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Unions and the Climate Justice Movement

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, October 7, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Where does the union movement stand on the issue of climate justice? The answer to that question is not entirely simple. First of all, it's important to understand the differences between revolutionary unions (most of which are syndicalist--such as the CNT, FAI, SAC--or Marxist--such as NUMSA--in their orientation, or some hybrid inclusive of both and more--such as the IWW) and mainstream reformist unions, such as the AFL-CIO.  For most revolutionary unions, climate justice is an inherent part of the struggle to overthrow capitalism, abolish wage slavery, and create a new society within the shell of the old. For example, the IWW has organized an environmental unionism caucus that dedicates itself to climate justice and other ecological issues. The South African union, NUMSA, is a supporter of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED)1 and has issued a statement calling for the end to the "Mineral Industrial Complex" (even though they represent mine workers) in favor of renewable energy.

Where the reformist unions (sometimes called "business unions" or "class collaborationist" unions by their detractors) stand varies widely, and to be accurate, some of these "reformist" unions have more (or less) "revolutionary" orientation within the spectrum of the mainstream labor movement. While many still believe that capitalism can be reformed, the evolving realities of capitalism--which is becoming extremely repressive as it imposes increasingly crushing austerity upon the working class--the ever heightening urgency of addressing capitalist induced global warming, and the increasingly impossible-to-ignore realities of police violence, movements like Black Lives Matter, and other social issues are driving many unions to question their adherence to it, beyond the mere rank and file militants within each of them.

One would expect the Building Trades and most heavy industry based unions in the United States, many of which are still largely dominated by white male workers, to be least supportive of climate justice (or even likely to swallow the rhetoric of climate denialism) and conversely expect the service unions, many of which are predominantly composed of women and People of Color to be most supportive of it, and in some cases that's true, but not always! The actual "geography" of where unions stand on climate justice is actually quite complex2, inconsistent, and in some instances contradictory.  Sorting it out completely is well beyond the scope of this article, but it is illustrative to cover some general ground and cite a few interesting examples.

Wrong Again!

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, November 6, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Our regular readers know that we tend to be quite critical of the business unions and the big green NGOs for their continued slavish alliance with capitalism, and knowing this, they should not be shocked that--once again--the increasingly ineffectual and coopted Blue Green Alliance is in our sights.

In case you didn't know, the Blue Green Alliance is a coalition of business unions and environmental organizations that ostensibly advocates for building bridges between the labor movement and the environmental movement, with a specific focus towards "green jobs" and "sustainable development". Each year, the alliance issues a "Right Stuff Award" to "business, government, environmental, labor, and community leaders who promote a sustainable economy and environment". This year, they say, their awards will honor "leaders for their work on building a 21st century energy infrastructure."

Based on their choice of Obama's Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, one has to be wondering if the Blue Green Alliance knows what century they're in, or perhaps whether or not the Alliance has an oddball definition of what 21st century infrastructure is, exactly. You see, the last time I checked, Ernest Moniz has deep ties to the fossil fuel, fracking and nuclear industries. He has served on advisory boards for oil giant BP and General Electric, and was a trustee of the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, a Saudi Aramco-backed nonprofit organization. In 2011, Moniz was the chief author of an influential study for MIT on the future of natural gas. According to a new report by the Public Accountability Initiative, Moniz failed to disclose that he had taken a lucrative position at a pro-drilling firm called ICF International just days before a key natural gas "fracking" study was released.

This doesn't sound very green to me. If anything, it's more like a greenwash. Unfortunately, this is par for the course for the so-called Blue Green Alliance.

SMART Railroad Workers Rejection of Single Employee Crews is a Victory for Workers AND the Environment

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, September 14, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

On Tuesday, September 10, 2014, the rank and file union members of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Workers (SMART) General Committee GO—001 overwhelmingly voted down a concessionary proposal to reduce train crew size from 2 to 1 by a margin of 2 to 1 against the proposal.

The proposed change would have resulted in conductorless train operations over more than half of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), the second largest rail carrier in the U.S. According to Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank and file union members from various railroad workers' unions, this was part of a campaign by the major rail carriers to weaken the already weak and divided rail unions further. Over the past half-century, the railroad bosses have taken advantage of the craft divisions among their workers to reduce crew sizes from a standard of 5 to 2. Now they're pushing to reduce that number to 1. The fact that BNSF was able to convince the leadership of one local to go along shows just how beaten down these unions are.

Fortunately, rank and file militants--some of them dues paying members of the IWW--formed RWU to beat back just such an offensive by the bosses, and--perhaps--turn the tide in what has hitherto been a one-sided class war waged against the workers by the bosses.

The RWU strategy mixed a whole variety of tactics, both old (including "silent agitators" and graffiti) and new (social media), many of them pioneered by the IWW:

Upon learning of the BNSF TA, RWU convened an “emergency meeting” of the Steering Committee and instantly mobilized the network. Thousands of buttons and sticker, flyers and leaflets, “Talking Points” and more were disseminated to BNSF railroad workers in the following weeks. A press release was issued that was picked up by a number of newspapers. RWU members spoke out on radio and TV stations, and organized rallies, pickets and demonstrations at numerous terminals, from large cities like Chicago and Seattle to small towns like Creston, Iowa. RWU members intervened in the debate at the SMART Convention in August, and held a series of telephone conference calls open to all railroad workers to voice their concerns, ask questions, and devise strategies and tactics. A regular e-newsletter with the latest flyers, leaflets, stickers, articles, songs, graffiti and cartoons were issued weekly.

In the end, the workers beat back the bosses attack, and this campaign should provide (the beginnings, at least, of) a model for rank and file workers in business unions to overcome entrenched bureaucratic interests that serve the bosses and not the workers. It can also serve as a model for the IWW's "dual card" strategy.

The vote was also a small victory for the environment and efforts to build bridges between environmental activists and workers. As has been widely reported, the accident that blew up Lac Magentic was the result of a single employee train, and while derailments involving two employee crude-by-rail trains have occurred, the chances of them happening are substantially greater if the crew size were to be reduced to one. Further, the push to reduce crew sizes is part of the ongoing efforts by the rail carriers to maximize their profits by cutting corners on labor costs, safety procedures, and best practices. The workers' victory will likely embolden them to take stronger stands against other initiatives by the bosses that would increase the risk of accident or derailment, and should the workers gain sufficient momentum, they can actually go on the offensive and force the carriers to increase safety, which will reduce environmental impacts significantly.

Capital Blight - LIUNA Official Declares, "the Earth is flat; I saw it with my own eyes!"

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus July 21, 2014

Those familiar with the IWW EUC will recall that we pull no punches in attacking the shortcomings of the business unions (the building trades in particular) on matters of both class and ecology, particularly the Keystone XL pipeline.

In late April of this year, Sean McGarvey, president of the North American Building Trades' Unions issued this statement calling for the expediting of the Keystone XL Pipeline and defending Alberta tar sands mining (which Keystone XL would facilitate, and a key--no pun intended--reason for widespread opposition to it by environmentalists).

In it, he declared:

"I've just spent several days with other building trades union leaders visiting the oil sands region and meeting with officials from the Canadian government as well as industry representatives and contractors...and what we heard, and more importantly what we saw with our own eyes, is nowhere near what the American public is being told by the radical environmental movement."

The assorted labor fakirs referenced by McGarvey included:

  • Terry O'Sullivan, General President; LiUNA
  • Ed Hill -International President; IBEW
  • Bill Hite - General President; United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters
  • Joe Nigro - General President; SMART (International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers)
  • Eric Dean - General Secretary; International Association of Ironworkers
  • Mike Pleasant - Administrative Assistant to the General President; United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters
  • Terry Healy- Vice President and Special Assistant to the President; LiUNA

There's little doubt that McGarvey is openly hostile to the environmental movement, evidenced by his attempts to marginalize the vast and growing popular opposition to Keystone XL (as well as many other) pipeline(s), tar sands mining, fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, offshore drilling, and crude-by-rail (all of which are inevitably interconnected due to the current capitalist push to extract every known source of carbon before the impending carbon bubble bursts and strands $trillions in assets) as "radical" (read: fringe) environmentalists.

He claims (without any peer reviewed studies, corroborating evidence from independent sources, or even so much as a single citation) that Canadian government officials, industry representatives and contractors, and his own eyes tell him:

  • The development of the oil sands accounts for only 7.8% of Canada's annual overall GHG emissions; and only 1/640th of global GHG emissions.
  • The government of Alberta implemented stringent GHG regulations in 2007, becoming the first jurisdiction in North America to do so. Since 2007, these regulations have resulted in GHG reductions of 23 million tons, the equivalent of taking 4.8 million cars off the road for one year.
  • Since 1990 GHG emissions from oil sands development have been reduced by 26%.
  • The Royal Society in Canada has studied water quality impacts and its conclusions suggest that oil sands development are not a current threat to aquatic ecosystem viability.
  • Alberta law requires all lands disturbed by oil sands operations be reclaimed. All companies are required to develop a reclamation plan that spans the life of the project.
  • McGarvey wants us to believe that if the capitalists say something is "green" and "safe" that we should trust that information, especially if it's backed up by the (arch conservative, pro-fossil fuel extraction) Canadian government. There couldn't any conflict of interest there right? And of course, we can trust McGarvey's own eyes, because...well...he sees with them, and seeing is believing! (or so McGarvey wants us to think).

    If I were him, I'd get my eyes checked, because there's a whole bunch right in front of his eyes that he's not seeing. Either that, or he chooses not to see it.

    Capital Blight: The More Things Change...

    By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, July 12, 2014

    Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

    A recent article from the folks over at the Rocky Mountain Institute--a pro renewable energy, green capitalist think tank founded by Amory Lovins, Lessons from Australia: How to Reduce US Solar PV Costs through Installation Labor Efficiency, written by Robert McIntosh and Koben Calhoun, demonstrates all too clearly why it's not enough just to replace the existing fossil fuel energy system with renewable alternatives. To sufficiently transform our world, we must confront the root of the problem, and that's hierarchical command / control political-economic systems like capitalism itself.

    Yes, it's certainly a good idea to strive for a reasonable degree of efficiency in accomplishing one's desired goals by minimizing input and maximizing output. Doing so is human nature. If this weren't true, humans wouldn't have developed tools and machines to minimize throughputs. The flaw in this concept is the tendency to "externalize" the negative consequences of maximizing this efficiency and to unfairly distribute the fruits of such efforts. A several thousand (or perhaps million) year history of combined and cumulative efforts has created hierarchical class structure and nearly brought about a sixth mass terrestrial extinction event.

    The idea that such practices can somehow be reconciled with both a sense of fairness and with ecological sustainability is simply another way in which capitalism has poisoned our minds and our environment.

    Capital Blight - Smoke and Mirrors

    By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, July 11, 2014

    Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

    This past week reports of a recent trend (but hardly a new phenomena), called "rolling coal", have gone viral in the green media--in particular on Grist and the Huffington Post. Essentially, predominantly white, working class, rural truck drivers are venting their frustrations on "effete, latte sipping, Prius driving, city-dwelling, liberals" by installing devices in their trucks that actually belch smoke and lower their own gas mileage on command. This display of reactionary machismo is detailed in a recent article by Elizabeth Kulze. As the famous comedian, Jack Benny would probably say--in the complete opposite context--"Only in America...".

    As one would expect, the comments sections following these articles are full of harshly critical comments directed at these coal rollers, and not entirely without justification, but the anger is misdirected.

    To be sure, it's not a classist or elitist slur to properly refer to attitudes such as these as retrograde. Back in the day the Wobblies had a nickname for members of our own class who would side with the bosses. We called them "blocks" (after the block-headed Ernest Riebe cartoon character, "Mr. Block") or "scissorbills", cultural memes which may have influenced both Charles Schulz (Think of Lucy Van Pelt calling Charlie Brown "blockhead") and the Beatles ("Billy Shears" possibly derives from "William Shears), but our fellow workers never forgot who the real enemy was: the employing class.

    Why would anyone in their right mind go to such lengths to actually pay money to install such a moronic device on their vehicle and vent their anger at members of their own class? Clearly this is not logical in any sense. Only a fool would deliberately set their own house on fire, crap in their own bed, or piss in their own beer, but that is precisely what these coal rollers are doing. No matter how much they hate those "Commie tree hugging unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" or whatever, they're ultimately shooting themselves in the foot by spewing more greenhouse gasses into the Earth's atmosphere. Even if the effect is mostly negligible by itself, it still enables the capitalist class by enabling the latter's divide and conquet tactics which keep the 99% divided and at each other's throats.

    We've seen this type of behavior before. In 1989, in timber dependent communities, after the US Government (finally) announced intentions to consider listing the Northern Spotted Owl as a "threatened" species (after years and years of lawsuits, campaigning, and frustration by environmentalists), the big timber corporations used a combination of propaganda, pseudoscientific nonsense, and false front astroturf "wise use" groups (as well as a few compliant business union officials) to whip timber workers into a vigilante mob hysteria against the environmental community.

    Unfortunately, many environmentalists foolishly vented their frustration at the timber workers and not the timber workers employers, but this was a tactical mistake. Most timber workers didn't actually support this vigilante mob hysteria (though the corporate controlled media made it seem otherwise), but the capitalists wanted us all to think that the divisions were greater than they actually are, and things are no different now. This whole, sorry affair is simply more smoke and mirrors from the employing class.

    Capital Blight - Aristocracy Forever

    By x344543 - June 12, 2014

    Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

    When the union leaders' payoffs by the bosses has begun,
    There will be no labor trouble anywhere beneath the sun,
    For the AFL trade unions and the management are one,
    The union keeps us down.

    Aristocracy forever,
    Aristocracy forever,
    Aristocracy forever,

    --lyrics excerpted from Aristocracy Forever, by Judi Bari

    It happens far too often. Big corporate industrial polluters rape and pillage the Earth, whether by tar sands mining, fracking, mountaintop coal mining, offshore oil drilling, clearcut logging, and more. What's more, much of what they extract they export elsewhere, choosing to remove even the economic benefits of local production from the affected community. These corporations claim to be "good neighbors", but they suck up all the wealth (in the form of profits), and they outsource the costs to the community. And the workers who actually do the labor to produce all of this wealth? Not only are they not paid the full value of their labor, they're often the first to bear the brunt of the toxic pollution and chemical poisoning these companies create in their wake.

    It's no wonder that time and time again we witness communities organizing and mobilizing opposition to this state of affairs, often assisted by environmental organizations of various types. What's curious, however, is how often the unions (if the workers in these facilities are fortunate enough to have union representation) defend the companies and even promote the companies' messages--even though it's ultimately not in the workers' interest to do so.

    Capital Blight: a Green-Syndicalist Responds to David Walters "Socialist" Defense of Nuclear Energy, Part 2

    By x344543 - June 3, 2014

    Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

    Since I published a response to David Walters rather dubiously reasoned editorial A socialist defends nuclear energy over six months ago, I have been engaged with him in a back-and-forth debate with him, primarily on our respective Facebook pages over the issue. Two other socialists (not of the syndicalist orientation), Michael Freidman and Chris Williams also challenged David Walters on the his claims that nuclear power is "safe". I do not know if Freidman or Williams has experienced a similar debate with him.

    In a nutshell, comrade Walters takes exception to my rebuttal of his initial arguments, perhaps in particular, because I speculated then that his arguments were informed principally by (capitalist) nuclear power industry propaganda. He also disagrees vehemently with my belief that human civilization can supply even a significant majority of its energy needs (let alone 100%) with renewable energy technologies.

    In the intervening period he has tried very persistently to defend his original arguments as being independently thought out and my own as being influenced by propaganda of another source, that being the renewable energy industry and (what David apparently dismisses as their puppets) the big green NGOs.

    After six months of this, I can confidently state that I remain steadfastly committed to my initial position, and--if anything--I am even more convinced that I am right and David is wrong, and it doesn't take much to prove it.

    The reason I'm so certain is because David bases his arguments on the following fallacies, inaccuracies, and untruths:

    • (1) Renewable Energy--specifically wind and solar-electric--are not reliable or dispatchable and must be backed up by another more stable source;
    • (2) Baseload reliability and instant dispatchability are currently existing hallmarks of conventional power sources which will be lost if the world naively switches to renewable sources;
    • (3) Energiewende is immensely unpopular in Germany, in spite of the claims made to the contrary by renewable energy advocates;
    • (4) The German "Energiewende" is a "failure", because the nuclear plants that have been shuttered are being replaced by coal plants;
    • (5) Germany is producing more CO2 because of Energiewende;
    • (6) France, a heavy producer of nuclear energy, is exporting electricity to Germany, because the latter has shuttered its nuclear plants;
    • (7) Other nations are not only wisely avoiding "Energiewende", they're sticking with nuclear power;
    • (8) Nuclear power is far cheaper than renewable energy technologies;
    • (9) The real push for renewable energy comes from natural gas interests;

    In the course of this back-and-forth debate I believe that I have provided ample evidence that not only is David Walters mistaken in his defense of nuclear power, his rejection of nuclear power's critics, and his dismissiveness towards renewable energy, he is so desperate to defend nuclear power, he will grasp at any claim that seems to defend his own position. However, when analyzed in greater context and taken as a whole, his entire premise has a half-life of less than that of Nobelium and rapidly decays within a few minutes

    Capital Blight - The Ghosts of Ayn Rand

    By x344534, May 25, 2014

    Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

    My path to green syndicalism was anything but a straight line. I was initially ignorant of anarchism and libertarian socialism, because what gets labeled "libertarian" in the United States of America is actually anything but anarchist or libertarian, but instead is the most extreme and dogmatic brand of capitalism.

    Let's be absolutely clear here. Capitalism cannot survive without the state. It takes a massive, centralized, armed-to-the-teeth, authoritarian government to enforce business contracts, "private property" rights, virtual "intellectual property" rights (the idea that ideas can be owned and controlled), rent, usury, and the notion that corporations are individual people. Nobody in their right mind would voluntarily consent to a system of institutionalized inequality which results in starvation, homelessness, disease, squalor, wage slavery, sexism, racism, and ecological degradation if they had the freedom (yes, you heard me correctly, I said "FREEDOM!" that ever ubiquitous buzzword that capitalist ideologues cast so effortlessly about in defense of their way of life which is anything but free to those forced into subservience under its dictates) to choose.

    What initially blocked my path to real libertarianism, meaning libertarian socialism was the twisted demented pretzel logic of the so called "libertarian" capitalists in their polysyllabic but ultimately empty peonage to their Laissez-faire capitalist religion.

    One individual in particular, Bryan Caplan--who lived in the dorm room next to mine at the (state-funded) University of California at Berkeley--even tried to "convert" me to his faith by handing me a reading list if his holy prophets: Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Henry Hazlitt, F. A. Hayak, Robert Nozick, and--of course--Ayn Rand.

    Naturally, I didn't bite. I had a good deal of exposure to the demented nonsense of Rand already, and any philosophy or economic theory that supported this crazy dingbat's contention that there's any "virtue" in selfishness or that big corporate business is "a persecuted minority" couldn't have anything useful to say to me.

    Thanks to a combination of my intelligence, inquisitiveness, stubbornness, and some plain good luck, I found thinkers and philosophers who offered clues to real libertarian ideas. These included Noam Chomsky, Murray Bookchin, Vandana Shiva, Rudolf Rocker, Christipher Alexander, bell hooks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Neil Peart (yes, that's correct, the drummer and lyricist of Rush), Chuck D (of Public Enemy), Graham Purchase, John Bellamy Foster, Carl Sagan, William Least Heat Moon, Bakunin, Marx, Engels, and Kropotkin (among others). Then, I met Judi Bari.

    Judi Bari clarified matters for me greatly and showed me how one could be a radical environmentalist and an advocate for class struggle at the same time. Plus, she kept mentioning this group called, "the IWW."

    I had no idea who the IWW was or what it stood for. For all I knew they were the International Socialist Organization (whom I was well acquainted with, but not at all interested in joining). Then, one day when seeking out a workers' collective to try and join as an alternative to the horribly depressing and soul killing capitalist retail job I had managed to get after graduating from that fabled weapons laboratory we call a "public university", a spokesperson from a network of such shops clued me in to what the IWW was and is.

    I had heard Noam Chomsky (who would later join the IWW himself) describe himself as an "anarcho syndicalist" and a "libertarian socialist", but never fully understood what those terms meant or what an economy and political system organized around those ideas would look like. The IWW revealed to me how that would work in practice.

    And, thanks to the influence of Judi Bari and Earth First!, the IWW was (and is) in many ways the first organization to promote green syndicalist ideas in practice (though the IWW is not limited to those concepts).

    Over the following years, I came to realize how easy it was to prove just how flawed the thinking of so-called "libertarian" capitalists actually are, and really all I need to have done was read the following passage from the Preamble to the IWW Constitution:

    The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

    As time passed and I gained life-experience I saw that capitalism and freedom are actually incompatible. Just to be sure, I read anarchist and socialist literature voraciously and the knowledge that I gained from doing so validated my experiences. My deepening understanding of the interconnectedness of the environment further showed me the flawed pseudoscience that the Ludwig Von Mises "Austrian" school of economics actually is, and I came to realize that ever more fully as I wrote my own book about the green syndicalist organizing efforts of Judi Bari.

    As for Caplan, I assumed he'd passed into obscurity (after all, disciples of Ayn Rand are a dime a dozen. The capitalist class spares few expenses in funding ministries of propaganda to promote itself, and said ideologues serve that function all too effectively, but there's nothing particularly noteworthy about most of them). In this particular case, I was mistaken.

    Capital Blight: Who’re You Calling “Immigrant”, Pilgrim?

    By x344543, May 5, 2014

    Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

    A recent article on details a jingoist anti-immigration group’s efforts to wrap itself in a green cloak and (once again) obfuscate the real cause of environmental destruction. The (inaccurately named) organization in question, “Californians for Population Stabilization” (CAPS) attempted to use Earth Day (April 22) to argue that the primary cause of ecological destruction is immigration (read: an influx of poor brown skinned people from south of the US-Mexican border, naturally).

    This tired old dog has been asked to hunt so many times, it’s hard to see how anyone could imagine that it can, but sure as I write these words, there it is.

    I’ll admit that this is a bit of a trigger for me. I am, by any standards you could imagine, the descendents of varying strains of white, central European and Mediterranean immigrants of several generations back (five or six in most cases), but my ancestors (Jews, Irish, and Hungarians) suffered greatly at the hands of more dominant empires among those regions, so perhaps it has imbued me with a stronger sense of empathy for the downtrodden peoples in what currently constitutes “America”. I don’t take too kindly to insulting racist propaganda—even if it tries to fly a green flag, and CAPS certainly fits that description.


    The Fine Print I:

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    The Fine Print II:

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