largely to the loss of 160,000 manufacturing jobs in 2000, labor leaders told the New York Times. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of union members declined by 200,000 last year to 16.3 million at a time the labor movement is straining to reverse the decline, according to the Jan. 21 Times. Union leaders had boasted of an apparent turnaround in 1999, when union membership climbed by 240,000, its largest increase in more than a decade. The unionization rate has fallen from its peak of 35% in the 1950s. Membership among private-sector workers fell to 9%, mainly in a handful of industries, including aircraft, steel and autos. Membership among government workers rose to 37.5%. About 9.1 million of the nation's union members work in the private sector, while 7.1 million are government workers. The AFL-CIO noted that membership was still up 150,000 from three years ago.
JAPAN: US CORN CONTAMINATED. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry of Japan says it has found traces of a genetically modified corn in samples shipped from the US to Japan, though the results were negative when the same samples were tested in the US, the New York Times reported Jan. 17. The different results are likely to renew concerns in Japan and in other parts of the world about US assurances that exports are free of StarLink, a genetically modified corn manufactured by Aventis. StarLink corn has not been approved for humans in the US or in many other nations because of concerns that it might cause allergic reactions.
FDA OK'S BIOTECH SECRETS. Food makers will not have to inform consumers if their products contain genetically engineered ingredients under the new policy of the Food and Drug Administration, announced Jan. 17. FDA also will allow gene-altered foods on the market without long-term safety tests for effects in the diet or the environment, according to Greenpeace. FDA sided with the biotech industry, which vehemently fights mandatory labeling of gene-altered food. A report by the Consumer Federation of America echoed Greenpeace's calls for mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered food. Labeling of genetically engineered foods is required throughout Europe, and in Japan, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. See www.greenpeaceusa.org.
COURT OKS SELF-INSPECTED MEAT. A federal judge Jan. 17 ruled that slaughterhouses can inspect their own meat products. Consumer advocates including Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project warned the ruling likely will result in consumers eating dirtier meat. The US District Court for the District of Columbia found that the US Department of Agriculture's newly revised pilot meat inspection program complies with applicable laws. The self-inspection program, which originally used only company "inspectors" to examine carcasses, was recently revised to require a token government inspector at the end of the slaughter line to observe tens of thousands of carcasses rapidly moving by each day. However, the inspector may not look inside carcasses, where much contamination resides. Under the prior inspection system, in place since 1906, beef, pork and poultry was inspected continuously during slaughter and processing by government inspectors who relied on sight, touch and smell to check for animal disease or fecal matter. See www.whistleblower.org.
FROSH CARE LESS ABOUT POLITICS. An annual survey of freshmen suggests that political engagement among first-year college students has reached an all-time low, even though it typically jumps in election years. Only 28.1% of entering college students reported an interest in "keeping up to date with political affairs," the lowest level since the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles started the survey in 1966, when the figure was 60.3%, the Jan. 26 Chronicle of Higher Education reported. While only 16.4% reported discussing politics, those doing volunteer work held steady at 81%, up 15 points from when the question was first asked, in 1989. For the fourth year in a row, the number of students who defined themselves as "liberal" or "far left" rose, to 27.7% -- up from 26% in 1999. The number of "conservative" or "far right" students has generally declined over the past four years, and currently stands at 20.3%. See www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri/heri.html.
GRANNY D TURNS 91. Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who walked across the US to draw up support for campaign finance reform, celebrates her 91st birthday on Jan. 24. She warmed up for the occasion by speaking January 20 at an inauguration protest with Michael Moore and others at Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. To send her a birthday greeting, write her c/o Route 2 Box 101. Peterborough, NH 03458. A check payable to the Alliance for Democracy, to help with her expenses, would be a nice touch, according to her website manager Dennis Burke (see www.grannyd.com). Watch for her book, Granny D: Walking Across America in My Ninetieth Year, from the Villard division of Random House. Bill Moyers wrote the introduction. And contact your members of Congress to support the revived McCain-Feingold bill to ban soft money.
McVEIGH SOUTHERN PARTISAN TOO? John Ashcroft had words of praise for Southern Partisan but at least he didn't wear the popular T-shirts sold by the neo-Confederate magazine celebrating the Lincoln assassination with a quote from John Wilkes Booth ("Sic Semper Tyrannis") on the front, and Jefferson's quote about liberty requiring "the blood of patriots and tyrants" on the back. At the time of his arrest Timothy McVeigh, convicted in the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, was wearing a T-shirt identical to the shirts sold by Southern Partisan, the Institute for Public Accuracy noted. See www.fair.org/press-releases/southern-partisan.html
CHECKOFF VOTE WAKES UP COMMODITY GROUPS. The vote by hog farmers to end the pork checkoff program, a mandatory assessment of 45 cents per $100 in hog sales, is a wake up call for mainstream farm and commodity groups to be more aggressive in stopping concentration in the food industry, the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) stated Jan. 15. The National Pork Producer's Council (NPPC), the major recipient of the checkoff funds, has stated that it will attempt to overturn the vote in court. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Land Stewardship Project (Minnesota), Missouri Rural Crisis Center and other grass roots groups organized a petition for recall of the mandatory checkoff three years ago. The effort began after investigative journalist Al Guebert disclosed that NPPC used checkoff funds to investigate groups working for family farm agriculture and against factory-style hog production.
The recent controversy over the pork checkoff is only one example of farmers' recent dissatisfaction with the mandatory commodity programs. For instance, cattle ranchers and feeders have petitioned the USDA to hold a similar vote on the beef checkoff. Some ranchers have gone as far as refusing to pay the checkoff, at the risk of court-imposed sanctions. "Instead of helping farmers, a significant portion of these funds have been used to sell producers on various programs leading to a more industrialized, factory style, and corporate controlled agriculture in which the producers interests, those who fund the checkoff, are not paramount," said OCM President Fred Stokes of Porterville, Miss. "Even with these efforts there is at least the perception of featherbedding, incompetence and abuse. If the pork checkoff vote does nothing else, it should warn these organizations that these perceptions exist, and that steps must be taken to get back in line with the grassroots." See www.competitivemarkets.com.
MINOR COLORADO PARTIES COOPERATE. Colorado's four minor political parties have agreed to combine their efforts and pool some of their limited resources to raise their visibility and get more of their candidates elected. During a meeting at the Denver Press Club on Jan. 13, about two dozen representatives from the Green, Libertarian, Natural Law and Reform Parties approved plans for a coalition of party leaders that would focus on mutually beneficial activities like trying to gain access to debates, sharing mailing lists and publishing a newsletter, the New York Times reported Jan. 14. Third parties in other states have informally discussed helping one another, but party leaders in Denver say they know of no other state where four of the country's larger minor parties have come together to address mutual problems. "We're not competing against one another," Ronald N. Forthofer, a Green Party candidate who won 4% of the vote in Colorado's 2nd Congressional District last November, told the group. "The real enemies are Republicans and Democrats. They're the ones who have gotten us into the mess we're in now. That's why we have to collaborate to build third parties."