A new target has emerged for labor and environmental activists who are building on the momentum from last fall's anti-WTO demonstrations.
That target is Kaiser Aluminum, which for the past 15 months has locked out 3,000 steelworkers in Tacoma, Spokane, Ohio, and Louisiana, replacing them with scab workers. While the Kaiser lockout has been big news in Spokane, it's gotten relatively little attention or support from local media, the rest of organized labor, or the activist left west of the Cascades—until now.
On the weekend of March 24-27, the King and Pierce County Labor Councils, along with the Direct Action Network and other post-WTO groups, are sponsoring a series of protests against Kaiser and its owner, Houston-based Charles Hurwitz. These will include flyering and protests at the gates on Saturday and Sunday, and a possible arrest scenario on Monday (involving the steelworkers' supporters, but not the steelworkers themselves).
One of the lessons of the anti-WTO success was the importance of choosing the right enemy, and Hurwitz certainly qualifies. He is of interest to environmentalists not only due to the rapaciousness of the aluminum industry, but because he also owns Pacific Lumber, target of a decade's worth of anti-clear-cut demonstrations, tree-sits, and other protests in Northern California. Hurwitz is a junk bond specialist who cost taxpayers over a billion dollars for a failed Texas savings and loan in the 1980s; efforts to force a debt-for-nature swap in the ecologically sensitive Headwaters redwood grove of Northern California somehow ended instead with the federal government paying Hurwitz for the privilege of not clear-cutting. Hurwitz is a smooth, and greedy, operator, and his lockout of union steelworkers (after closing or selling off almost half of Kaiser's plants to pay junk bond debts) is merely the latest in a long string of sociopathic business practices.
The protests' goals, according to steelworker organizer John Youngdahl, are threefold: 1) to increase economic pressure on Kaiser by pressuring its customers; 2) to tie together the labor and environmental movements; and 3) to focus on globalization and corporate greed.
Local activists are also talking about organizing a protest in Seattle that would coincide with the big "follow-up" to no-to-WTO, an April 9-17 series of protests during the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's meetings in Washington, DC. The DC events do not have as much lead time for organizing as the WTO in Seattle, and don't have the advantage of surprise, but they are nonetheless expected to be large and raucous.
Sporadically but surely, a movement is emerging to challenge corporate dominance of public policy and our lives. Eventually, it might even challenge the business-as-usual attitude of our breathtakingly dreary presidential campaign.
Gore and the U'Wa
The Al Gore campaign—speaking of dreary—was peppered in its Washington state stops, as it has been elsewhere around the country, by a relatively obscure issue that is a matter of life and death to those involved.
The U'Wa people of Colombia's Amazonian cloud forests are trying to stop Occidental Petroleum from invading their homeland in search of oil. The U'Wa have threatened collective suicide if the project moves forward; their threats dramatize the genocide that has followed other such mining and prospecting projects in the Amazon Basin over the past 20 years, projects that have been every bit as deadly to indigenous peoples as the buffalo slaughters of the American West 130 years ago. Occidental's track record is already poor; the Ca-o pipeline, which runs just north of U'Wa territory, has spilled an estimated 1.7 million barrels of crude oil into nearby soil, rivers, and lakes since it was completed in 1986. Al Gore's senator father made his fortune through Occidental, and Gore owns up to $500,000 in Occidental stock. He stands to reap large financial rewards if the 1.5 billion barrels of oil that the company estimates lie under U'Wa land are found. Gore has been conspicuously silent on the issue. Some environmentalist.
Meanwhile, protecting that investment as well as Western Hemisphere hegemony in general, the Clinton administration is pushing a $1.3 billion military aid package to Colombia, nearly quadrupling its current involvement. The package is ostensibly part of the war on drugs, but in reality it's more guns and money for the Colombian military and affiliated paramilitaries as they wage a long-running civil war the government is trying to negotiate a settlement to. The Colombian and American military don't want that settlement, and Clinton/Gore are backing the Pentagon.
They lend their support despite exhaustive evidence that the paramilitaries, and the Colombian military itself, are neck-deep in human rights violations. The US State Department tallies over 3,500 members of one opposition party alone assassinated since the late '80s, and the rate of murders and disappearances is accelerating.
The paramilitaries, moreover, are being financed largely through the same coca production that the US military involvement is supposedly combating.
The net result is that the US is not-so-slowly slipping into another war, similar to its Central American misadventures of the Reagan era. As Amnesty International notes, "It is the same policy that backed death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s." Already, 283 US advisors are on the scene. The war is complicated further by oil, and drugs, and indigenous populations that have little use for the government or the rebels. Awareness and opposition to the Colombian intervention is slowly building, but probably not quickly enough to stop the aid package, which will be rammed through Congress later this month.