Saturday, December 27, 2008

Now 63% of Americans back auto bailout

First they were against the auto bailout, now they're for it.  How to explain such a rapid turnaround in U.S. public opinion?  I mean, now 51 percent of Americans believe that the failure of U.S. automakers would cause "major problems" for the U.S. economy, and 15 percent think it would cause a "crisis," although, interestingly (and naively?), 82 percent don't think it would affect them personally.  We also see that Republicans are split down the middle on the bailout, 51 to 49 percent, while 70 percent of Dems predictably support it.

CNN's Bill Schneider offers up "fear" as the reason for the reversed poll numbers, but he doesn't explain why Americans are afraid now when they weren't two weeks ago. 
Do we have Obama and the dastardly lib'rul media to thank for this rapid re-education of Americans?  Or have cooler heads simply prevailed, after seeing our Republican President announce that the auto bailout was a fait accompli?

Here's what hasn't changed in two weeks:  Nearly two-thirds of Americans are still reluctant to buy a car for an automaker in bankruptcy, meaning that bankruptcy would probably kill GM and Chrysler, because they can't survive cost cutting and restructuring while selling even fewer cars than now, when auto sales are down 25-30 percent from 2007. 

By Paul Steinhauser,
December 23, 2008  |

A new national poll Monday finds a majority of Americans approve of recent loans to big U.S. automakers, but less than 3 in 10 would support additional assistance.

Sixty-three percent of those questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey support the White House loaning more than $13 billion to American automakers Chrysler and General Motors, while 37 percent opposed the move.

In exchange for the loans, the deal calls for the auto companies to show by the end of March plans for viable new business models.

The poll numbers out Monday are drastically different from a similar poll from early December.

Sixty-one percent of those questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey out December 3 were against the federal government providing billions of dollars to the automakers, with 36 percent favoring such a bailout.  Video: Watch why six in 10 support the bailout

Monday's poll shows 53 percent of Americans don't think government assistance for the automakers will help the U.S. economy.

But just 28 percent said they would approve providing the automakers with more money, while 70 percent said they would prefer to let them go bankrupt.

"The opposition to any additional assistance may be a reluctance to spend more money that they think the government may never see again," Holland added. "Only 28 percent say the auto companies involved in the current program will be able to pay all or most of the $13 billion back; one in five say they will not be able to pay any of it back to the government.

"This perceived lack of ability to pay taxpayers back may be one reason why the poll indicates auto executives are not very popular with Americans. Eighty-two percent of those questioned have a negative view of auto executives."

Union leaders don't fare well either: Sixty-one percent of those polled have a negative view of them.

Two-thirds of those polled said they would be less likely to buy a car from an auto company in bankruptcy.

The CNN/Opinion Research poll was conducted Friday through Sunday, with 1,013 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey's sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Internet, MSM, Iraq, and the Truth

(This is my last Big Sanctimonious Lecture of 2008, so bear with me.)

Look at me, the proof of Kaylan's thesis below, right?  Don't I selectively read and filter information to present a "truth" that agrees with my worldview?  Well, I hope not.  I try to present & critique views I disagree with, I even make myself read FOXNews.  But I do worry about the growing number of people who get their information about the world exclusively from sources which cater to their ideological taste, from dispenser of truth who may or may not call themselves "journalists."  That is why I battle the myth of the "lib'rul media," because those who harp on this theme act like scarecrows, driving conservatives away from the "hidden bias" of the MSM, only to embrace the overt, comforting bias of talk radio and the right-wing web.  But if you insist on swallowing the myth of the Liberal Media and the Conservative Antidote, you should still read and listen to both (however you define them), or else there will be nothing for you to "counteract" with your preferred source(s)!   

Indeed, I reject the idea that there are only two sides out there, and the dangerous idea that, "If this news/analysis disagrees with my beliefs, then it must be biased." 

Still, Kaylan's final question is a good one:  How do people develop beliefs in the first place?  Psychologists and political scientists have, I think, already answered this question, and it has little to do with what newspapers we read.  For a journalist like Kaylan, perhaps the hardest truth to accept is just how powerless he is to shape public opinion.

To me, the central, disturbing question is: How interested are people in the truth, anyway?  Do they really care?  I mean, it's not like liberals and conservatives don't see or hear the other side's arguments, even accidentally; it's just that they don't care about them.  It's not that they don't see or hear facts in reported news which contradict their views, it's that they simply disregard them.  Talk radio, the Internet and cable news have simply made it easier for us to talk past each other, avoiding real interaction and the messy debates and clashes of ideas that come with it. 

Kaylan chooses a great example in Iraq, because 99.9% of us have never been there, nor do most of us have the opportunity to talk with somebody who has been there.  We have no common reference point for what's happening over there. 

(Except, perhaps, the failed war in Vietnam.  But time has shown how flawed that comparison was, and how unique the Iraq morass is.  Nevertheless, Vietnam has served a useful purpose by giving us at least a starting point, some kind of framework within which to discuss the Iraq invasion and occupation.  As the Iraq war wore on, and we realized we'd be there a long time, others -- mostly those who have supported the Iraq invasion and occupation -- reached back further still: to the shared reference point of WWII.  They argued that the messy war in Iraq was part of a larger campaign identical to the noble and heroic war to beat back Fascism.  In my view, however, that reference point missed the mark both emotionally and intellectually, and consequently, never took hold with many Americans.) 

And yet, despite our ignorance and distance from actual events in Iraq, we care deeply about them. 
We have been forced to make up our minds on less than perfect information.  For if we didn't choose a side, we weren't able to participate meaningfully in directing our democracy -- or, by extension, their fledgling democracy.  Moreover, in times like these, professing one's ignorance or uncertainty is fraught, because those who claim knowledge and certainty -- even if they are dangerously wrong -- garner respect and public support and seize the initiative.  (This is exactly what happened in the runup to the Iraq invasion).  So when the stakes are this high, you have to choose a side and take a stand, knowing full well that the whole Truth may be beyond reach.

Thankfully, we usually do have a shared reality with which to vet the news and opinions presented to us.  We have brains, education, and experience at our disposal.  In the dawning Obama Era, let's use them.  In 2009, let's be less ideological, more pragmatic and solutions-oriented, and embrace the "reality-based community."

The Internet Is Bad For The Truth

By Melik Kaylan

December 23, 2008  |


The Internet's evisceration of the music business points to yet another kind of meltdown on the horizon, one that may reach a crisis in the Obama years: the meltdown of Big Media purveyors in newsprint, television, books and movies. We confront a bewildering sea change in mass communications, and nobody seems to have clue where we're headed.


In the music biz, easy download capability through computers meant that consumers preferred not to go out and buy CDs. They shared the music for free via the Internet. Now that they can download for a dollar a song from iTunes--a clear revenue stream has appeared but a little too late. Everything else has changed.


Soon after consumption became too easy to monitor properly, supply followed suit; anybody could create music and push it on the Web, thereby bypassing the music industry gatekeepers. Result: There was a Babel of options to choose from and--the already famous excepted--no way of knowing whom to choose because the new process destroyed the old one by which talent gradually evolved toward fame and recognition.


The gatekeepers had served the vital function of filtering, marketing and branding talent. By creating celebrity, they'd helped focus the attention of mass audiences toward shared tastes, shared cultural experiences and, ultimately, shared values (however dubious).


Many iconoclasts objected to the old system, and have been delighted with the changes. They talk of "democratization" and "proliferation of choice" and "pluralism."


This is especially true in the area of news media. Ann Coulter, for example, was recently asked in a public forum what she thought of the financial difficulties besetting mainstream newspapers. She was delighted that the monopolies had finally fragmented and new voices like hers could be heard.


In principle, she is right--but then she achieved fame just before the floodgates opened. She had Fox News on her side and a still-healthy book-industry distribution and marketing system, albeit one that largely found her views distasteful. When the monopolies fade, so will the role (and fame) of anti-monopolists like the leggy and feisty Ms. Coulter. (I have written about her before.)


Where are we headed? Here's a clue: Whenever I returned from reporting in Iraq, I was always asked by people at dinners and cocktails--informed citizens all--"What's it really like over there?" Ye Gods, I thought, you live in the most media-intensive environment, with so many sources, how can you still be asking?


At first I thought they didn't trust the media monopolies or the political slant in every report they read ranging from blogs to newspapers. But I've come to sense a profounder cause at work: the fragmentation of the very process by which we form opinion, or taste, or ultimately a sense of the truth.


I grew up in the U.K. at a time when the television offered two state channels and one commercial channel. It meant that mandarins with high taste determined the level of culture to be nightly consumed by the citizenry. It also meant that the country as a whole experienced culture, even counterculture, in unison.


Not a bad time to grow up--from high-minded documentaries like the 7-Up series to entertainment from the Beatles to Monty Python to Spitting Image, the system produced terrific results. Sure, one had to filter out the snoozy-left default ideology of BBC apparatchiks, but most people were intelligent enough to do so, and partly because the BBC didn't talk down to them. After all, the country elected Margaret Thatcher.


Never in doubt, though, was the nature of truth, what it looked and felt like. It was a whole and compact thing with a glue of certainty at the core, enough to act upon, and it grew out of shared reality, common experience. I am not talking about opinions here, political or otherwise, but the sense that it was possible to know what actually happened, to digest the knowledge and believe you knew the truth.


I speak here of the Western world. That sense of the truth was precisely what the Iron Curtain countries lacked, because they disallowed any and all alternative voices.


But there is a point at which multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, trans-national, infinite and contradictory sources of information simply confuse and bewilder the individual and fragment the perceptual consensus. Since no one has the time to wade through all the sources, one arrives at the same relationship to the truth as the Soviet citizen: knowing the truth is too much hard work--if it is even knowable in the end.


To take Iraq again--what your news source chose to report--what it chose to see, even--depended often on its political bias. Anti-war bias? Lots of car bombs to report. Pro-intervention? Lots of turning points in the long struggle. But with a zillion blogs and sources, even by local Iraqis, each with its particular political nuance, how could you know what was the "balanced" version, indeed what was the reality. So much for infinite pluralism in the media.


Recently, I went down to Miami Beach to report for the Wall Street Journal on the annual Miami Art Basel extravaganza. Watching the mega-moneyed collectors at the main art fair, I was fascinated to see that they were all watching each other. In a field where a bunch of cigarette stubs in a medicine cabinet by Damien Hirst can be worth $1 million, nobody knew what was good or bad art, indeed what art was.


Here is the reductio ad absurdum of endless "inclusivity" or "inclusiveness"--it ultimately destroys the category that contains it. Endless truths destroy the notion of truth. If anything can be art, you have no idea what defines art, and you start watching other people to get clues.


The Internet, by its nature, destroys that shaping experience by which countries or cultures live a "moment" together. It's not a normative medium as the BBC was in my youth. It simply feeds the consumer's pre-formed tastes, it doesn't form them. If you know what you want, the Internet is a great tool. But how do you develop your tastes, or political biases or moral code--the criteria that help you to choose--in the first place? My bet is, in the coming decades, it won't be through the media anymore.

Army: We don't have enough troops

Add "Handicapped Our Nation's Military" to Dubya's legacy.

Army Officials Say Many More Active-Duty Troops Are Needed

By Ann Scott Tyson

December 25, 2008  | Washington Post


The Army needs to add at least 30,000 active-duty soldiers to its ranks to fulfill its responsibilities around the world without becoming stretched dangerously thin, senior Army officials warn.


"You can't do what we've been tasked to do with the number of people we have," Undersecretary of the Army Nelson Ford said in an interview last week. "You can see a point where it's going to be very difficult to cope."


Already, the Army lacks a strategic reserve of brigades trained and ready for major combat, officials said, and units being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are receiving new soldiers at the last minute, meaning they have insufficient time to train together before crossing into the war zone.


But the demand for soldiers extends beyond those countries, with the Pentagon creating new missions that require troops trained in cyber-warfare, homeland defense, intelligence-gathering and other areas, Ford said. "We have five to 10 new missions, and we are already stretched now."


The Army is currently on track to grow to 547,000 active-duty soldiers next year, up from 482,000 before the war. But Ford and other Army officials say that, with rising demand for ground troops for Afghanistan and other contingencies, the increase is insufficient.


The service needs 580,000 soldiers "to meet current demand and get the dwell time," Ford said, referring to the amount of time soldiers have at home between deployments to train, rebuild and spend with families. "You can run a machine without oil for so long, and then the machine ceases," he said. "The people are the oil."


Ford's remarks come two years after Donald H. Rumsfeld resigned as defense secretary, removing from the Pentagon a powerful opponent to expanding the Army. Rumsfeld opposed a permanent increase in the size of the Army and instead devoted much of his tenure toward turning it into a more agile force, an agenda that met with objections and dismay from senior Army officers.


The Army is also benefiting from the weakened economy, which has improved the service's ability to recruit and retain soldiers. Despite well-publicized recruiting problems faced by the Pentagon in the early years of the Bush administration, the Army has met its recruiting goals for the last three years, and it continues to see benefits from its $1.35 billion, five-year "Army Strong" advertising campaign launched in 2006.


But President-elect Barack Obama's transition team has signaled that the incoming administration will look to cut the Pentagon budget, of which military personnel costs are a rising share.


Planning is underway at the Pentagon to add at least 20,000 more U.S. troops to the force in Afghanistan, but the Army is facing pressure to supply not only combat brigades but also the thousands of support soldiers required to facilitate operations in Afghanistan's austere terrain.


"Logistics issues in Afghanistan are just stunning," Ford said.


And in Iraq, even as the total number of U.S. troops declines, more support forces are likely to be required, in part to assist the Iraqi military, Army officials say. "As you draw down in Iraq, you're going to need more sustainment and aviation," said Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which has been deployed to Iraq three times.


The demand for soldiers extends beyond the war zones, as commanders in other regions request troops, Ford said. "It's a real challenge. It's not just Centcom that thinks they need more soldiers; Northcom wants more soldiers, Africom wants a dedicated headquarters, Pacom wants more for 8th Army in Korea," Ford said, referring to the U.S. Central Command, Northern Command, African Command and Pacific Command.


The shortage has serious implications for the Army's preparedness for other major contingencies, because constant rotations leave too little time to train for anything but the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the officials said. The Army last week unveiled a new training doctrine that requires preparation for "full-spectrum" combat, but service officials estimate it will take about three years before combat brigades have enough time at home between tours to carry out that training.


"We need at least 18 to 24 months" at home for training, said Lt. Gen. James D. Thurman, the Army's deputy chief for operations. "If we get beyond 18 months, we can start building the full-spectrum capabilities back," he said. "We can start moving towards that within the next three years."


Yet the Army is constrained in its ability to increase time at home, because of a constant need to rotate forces overseas and the Pentagon's limit on the length of deployments for active-duty soldiers, as well as the mobilization time for reserve and National Guard soldiers.


The Army's current growth plan involves adding six active-duty combat brigades over the next three years, which will ease the rotational strain somewhat. At Fort Stewart, Ga., the 3rd Infantry Division, which now has 20,000 soldiers, will add 5,000 soldiers, including a fifth brigade by late next year, according to Brig. Gen. Tom Vandal, the division's deputy commander for support.

WSJ: Goldman pays bonuses with bailout money

Can't believe this story got by me.  Man, the cajones of these Wall Street jerks!  They're giving huge bonuses with our taxpayer money.  The average Goldman 2008 payout in comp and benefits: $400,000.


With "punishment" like that for their greed and stupidity, we can be sure that more Wall Street scams and scandals are in our future.  These guys never learn, because these hotshot bankers never get burned; they always get their six-figure salary and bonus.  Merry Christmas to all the "little people!"



Mean Street: The Chutzpah of Goldman Sachs

By Evan Newmark 

December 16, 2008  |


You have to admire Lloyd Blankfein's nerve.


Goldman's yearly profit is down more than 80%. Its shares are down about 70%. It has been forced to accept billions in capital from Warren Buffett and, of all indignities, Washington D.C.


And Blankfein has just paid the average Goldman employee about $395,000 — nearly eight times what the American median household earns in a year.


But that's not the nervy thing. It's that in a year when Wall Street has utterly destroyed itself, Blankfein sees no need to change the Goldman business model.


That's what even Bernie Madoff might call chutzpah.


First, to the issue of pay. The perception of Goldman's management and Wall Street analysts will be that Goldman was "tough but fair" on year-end bonuses.


After all, didn't Goldman's senior executives forfeit any 2008 bonuses? And didn't Goldman's comp expense fall from over $20 billion in 2007 to under $11 billion this year? And won't bonuses for many at Goldman be down 40% or 50%?


But these bonuses are marked down from 2007, a record year for Wall Street. The "average" Goldman employee will still receive almost $400,000 in comp and benefits. And hundreds of bankers and traders at Goldman will still pocket multi-million dollar pay packages.


This should not be a surprise. Wall Street bankers, shareholders and the analyst community expect high compensation — annus horribilis or not. Washington politicians may carry on, but this is the way the "free market" works.


It was funny to listen to the discussion of bonuses on the investor conference call with Goldman CFO David Viniar. One analyst fretted "are they happy?" when inquiring about the morale of Goldman's ranks.


And when another analyst opined that a 48% comp to net revenue ratio seemed at the high end given this year's utter financial destruction, Viniar shot back that Goldman paid a lower ratio than its Wall Street competitors.


Forget that most of these competitors don't exist anymore. But this is classic Wall Street thinking. Senior execs target comp at close to 50% of net revenues because that's what's worked well in the past.


It hasn't necessarily worked well for shareholders — but that's another matter.


The 50% comp target is symptomatic of Goldman's current "no change to the business model" mindset.


Goldman's view is that it is the victim of rotten markets. And that's understandable — because the markets have been rotten, especially for any institution forced to mark assets to market and delever a trillion dollar balance sheet at the same time.


Bear, Lehman and Merrill Lynch couldn't manage it. But Goldman certainly did. In fact, it turned a profit in 2008. Did anybody else?


So as Lloyd Blankfein surveys the new Wall Street. He sees a lot less competition. He sees depression-level markets that will probably rebound from their lows. He sees commercial banks that will be buried in consumer loan and mortgage writedowns.


And he knows that greed can quickly replace the fear and outrage that now grips the minds of investors.


So maybe Blankfein thinks with some justification: Why should I change the business model? Why shouldn't I pay my people? And how quickly can I repay the loan from the Treasury to get Washington off my back?


Blankfein might just convince the market of Goldman's business model. Despite the lousy results, Goldman shares closed up 14% today at $76. Funnily enough — that's the same price as the high for Goldman's shares on the first day of its IPO in 1999.


Perhaps Blankfein can laugh at the irony, but I'm not sure too many of his shareholders would.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Krugman: When's the next bubble gonna save us?

The man just won a Nobel in economics.  Listen to him.

Life Without Bubbles

By Paul Krugman

December 22, 2008  |  New York Times


Whatever the new administration does, we're in for months, perhaps even a year, of economic hell. After that, things should get better, as President Obama's stimulus plan — O.K., I'm told that the politically correct term is now "economic recovery plan" — begins to gain traction. Late next year the economy should begin to stabilize, and I'm fairly optimistic about 2010.


But what comes after that? Right now everyone is talking about, say, two years of economic stimulus — which makes sense as a planning horizon. Too much of the economic commentary I've been reading seems to assume, however, that that's really all we'll need — that once a burst of deficit spending turns the economy around we can quickly go back to business as usual.


In fact, however, things can't just go back to the way they were before the current crisis. And I hope the Obama people understand that.


The prosperity of a few years ago, such as it was — profits were terrific, wages not so much — depended on a huge bubble in housing, which replaced an earlier huge bubble in stocks. And since the housing bubble isn't coming back, the spending that sustained the economy in the pre-crisis years isn't coming back either.


To be more specific: the severe housing slump we're experiencing now will end eventually, but the immense Bush-era housing boom won't be repeated. Consumers will eventually regain some of their confidence, but they won't spend the way they did in 2005-2007, when many people were using their houses as ATMs, and the savings rate dropped nearly to zero.


So what will support the economy if cautious consumers and humbled homebuilders aren't up to the job?


A few months ago a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion, on point as always, offered one possible answer: "Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble to Invest In." Something new could come along to fuel private demand, perhaps by generating a boom in business investment.


But this boom would have to be enormous, raising business investment to a historically unprecedented percentage of G.D.P., to fill the hole left by the consumer and housing pullback. While that could happen, it doesn't seem like something to count on.


A more plausible route to sustained recovery would be a drastic reduction in the U.S. trade deficit, which soared at the same time the housing bubble was inflating. By selling more to other countries and spending more of our own income on U.S.-produced goods, we could get to full employment without a boom in either consumption or investment spending.


But it will probably be a long time before the trade deficit comes down enough to make up for the bursting of the housing bubble. For one thing, export growth, after several good years, has stalled, partly because nervous international investors, rushing into assets they still consider safe, have driven the dollar up against other currencies — making U.S. production much less cost-competitive.


Furthermore, even if the dollar falls again, where will the capacity for a surge in exports and import-competing production come from? Despite rising trade in services, most world trade is still in goods, especially manufactured goods — and the U.S. manufacturing sector, after years of neglect in favor of real estate and the financial industry, has a lot of catching up to do.


Anyway, the rest of the world may not be ready to handle a drastically smaller U.S. trade deficit. As my colleague Tom Friedman recently pointed out, much of China's economy in particular is built around exporting to America, and will have a hard time switching to other occupations.


In short, getting to the point where our economy can thrive without fiscal support may be a difficult, drawn-out process. And as I said, I hope the Obama team understands that.


Right now, with the economy in free fall and everyone terrified of Great Depression 2.0, opponents of a strong federal response are having a hard time finding support. John Boehner, the House Republican leader, has been reduced to using his Web site to seek "credentialed American economists" willing to add their names to a list of "stimulus spending skeptics."


But once the economy has perked up a bit, there will be a lot of pressure on the new administration to pull back, to throw away the economy's crutches. And if the administration gives in to that pressure too soon, the result could be a repeat of the mistake F.D.R. made in 1937 — the year he slashed spending, raised taxes and helped plunge the United States into a serious recession.


The point is that it may take a lot longer than many people think before the U.S. economy is ready to live without bubbles. And until then, the economy is going to need a lot of government help.

Greedy Wall St.: What did you expect?

No accountability.  Those greedy, amoral Wall Street banks are not even bothering to track the $ billions in our tax money that they received to "save" them.   

Meanwhile, GM and Chrysler got put through the ringer and were ultimately rejected over a fraction of the $700 billion handed out -- no strings attached -- to Wall Street, with demands on Detroit to restructure and put government minders on their executive boards. 

Where's the consistency?  What's the explanation?  Simple: greedy ex-Wall Street f-----s run the Fed and Treasury; but the Big 3 have no similar representation in the U.S. Government.

I love this quote from Rep. Scott Garrett, (R-NJ), it puts it all in perspective:  "A year or two ago, when we talked about spending $100 million for a bridge to nowhere, that was considered a scandal."  My, my, my, how times have changed.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Inspiring story of NC union (seriously)

Think what you want about unions, but this inspiring story -- I can see the movie now -- shows how much power employers have to crush unions before they even start: police intimidation; a "company jail;" pink helmets given to injured workers; union "ringleaders" fired without cause; racketeering charges filed against the union by the company, etc.  Blue collar workers are definitely the underdog. 

Unions Come to Smithfield, NC

By David Bacon

December 17, 2008  |


When immigration agents raided Smithfield Food's huge North Carolina slaughterhouse two years ago, union organizer Eduardo Peña compared the impact to a "nuclear bomb." The day after, people were so scared that most of the plant's 5,000 employees didn't show up for work. The lines where they kill and cut apart 32,000 hogs every day were motionless. "Workers think it's happening because people were getting organized," said Vargas at the time.


Yet on Dec. 11, 2008, when the votes were counted in the same packing plant, 2,041 workers had voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), while just 1,879 had voted against it. That stunning reversal set off celebrations in house trailers and ramshackle homes in Tarheel, Red Springs, Santa Paula, and all the tiny working-class towns spread from Fayetteville down to the South Carolina border.


Relief and happiness are understandable in North Carolina, where union membership is the lowest in the country. But Smithfield workers were not just celebrating a vote count. They'd just defeated one of the longest, most bitter anti-union campaigns in modern U.S. labor history. Their victory was the product of an organizing strategy that accomplished what many have said that U.S. unions can no longer do -- organize huge, privately owned factories.


In 1994 and 1997, Smithfield workers voted in two union-representation elections and rejected the UFCW both times. In 1997 the head of plant security, Danny Priest, told local sheriffs he expected violence on election day. Police in riot gear then lined the walkway into the slaughterhouse, and workers had to file past them to cast their ballots. At the end of the vote count, union activist Ray Shawn was beaten up inside the plant.  Three years later, Priest, while still head of plant security, became an auxiliary deputy sheriff, and plant security officers were given the power to arrest and detain people at work. The company maintained a holding area for detainees in a trailer on the property, which workers called the company jail. (Smithfield gave up its deputized force and detention center in 2005.)


Management used such extensive intimidation tactics that both elections were thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board. In 2006 the NLRB forced Smithfield to rehire workers fired in 1994 for union activity and pay them $1.1 million. That was a victory for the union, but workers on the line could also easily see that Smithfield lawyers kept union supporters out of work for over a decade, in violation of the law.


In 2003 contract workers for QSI, a company that cleans the machinery at night, finally challenged that atmosphere of fear. According to Julio Vargas, a QSI employee, "The wages were very low, and we had no medical insurance. When people got hurt, after being taken to the office, they made them go back to work and wear pink helmets [to humiliate them]. We were fed up." Led by Vargas, the cleaning crew refused to go in to work. The company negotiated, and workers won concessions. The following week, however, those identified as ringleaders, like Vargas, lost their jobs.


Nevertheless, a new group of UFCW organizers understood the importance of that work stoppage. The union set up a workers' center in nearby Red Springs, holding classes on English and labor rights. Vargas and other fired workers went to work for the UFCW, organizing discontent over high line speed and its human cost in injuries. Workers began to stop production lines to get the company to talk with them about health and safety problems.


In April 2006, as immigrant protests spread across the country, 300 Smithfield workers stayed out of work and marched through the streets of nearby Wilmington. On May 1 they paraded again, this time by the thousands.


Those heady days, however, were followed by a series of immigration-enforcement actions orchestrated between the company and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. On Oct. 30, 2006, the plant's human resources department sent letters to hundreds of immigrant workers, saying the Social Security numbers they'd provided when they were hired didn't match the government's database. Managers gave them two weeks to come up with new ones.


"On November 13, over 30 were escorted out of the plant," recalled Peña. The following Thursday, more than 300 workers walked out in protest. They met at a local hotel, came up with a list of demands, and got church leaders to intercede with the company. Smithfield agreed to rehire the terminated workers for 60 days. "It's hard to imagine how empowered people felt," Peña recalled.


The success of the workplace action impressed African American workers, who at the time made up about 40 percent of the work force. Union supporters collected 4,000 signatures asking the company to give employees the day off on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. A delegation took the petitions to the human resources office, but a company vice president refused to accept them. When they were denied the holiday, 400 workers didn't come in anyway and virtually shut down the plant again.


"Unity between immigrant Latino and African American workers was essential to organizing a union," said Gene Bruskin, then the director of the UFCW's Justice at Smithfield campaign, and the drive's principal strategist. In the earlier campaigns, divisions between the two groups contributed to the union's defeat.


Nine days after the Martin Luther King Day action, ICE agents came out to the plant in their first raid. After they arrested 21 people for deportation and questioned hundreds more in the factory lunchroom, fear grew so intense that most workers didn't show up the following day. A few months later, a similar raid took place.


The percentage of immigrants began to decline as many Latino workers were forced out of the plant. Eventually, the ratio between blacks and Latinos was reversed. The immigrant work force shrank to about 40 percent, while the percentage of African Americans rose to 60 percent. At that point, however, African American workers became more active in the unionization campaign. Union workers eventually collected the signatures of about half the plant's employees, demanding that the company agree to recognize the UFCW. Meanwhile, UFCW organizers began using the violation of workers' rights to mobilize customer pressure against Smithfield. Union and community activists collected thousands of signatures on petitions asking store chains to find another pork supplier, and the city of Boston stopped purchasing Smithfield products.


Inside the plant, militant activity began to rise again. One key moment came when Juan Navarro wrote "Union Time" with a felt pen on his helmet. Supervisors called him in and took away his helmet. Navarro worked on the kill floor where a majority of the workers are black. When he went back to the line, the other workers decided to back him up. "Union Time" appeared on their helmets, too, and eventually spread throughout the plant, becoming the slogan of the union campaign. Smithfield was even forced to apologize to Navarro. 

[Is that Hollywood material or what?  - J]


In the back room of the tiny Mexican market down the road from the plant, the union committee started meeting before and after work. Black and Puerto Rican activists would then take leaflets and union newsletters into the plant and walk through the halls and into the break rooms, handing out the information to their co-workers.


When Martin Luther King's birthday approached in 2008, the union passed out a leaflet telling workers to "hold the date." This time, the company not only gave Tarheel workers the holiday but also let workers take the day off in every nonunion Smithfield plant. One union activist observed that the increased activity among African American workers gave a kind of cover to the Mexicans, allowing them to regain some of their former activism without feeling they had a target painted on their backs. At the same time, Puerto Rican workers also became more vocal, giving the union another voice in Spanish from workers who aren't immigrants at all. 

[I'm telling you, this is Oscar-worthy stuff: Mexicans, Blacks, and Puerto Ricans joining together to fight The Man! I can see it now... "Smithfield.  A film by Sean Penn.  Starring: Lou Diamond Phillips, John Legiuzamo, and introducing André '3000' Benjamin as 'Meat Processor with Knife #2.'" - J]

The company responded to rising pressure both inside and outside the plant by filing a racketeering suit against the union. It demanded the same kind of NLRB election it had won in 1994 and 1997 and accused the union of being anti-democratic when it would not agree to repeat the bitter experience of the past.


As a trial grew close, the union and the company agreed to an election procedure that workers and organizers felt would keep Smithfield from using the old bare-knuckle tactics. The union won the right to access the plant premises, and organizers were able to walk the halls themselves and to sit in the lunchrooms and talk with workers, explaining the potential benefits of unionization. The company was able to hold a limited set of "captive audience" meetings, which workers were required to attend, where they heard management's anti-union speeches and watched anti-union videos. But the union also won the right to limit those speeches, keeping out threats and overt intimidation.


In the meantime, the lunchrooms became hubs of union activity, with "Union Time" visible on helmets, leaflets, and buttons. To union activists, visibility inside the plant meant that, in the eyes of workers, the union had some power. Coupled with concessions on things like the King holiday, and a history of protest over accidents and line speed, it became clear the union could actually win changes. At the same time, workers were the union's visible leaders. Despite the firings and immigration raids, many veteran union supporters stayed active in the campaign. Union organizers spent countless hours with those leaders, talking about tactics and helping make decisions about the course of the campaign.


And when the ballots were counted, the union won.



Efforts by the modern U.S. labor movement to organize factories the size of the Tarheel plant have not been very successful for the last two decades. In fact, private-sector unionization has fallen below 8 percent of the work force. The giant electronics plants of Silicon Valley have an anti-union strategy so intimidating that unions haven't even tried to organize them for years. Japanese car manufacturers have built assembly plants and successfully kept workers from organizing, despite efforts by the auto union.


The price for the lack of a successful strategy to organize those Japanese plants became clear in December's congressional debate over the auto bailout proposal, when Southern Republican senators demanded that the United Auto Workers agree to gut its union contracts to match the nonunion wages and conditions at Nissan, Honda, and BMW. The presence of the nonunion plants now threatens to destroy the union. The same dilemma exists in industry after industry.


To get out of the box, today's labor movement pins its hopes on the Employee Free Choice Act. This proposal would require a company like Smithfield to negotiate a union contract if a majority of workers sign union cards. It would avoid the kind of union election that took place in 1997, where the idea of voting freely became a farce in an atmosphere of violence and terror. EFCA would also put penalties on employers who fire workers for union activity. At Smithfield, the company was only obliged to pay fired workers for their lost wages, and even then was allowed to deduct any money they'd earned during the decade their cases wound through the legal system. EFCA would substantially restrict the kind of anti-union campaign Smithfield mounted for 15 years.


But EFCA by itself will not build strong unions, which workers can use not just to win elections but to make substantial changes in the workplace itself. The union at Smithfield wasn't created on election day by a fairer legal process. Workers had already organized it in the battles that preceded the vote. They did much more than sign union cards, go to a few meetings, and cast ballots. They had to lose their fear, show open support for the demands they'd chosen themselves, and learn to make management listen to those demands by slowing down lines, circulating petitions, and forming delegations to demand changes. Those battles hardened the leaders who survived.


And if African American and Latino immigrant workers hadn't found a way to work together, the union drive would have ended with the immigration raids. Immigration enforcement was used to attack the union drive, and for months after the no-match letter and the two raids, the organizing campaign was effectively dead. At Smithfield and elsewhere, enforcement of immigration law itself has become a way to punish workers when they try to improve conditions. It was only when the African American workers who'd fought the first battle for the King holiday became the core of a new generation of leaders that the struggle to build the union could continue. Immigration raids didn't help black or other citizen workers -- they increased the fear, reduced the activity, eliminated leaders, and added months, if not years, to the time needed to rebuild. In the end, both African Americans and immigrant workers found a common interest in better wages and working conditions. But they also had to agree to defend the right of each worker to her or his job -- any unfair firing was an attack on the union, whether the victim was black, Mexican, or Puerto Rican. If the company and ICE had been successful in convincing half the plant that the other half really had no right to work because of their immigration status, workers would have been unwilling and unable to defend each other.


The root of the problem lies in employer sanctions, the provision of federal law that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers. The law, in effect, makes working a crime for people without papers and hands employers a weapon to fight their own work force. When unions decided at the AFL-CIO convention in 1999 to call for repeal of sanctions, they recognized that changing immigration law was just as necessary for organizing unions as passing reforms like EFCA.

[Now, before you say, "Of course the slaughterhouse shouldn't hire illegal workers!  It has every right to demand inspection raids by Immigration!" remember this: meat packing plants and other plants knowingly hire illegals, because they are easy to intimidate or fire, they don't sue when plants are unsafe, and they don't ask for things like medical leave for injuries, or health insurance.  In management's view, they are perfect labor.  Until they try to unionize.  That is why selective enforcement by plants is legally and morally wrong. - J

Outside the Tarheel plant, the union grew roots in working-class communities. It organized a permanent coalition with churches and community organizations, not just a temporary arrangement of convenience. It became part of workers' lives. They met in its office, took English classes there, and marched in demonstrations for civil rights. And that coalition was able to turn the company's anti-labor activity against it, exposing its record in the place where Smithfield was most vulnerable -- in the eyes of consumers.


Without pressure from workers and their communities, Smithfield had no motivation to reach an agreement on a fair election process. The election result, therefore, was the product of a long-term organizing effort and commitment. Smithfield workers and the UFCW have shown that with a similar commitment, organizing is possible, no matter how big the plant or anti-union the employer. But it takes a strategy based on building a real union in the workplace and community. And with changes in labor and immigration law, workers won't have to conduct a 15-year war to do it.


David Bacon is a writer and photographer, and associate editor for New America Media. He is the author of The Children of NAFTA and sits on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Committee of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.

Darth Cheney's dark WMD fantasies

Dick Cheney remains unrepentant.  He hasn't learned a darn thing from his mistakes.  In fact, once in the Bush Administration, Cheney unlearned his own warnings about occupation and quagmire in Iraq.  Because of him, America spent over 4,000 lives and $1 trillion to neutralize a threat that never existed, yet Cheney maintains we're all "better off" for this colossal blunder.  Ah, but what can we say or do now that it's too late, except, "Go away, and never come back!"? 

Dick Cheney's Fantasy World

By Scott Ritter

December 16, 2008  |  The Guardian


In yet another attempt at revisionist history by the outgoing Bush administration, vice-president Dick Cheney, in an exclusive interview with ABC News, took exception to former presidential adviser Karl Rove's contention that the US would not have gone to war if available intelligence before the invasion had shown Iraq not to possess weapons of mass destruction. Cheney noted that the only thing the US got wrong on Iraq was that there were no stockpiles of WMD at the time of the 2003 invasion. "What they found was that Saddam Hussein still had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the technology, he had the people, he had the basic feed stock."

The vice-president should re-check both his history and his facts. Just prior to President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, the UN had teams of weapons inspectors operating inside Iraq, blanketing the totality of Iraq's industrial infrastructure. They found no evidence of either retained WMD, or efforts undertaken by Iraq to reconstitute a WMD manufacturing capability. Whatever dual-use industrial capability that did exist (so-called because the industrial processes involved to produce legitimate civilian or military items could, if modified, be used to produce materials associated with WMD) had been so degraded as a result of economic sanctions and war that any meaningful WMD production was almost moot. To say that Saddam had the capability or the technology to produce WMD at the time of the US invasion is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

While one can make the argument that Saddam had the people, insofar as the scientists who had participated in the WMD programmes of the 1980s were still in Iraq and, in many cases, still employed by the government, these human resources were irrelevant without either the industrial infrastructure, the economic base or the political direction needed to produce WMD. None of these existed. The argument Cheney makes on feed stock is even more ludicrous. Precursor chemicals used in the lawful manufacture of chemical pesticides were present in Iraq at the time of the invasion, but these were unable to be used in manufacturing the sarin, tabun or VX chemical nerve agents the Bush administration claimed existed inside Iraq in stockpile quantities prior to the invasion.

The same can be said about Iraqi biological capability. The discovery after the invasion of a few vials of botulinum toxin suitable for botox treatments, but unusable for any weapons purposes, does not constitute a feed stock. And as for the smoking gun that the Bush administration did not want to come in the form of a mushroom cloud, there was no nuclear weapons programme in Iraq in any way shape or form, nor had there been since it was dismantled in 1991. Cheney's dissimilation of the facts surrounding Iraqi WMD serves as a distraction from the reality of the situation. Not only did the entire Bush administration know that the intelligence data about Iraqi WMD was fundamentally flawed prior to the invasion, but they also knew that it did not matter in the end. Bush was going to invade Iraq no matter what the facts proved.

Cheney defended the invasion and subsequent removal of Saddam from power by noting that "this was a bad actor and the country's better off, the world's better off with Saddam gone". This is the argument of the intellectually feeble. It would be very difficult for anyone to articulate that life today is better in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra or any non-Kurdish city than it was under Saddam. Ask the average Iraqi adult female if she is better off today than she was under Saddam, and outside of a few select areas in Kurdistan, the answer will be a resounding "no".

The occupation of Iraq by the United States is far more brutal, bloody and destructive than anything Saddam ever did during his reign. When one examines the record of the US military in Iraq in terms of private homes brutally invaded, families torn apart and civilians falsely imprisoned (the prison population in Iraq during the US occupation dwarfs that of Saddam's regime), what is clear is that the only difference between the reign of terror inflicted on the Iraqi people today and under Saddam is that the US has been far less selective in applying terror than Saddam ever was.

At a time when the US and the world struggle with a resurgent Iran, the Iranian-dominated Dawa party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki governs Iraq today in name only. The stability enjoyed by Iraq today has been bought with the presence of 150,000 US troops who have overseen the ethnic cleansing of entire neighbourhoods in cities around Iraq, and who have struck temporary alliances with Shia and Sunni alike which cannot be sustained once these forces leave (as they are scheduled to do by 2011).

Invading Iraq and removing Saddam, the glue that held that nation together as a secular entity, was the worst action the US could have undertaken for the people of Iraq, the Middle East as a whole and indeed the entire world. For Cheney to articulate otherwise, regardless of his fundamentally flawed argument on WMD, only demonstrates the level to which fantasy has intruded into the mind of the vice-president.