Month: March 1998

Slash And Burn Politics

This week, Gary Locke’s decisions on which bills to veto, which bills to partly veto, which ones to sign, and which ones to quietly look the other way on while they become law, marks the merciful end of another particularly brutal legislative year in Olympia.

The high point of the session was Republican senator James West of Spokane, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, calling up building industry lobbyist Tom McCabe and leaving the following message on his home answering machine: “McCabe, you son of a bitch, you better get me, ’cause if you don’t, you’re dead.” (Is that a promise?) Instead of taking him up on the offer, McCabe filed charges against Sen. West, and Olympia cops rousted West from his home, read him his rights, and questioned him. That didn’t stop West from supporting new “tough on crime” bills, though.

The low point of the session came Feb. 17th, when the Association of Sheriffs and Police Officers begged our state legislators to stop passing new crime legislation, because police departments all over the state can’t keep up with the new statutes. Lawyers and judges are struggling, too, since many of the new laws contradict each other, making it impossible for courts to tease out the meaning and intent of the law. The next day, our Republican state reps said “no dice,” and blithely continued one-upping each another with new crime bills to wave in front of voters and corporate donors in November.

So how much did these bozos stomp on over our basic rights to adequate food, housing, and decent medical care? Here’s a run-down of the worst bills that passed this season:

Institutionalize your family! In a nightmare revisit of the Becca Bill, legislators passed a law (SSB 6208) making it easier for parents to commit their children to private psychiatric wards–without the evaluation of a neutral doctor or public health official. Aside from the obvious scenario of sick parents acting out their problems by persecuting their kids, this bill will give private-sector mental hospitals the liberty to aggressively diagnose mental illnesses in young patients to boost admission rates (and income). With recent headlines about pre-teen boys shooting up a school, the push is on for Gov. Locke to sign this nasty bill into law. The Seattle P-I’s recent “expose” on the Wenatchee child sex- abuse scandal begs for the obvious connection to be made: there’s no difference between the state legislature and cops who railroaded, abused, and locked up children, their parents, and child care workers in Wenatchee. And tacked onto the bill was an extra $7 million dollars to fund prior provisions of Becca I. Youth groups are demanding that Gov. Locke veto this truly awful piece of legislation.

Lawmakers pulled a similar trick on disabled folks by grossly underfunding the COPES program, which provides money to families caring for disabled people. These funds pay for basic necessities (rent, food, medical care, etc.). The legislature allocated only $3 million of the $10 million needed to keep the program going past December; cynically enough, about 2,000-3,000 disabled folks will get their termination notices right around the holidays–and just after the election season is over. At the same time, our reps threw extra money at nursing home operators, who didn’t have any funding shortfall at all. That’s family values for you!

Kids forced to stay home. While pushing single parents off welfare and into jobs, the legislature refused to provide child care reimbursements or vouchers to low-income, single parents.

Cutting off child care. As if the above wasn’t bad enough, our reps cut all food reimbursements for family day care homes and child care centers. As a result, many centers are now closing their doors.

Feed horses, starve children. Kids who survive on subsidized lunches during the school year need food in the summer, too. But our state reps have reasoned that kids should eat 3/4 less during the summer (they allocated a stingy $25,000 to a $100,000 program). In the meantime, our reps scrounged up a nifty tax break for people who board and feed horses. Priorities …

Let them drink Pepsi. As housing prices skyrocket in the Puget Sound and unemployment reaches double digits in rural areas of Washington, food banks (staffed by volunteers) are increasingly running out of food for a growing population of hungry families. Child care workers, disabled folks too sick to work, single parents who can’t afford child care and so lose their jobs, minimum wage workers–all these people rely on food banks. But our reactionary reps refused any funds to purchase food, and allotted only 20% of the funds that are needed for the basic operating costs of food banks (i.e., rent and utilities).

Yet all is not lost! In their infinite wisdom, our reps gave a $3.9 million per year B&O tax credit to soda pop syrup manufacturers (SB 6602). The pop tax was originally passed by voters by a wide margin … but that didn’t stop lawmakers from going against the will of the people, in a stunning 75- 18 vote. That $3.9 million could have funded the summer lunch program 39 times over.

Want to see the doc? Take a number and wait. The state’s basic health plan was intended to provide health insurance coverage for low-income working families. Three years ago the legislature set a goal of enrolling 200,000 people in the plan. There are currently only 130,000 enrolled, with another 600,000 (and growing daily) on the waiting list. Our reps refused to raise the number of funded slots by a meager 8,000 this year.

Nullify housing laws. Lawmakers supported landlords by passing a state law (SHB 1043) to pre-empt local housing ordinances. This bill will make it impossible for affordable housing advocates or tenants rights groups to push for changes in local laws, and it will reverse decades of work by Seattle housing activists.

Spare change for farmworkers. Fortunately, the inane “English-only” bill died in the legislature. Unfortunately, our reps gutted a proposal to fund safe farmworker housing. Instead of the $18 to $22 million that the program needs over the next ten years, the legislature only committed a one-time grant of $1 million, plus a $1 million set-aside from the overburdened Housing Trust Fund. Farmworker groups are rightly indignant about being tossed crumbs from the master’s table (especially when their hands pick and pack our food in the first place), and are asking Governor Locke to veto this insulting bill (2S6168).

Better start walking. Republican lawmakers passed the worst transportation bill imaginable. It directly robs the general fund to provide only a fraction of the money needed to fix roads and infrastructure. It relies on two sources of funding: a tax credit to vehicle owners in the form of cheaper licensing fees (forget about taxing users), and a huge bond issue which shoves the burden of paying for this year’s inadequate maintenance onto the shoulders of the next generation. It has the effect of charging capital improvements on the state’s American Express card. And when the bill arrives, these jerks won’t be around to pay the political price. Fortunately, the bill won’t pass directly into law–it goes to the ballot in November, along with the anti-affirmative action I-200, for voters to have the final say.

For those who want to lobby the governor, you can contact his office at 360-753-6780, via e-mail at locke_ga@leg.wa.gov or write to Governor Gary Locke, Legislative Bldg., PO Box 40002, Olympia WA 98504-0002.

Special thanks to Nancy Amidei at the University of Washington for her weekly e-zine entitled “Policy Watch,” which provides updates on selected bills during each state legislative session. Policy Watch only appears when the legislature is in session. To receive future issues, send a friendly e-mail to amidei@u.washington.edu. You can also access it via the UW School of Social Work’s website at http://weber.u.washington.edu/~sswweb/ (click on the “Policy Watch” link).

 

Making History (Museum Dept.)

History may repeat itself in a dust-up in progress over the Old Coleman School, located on 23rd and Massachusetts in the Central District. Known to many as the African American Heritage Museum and Cultural Center, it’s an open question now whether the building will remain in the hands of a nonprofit, under the direction of a coalition of activists, or whether the city of Seattle will evict the current tenants and reclaim the property.

In 1985, a group of African-American activists took over the closed building and demanded that the city turn it over to the community for a museum. For months the group occupied the building in an uneasy standoff with the city. Eventually, the city backed down and allowed the activists to stay; the original occupation, now in its 13th year, has turned into the longest-running building occupation in U.S. history.

In 1995, Mayor Rice commissioned a task force to deal with the building occupation. The task force concluded that the museum should be funded, and the city established a nonprofit to run it. Several members of the original group of occupiers joined the board of the nonprofit, and the city pledged half a million dollars in start-up funds.

But, whenever government and money enters the picture, so do “professionals.” The most recent chair of the nonprofit’s board is Bob Flowers, a senior vice president at Washington Mutual Bank. His idea of running a nonprofit organization includes hiring a full-time professional staff person for $48,000 per year (who answers to him) and hiring a cadre of lawyers, architects, and marketing consultants for $100 to $150 per hour to do endless studies of the museum project and throw posh fundraising parties, while the Colman School building continues to deteriorate. It’s a long, long way from the original vision of a center run by and for one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Activists, including some members of the original occupation group, are battling with the nonprofit board to make public the financial records of the organization.

All of this is coming to a head just as the nonprofit’s lease on the building expired March 15th, giving the city the option at any time to seize it back and evict the current tenants.

It’s a conflict that many nonprofit groups with their origins in grassroots struggles face all over the country. At the AAHM&CC, the nonprofit board wants the group to raise a lot of money (which attracts “money managers” like flies to shit), and undertake a vague program of building a high-toned cultural museum some time in the distant future, while the immediate goal is for the nonprofit to become an attractive charity for wealthy, liberal donors. On the other hand, a group of community activists wants the nonprofit to open its books so the public can see where all the money is going. This group wants the museum to be a community center that gives something back to the community and is run by the community, a goal that’s sure to alienate rich, white, liberal donors and the city of Seattle…but, unfortunately, may also risk the success of the project itself.

Obviously another marble-halled museum is not going to give much back to Seattle’s African-American communities. The original occupiers of the Colman School had another model in mind: a cultural center that would provide cheap or free meeting space, with as many extras included as they could manage: medical clinic, restaurant, vocational center, Internet services, radio or TV station…the list of possibilities is endless and limited only by the funds available. So far, most of the funds the city has doled out to the nonprofit board has been pocketed by professionals, and little real work has been done on the museum and cultural center itself.

The ultimate irony is that it may take another occupation to win what activists thought they already had won. Currently, activists are occupying the nonprofit’s offices in a trailer behind the Colman School, demanding that the nonprofit allow them a voice in the decision-making process, and that all of the funds be accounted for. They’re anticipating that the city of Seattle will side with the nonprofit board or simply decide to close down the project altogether. Police may arrive any day to evict them.

To offer help with the Colman occupation, call: 206-320-9723; 320-9527; or 680-8916.

 

Workers on the Scrap Heap

The State Department of Labor and Industries reported in early January (as covered in the P-I, Jan. 9) that it paid $2.7 billion in worker’s comp benefits to people with back and arm injuries suffered on the job from 1989 through 1996. Two-thirds of the back injury claims were due to repetitive motion stress, and only one-third to heavy-lifting. All repetitive-motion injuries (arm, back, wrist, etc.) accounted for over one-third of all damages paid out over that same time period.

This report is the first detailed worker’s comp study of repetitive-motion injuries in the country. Yet, it’s far from comprehensive; to gauge the true impact, we would also have to count employees of companies that are self-insured. Several large Washington manufacturers take out private worker’s comp insurance in order to shop around for better (cheaper) rates and to limit the payouts made to injured employees. Companies that self-insure also have more control over which doctors their employees can see (doctors that are unwilling to diagnose repetitive-motion injuries, for example). The Boeing Co., which is rumored to have high levels of job-related injuries and has been sued by chemically-injured employees, is self-insured.

In addition, many companies encourage (or intimidate) workers into using the company’s or the worker’s own health insurance plans to pay for treatment of on-the-job injuries, instead of filing a claim with L&I. L&I sponsors regular classes and sends publications to employers on worker’s comp law and how to “minimize” worker’s comp claims. It also gives tax breaks to employers who hold down their total worker’s comp claims. Yet L&I provides very little information or outreach to educate workers about safety on the job, beyond the simple requirement that all employers must put up a poster on the premises listing a worker’s right to file a claim with L&I in case of injury on the job. Enforcement of this simple rule is lax, unless an employee complains to L&I.

An increase in the use of temp or contract workers has increased the overall rate of repetitive motion injuries. According to the study, employers seem to be hiring temps to do tedious work, then throwing them away when they “wear out,” shifting the injury costs onto temp agencies or the individual workers themselves.

The industries showing the highest level of back and arm injuries include: nursing homes, construction trades, logging, sawmills, wholesale meat packing, and fruit and vegetable packing plants. White collar office workers also show high rates of arm injuries, as do apple pickers and supermarket checkers. The main risk factors include: heavy or repetitive lifting or pushing, handling objects far from the body, handling objects above the shoulder or below knuckle height or in a twisted position, moving or handling objects over other obstructions, extreme or prolonged awkward postures, and fast-paced work with little control over the way the job is done.

Once a person suffers from a repetitive motion injury, the healing process is slow and often incomplete. Many folks wait until the pain is unbearable and irreparable damage is done until they say anything to their supervisor or go see a doctor. All workers need to know that they have the right to refuse to do any activity that can injure them for life or saddle them with a chronic pain condition, regardless of how it impacts the company’s bottom line. And in these days of cynical griping about unions, we tend to forget that forming a union in a workplace can improve job safety faster than any individual complaints to the boss or phone calls to L&I.

 

Dirty Little Secret

The U.S. government can beat its chest and act indignant over Iraq, yet there’s a massacre going on in this hemisphere–and it’s actively funded by U.S. dollars under “The War on Drugs.” U.S. “drug money” (the enforcement funds that arm and train militaries and paramilitary groups to slaughter civilians and indigenous people in coca-growing countries) is directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the last fifteen years; and is nowhere as brutal as in Colombia.

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights has called Colombia the most dangerous country in Latin America. In Colombia, ten political assassinations are committed daily, one person is tortured every 24 hours, and one person is kidnapped every two days. Approximately 30,000 people die from political violence every year, and the drug war (combined with a war against left-wing rebels), has produced a total death toll exceeding 200,000 and left nearly half of the nation in living in extreme poverty.

The number of refugees and displaced people within the country is astronomical; most of these people have fled the violence of paramilitary forces armed and trained by plantation owners conducting private campaigns to rid the countryside of leftist rebels and to bring their plantation workers under control. The paramilitary groups exist under the benevolent eye of the Colombian military, which often ignores pleas by local magistrates and human rights groups to intervene as the massacres are occurring.

Some Colombians have accused the army and top politicians of not only turning a blind eye to the massacres, but of arming and training the paramilitary groups. Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo, a human rights worker in Medellin, was one of the few who spoke out about political and military support for the vigilantes. He was murdered last Friday by a squad of paramilitary gunmen in his office in Medellin.

In describing the torture methods of a Colombian paramilitary group that calls itself the Self-Defense Campesinos of Cordoba and Uraba, one eyewitness said: “Some [of the victims] were hung and skinned like chickens.” Another witness of the same incident, which occurred recently in El Aro, Antioquia, where 20 adults and children were murdered, confirmed this story: “They took three people, peeled away some pieces of their skin, and then killed them.” Other civilians have described similar instances of torture and murder in villages under attack by Colombia’s 450 vigilante groups. According to data from the U.S. State Department (if we can really believe them when they funnel money directly to the Colombian army), the paramilitary groups are responsible for about 60% of the political murders in Columbia, with the military responsible for another 8%. Undoubtedly, this is a low estimate.

Further damning evidence was provided by the former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Myles Frechette. Shortly before leaving his assignment in Colombia, he stated that the Colombian army’s intelligence unit was assisting in the creation of these death squads. Of course, he neglected to mention that the Colombian army’s intelligence personnel have all received their training in torture techniques and “counter-insurgency measures” here in the good ol’ USA–at the U.S. Army’s School of Americas (commonly referred to as the “School of Assassins”) at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The Colombian government and military are major recipients of U.S. drug war funds. In spite of overwhelming evidence that the drug war is killing innocent people in Colombia, the money and military aid continues to flow unabated, because literally no one with the power to do so is pointing the accusing finger at Congress, the CIA, the Clinton Administration, arms manufacturers (Boeing, Westinghouse, GE, et. al.), and other business interests lobbying for a continuation of the drug war.

The U.S. media has shirked its journalistic responsibility, preferring to whip up public anger against more convenient targets in the Middle East: Iraq, Algeria, Iran, etc. As long as the news is manufactured by our own government and fed to us through media owned by major corporations (Westinghouse, GE, etc.), we’ll never have to face our own dirty little secrets. While Jesus Jaramillo was slain in Medellin last Friday, in New York Dan Rather was caught on camera rehearsing an announcement of bombing raids on Iraq, and the announcement was mistakenly beamed via satellite to CBS affiliates all over the world. We have truly entered an Age of Unreason.

 

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