28 August 2008

Would an Obama presidency mean fair trade?

"Free trade" as we have come to know it is largely a mechanism for making the world safer for corporate exploitation, particularly of cheap labour. The admission of China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) serves as an example. The fact that China deprives its workers of fundamental rights, and the resulting cheap labour offers the country a major trade advantage, has not precluded China from membership. Coerced labour offers a trade advantage not only to China but also to global corporations, and that's the whole point.

Barack Obama's talk of renegotiating NAFTA was quickly suppressed but his running mate, Joe Biden, has long been a defender of the American worker and advocate of fair trade. He insists that protection for workers and the environment be part of all future trade deals and has promised to renegotiate NAFTA. In his words, "The idea that we are not willing to take the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico to the mat to make this agreement work is just a lack of presidential leadership." Strong words indeed. Maybe Biden will be free to walk where Obama fears to tread, play the bad guy to Obama's good guy in trade deals. The current state of the American economy may certainly prompt a reappraisal of U.S. trade priorities.

Whether or not Biden will stick to his guns should he become vice-president is another matter. He has, after all, been accused of being an erratic pragmatist on foreign policy issues. Supporters of fair trade can only hope his pragmatism, erratic or otherwise, will apply to the interests of workers and the environment, and not to the interests of corporations. as has been the rule to date.

27 August 2008

News Flash! The poor get poorer

Working Canadians are a little poorer today than they were a year ago. At least on average. According to Statistics Canada, while average weekly earnings from June, 2007, to June, 2008, rose 2.5 per cent, consumer prices rose 3.1 per cent. In other words, workers' purchasing power dropped 0.6 per cent.

Some industries did better than others. Workers in mining and oil & gas, for example, saw their earnings rise 8.2 per cent to $1,528.79 per week. Workers in retail trade, on the other hand, saw only a 1.6 per cent increase to $491.76. A classic example of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Particularly disturbing is that retail trade is Canada's largest employer with almost two million workers. The trend of fewer people getting more and more people getting less seems to continue. If the tide is rising, most boats are sinking.

20 August 2008

Carol Huynh saves the nation

Carol Huynh. Remember that name. Etch it in your memory. Carol Huynh is the young woman who saved Canada from terminal petulance.

For the first week of the Olympics, Canadians fretted fearfully that they were to be deprived of gold. Like little boys who didn't get their Christmas toy, we were sulking about the house. Everyone else was getting gold, why not us? It just wasn't fair. Or at least this was the depressing picture offered by our daily press. Things looked very dark indeed.

Then Carol Huynh saved the nation. She won a gold medal in free style wrestling. Of course, few Canadians know what free style wrestling is, and wouldn't walk across the street to watch a match, but no matter, we had won gold. Our national honour would survive. The magnitude of the event was illustrated by leading headlines in our daily papers.

When a nation's honour, or at least when a nation thinks its honour, rests on a woman from Hazelton, B.C., whipping a woman from Japan in a competition that most Canadians normally haven't the slightest interest in, is this not pathetic? Or maybe just silly? Premier Campbell of B.C. would have us spend large sums of money to ensure we win lots of gold thingies in the future. "It's critical he said," as he lauded China for all the medals it has won. The fascist nature of China's sports program, reminiscent of the Soviet Union and East Germany, seems to have escaped his notice. The Olympic Games seem to hold some mystical power to distort normally sensible people's sense of values.

Anyway, thank God (and Carol Huynh et al.) we now have some medals. Canada will not crumble after all.

Great Power politics in the Caucasus

Poor Georgia. An ancient civilization now best known for being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, it currently finds itself the target of two competing Great Powers while led by a president who recklessly gambles with the welfare of his people.

The American interest once again revolves around that dirty little three-letter word: oil. The U.S.-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, carrying a million barrels of crude a day, runs through Georgia, allowing the West to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern oil while, of great importance to the Americans, bypassing Russia and Iran. The pipeline carries oil from Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea fields which hold the world's third-largest reserves. The U.S. would very much like to have Georgia accepted into NATO thus obliging Western European countries to defend the pipeline.

Russia, on the other hand, has considered Georgia its property for centuries, under the czars and then under the Communists. Great powers do not yield their empires easily and the hostility of Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili has not helped. Consequently, Russia makes mischief where it can, i.e. in the two separatist-run provinces of Abhkazia and South Ossetia where it still has some influence.

Unfortunately, Russia can justify its muscle-flexing by a precedent the West established. We defended the Kosovars right to divorce themselves from Serbia (and accepted their declaration of independence with unseemly haste), so we can hardly deny the South Ossetians the right to independence from Georgia. So when Saakashvili decided to throw the dice, taking advantage of Putin's presence in Beijing and all the Olympic hoopla to bully South Ossetia back into the fold, Russia had ample justification in hand. As for the Americans' scolding Russia about invading other countries, their bluster lacks all credibility coming from a nation that's waging wars in two foreign lands and threatening a third.

In a perfect world, democracy would determine the status of all regions. People everywhere would determine their own futures whether it be South Ossetia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Tibet or anywhere else. Tragically, however, might is still often right, and the wishes of Great Powers must be taken into account. The future of South Ossetia will depend therefore not only on the wishes of the Ossetians but also on the whims of the Russians.

Georgia has a right to its independence and we should support its democracy, such as it is, but we shouldn't rub Russia's face in it. And that's what the United States has been doing -- using the country as a pipeline corridor, training and equipping its army, promoting its acceptance into NATO, and so on.

As for Georgia, it's going to have to live next door to Russia for a very long time. A tiny country with a giant neighbour, it might be advised to pursue a more astute policy than looking for allies afar and enemies nearby. And the world can well do without its president's provocative foolishness.

15 August 2008

Unions unite

The meeting this week of United Steelworkers from locals across Canada and Brazil in Thompson, Manitoba, illustrates what workers must do if they are to have a voice in the global marketplace.

The unions, representing workers employed by the Brazilian-owned Vale Inco, the world's second largest mining company, gathered to support the Thompson local in negotiations with the company. The support stems from an accord signed by Vale unions around the world in Sudbury in 2007. It requires the unions to "work together cooperatively and strategically as global partners, to build the bargaining power of workers." That commitment is being fulfilled this week. “Brazilian Vale workers stand in solidarity with Steelworkers in Thompson,” said Eduardo Pinto, leader of the Sindicato dos Ferroviarios do Maranhoa-MA, CNTT.

Unions represent democracy in the workplace, and if we are to have a fully democratic society, democracy in the workplace is essential. And that applies, of course, to the global society. When workers in China and elsewhere are free to associate with their brothers and sisters in the rest of the world, globalization will start to mean something more than cheap labour for corporations.