Oroville Dam: Another market driven disaster. Profits before People

By Richard Mellor - Facts For Working People, February 14, 2017

As is always the case, it is after terrible accidents happen that the public finds out details about what caused them. Most of the worst disasters, Katrina for example, are not freaks of nature but market driven disasters.

It appears we might have dodged a bullet here in California as the tallest dam in the US, the 770 foot Oroville dam, was in danger of rupture due to heavy rains. The lake behind the dam was overflowing and the water began to erode a part of the hillside that was a natural (unpaved) spillway. The danger is that if the erosion spread it could cause a rupture in the dam itself spilling billions of gallons of water in a 30-foot high wave downstream. Over the past weekend, evacuation orders were issued to 200,000 residents.

Now it comes to light that as far back as 2005, under Republican Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, environmental groups and some local government officials warned that the dam’s integrity could be jeopardized and “catastrophic flooding” could result if the natural hillside spillway wasn’t reinforced with concrete or huge boulders that we sometime see at these dam sites. This would help protect against erosion when the dam overflowed which is what we are witnessing now.

So were this catastrophe to have occurred (and the dam could still burst) and people killed, what would have been described as an accident is in actuality, a market driven disaster. I say this because what is happening here is nothing new-----it’s about money, the allocation of capital. The only time the working class gets to make a decision about allocation is when they let us vote on bonds and we vote yes to borrow back our own money (with interest) to build a hospital.

The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 that cost 11 workers their lives has caused untold damage to the environment. We will never fully know how much damage, we might get a glimpse as Bluefin Tuna and other marine life are washing ashore with two sets of genitals and other deformities. We can be sure the ocean floor is covered with oil and whatever chemicals that they use to help the oil dissipate but this likelihood will not be in a public service announcement during a playoff game.

Free-Speech Restrictions Leave Federal Workers Anxious About Challenging Trump

By Mike Ludwig - Truthout, February 14, 2017

Recent internal memos on how and when federal employees can speak their minds has left those frustrated by President Trump in murky waters, according to advocates.

For climate scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or rogue members of the National Park Service, this uncertainty around their ability to speak without fear of reprisal is causing confusion and despair as the Trump administration assumes control and attempts to assert its version of the facts, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group that represents civil servants at agencies like the EPA.

"There will be a number of instances where people are speaking their minds and the rules aren't all that clear," said PEER Director Jeff Ruch, who counsels government employees about their rights. "And you have a chief executive who is somewhat thin-skinned, and that may trickle down through his appointees," who could punish employees for actions perceived as dissent.

Ruch said there seems to be a "level of mutual mistrust" between civil servants who staff federal agencies as nonpartisan workers and President Trump, who promised on the campaign trail to gut agencies like the EPA, and announced a hiring freeze for many agencies shortly after taking office.

"The hiring freeze was not an economic measure but an effort to drain the swamp, as if [federal employees] are a malignant force and, if you can bleed them off, then government will be better," Ruch said. "And a lot of this could be offensive to some of these career civil servants."

Some civil servants have dared to challenge Trump. Since the National Park Service's Twitter account was temporarily shuttered after it questioned White House statements on the size of the crowd at Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, dozens of "alternative" federal agency accounts (such as AltEPA and AltFDA) have opened and amassed followings that rival their official counterparts.

These accounts identify with the anti-Trump resistance, and are unofficial. Many make it clear that tweets and posts are not coming from government employees in their official capacity, if from government employees at all. Ruch said PEER has been fielding questions from operators of these alternative accounts, which often challenge Trump's public statements and draw attention to the latest climate science.

Agency employees who speak out against Trump are treading on difficult ground, particularly since federal civil servants have limited rights to free speech in the workplace. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect public employees for statements made while acting in their official capacity, making it risky to speak out against a new administration that has been openly hostile to the media and anyone else who challenges its narrative.

Moreover, the Hatch Act of 1939 prohibits the vast majority of federal employees from participating in certain political activities on the job, including advocating for and against political candidates. Trump has filed 2020 campaign paperwork and is considered a political candidate. This means that federal employees are prohibited from speaking for or against his reelection in their official capacity, according to a memo circulated by the US Office of Special Counsel last week.

Ruch said making a statement as simple as, "This is a disaster, we've got to get rid of this guy," around the water cooler at a federal office could apparently cost a federal employee their job.

Federal employees do have First Amendment rights as private citizens, but that doesn't protect them in the workplace. Not too long after the White House's snafu with the National Park Service's Twitter account, the EPA sent out an agency-wide memo advising employees about the difference between addressing the public as an EPA employee and in their "individual personal capacity."

Will science go rogue against Donald Trump?

By John Steele - Socialist Worker, February 6, 2017

IN THE age of Trump, the person writing those words has much to teach us about the impending scientific struggles of our own time.

So spoke Salviati on day two of his debate with Sagredo and Simplicio in a hypothetical discussion imagined by the great scientist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, for his book Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632.

In the Dialogue, Galileo puts forward his heretical view that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun in opposition to the Catholic Church-sanctioned Ptolemaic system in which everything in the universe revolves around the Earth.

Galileo hoped that by adopting a conversational style for his argument, it would allow him to continue his argument about the true nature of the universe and evade the attentions of the Inquisition, which enforced Church doctrine with the force of bans, imprisonment and execution.

However, Galileo's friend, Pope Urban VIII, who had personally authorized Galileo to write the Dialogue, didn't allow sentimentality to obstruct power. Galileo was convicted of heresy and spent the rest of his days under house arrest--the Dialogue was banned by the Inquisition, along with any other book Galileo had written or might write.

Typically portrayed as the quintessential clash between religion and science, Galileo's conflict with the Papacy was, in fact, just as rooted in material considerations of political power as it was with ideas about the nature of the solar system and our place within it.

Amid parallels to today's conflict between Donald Trump and the scientific community over funding, research, unimpeded freedom of speech and the kind of international collaboration required for effective scientific endeavor, neither situation exists solely in the realm of ideas.

Bosses’ profit drive caused Lac-Mégantic rail disaster

By John Steele - The Militant, February 6, 2017

“We have a very strong defense, which will show that Harding was not criminally responsible for what happened and get at the truth of who is really responsible for the disaster at Lac-Mégantic,” Thomas Walsh, attorney for locomotive engineer Thomas Harding, told the Militant Jan. 5. Because of continual delays, which have stretched over three years, Walsh and Harding had considered demanding the charges be tossed out. “But the people of Lac-Mégantic and Harding want and deserve a trial,” he said.

Harding and train controller Richard Labrie — both members of United Steelworkers Local 1976 — and Jean Demaitre, operations manager for the now defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, face frame-up charges of 47 counts of criminal negligence in relation to the July 2013 Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster that killed 47 people and burned out the downtown core. If convicted, the three could face life in prison.

Walsh said that at the upcoming Jan. 26-27 court hearing in Sherbrooke, Quebec, he will demand a court order to give the defense access to the original reports and documents that the federal Transportation Safety Board used to prepare its report, as well as a separate English-language trial for Harding.

Since the disaster, the official report of the board and a hard-hitting series of articles in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s English-language daily, have shown that the cost-cutting profit drive of the rail bosses, along with complicity from Ottawa’s Transport Canada agency, was the cause of the deadly disaster.

“Company rules prevented Harding from using a 10-second procedure to activate the automatic air brakes that would have prevented the disaster, in order to save 15 minutes of start-up time the next day,” Brian Stevens, National Railway director of Canada’s largest private sector union Unifor, told a Dec. 8 University of Ottawa conference on the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

In addition, company bosses with permission from Transport Canada forced workers to run the railroad’s trains with only a single person, the engineer.

“Train accidents happen regularly all over the world,” Walsh told La Tribune Sherbrooke. “Most of the time it’s the engineer who is fingered in these rail catastrophes.”

The rail bosses’ utter disregard for safety in their drive for profits was highlighted again when Transport Canada officials laid charges Nov. 15 against the Canadian Pacific Railway and two former CP managers under the Railway Safety Act. They are charged with illegally ordering a freight train crew — over strenuous objections from the conductor and engineer — to park a 57-car train carrying dangerous goods on a slope above the town of Revelstoke, British Columbia, and leave it unattended without the handbrakes applied.

This was a direct breach of emergency directives by the government established after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Transport Canada says.

The incident took place on Feb. 15, 2015, hours before the Teamsters union strike deadline at the railroad.

Some 3,000 Canadian Pacific rail workers went out on a Canada-wide strike against the rail bosses’ moves that endanger workers and those who live along the tracks. Union pickets wore vests saying “fatigue kills,” pointing to Canadian Pacific’s efforts to increase work hours between rest periods. The union ended the strike after one day when the government threatened to impose strike-breaking legislation.

CP representatives and the two former managers are set to appear in court in Revelstoke Feb. 1.

Solidarity messages for Harding and Labrie can be sent to USW Local 1976 / Section locale 1976, 2360 De Lasalle, Suite 202, Montreal, QC H1V 2L1. Copies should be sent to Thomas Walsh, 165 Rue Wellington N., Suite 310, Sherbrooke, QC Canada J1H 5B9 or thomaspwalsh@hotmail.com.

DAPL Doesn’t Make Economic Sense

By Mark Paul - Dollars and Sense, February 2017

Last week, Donald Trump signed an executive order to advance approval of the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines. This should come as no surprise, as Trump continues to fill his administration with climate deniers, ranging from the negligent choice of Rick Perry as energy secretary to Scott Pruitt as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, a man who stated last year that “scientists continue to disagree” on humans role in climate change may very well take the “Protection” out of the EPA, despite a majority of Americans—including a majority of Republicans—wanting the EPA’s power to be maintained or strengthened.

As environmental economists, my colleague Anders Fremstad and I were concerned. We crunched the numbers on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The verdict? Annual emissions associated with the oil pumped through the pipeline will impose a $4.6 billion burden on current and future generations.

First and foremost, the debate about DAPL should be about tribal rights and the right to clean water. Under the Obama administration, that seemed to carry some clout. Caving to pressure from protesters and an unprecedented gathering of more than a hundred tribes, Obama did indeed halt the DAPL, if only for a time. Under Trump and his crony capitalism mentality, the fight over the pipeline appears to be about corporate profits over tribal rights. Following Trump’s Executive Order to advance the pipeline, the Army Corps of Engineers has been ordered to approve the final easement to allow Energy Transfer Partners to complete the pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux have vowed to take legal action against the decision.

While the pipeline was originally scheduled to cross the Missouri River closer to Bismarck, authorities decided there was too much risk associated with locating the pipeline near the capital’s drinking water. They decided instead to follow the same rationale used by Lawrence Summers, then the chief economist of the World Bank, elucidated in an infamous memo stating “the economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” That same logic holds for the low wage counties and towns in the United States. The link between environmental quality and economic inequality is clear—corporations pollute on the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable; in other words, those with the least resources to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment.

Pandering to the Predator: Labor and Energy Under Trump

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, February 3, 2017

Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20th 2017 saw unions and activist groups from numerous social movements take to the streets and declare an all-out war of resistance to both his presidency and his agenda.  

As is now clear, some union officials have not only dodged the draft, but have actually joined the opposition. Trump has made it clear that he intends to give full-on support for the further development of fossil fuels. He plans to revive coal, and get behind fracking for shale oil and shale gas. He also plans to approve major infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. This just happens to be a big part of labor’s agenda also, and agenda that has been largely shaped by the North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU).

A Trump-Trades Confederacy?

Leaders of NABTU have not only openly embraced Trump’s energy agenda, they  quickly warmed up to Trump himself—and some of his proposed appointees. In a pre-inauguration statement, NABTU praised Trump for nominating former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillermen to be Secretary of State. NABTU said, “We believe he will be a tremendous success,” and praised Tillermen’s “resilient and dynamic grasp of both global and domestic policy issues, and a deep and unyielding sense of patriotism for our great nation.” Of this writing, even prominent Republicans are uncomfortable having someone with a pension plan worth $70 million and who owns $218 million’s worth of company stock become the country’s top diplomat.

In another sign of approval for Trump, the Laborer’s union (LiUNA) criticized the outgoing Administration’s decision to remove offshore areas for future leasing. In one of his final acts as president, Obama thwarted oil and gas industry plans to explore and drill in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Attacking Obama, the union stated, “LIUNA looks forward to working with the Trump Administration to reverse this and other regressive energy policies enacted by the outgoing President.”  This from a union that just a few years ago was on the cutting edge of the “green jobs” agenda, an active partner in the Blue-Green Alliance, and one of the first US unions to call on the Obama administration to adopt the science-based emissions reductions targets proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Also significant was Trump’s post-inauguration White House meeting with labor leaders on Jan 23rd.  Participants included NABTU President Sean McGarvey, LiUNA President Terry O’Sullivan, Sheet Metal workers’ union President Joseph Sellers, Carpenters President Doug McCarron and Mark McManus, president of the Plumbers and Pipefitters. Progressive unions were, it seems, not invited. McGarvey told the New York Times “We have a common bond with the president…We come from the same industry. He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.”

To Halt the Slide Into Authoritarianism, We Need a General Strike

By The Shutdown Collective - Truthout, February 11, 2017

In the weeks immediately after Donald Trump won the presidential election, many people expressed serious concern about the content of his policies and platform. This isn't surprising. Having lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million, Trump had the thinnest support of any incoming president in modern history. However, in the two weeks since he has taken office, these concerns have moved into a whole new realm. Widespread opposition to his administration is mobilizing now not merely around the content of his policies (what he does), but also the manner in which he is governing (how he does it).

President Trump has begun his term by governing by executive order, launching a rapid series of initiatives that threaten the democratic constitutional structure of the United States. These include: repeated attacks on the institutions of a free and independent press; silencing and summary dismissal of government employees, including the Attorney General; failure to divest personal business interests from the office of the presidency, or release his tax statements; the consolidation of power in a small circle of close friends (e.g., dismissing top military officials from the National Security Council to make room for political advisor and Breitbart executive, Stephen Bannon) and family (e.g., the appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a senior White House adviser). Perhaps most infamously, the administration has moved forward with a wide-reaching immigration and refugee ban that specifically targets people based on their religion and country of origin. Taken together, these signal a dangerously anti-democratic, even authoritarian impulse at the heart of the Trump administration.

We have seen this before. In other times and other places, authoritarian leaders have come to power through the manipulation of democratic institutions, often by exploiting major divisions within the general electorate. Even though they come to power in this semi-democratic manner, such figures recognize that they will not be able to maintain the broad-based support needed to remain in power, or accomplish anything while there. As a result, they frequently work to undermine the basic institutions of democracy, such as independent electoral commissions, the judiciary, and a free press.

Time for Tesla to Listen

By Jose Moran - Medium, February 9, 2017

I’m proud to be part of a team that is bringing green cars to the masses. As a production worker at Tesla’s plant in Fremont for the past four years, I believe Tesla is one of the most innovative companies in the world. We are working hard to build the world’s #1 car — not just electric, but overall. Unfortunately, however, I often feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past.

Most of my 5,000-plus coworkers work well over 40 hours a week, including excessive mandatory overtime. The hard, manual labor we put in to make Tesla successful is done at great risk to our bodies.

Preventable injuries happen often. In addition to long working hours, machinery is often not ergonomically compatible with our bodies. There is too much twisting and turning and extra physical movement to do jobs that could be simplified if workers’ input were welcomed. Add a shortage of manpower and a constant push to work faster to meet production goals, and injuries are bound to happen.

A few months ago, six out of eight people in my work team were out on medical leave at the same time due to various work-related injuries. I hear that ergonomics concerns in other departments are even more severe. Worst of all, I hear coworkers quietly say that they are hurting but they are too afraid to report it for fear of being labeled as a complainer or bad worker by management.

Ironically, many of my coworkers who have been saying they are fed up with the long hours at the plant also rely on the overtime to survive financially. Although the cost of living in the Bay Area is among the highest in the nation, pay at Tesla is near the lowest in the automotive industry.

Most Tesla production workers earn between $17 and $21 hourly. The average auto worker in the nation earns $25.58 an hour, and lives in a much less expensive region. The living wage in Alameda county, where we work, is more than $28 an hour for an adult and one child (I have two). Many of my coworkers are commuting one or two hours before and after those long shifts because they can’t afford to live closer to the plant.

While working 60–70 hours per week for 4 years for a company will make you tired, it will also make you loyal. I’ve invested a great deal of time and sacrificed important moments with my family to help Tesla succeed. I believe in the vision of our company. I want to make it better.

I think our management team would agree that our plant doesn’t function as well as it could, but until now they’ve underestimated the value of listening to employees. In a company of our size, an “open-door policy” simply isn’t a solution. We need better organization in the plant, and I, along with many of my coworkers, believe we can achieve that by coming together and forming a union.

Many of us have been talking about unionizing, and have reached out to the United Auto Workers for support. The company has begun to respond. In November, they offered a raise to employees’ base pay — the first we’ve seen in a very long time.

But at the same time, management actions are feeding workers’ fears about speaking out. Recently, every worker was required to sign a confidentiality policy that threatens consequences if we exercise our right to speak out about wages and working conditions. Thankfully, five members of the California State Assembly have written a letter to Tesla questioning the policy and calling for a retraction.

I’m glad that someone is standing up for Tesla workers, and we need to stand up for ourselves too. The issues go much deeper than just fair pay. Injuries, poor morale, unfair promotions, high turnover, and other issues aren’t just bad for workers — they also impact the quality and speed of production. They can’t be resolved without workers having a voice and being included in the process.

Tesla isn’t a startup anymore. It’s here to stay. Workers are ready to help make the company more successful and a better place to work. Just as CEO Elon Musk is a respected champion for green energy and innovation, I hope he can also become a champion for his employees. As more of my coworkers speak out, I hope that we can start a productive conversation about building a fair future for all who work at Tesla.

Resisting the Resolution: Call to action in support of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and against the Dakota Access Pipeline

By staff - La Via Campesina, February 10, 2017

The epicenter of the struggle to defend our Mother Earth, Water and Nature is currently Standing Rock.

The North American Region of La Via Campesina sends its most sincere solidarity to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the water defenders in their heroic struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and in defense of Mother Nature and their sacred land. 

We demand that the federal government respect the territorial sovereignty of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.  

Finally, we call upon all of our members and allies of the North American Region of La Via Campesina to mobilize, firmly and widely, to stop the repression and violence by the police and the state against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who are protecting their water for all of us, as well as their ancestral land, and their sovereignty.

Trump's "America First" puts the planet last

By Michael Ware - Socialist Worker, February 9, 2017

DONALD TRUMP'S executive orders for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and for building a border wall provoked the most visible and immediate responses of the early days of his presidency.

But his moves to restart construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and the new administration's censorship of government workers and federally funded scientists regarding climate change were a shot across the bow of the environmental movement.

Upon taking office, Twittler and his henchmen directed federal agencies to cease public communication that wasn't vetted by the new administration, effectively putting a gag order on any talk about climate change or scientific research that contradicts the administration's taste for "alternative facts."

The Badlands National Park Twitter account defied the ban, issuing unspeakable truths like "The Pre-Industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). As of December 2016, 404.93ppm." The account has since been reigned in and the tweets deleted.

This week, the new administration scored a victory when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, bowing to an order from Trump, reversed its denial of an easement needed to complete a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline running under the Missouri River. The Army Corps not only abandoned plans to wait for an environment impact study, but rushed through approval so drilling could start in 24 hours--making it harder for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to take action in court.

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