High food prices push world to the brink

Food riots, millions of starving refugees fleeing war zones, and devastating droughts are pushing the world towards chaos. At a time of global economic crisis, the world’s poor have been hit with a triple whammy. While jobs have disappeared and commodity prices have crashed, food prices have continued to spike.

“For the first time in human history one out of every six people on the planet is going to bed hungry,” said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the $5 billion annual United Nations World Food Program.

“Over the past five years when food prices were going up, national (food) purchase budgets were not. That drew down the stocks, and they became dangerously low around the world.”

Combined with job losses, shrinking family incomes, trade deficits and plunging remittances sent to the poor from relatives abroad, increasingly unaffordable food prices are taking the world to the tipping point of what is sustainable, said the Rome-based Sheeran to the Toronto Star during a visit to Ottawa in early May.

Whatever happened to the capitalist ‘green revolution’ that was supposed to transform third world agriculture forty years ago? Clearly, it takes more than a limited application of fertilizer and machines to overcome huge concentrations of land ownership, to defeat the power of transnational corporations that dominate world commerce, promote expensive genetically modified seeds, and engage in ‘free trade’ surplus commodity dumping practices.

Just ask the debt-wracked, despairing farmers of India, where 1000 a month commit suicide — over 200,000 since 1997, according to the National Crime Records Bureau in India. -Barry Weisleder

A memorable May Day Celebration in Toronto

Scores of people crowded into the Free Times Cafe on Saturday, May 1 for the 23rd annual Toronto Socialist Action May Day celebration. The politics, the music, the diversity of the gathering fittingly fulfilled the theme “Solidarity Against the Crisis”.

As the world descends deeper into economic depression, defiant slogans urged an alternative to labour concessions: Nationalize the auto giants, the big banks and the big oil/gas companies under workers’ control! Create jobs for all through public ownership, democratic planning and a shorter work week without loss of pay or benefits. Convert industry, transportation, and homes to green energy efficiency. Fund health care, education and the arts, not imperialist wars of occupation. Hands off human rights and migrant labour. For a workers’ government. No to any NDP coalition with capitalist parties.

Speakers included: Jorge Soberon, Consul General of Cuba in Toronto, John Clarke, Organizer, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Anitta Satkunarajah, NGO relations co-ordinator, CanadianHART, Tamil community, Nchamah Miller of the Communist Party of Colombia,
Ali Mallah, Vice-President of the Canadian Arab Federation, member of CUPE, and V.P. (Alternate) of CLC, Niraj Joshi of the Toronto Haiti Action Committee, and Barry Weisleder, Socialist Action federal secretary. The event was chaired by Elizabeth Byce, federal Treasurer, NDP Socialist Caucus, and retired member of the Toronto Local, Canadian Union of Postal Workers.

Wonderful, world-class singers and musicians entertained the crowd. The performers included: Jon Brooks, 2008 Porcupine Winner ‘Mac Beattie Award’, 2007 Canadian Folk Music Award Nominee ‘Best Songwriter’; Marianne Girard, roots/alternative country singer-song writer who debuted selections from her new CD ‘Pirate Days’; Bill Heffernan, activist, teacher and song smith; Glen Hornblast, folk singer on the social justice scene; and Smokey Dymny, an IWW rebel troubadour. – Barry Weisleder

CAW concessions to Chrysler wipe out decades of gains

[by Barry Weisleder]

Thousands of Canadian Auto Workers’ Union (CAW) members at Chrysler plants in Toronto, Brampton, and Windsor, Ontario, approved another batch of labour concessions by 87 per cent on April 26.

Given the deluge of propaganda by big business media and politicians in favour of the rollbacks, it is surprising that as many as 13 per cent overall voted to reject it. Indeed, at Brampton, Ontario’s CAW Local 1285, 24 per cent of production-line workers who cast a ballot gave it a thumbs down.

The new deal delivers the cost savings of $19 per hour demanded by Chrysler and the federal Conservative government. Although no jobs and no new ‘green’ vehicle products are assured, and while Chrysler may still seek bankruptcy protection, the federal government pledges to give the company billions of dollars in aid.

The latest concessions wipe out decades of labour gains. They include reduced paid relief time, cuts to supplementary unemployment benefits, increased prescription drug fees, an end to semi-private hospital coverage, and the termination of car purchase and tuition rebate programmes. In addition, the wages of new employees will increase more slowly, and there is provision for the hiring of more part-time and contract workers at Chrysler plants.

These concessions occur on top of cuts already swallowed by the CAW at General Motors in a deal reached in March. That agreement freezes wages until 2012, reduces paid time off by 40 hours per year, scraps an annual $1700 bonus, cuts company contributions to union-sponsored programmes, and requires CAW members to pay $30 per month towards their health benefits.

Breaking from the pattern set with GM is a major departure for the CAW, which usually negotiates similar deals with all three of the Detroit-based auto firms. The CAW split from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers’ Union in late 1984 over the UAW’s contract concessions.

The race to the bottom is far from over. Now GM wants the same breaks Chrysler got. And bosses outside the auto industry are wetting their lips.

So, what’s a union to do? Avoid following the CAW example of late. Since before the global market crash last fall, CAW officials have lobbied for protectionist barriers against Asian car imports, and demanded more government money for the shrinking North American auto giants. To that end, the CAW backed the Liberal Party in most ridings in the last two federal elections.

Once regarded as ‘progressive’ and ‘militant’, the CAW tops have uttered not a peep about demanding public equity for public investment in the car companies, let alone call for nationalization of the auto industry under workers’ and community democratic control.

Socialists and rank and file workers should sound the alarm and generate a big fight for public ownership as the alternative to subsidizing the corporate elite – before union concessions descend to deeper depths.

Court rebukes Harper on Omar Khadr case

[by Barry Weisleder]

Federal Court Justice James O’Reilly ordered the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to seek the return of Canadian Omar Khadr from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Khadr has been held at Gitmo for nearly seven years, without trial, for allegedly killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan when Khadr was 15 years old.

Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Guantanamo military tribunal process under former U.S. President George Bush “constitutes a clear violation of fundamental human rights.” The U.S. Supreme Court made a similar ruling. U.S. President Barack Obama wants Guantanamo shut down.

But Harper shrugged off the April 23 court order to request Khadr’s repatriation, and is pondering an appeal. Harper’s stonewalling comes on the heels of other actions that speak volumes about the character of the Conservative government and the P.M.

Those actions are: 1) A vicious repeat attack on civil liberties; 2) Cancellation of funding to an ethnic organization due to the antiwar views of its outspoken president; and 3) Blocking the visit of a popular British parliamentarian due to his opposition to foreign wars of occupation.

In the first place, the Conservatives are moving to restore Draconian police and court powers that existed under the Anti-Terrorism Act. The act expired in 2007 under a five-year sunset clause. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson plans to reinstate those powers, including preventive arrest for 72 hours of persons the authorities think are about to commit a terrorist act, and up to a year of detention if the person in question refuses to accept court-ordered restrictions on his freedom. ‘Investigative hearings’ that could force people to testify would be part of this law.

Holding people without charge, and compelling them to testify even if they incriminate themselves, are a gross violation of civil liberties. The previous law was allowed to terminate when it was apparent that it did not protect public safety, and that it only contributed to a climate of victimization in the service of a right-wing, pro-war agenda.

Pursuit of that agenda seems evident also in connection with the government’s decision to cut funding to the Canadian Arab Federation. CAF President Khaled Mouammar called Tory Immigration Minister Jason Kenney a “professional whore” after Kenney criticized the presence of Hezbollah and Hamas flags at anti-Israel rallies in Toronto. The Conservative government is renown for its uncritical support for apartheid Israel, including the recent Zionist state assault on Gaza that led to the massacre of over 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilians.

The Arab federation received a $447,297 contribution from Kenney’s department to operate a settlement program in Toronto for two years, teaching new immigrants language and job searching skills. Mouammar told the media that Kenney’s decision will hurt newcomers to Canada, not just Arabs. Arabs make up only 5 per cent of those who receive CAF’s settlement services, which Mouammar said were among the best in the Toronto area. Mouammar described Kenney’s decision is “vindictive” and accused him of promoting Islamophobia internationally.

“This government is anti-Arab and anti-Muslim,” he said, adding that the federal government has refused to meet with the Canadian Arab Federation or the Canadian Islamic Congress since Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power.

The third and most recent ugly outrage was the decision of the Canadian Border Services Agency to bar British MP George Galloway entry to Canada, where he was scheduled to speak in four cities. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney refused to use his powers to overturn the ban. He claims Galloway is barred, not due to his opposition to the wars of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but because of support for terrorism.

But Galloway, five times re-elected to Parliament, now leading the leftist RESPECT party, does not politically support Hammas, which Ottawa labels as terrorist. He only supports the right of the Palestinian people to elect to government the party of their choice, which happens to be the Hammas party. It won a majority of the seats in the Palestine Authority election of January 2006.

Even in the pages of the very right-wing National Post, writer John Ivison felt compelled to point out that if “the grounds for inadmissibility include acts of espionage, subversion or terrorism”, that “donating a fire engine, 12 ambulances, a fishing boat, trucks full of medicine, blankets, shoes and children’s toys to the people of Gaza hardly seems to fit the bill.”

Although the ham-fisted policy of the Tories gave Galloway’s anti-imperialist views a much bigger audience (his voice and image were transmitted via the internet to thousands of people at meetings in Canada, after a legal challenge failed to have Galloway admitted to Canada), Kenney’s position nonetheless sets a dangerous precedent.

Along with the other nasty initiatives, it seems to set the stage for a period of escalating censorship and repression that at least one wing of the Canadian ruling class deems necessary in order to curb dissent and protest as the economic crisis deepens. Where have we seen this picture before?

Bosses fire pregnant women workers

[by Barry Weisleder]

There is a disturbing surge in cases of pregnant women being fired by bosses, with the economic crisis cited as the excuse. The Ontario Human Rights Legal Support Centre, an independent agency funded by the province to provide free legal services to people experiencing discrimination, reports it is now receiving 10 to 15 calls a week on this issue. Nearly 50 years after Ontario enacted the Human Rights Code to prevent such discrimination, some bosses brazenly violate it.

Consuelo Rubio of the OHRLSC told the Toronto Star (April 24), “We actually have an e-mail from one employer saying, ‘Sorry, but with your little bundle, I don’t think we’ll be able to (re)hire you. We want a permanent solution.'” Most firings seem to occur soon after women announce they are pregnant, says Rubio. That puts women’s maternity leave benefits at risk, since to qualify for full benefits they must work 600 hours within the 52 weeks before filing.

This outrageous and illegal conduct extends to mistreatment of injured and disabled workers. The legal centre is investigating the case of a car parts plant in Peterborough, Ont., that laid off 18 unionized employees—all of whom had either claimed disability benefits or were on modified work assignments because of an injury—and hired 18 ‘healthy’ workers.

The truth is, the best remedy for bad bosses and capitalist economic depression is the same—and it isn’t more lawyers.

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