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Swine Flu: It’s Not Race, It’s Capital April 29, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Health, Latin America, Mexico, Racism.
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Written by danielschmidt

April 29, 2009, www.latinamericanmusings.wordpress.com

Swine flu did not begin because of Mexican genetic fallibility, terrorism, or otherwise. These accusations are baseless, ignorant and racist.

Swine flu is about capital, not race. Swine flu is the fault of multinational pig farms (despite their “moans”) – housing pigs who lay in their own shit, are fed antibiotics so as not to die from diseases they swim in, and are quickly processed and eaten. One does not get swine flu from eating swine, pigs, but develops a strain of disease from a pig, which is then transferred person to person.

Recently, it is almost impossible in the media to receive any sort of information. Think of the Somali pirates (no mention that we pour toxic nuclear waste and shit into their harbors). This time, we hear no word about Smithfield, the conglomerate pork processor that is headquartered miles from my home. It has been the policy of the United States to export its ability to produce massive amount of food across the world. Smithfield’s plants, in Mexico and elsewhere, did not happen overnight, but this was something that we should have seen coming.


Perote, Veracruz, where it is believed the strain of swine flu came from, houses an enormous “half-owned” agricompound, run by Smithfield, that produces mass amounts of swine. As Mike Davis notes, in his wonderfully needed “Capitalism and Flu,” this morning:

In 1965, for instance, there were 53 million American hogs on more than 1 million farms; today, 65 million hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities–half with more than 5,000 animals.

This has been a transition, in essence, from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, unprecedented in nature, containing tens, even hundreds of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems, suffocating in heat and manure, while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates and pathetic progenies.

Mexico has been our haven for cheap labor and lax standards. Not only is the world in an economic mess, but in an environmental one too. However, I am not suggesting that everything is known about the flu (it travels unpredictably, springs up in any season: where does it go? how does it travel?), but our drive towards capital at the cost our health has cost us, at best, a health scare, at worst, a pandemic. Washing ones hands will do not good if one is living in shit.

Our contempt for the environment, capital, human beings had led us here. It is not Mexico, or Mexicans. They, unfortunately for us, are not the problem. Mexico does not lack the genetic code to be productive humans or healthy humans, they deal with a lack or resources and a disdain from the US, both in policy circles as well as cultural circles. (In fact, Mexico learned about the swine flu strain six days before it was even picked up by the press in the US – but that speaks to our arrogance as much as our ignorance).


storagecanoecaDespite Mexico becoming a scapegoat for the US and the West’s responsibility in this health scare (guns, drugs, and swine…), Mike Davis suggests that we not sit back in our understanding of what I outlined above. He emphasizes, in his article and in his 2006 book, Monsters At Our Door, that pandemics are real, and should be feared. The Spanish Influenza of 1918 began as a benign flu and roared back with a vengeance just as World War I came to a close. It is not too much assume, according to some, that this could happen once again.

The governments of the world project readiness. President Obama suggests that we should be concerned. Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security Director, declared a state of emergency on Sunday and has freed up the distribution of antibiotics, Thermaflu and such in case of emergencies. But Davis doesn’t think this is enough.

The swine flu, in any case, may prove that the WHO/Centers for Disease Control (CDC) version of pandemic preparedness–without massive new investment in surveillance, scientific and regulatory infrastructure, basic public health and global access to lifeline drugs–belongs to the same class of Ponzified risk management as AIG derivatives and Madoff securities.

It isn’t so much that the pandemic warning system has failed as it simply doesn’t exist, even in North America and the EU.

I cannot comment on the readiness or reliability of our ability to stop this flu from killing more people (almost 200 have died in Mexico alone, no other casualties have occurred from other nations). But I will emphasize that Mexico, and specifically Mexicans, are not the problem. It may have originated in Mexico, but if it happened in, say, Fort Riley, Kansas, like the 1918 flu, we would not be having this discussion. This would be a global tragedy instead of an occasion to once again ignore one’s role and perpetuate the same fractured stereotypes that have led us here in the first place.


Blacks and Immigrants Bring in the Union December 21, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Immigration, Labor.
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pork-packing-union-plant-smithfieldWorkers at Smithfield win union contract after 16 year fight. (Photo: smithfieldfoods.com)


21 December 2008»

by: David Bacon, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

When workers at Smithfield Foods’ North Carolina packing house voted in the union on December 11, the longest, most bitter anti-union campaign in modern labor history went down to defeat. Sixteen years ago, workers there began organizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers. In 1994 and 1997, the union was defeated in elections later thrown out by Federal authorities because the company created an atmosphere of violence and terror in the plant. In 1997, one worker was beaten after the vote count. Company guards were given the ability to arrest workers, who were held in a detention center in the plant they called the company jail. Many workers were fired for union activity. And in recent years, immigration raids swept the plant in the middle of the union drive, adding to the climate of intimidation.

    It was no surprise then, that the pro-union vote (2,041 to 1,879) set off celebrations in house trailers and ramshackle homes in Tar Heel, 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 this state, where union membership is the lowest in the country. But Smithfield workers were not just celebrating a vote count. Their victory was the culmination of an organizing strategy that accomplished what many have said U.S. unions can no longer do – organize huge, privately-owned factories.

    Five thousand people work in the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse, where they kill and cut apart 32,000 hogs every day. Efforts by the modern U.S. labor movement to organize factories the size of the Tar Heel plant have not been very successful for the last two decades. In fact, private-sector unionization has fallen below 8 percent of the workforce. 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, in spite of efforts by the auto union.

    The price for labor’s failure to organize Japanese plants became clear in December’s Congressional debate over the auto bailout proposal. Southern Republican senators demanded that the United Auto Workers agree to gut its union contracts to match the non-union wages and conditions at Nissan, Honda and BMW. The presence of the non-union plants threatens to destroy the union, and the same dilemma exists in industry after industry.

    Unions pin their 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 at Smithfield in 1997, where workers voted in an atmosphere of violence and terror. EFCA would also put penalties on employers who fire workers for union activity. At Smithfield, the company rehired in 2006 workers it fired for union activity in 1994. But it was only obliged to pay the 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. The union at Smithfield wasn’t created on election day. Workers had already organized it in the battles that preceded the vote. They did much more than sign union cards. They had to lose their fear, and show open support for the demands they’d chosen themselves, like lower line speed to reduce injuries, rehiring workers fired because of their immigration status, or giving workers a paid holiday for Dr. King’s birthday. Packinghouse laborers then had to learn to make management listen to those demands by circulating petitions and forming delegations to demand changes.

    The union strategy relied on organizing resistance to immigration-related firings, and uniting a diverse workforce of African Americans, Puerto Ricans and immigrant Mexicans. In 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and company managers cooperated in two immigration raids that produced a climate of terror organizer Eduardo Pena likened to “a nuclear bomb.” Immigrant workers left the plant in droves. The Smithfield raids were two of many in recent years, used to punish workers when they’ve tried to improve conditions.

    The plant’s citizen workers felt the effects along with the immigrants. For months afterwards, the organizing campaign was effectively dead, with many leaders deported and union activity halted by fear. It was only when African American workers who’d fought to win the King holiday became the core of a new generation of leaders that the struggle to build the union could continue.

    If Black and Latino immigrant workers hadn’t found a way to work together, the union drive would have ended with the raids. And if the company and ICE had succeeded in convincing half the plant that the other half really had no right to work because they lacked legal immigration status, workers would have been unwilling and unable to defend each other. In the end, both groups 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, and treat any unfair firing as an attack on the union, whether the victim was Black, Mexican, or Puerto Rican.

    The Smithfield firings were made possible by employer sanctions, the Federal law that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers. The law makes working a crime for people without papers, and became the pretext for firing immigrant union leaders. That’s why the AFL-CIO voted in 1999 to call for the law’s repeal. The Smithfield raids show that changing immigration law is as necessary for organizing unions as passing reforms like EFCA.

    Outside the Tar Heel plant, the union grew roots in working-class communities, and became part of workers’ lives. They took English classes in its office and marched in demonstrations for civil rights. That coalition turned the company’s anti-labor actions against it, exposing its record in the place where Smithfield was most vulnerable – in the eyes of consumers.

    The election result was the product of a long-term organizing effort and commitment. With a similar commitment, other unions can do the same, 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. That’s what workers did at Smithfield.

    And with changes in labor and immigration law, workers won’t have to conduct a 15-year war to accomplish the same goal.