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Harvest of Shame ’99; Egging Mother; Trade Secrets; Hellraiser Martha Ojeda;; Greener Greens; Legal Blues

Harvest of Shame ’99

As autumn begins to wind down, migrant workers pick the late-ripening Fuji apples in the orchards of eastern Washington. By early November, more than 150,000 workers will have ended their punishing annual tour of the state’s cherry, apricot, peach, and apple orchards. An estimated 37,700 — mostly from Mexico and Central America — will have lived outdoors with their children in the weeds and ditches and desert wind, without cookstoves, running water, or toilets.

“So far we’ve been lucky,” says Kevin Barry, environmental health director of the Grant County Public Health Department. Even with hundreds camped on the banks of the Columbia River, drinking the river water and bathing in it, he says, “we haven’t seen an outbreak of cholera or hepatitis.”

These deplorable living conditions are the norm in the great fruit basket east of the Cascades. But this year the housing issue pitted state and federal agencies against each other in a struggle that left growers angry, regulators looking confused, and workers again sleeping on the ground.

Growers are not required to provide housing for workers, but if they do, it must meet standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). These standards, enforced by the state, call for houses or military-style tents with seven-foot-high walls and solid floors, running water, enclosed areas for cooking and eating, and electric refrigeration and lighting. But the state health department has been licensing camps since 1995 that fall below these standards.

The regulatory situation fell apart last summer. Nearly half of Washington’s 16,000 migrant cherry pickers were left homeless while state and federal agencies argued over the acceptability of state-licensed camps where workers furnished their own tents and growers provided drinking water, showers, and toilets.

“We were trying to get something going,” says Rich Nafziger, who advises Gov. Gary Locke on farmworker issues. “Nobody was doing anything. These don’t meet federal codes, but they’re better than sleeping in the weeds.”

The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) assailed the state-licensed camps, accusing Gov. Locke of scheming to weaken the federal rules to please growers who want workers to live nearby but don’t want to provide suitable housing. “Once those rules were established, they weren’t going to change,” says Erik Noel Nelsen, a UFW researcher. “We couldn’t allow it. These are the most exploited workers in the U.S. and they deserve protection.”

The union complained to OSHA, and the agency told the state it would no longer tolerate its licensing of substandard camps.

“It’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever seen,” says apple and cherry grower Les Dorsing of Royal City. Dorsing spent $125,000 to provide a state- licensed camp with a shower house, flush toilets, laundry facilities, picnic tables, ice chests, and outdoor fire grates for 190 workers. But federal regulators wouldn’t let them stay there.

“At six o’clock they had to leave the orchard and go into the sagebrush to sleep,” Dorsing says. “But the feds say it’s better to do that than to let them bring their own tents.”

Not true, says John Spear, assistant regional administrator for OSHA. “The feds have never said it’s better to sleep in the sagebrush. It’s incumbent on the employer to provide housing under the standards in force.”

The UFW’s Nelsen argues that the only real solution is for growers to pay workers a living wage, so they can rent decent housing. “They could double the [apple] pickers’ wages and you’d pay one more penny a pound. Not a big deal.”

Also not likely to happen.

Spear hopes for some improvement next year as the state launches a $40 million, 10-year housing program. But next year’s harvest tour could prove worse than ever. Many growers are switching from apples to cherries, a riskier but more profitable crop. Because the entire crop must be picked in a matter of days, there’s little incentive for growers to build standard housing.

The number of migrant cherry workers is expected to grow from 16,000 to nearly 21,000 over the next five years. And unless some consensus is reached, most will arrive at the orchards without the slightest idea where they and their children are to eat, bathe, or sleep. — Bob Simmons


Egging Mother

West Virginia coal miners continued to clash with their traditional supporters on the Left this summer over the divisive issue of mountain-top removal mining (see “Razing Appalachia,” July/August 1999). Relations hit an absurd low in August when miners attacked pro-labor marchers — including a woman dressed as celebrated union advocate Mother Jones — who were commemorating the Battle of Blair Mountain, a 1921 labor uprising pivotal to the formation of the United Mine Workers.

The present-day miners, who egged Mother Jones and roughed up 84-year-old W. Va. Secretary of State Ken Hechler, were apparently angered by the participation of opponents of surface mining and historical preservationists in the march: The drive to create a national landmark at the battle site threatens future mining on the mountain and could affect local jobs.


Trade Secrets

No one is surprised that the United States uses sophisticated electronic spying techniques against its enemies. But Europeans are increasingly worried about allegations that the U.S. uses those same techniques to gather economic intelligence about its allies.

The most extensive claims yet came this spring in a report written for the European Parliament. The report says that the U.S. National Security Agency, through an electronic surveillance system called Echelon, routinely tracks telephone, fax, and e-mail transmissions from around the world and passes on useful corporate intelligence to American companies.

Among the allegations: that the NSA fed information to Boeing and McDonnell Douglas enabling the companies to beat out European Airbus Industrie for a $6 billion contract; and that Raytheon received information that helped it win a $1.3 billion contract to provide radar to Brazil, edging out the French company Thomson-CSF. These claims follow previous allegations that the NSA supplied U.S. automakers with information that helped improve their competitiveness with the Japanese (see “Company Spies,” May/June 1994).

Is there truth to these allegations? The NSA is among the most secretive of U.S. intelligence agencies and won’t say much beyond the fact that its mission is “foreign signals intelligence.” The companies involved all refused to comment.

“Since the NSA’s collection capabilities are so grotesquely powerful, it’s difficult to know what’s going on over there,” says John Pike, an analyst at the watchdog group Federation of American Scientists, who has tracked the NSA for years.

This much is known: The NSA owns one of the largest collections of supercomputers in the world, and it’s an open secret — as documented in the European Parliament report — that Echelon vacuums up massive amounts of data from communications satellites and the Internet and then uses its computers to winnow it down. The system scans communications for keywords — “bomb,” for instance — that might tip off analysts to an interesting topic.

Fueling allegations of corporate espionage is the fact that defense contractors and U.S. intelligence agencies are linked extensively through business relationships. Raytheon, for instance, has large contracts to service NSA equipment, according to the European report.

Englishman Glyn Ford, the European Parliament member who initiated the study, wants the NSA to come clean about its activities in Europe. And the Europeans have some leverage on this issue, if they decide to use it. In a drive to improve surveillance, the United States is pressuring European governments to make telephone companies build eavesdropping capabilities into their new systems. But if that’s what the U.S. wants, says Ford, it’s going to have to be open about what information it’s collecting: “If we are going to leave the keys under the doormat for the United States, we want a guarantee that they’re not going to steal the family silver,” he says.

In the meantime, congressional critics have started to wonder if all that high-powered eavesdropping is limited to overseas snooping. In April, Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a member of the House Government Reform Committee, said he was worried by reports that the NSA was engaged in illicit domestic spying.

“We don’t have any direct evidence from the NSA, since they’ve refused to provide any reports, even when asked by the House Intelligence Committee,” Barr says. “But if in fact the NSA is pulling two million transmissions an hour off of these satellites, I don’t think there’s any way they have of limiting them to non-U.S. citizens.”

Last May, after the NSA stonewalled requests to discuss the issue, Congress amended the intelligence appropriations bill to require the agency to submit a report to Congress. (The bill is still in a conference committee.) And the NSA will face more questions when the Government Reform Committee holds hearings on Echelon and other surveillance programs.

“We ought to prevent any agency from the dragnet approach — where they throw out a net and drag anything in,” Barr says. — Kurt Kleiner


Hellraiser Martha Ojeda

Martha Ojeda bears the scars of NAFTA-inflamed labor wars along the U.S.-Mexico border. In Mexican border cities, where the trade accord has created a confluence of First World productivity and Third World wages, Ojeda has agitated against some of the world’s most powerful corporations to end sweatshop conditions. She has emerged as a new brand of labor leader, striving for cross-border solidarity.

In 1994, Ojeda’s efforts to raise wages at a Sony factory in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, were met with perhaps the most violent reprisals in a decade of border protests. When a group of Ojeda’s co-workers nominated the longtime labor rights activist for union president, they were all promptly fired. And when the subsequent union election was won by Sony’s favored candidate, workers — who considered the election a fraud — barricaded the factory’s gates, standing their ground for five days before Sony called out guards and local police to beat them back.

Ojeda fled to San Antonio, Texas, where she discovered the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras — a group of 150 union, religious, and community organizations from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The group supported Ojeda in exile and spearheaded her ultimately fruitless legal case against Sony, one of the first filed under NAFTA’s labor provisions. “The NAFTA process is unable to protect workers’ rights,” she says bitterly.

Ojeda has since risen to become the coalition’s executive director — the first Mexican to hold that post. She is committed to uniting workers affected by NAFTA, which she views as labor’s only answer to an era in which jobs and capital can move as though borders no longer exist.

In her most visible act as coalition head, Ojeda led workers from the Alcoa Fujikura plant in Ciudad Acu–a to the company’s 1996 stockholder meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, they confronted the company about dangerous working conditions, including suspected gas leaks that workers believed had made many ill. Ojeda also brought a powerful ally to the meeting — the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a group that influences the investment of millions of dollars and specializes in shareholder actions for social justice.

Ojeda and the coalition won management’s commitment to look into conditions at the plant, an investigation that revealed a series of noxious gas leaks had gone unreported in 1994. This revelation led to the firing of Alcoa Fujikura’s president, Robert Barton, in June 1996.

Currently, Ojeda is seeking redress for workers in Valle Hermoso who were fired for striking to raise their $4-a-day wage. Ojeda recognizes that justice on the border is hard to come by, but her fiery optimism is never far from the surface. “Here I can fight for my people,” she says, “for a better living standard, for democracy, and our rights.” — David Bacon

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) bills itself as “a grassroots organization of individuals with brain disorders and their family members.” The alliance was a prominent participant in last June’s White House Conference on Mental Health. Earlier, President Clinton named its executive director, Laurie Flynn, to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission.

But some mental health activists say the Arlington, Virginia-based organization — which is widely viewed as an independent advocate for the mentally ill, and an influential voice in mental health debates — is overly influenced by pharmaceutical companies. It’s certainly well funded by the industry: According to internal documents obtained by Mother Jones, 18 drug firms gave NAMI a total of $11.72 million between 1996 and mid-1999. These include Janssen ($2.08 million), Novartis ($1.87 million), Pfizer ($1.3 million), Abbott Laboratories ($1.24 million), Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceuticals ($658,000), and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($613,505).

NAMI’s leading donor is Eli Lilly and Company, maker of Prozac, which gave $2.87 million during that period. In 1999 alone, Lilly will have delivered $1.1 million in quarterly installments, with the lion’s share going to help fund NAMI’s “Campaign to End Discrimination” against the mentally ill.

In the case of Lilly, at least, “funding” takes more than one form. Jerry Radke, a Lilly executive, is “on loan” to NAMI, working out of the organization’s headquarters. Flynn explains the cozy-seeming arrangement by saying, “[Lilly] pays his salary, but he does not report to them, and he is not involved in meetings we have with [them].” She characterizes Radke’s role at NAMI as “strategic planning.”

As a matter of policy, NAMI does not reveal the amounts of specific donations. But spokesman Bob Carolla acknowledges that the group receives substantial funding from drug firms, who provide “most if not all” of the antidiscrimination campaign’s $4 million annual budget. In addition, Carolla told Mother Jones, corporate donations account for $310,000 of NAMI’s 1999 core budget of $7.1 million — with most of that coming from pharmaceutical firms. The rest of the budget, he says, comes from charitable and membership contributions. (Another affiliated program, the NAMI Research Institute, has a budget of $20 million. Focusing on the biological causes of mental illness, it is fully funded by the private Stanley Foundation.)

Janet Foner, a co-coordinator of Support Coalition International, an activist organization of “psychiatric survivors,” says NAMI does a good job in some areas, but argues that the group’s corporate sponsors help shape its agenda. “They appear to be a completely independent organization, but they parrot the line of the drug companies in saying that drugs are the essential thing.”

Many experts believe that the umbrella term “mental illness” embraces a broad array of conditions with equally diverse causes. NAMI spokesman Carolla says the group views mental illness as a disease, like diabetes or Alzheimer’s, that can be treated most effectively with medications. “Mental illness is a biologically based brain disorder,” he says. “That’s not to say that other factors can’t affect mental illness, but the core problem is biologically based.”

NAMI’s critics agree that mental illness can be triggered by biological factors, but point also to environmental causes such as incest, child abuse, family dysfunction, and other traumas. NAMI’s approach “reduces human distress to a brain disease, and recovery to taking a pill,” says Sally Zinman of the California Network of Mental Health Clients. “Their focus on drugs obscures issues such as housing and income support, vocational training, rehabilitation, and empowerment, all of which play a role in recovery.” Furthermore, Zinman argues, Thorazine, Prozac, and other drugs routinely prescribed for the mentally ill can be counterproductive and even harmful.

NAMI’s Flynn says her group is “not a captive of any outside industry.” But she acknowledges there is at times a “synergy” in goals between NAMI and the drug companies. For example, both favor so-called health care parity laws, which would require insurers to view mental illness as they do other diseases. “[The drug companies] want more and greater markets, and we want access and availability to all scientifically proven treatments. We don’t think drugs are everything, but for the vast majority they are important.”

Flynn says the Campaign to End Discrimination is funded separately to ensure that drug industry money is not comingled with funds earmarked for NAMI’s core budget. Sally Zinman, for her part, says that taking money for any purpose from drug companies — which have a direct financial stake in the mental health debate — is at odds with the ideal of independent advocacy. “NAMI is seen by the media as the voice of the mental health community, but the integrity of its work is called into question by its sources of funding,” she says. —Ken Silverstein

Greener Greens

Golf courses cover an estimated 1.32 million acres in the United States — a landmass larger than the state of Delaware — and more than 400 new courses crop up each year. The fact that the vast majority of these courses douse their greens with pesticides and buzz-cut fairways for a “manicured” look — polluting water systems and driving out birds and wildlife along the way — should give any environmentalist pause. At their worst, says Andy Romero of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), golf courses are “about as environmentally friendly as Las Vegas.”

Peter Salinetti, course superintendent at the posh Schuyler Meadows Club near Albany, New York, freely admits most courses get “caught up in the greener-is-better trap.” But Salinetti wedged himself out of that trap four years ago, electing to join Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary System. The nonprofit AI certifies golf courses, business campuses, and school grounds it deems good for the environment, and approved Salinetti’s links after he cut pesticide use, reduced watering, and let much of the course grow wild. Schuyler Meadows now features clean water and natural undergrowth, which attract wild turkey, deer, and fox.

The NFWF lauds the AI program. “It’s turning the golf industry around,” Romero says. Others, including Mark Massara of the Sierra Club, claim it only allows golf courses to “greenwash.” They view this program run by “the other Audubon” (the National Audubon Society being the older, bird-friendly group) as a PR stunt: AI is largely funded by the U.S. Golf Association.

But if the program intends to make golf as a whole seem green, then it is failing. In seven years AI has certified only 190 courses — an embarrassing foil to the nation’s other 16,100. Still, a growing number of prestigious courses are now joining Audubon’s list. One Pebble Beach course recently entered the sanctuary program, and this newfound eco-cred hasn’t diminished its plaid-pants appeal: The 1999 U.S. Amateur Championship was played there in August. — Speed Weed

Legal Blues

Free legal assistance from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic helped residents of tiny Convent, Louisiana — where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line — block Shintech Corporation’s planned $700 million polyvinyl chloride plant in their town. But in persuading the EPA to overturn the state’s approval of the plant, the clinic piqued the ire of both the governor and the state Supreme Court, prompting the latter to greatly restrict access to free university law clinics. Pending final appeal, Louisiana’s poor have lost a vital tool for countering the heavy industries that have made their state one of the most polluted in the nation.

Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster is nothing if not pro-business. Under his leadership, the state has placed limits on corporate liability, outlawed punitive damages for on-the-job injuries, and offered generous corporate tax breaks. His unabashed pursuit of development leaves business advocates gushing: “The simplicity of his arguments is stunning,” says state Chamber of Commerce spokesman Brian Schwaner. “He asks, ‘Well, will it bring jobs here?'”

But industrial jobs along Louisiana’s Mississippi River Industrial Corridor — a.k.a. “Cancer Alley” — can hold dire health consequences: The more than 100 heavy industrial facilities in the area release 142 million pounds of toxins annually. In blocking approval of Shintech’s plant in 1997, the EPA noted that the plant would have affected a disproportionately poor, African American community already living in the shadow of 10 chemical plants.

When the Tulane clinic got the EPA involved, Foster fumed — Shintech had contributed $5,000 to his campaign, and defeat would send an unacceptable message to prospective businesses. During the EPA investigation, he told a business gathering in New Orleans that he aimed to “get that bunch at Tulane under control.”

With Foster’s encouragement, the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Council complained to the state Supreme Court that student law clinics “interfere with Louisiana’s interest to attract new business” and that the rules governing them should be “corrected.” The court responded in June 1998, restricting the clinics from representing any individual making more than $10,060 per year. For class-action suits, the court decreed, 51 percent of those represented must meet that requirement.

The Tulane clinic claims the elected justices were swayed by political pressure: Louisiana business interests make large contributions to the judges’ campaigns. “I always thought the courts were the last and great protector of those who didn’t have power and money,” says Robert Kuehn, former director of the Tulane clinic, “but they gave in to very powerful political and business groups.”

This past March, public outcry led the court to raise the minimum income requirement to $16,480. Still viewing this as unacceptable, the Tulane clinic challenged the restrictions in federal court. District Judge Eldon Fallon dismissed the case in July, noting baldly that “In Louisiana, where state judges are elected, one cannot claim complete surprise when political pressure somehow manifests itself within the judiciary.”


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