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Class Power can Remake Society: Remembering Australia’s "Green Ban” Movement

By Ben Purtill - Organizing Work, March 24, 2021

Ben Purtill recounts when building laborers in Australia stopped work, first over wages and working conditions, and then to protect the environment, among other “social” causes. Image: Jack Mundey, Building Labourers’ Federation members and local residents at a Green Ban demonstration, 1973.

Jack Mundey, who died aged 90 in May 2020, first made his name as the union leader associated with one of the most inspiring moments of class struggle of the last 50 years: Australia’s green ban movement. As a secretary of the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) from 1968, Mundey — a member, then president, of the Australian Communist Party (CPA) – was widely credited with coining the term “green ban” to describe a form of strike action undertaken in defense of environmental causes. Members of the NSW BLF also downed tools in defense of the gay community, indigenous Australians, and feminists, at a time when these causes were far from the mainstream of Australian society.

Reviled and vilified at the time, Mundey received a State Memorial Service in March 2021. Attended by the great and the good of Sydney, Mundey was hailed as a savior of the city — a renegade who broke with the base concerns of economistic trade unionism to focus on more refined issues than wages or workplace conditions, while prefiguring a social liberalism the nation would only begin to embrace decades later, and a green politics that it has yet to.

While the perceived content of Mundey’s unionism now sits quite comfortably with liberal — even conservative — values and principles, the form of unionism pursued by the NSW BLF at their peak in the early 1970s would undoubtedly be condemned were it revived today. Militant, democratic and regarded as quasi-syndicalist by critics and supporters alike, the story of the Mundey and the NSW BLF is one of both the power of the rank and file and the limits of leadership, no matter how left-wing.

Black Bans, Green Bans and everything in between

Most historical accounts suggest the green ban movement for which Mundey is best remembered began in 1971 at Kelly’s Bush, an area of parkland in Sydney’s affluent Hunter’s Hill suburb. A group of local women contacted the BLF having exhausted all conventional means of halting the development of the area by construction firm AV Jennings. With luxury houses set to be built on what was the last remaining patch of native bush in the suburb, the BLF called a community meeting attended by over 600 local residents and announced a ban, meaning no work would take place on the site. Unions had been using the term “black ban” to designate disputes aimed at an economic end, for example a wage increase, but since this action was being taken to defend the environment, “green ban” was decided to be more appropriate.

Over forty green bans followed until 1974, when the NSW BLF was deregistered as a union, resulting in billions of dollars worth of development being prevented in Sydney; the tactic was also deployed in other towns and cities across Australia, most notably Melbourne. All green bans were declared in a similar manner as a point of principle: the union did not decide to initiate a ban, local residents did so through a public meeting. If it was decided that a site would not be developed, BLF members would not work on it. In following this tactic, large areas of the historic centre of Sydney were saved from development, and the union joined alliances with an unlikely range of characters: early environmentalists, heritage campaigners, and middle-class homeowners.

The NSW BLF also applied the tactic to other causes and concerns, for example the expulsion of a gay student from Macquarie University, the demolition of houses occupied by indigenous Australians in the Redfern suburb of inner-city Sydney, and the right of two women academics to teach a women’s studies course. In each case, the campaigns were won. More broadly still, the BLF campaigned against apartheid South Africa and the war in Vietnam. As union secretary of the NSW branch during this period, Mundey is now typically remembered as the brainchild of this movement, even earning him a speaking slot at the United Nations Conference on the Built Environment, but it reflected much wider changes occurring both within the Australian left and among rank and file union members.

Green Syndicalism in the Arctic

By Jeff Shantz - LibCom, March 30, 2021

On February 4, 2021, a group of Inuit hunters set up a blockade of the Mary River iron ore mine on North Baffin Island. The mine is operated by Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation and has been extracting iron ore since 2015. Mine operations are carried out on lands owned by the Inuit.

Blockade organizers arrived from communities at Pond Inlet, Igloolik and Arctic Bay over concerns that Inuit harvesting rights are imperiled by the company's plans to expand the mine and associated operations. Solidarity demonstrations have been held in Pond Inlet, Iqaluit, Igloolik, Naujaat, and Taloyoak. In -30C degree temperatures.

Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation is seeking to double its annual mining output to 12 million metric tonnes. This would also see the corporation build a railway and increase shipping traffic through its port at Milne Inlet. These expansions would threaten land and marine wildlife along with food sources essential to Inuit people. The waters surrounding the port are an important habitat for narwhal and seals in the Canadian Arctic. The expansion also threatens caribou and ptarmigans.

A fly-in location, Inuit blockaders shut down the mine’s airstrip and trucking road, closing off access to and from the site for over a week. Notably this has meant that 700 workers have been stranded at the mine site and food, supply and worker change flights have been suspended. Workers have been on site for at least 21 days.

This could, obviously, have posed points of contention, even hostility, between workers and blockaders. Certainly, the company tried to stoke these tensions in its efforts to go ahead with mining operations. In a letter filed with the Nunavut Court of Justice on February 7, Baffinland told the protesters that their blockade is against federal and territorial law, and the Nunavut Agreement. In classic divide and conquer fashion, the company asserted: “You are causing significant harm by blocking a food supply and keeping people from returning to their families.” The company has also gotten the RCMP involved.

Yet an important development occurred a week into the blockade, and after the company’s court theatrics, as stranded workers issued a powerful statement of solidarity with Inuit people and communities and the blockaders specifically. The open letter is signed by a “sizeable minority” of Mary River mine workers currently stranded at the mine site (with 700 workers it represents a sizeable number). They have remained anonymous due to threats of firing leveled against them by the company. In their letter they assert that they recognize the Inuit, not the company, as “rightful custodians of the land.”

The letter represents a significant statement of green syndicalism. One that should be read, circulated, and discussed. It is reproduced in full here.

One of the Best Places to Fight for the Environment Is in Your Workplace

By Libronaught - Medium, February 24, 2021

One of the biggest roadblocks standing in the way of practical, cooperative solidarity between social movements is the idea of “separate issues.” In recent years people have begun chipping away at this shibboleth, but we still have a ways to go. One significant problem within the problem of the single-issue silo effect is that labor is sometimes mistakenly viewed as just another issue.

Labor is not just an issue. Labor is a power base. Labor organizing can be more effective at winning social gains on a range of “single issues” than weekend demonstrations, conscious consumerism, electioneering or lobbying.

In the US, we are often taught to view voting, lobbying and mass demonstrations as ways to participate in democracy. They all are, of course, but it’s not the full picture. As Jane McAlevey persuasively explains in her extraordinary book, A Collective Bargain, US democracy as we know it today would not exist if not for the labor movement. The organizing and solidarity efforts among US workers that eventually won the 8-hour day and the weekend began right after the American Revolution. Labor solidarity and organizing among women has put a driving force behind demands for gender equality for over 150 years. From the 1910s to the 1940s, a massive swell of labor solidarity and organizing crossed race and gender lines, won the current US Labor Rights laws, and led the country out of the Great Depression. Labor unions went on to participate in the 60s Civil Rights movements.

Exiting the False "Jobs Versus Environment" Dilemma

By Lorenzo Feltrin - ROAR Magazine, November 16, 2020

The workerist environmentalism of Italy’s Porto Marghera group connects the workplace and the community in the struggle against capitalist “noxiousness.”

Amidst the renewed rise of obscene inequalities, a wave of protests is sweeping through Italy, from south to north. On the one hand, the pandemic has engendered an upsurge in workplace disputes to defend health and in mobilizations to protect the income of workers affected by COVID-19-related restrictions. On the other hand, however, we have also witnessed successful interventions coordinated by the right and infused with a bewildering array of conspiracy theories in response to such measures.

Different from the slogan that emerged at a mass demonstration in Naples on October 23, 2020 — “If you lock us down, pay up!” — the right-wing discourse does not ask for more collective and egalitarian forms of prevention. It demands instead that “the economy” be allowed to run smoothly. Nonetheless, the right-wing side of dissent appears to attract a significant working-class presence, as many workers — rightly concerned about the impact of months-long lockdowns on their livelihoods — find an answer in negating the gravity of the pandemic and of the environmental crisis more generally.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Marxist commentators have underlined how the health crisis cannot be separated from the economic system that shapes our lives. This does not just concern inadequate healthcare systems: the very spillover of the novel coronavirus from non-human animals to humans was caused by the capitalist imperative to appropriate natural “resources” to safeguard the profit margins that drive the economy forward.

In a way, the pandemic is a global manifestation of the “jobs versus environment dilemma” and the related “job blackmail,” a situation in which workers are faced with a choice between defending their health and environment or keeping their jobs. There is no easy way out of this dilemma. However, the reflections developed some 50 years ago by a workerist collective mainly composed of workers employed in the highly toxic industrial complex of Porto Marghera in Venice, Italy could still provide a source of inspiration.

The Prospects for Revolutionary Green Union Led Transformation

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, August 8, 2020

The evidence becomes more and more clear with each passing day: in order to avoid climate catastrophe and the irreparable destruction of our planet's biosphere, we need nothing less than a revolutionary green transformation of our civilization from stem to stern. These are sobering truths. The reassuring news is that the number of people that realize this, and are prepared to act, is growing day-by- day, throughout our world, in spite of the threats of resurgent fascism, capitalism's perpetual melt downs, and pandemics caused by the likes COVID-19.

The evidence can be seen by the following:

  • A growing number of people willing to take direct action to protect the earth from ecological destruction, climate catastrophe, and capitalist extractivist projects;
  • Increased awareness of the inseparability of ecocidal capitalism, colonialism, racism, and misogyny; this has corresponded with the growth of intersectionality.
  • The decline of climate change denialism;
  • The cancellation of numerous pipeline and other fossil fuel mega projects;
  • Persistently high levels of support for transformative frameworks, like the Green New Deal, limited and reformist though it may ultimately prove to be;
  • And, notable among these trends are growing levels of class consciousness among the climate justice and ecological movements, as shown by the rapid growth and widespread calls for just transition for workers affected by the transitions and transformations the current crises demand.

These developments are welcome, and they point to both the broadening and deepening of an anti-capitalist green transformational movement. However, no transformation can occur without the active support of the working class, and such support is but the beginning of what is needed to motivate the transformation. No revolutionary green transformation can occur without the participation of workers organized at the points of production and/or destruction, because it is precisely there where the capitalist class maintains its economic stranglehold of power over our civilization.

Is achieving such organized power even remotely possible?

The good news is the answer is "yes"; the not so good news is that getting to "yes" will be challenging.

The Australian Green Bans: When Construction Workers Went on Strike for the Environment

By Steve Morse - Labor Notes - July 28, 2020

Imagine a building trades union that broke new ground in the 1970s in its support for environmentalism, community preservation, and women, and in its opposition to racism, even as it fought hard for all its members. Imagine a union that determined what got built, based on community interests rather than profit and greed.

From 1971 to 1974, the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation (NSWBLF) conducted 53 strikes. The strikers’ demands were to preserve parkland and green space, to protect the country’s architectural heritage, and to protect working-class and other neighborhoods from destruction.

The “Green Bans” were the first environmental strikes by workers; almost a half-century later, they remain the largest and best example.

Union leader Jack Mundey, who died on May 10, was mourned in Australia by labor militants, environmentalists, and preservationists. The movement he led is credited with saving Sydney—the country’s biggest city, where 42 of these strikes took place—by preserving its housing for working-class and other residents, its character, its open space, and its livability.

No corporate U.S. medium mentioned Jack’s death (or his life); both Mundey and the Green Bans are almost unknown here. But the Green Bans deserve to be well known, because alliances among labor, indigenous communities, communities of color, and environmentalists (such as under the umbrella of the Green New Deal) are crucial to our future.

BUILD IT NOW?

The NSWBLF’s approach was profoundly different from the approach of building trades unions in the U.S. at that time (and now).

In 1975, as I was installing ductwork in San Francisco on my first high-rise job, many co-workers walked out. Their demand was to move forward the Yerba Buena project in the SoMa District.

The delay was because of community demands, including the relocation of the working-class residents who were living in the single-room occupancy hotels that would be demolished. The building trades unions (along with big business and the city’s political class) were saying “Build it now,” even though retired union members were among those who would be thrown under the bus.

Moreover, the project would eliminate shops full of unionized blue-collar jobs, to be replaced by office buildings full of non-union jobs. I didn’t join the walkout.

DETERMINING WHAT TO BUILD

If the U.S. unions’ demand was “Build it now,” here’s how Mundey as secretary of the NSWBLF in 1972 saw it:

“Yes, we want to build. However, we prefer to build urgently-required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, provided they are designed with adequate concern for the environment, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally-bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices...

“Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment. More and more, we are going to determine which buildings we will build...

“The environmental interests of three million people are at stake and cannot be left to developers and building employers whose main concern is making profit. Progressive unions, like ours, therefore have a very useful social role to play in the citizens' interest, and we intend to play it.”

Towards a Global Climate Strike

By John Molyneux - Global Ecosocialist Network - July 13, 2020

The IWW has not yet decided whether to endorse this call. This is posted here for information purposes only.

The Global Ecosocialist Network (GEN) is asking its members and affiliated organisations to popularise the idea of a global climate strike coinciding with the COP 26 Conference in Glasgow in November 2021.

To avoid misunderstanding it should be said at the outset that GEN is not itself presuming to call such a strike but we hope to spread the idea and be part of assembling a broad coalition that can issue such a call. Also the idea of a strike in November next year is not counter posed to any actions or struggles that may develop in the meantime but would complement them.

What follows are some comments on why I think this is a good idea and on some of the political thinking behind it.

First, the obvious. The issue of climate change has been overshadowed by the Covid pandemic but in fact the scientific evidence shows catastrophic climate change, particularly in the form of bouts of extreme heat, is developing even faster than the experts had predicted and making existing responses even more inadequate than they already were. It is vital that we put this question back at the centre of political debate.

Second, the mere fact that COP 26 was postponed for over a year shows that this issue is not really an urgent priority for the world’s rulers and therefore it is essential to build the mass popular movement to put them under pressure.

So why a global strike? The broad environmental movement will invest a great deal of energy into COP 26 both in terms of trying to exert influence within the Conference and in terms of mobilizing people to be on the streets of Glasgow and at various counter summits etc. But the fact is that the mass of ordinary people in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Oceania and even in Europe, will not be going to Glasgow and the idea of a climate strike offers a framework within which people can become engaged everywhere.

The idea of a climate strike next November provides a strategic goal which we can work towards in a multitude of ways over the next year. There will be innumerable conferences and organising meetings held by bodies ranging from NGOs and Charities (War on Want etc) to Extinction Rebellion and ecosocialist groups to radical political parties in the coming period. The goal of a global climate strike day can be canvassed at all of them in order to build momentum. It is something which, hopefully, everyone except the most conservative wing of the movement can support and combined with numerous other forms of action relevant to particular countries and situations.

Is it possible? It is, of course, by no means guaranteed but it IS possible. In the not too distant past the idea of a global strike on anything, let alone climate, would have seemed outlandish and akin to those tiny left sects that repeatedly called general strikes to zero effect. But times have changed. Most obviously we have seen the inspirational school strike movement launched by Greta Thunberg On 15 March 2019, the schools strikes exploded internationally. Here are some of the high points: Australia – 150,000; Germany – 300,000; France – 195,000; Italy – 200,000; Canada – 150,000; UK – 50,000; Austria – 30,000; Luxemburg – 15,000; Ireland – 16,000. There were also smaller strikes and protests in places as far flung as Reykjavik, Slovenia, Cape Town, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Overall, about 2,200 events took place in about 125 different countries, with more than a million participating worldwide. In 2019 there were strikes in the USA by McDonald’s workers against sexual harassment and prison strikes against unpaid labour. In India in 2016 an estimated 160 to 180 million public sector workers went on a 24 hour general strike against privatisation and government economic policies. It was hailed as the largest strike in history. In Spain on International Women’s Day, 2019, approximately 5 million held a strike against gender inequality and sex discrimination and this strike was initiated by feminists outside the official trade union movement. In the course of the fight for abortion rights there were important right-to-choose strikes in both Poland and Ireland. And there are Black Lives Matter strikes planned for the US on 20 July.

The proletarianisation of white collar work, the globalisation and multicultural diversification of the working class has facilitated the adoption of the quintessentially working class form of struggle – the strike – by people a long way from the traditional stereotype of the industrial worker.

Vale Jack Mundey: A Visionary Ecosocialist Unionist

By Jim McIlroy - Green Left, May 11, 2020

Jack Mundey, a path breaker in militant unionism and a pioneer of the Green Bans movement in Australia, died on May 10, aged 90.

Mundey, along with co-officials Joe Owens and Bob Pringle, led the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in one of the most crucial periods of working-class militancy in Australia.

Born in north Queensland, Mundey came to Sydney to play Rugby League with Parramatta in the 1950s. He got a job as a builder’s labourer and eventually joined with other members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and other left militants to win leadership of the BLF in the late 1960s.

Greg Mallory quotes Mundey in his book Uncharted Waters: Social Responsibility in Australian Trade Unions about the BLF’s campaigns to win significant wages and conditions for its members being led by the union’s new, left-wing leadership: “If it wasn’t for that civilising of the building industry in the campaigns of 1970 and 1971, well then I’m sure we wouldn’t have had the luxury of the membership going along with us in what was considered by some as ‘avant-garde’, ‘way-out’ actions of supporting mainly middle-class people in environmental actions. I think that gave us the mandate to allow us to go into uncharted waters.”

However, Mundey, who was elected NSW BLF secretary in 1968, also stressed: “It is no point winning great wages and conditions if the world we build chokes us to death”.

Green Bans

The Green Bans story started in the 1960s when Sydney was being transformed by a huge building boom, pushed along by the corrupt, pro-developer Liberal Premier Robert Askin.

The first Green Ban supported a campaign by a group of North Shore women to save a small piece of undeveloped land called Kelly’s Bush. After that success, the BLF was besieged with similar requests for industrial action to protect the environment and social values. BLF support was conditional on proven merit and community involvement and soon some 40 Green Bans tied up billions of dollars worth of development projects in Sydney and nearby regions.

The movement captured the imagination of residents, urban planners, environmentalists and heritage activists. Bans were extended to express solidarity with the right of women to work in the industry, to support anti-freeways campaigns and for Aboriginal justice. In 1973, the BLF imposed a “pink ban” when Macquarie University discriminated against a gay student.

Mundey also pursued another central principle — union democracy. All decisions on industrial bans and actions were put to the BLF membership for a vote.

The militant NSW BLF was eventually defeated by an unholy alliance between factionally opposed union leaderships, the Master Builders Association and the state government.

However, the Green Bans saved large parts of Sydney and set down new heritage pathways as part of a more progressive attitude towards urban development.

Mundey continued to campaign for environmental and social justice, and was elected to Sydney City Council from 1984 to 1987. He also worked with the Australian Conservation Council for more than 10 years, and was chair of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.

Visionary

NSW Greens co-convenors Sylvia Hale and Rochelle Flood described Mundey as “a great visionary”.

“Under his leadership of the Builders Labourers Federation, for the first time we saw unity between the struggles of unions and environmentalists.

“The Green Bans born out of this unity reshaped Australian politics and delivered significant wins for heritage, urban bushland and public housing. The union stood shoulder to shoulder with the community in fighting developments whose sole purpose was to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

“Jack’s courage was phenomenal — taking on the corrupt Askin government and many ruthless developers. He and his union colleagues built a broad-based social movement with students and residents that won protection for The Rocks, Centennial Park, Kelly's Bush and Woolloomooloo.

“At the heart of Jack’s politics was a deep understanding that it is broad based social movements that are the drivers of progressive change. Jack was a great unifier.”

Motion: climate strikes and COP26

By RS21 members - RS21, January 18, 2020

As temperature records tumble and states fiddle while the world burns, we can’t afford to wait five years for a new government to tackle the climate emergency. Convergence between the climate movement and the labour movement offers the only hope of averting catastrophe. rs21 members have produced a model motion you can adapt and use in unions and the Labour Party to popularise the idea of a climate strike on International Workers’ Day, 1 May 2020, mobilise for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, and organise for action on climate in every workplace.

You can download a PDF copy of the motion here.

This (branch/region/committee/trades council/union/conference) notes the urgent need for action on the climate emergency, both in response to existing negative impacts such as extreme weather, fires, droughts, floods and loss of habitat and species; and to avoid the catastrophic and irreversible climate damage which people increasingly realise the world is on course for, after the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

We recognise that big business, the military and the richest individuals are responsible for the vast majority of climate change, yet the global working class and poor are disproportionately at risk. A just transition (that protects the lives, livelihoods and rights of the working class, poor and disadvantaged) to a decarbonised economy is not only right, but is the only way the movement against climate chaos will secure the mass support needed to win, and avoid a rich minority protecting themselves at the expense of the planet and the vast majority of people.

We congratulate the school students striking around the world for real climate action and welcome the decision of the TUC to support them and call for a solidarity stoppage. We note that many workers did strike on 20 September 2019, despite Britain’s repressive legislation, by campaigning to pressure employers not to apply sanctions to climate strikers.

We note that there is discussion about the possibility of making Friday 1 May 2020, traditionally International Workers’ Day, also a climate strike. We note that the UN ‘COP’ climate change conferences have become a major focus for campaigners, that COP26 will be taking place in Glasgow from 9-20 November 2020, and that many organisations are already making plans.

First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2020; images by SEIU Local 26

Above: Thousands of Minneapolis cleaning workers walked off their jobs and struck their downtown commercial high-rises. Among their key demands was that their employers take action on climate change. Quite possibly the first union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands. Credit: SEIU Local 26.

It isn’t easy for unions to strike to protect the climate. U.S. labor law doesn’t make it easy to strike over anything except wages, hours, and working conditions – even over things like climate change that profoundly affect workers and their future. So it was important news when Minneapolis commercial janitors held an Unfair Labor Practices strike this week to protest employer stalling – including on demands that their employers help fight climate change. This is the third in a series of commentaries on The Future of Climate Strikes. For the entire series see here.

On Thursday February 27 thousands of Minneapolis cleaning workers walked off their jobs and struck their downtown commercial high-rises. Among their key demands was that their employers take action on climate change. It was one of the first—as far as I have been able to discover, the very first—union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands.

The janitors are members of Service Employees International Union Local 26. They are employed by over a dozen different subcontractors like ABM & Marsden to clean corporate buildings like IDS, Capella Tower, EcoLab, U.S Bank, Wells Fargo, United Health Group, Ameriprise and many more across the Twin Cities.[1] The workers are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color. One observer described the meeting authorizing the strike as “a rainbow coalition of immigrants from all over the world and people from every race and religion in the state.” The union provided simultaneous interpretation into Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Amharic, and Nepalese.[2]

I wanted to know something about the background to the strike, so I called Steve Payne, who wrote an excellent article about plans for the strike in Labor Notes.[3] He spent years as an organizer for Local 26 and now works for the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club. Much of this commentary is informed by my discussion with him.

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