Monthly Archives: July 2013

Turkey: Unrest’s Currents Run Deep

Turkey: Uprising’s Currents Run Deep

Dispatches From The Edge

July 29, 2013

For the time being, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyio Erdogan—with the liberal use of brutal police tactics and massive amounts of tear gas that killed four people and injured more than 8,000— appears to have successfully crushed demonstrations aimed at blocking the demolition of Gezi Park in central Istanbul and has weathered a similar outbreak in the country’s capital, Ankara.

But the upsurge was never just about preserving green space, and the picture conjured up by most the Western media—secular Istanbul liberals vs. a popular Prime Minister backed by a conservative religious majority based in Turkey’s Anatolian hinterlands—was always an over simplification of the grievances behind the unrest.

Nor are those grievances the kind that are easily dispersed by clubs and gas, and the “popularity” of the Erdogan government may be shallower and more fragile than it appears. According to Turkey’s MetroPOLL research center, Erdogan’s popularity has dropped from 60.8 percent to 53.5 percent.

Certainly the demonstrations around Gezi Park reflect tensions between secular forces and Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the months leading up to the outbreak, the AKP-dominated parliament passed laws restricting the use of alcohol and tobacco, public kissing, and abortion, and the Prime Minister called on mothers to have three children. The Turkish daily Zaman found that 54.4 percent of the population “thought the government was interfering in their lifestyle.”

While the demonstrations may have begun with secular youth in Istanbul, according to Kemel Dervis, former Turkish economic affairs minister, it is now a “social movement” embracing the whole country and includes “observant Muslims, mid-career professionals, factory workers and many others.”

The unrest gripping Turkey has less to do with headscarves and Islam than with politics and economics, fueled by a growing discomfort with the AKP’s policies of privatization, its push to centralize authority in the hands of the country’s executive branch, and its silencing of the media. The three are not unrelated.

A case in point was the AKP’s recent move to turn the authority of the Chamber of Engineers and Architects—a group that opposed the commercial development of Gezi Park and challenged the government with a lawsuit—over to the Ministry of Environment and Development, effectively sidelining the Chamber. Private developers close to the AKP were then handed the contract for razing the park and building a mall modeled after an Ottoman barracks.

Suppression of the media doesn’t just involve tossing journalists in jail, although the government has jailed more journalists than Iran and China combined. It is also about a culture of mutual back scratching between media owners and the AKP.

According to Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar, “Turkey’s mainstream media is owned by “moguls who operate in other sections of the economy, like telecommunications, banking and construction,” and that support for the AKP translates into lucrative “public works contracts, including huge urban construction projects in Istanbul.”

For instance, the owners of the news channel NTV discontinued a popular publication (also called NTV), because it ran a cover story on the history of Gezi Park. NTV is owned by the Dogus Group, which recently won a $700 million government contract to develop Istanbul’s old port for tourism, real estate and commercial shops.

Turning public lands over to private developers has long been a central plank in the AKP’s approach to governance. In May 2011, the Erdogan government was granted the right to bypass parliament and make laws by decree for a period of six months. In August, the AKP dissolved the independent commissions overseeing the environment and “decreed” all such decisions now rested with the Ministry of Environment and Urban Development. According to Asli Igsiz, a professor of Middle East Studies at New York University, this meant that the environment was now at “the mercy of urban developers.”

The Erdogan government is currently trying to pass a “Preservation of Nature and Biodiversity” bill that would dissolve independent watchdog commissions and hand all authority over national parks over to the Ministry of Forestry and Waterworks. If passed, the bill would essentially open 12,000 national parks, heritage sites and forests to “development, even the construction of nuclear and conventional power plants and factories,” according to Igsiz.

The AKP’s push for privatization is consistent with conservative, business-orientated platforms of the Muslim Brotherhood—of which the Turkish party is a branch —throughout the Middle East.  In the year that the Brotherhood dominated the Egyptian government, it sold off state-owned industries at bargain basement prices, resulting in the widespread layoff of workers.  Erdogan has done much the same thing, earning the ire of Turkey’s trade union movement.

On June 17, the Confederation of Public Workers (KESK) and the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), representing 800,000 Turkish workers, struck to protest police brutality and demand the resignation of the government. “Freedom loving laborers who are striking a claim on their future” are taking to the streets throughout the country, a joint union statement read, to protest the “AKP, which has transformed [the] country into a hell by inserting its authoritarian practices.”

The widespread participation of trade unionists in the Turkey demonstrations has largely been ignored by the Western press, which also failed to report similar support by Egyptian trade unions—particularly those in textile and cotton—for the overthrow of  Hosni Mubarak and, more recently, Mohamad Morsi.

Erdogan is still popular in Turkey, but that popularity has thinned and largely rests on the AKP keeping the economy running smoothly and coming to some kind of agreement to end the long-running war with its Kurdish population.

But there is trouble on the horizon for the economy. The growth rate has dropped, and, while the AKP has overseen a dramatic rise in living standards over the past decade, the economy has cooled, income is stagnant, and the demonstrations have spooked the stock market and foreign investors. The stock market plunged 10.47 percent on June 3, and, as Tim Ash of Standard Bank told the Financial Times, “Simply put on a risk-rewards basis, Turkey does not appear to offer convincing values at present, and investors would be well advised to adopt a cautious approach.”

Even a peace agreement with the Kurds appears to be in danger.

According to the Guardian (UK), Ankara has flooded the Kurdish region with security forces, military camps, and checkpoints, in an effort to shut down one of the area’s major economic activities: smuggling.

But after 30 years of war and some 40,000 deaths, the region’s economy is in ruins, and smuggling is sometimes the only economic activity left to the Kurds. “People here feel they are under siege,” Nazif Ataman, a Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party member told the Guardian. “The military controls are reminiscent of war. We lack everything here: schools, hospitals, factories. Peace has come, but the government only invests in security.”

And, under pressure from Turkish nationalists, Erdogan has refused to consider two core Kurdish demands: that the Kurds be allowed to use their own language for education, and that the 10 percent threshold for entering parliament be reduced. Kurds make up about 10 percent of Turkey’s population and are concentrated mostly in the country’s east

At the very time that Kurds in Iraq and Syria are increasingly autonomous from their central governments, the Turkish government is cracking down. On July 19, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) gave the Turkish government a “final warning” to “act quickly” and take “concrete and practical steps” to reach a peace agreement.

Lastly, the AKP’s support for the insurgency against the Assad regime in Syria is increasingly unpopular among Turks. The AKP pushed its Egyptian counterpart to back the insurgency, which in part led to the recent coup in Cairo. It was Morsi’s called for a jihad against Damascus that helped propel the Egyptian Army’s move against the Brotherhood government.  Egypt’s new foreign minister has already distanced Egypt from Morsi’s all out support for overthrowing Assad. Will the Muslim Brotherhood’s fall in Egypt reverberate in Turkey? It might.

In the meantime, anti-AKP activists are continuing their campaign, one in which ridicule of Erdogan—he has a thin skin—has emerged as a tactic. Thus the “Alcoholic Unity League” (more than 80 percent of Turks do not drink) has joined with the “Looters Solidarity Front (Erdogan referred to demonstrators as “looters”). Despite water cannons, rubber bullets, and gas, the Turks have kept a sense of humor.

But issues that fueled the May and June protests are hardly a laughing matter, and they are not about to quietly disappear.

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America’s Cup Squall

America’s Cup Squall

Northern California Carpenter

May 3, 2013

This was written a few weeks before a high tech catamaran capsized during a training run, killing Olympic gold medalist Andrew Simpson.

 

An effort by the America’s Cup Yacht race organizers to torpedo an agreement guaranteeing prevailing wage standards for the regatta’s work force has spun up a typhoon of anger by local trade unionists who fear such a precedent will scuttle hard-won benefits and working conditions for local workers.

“We are not going to take this lying down,” says an angry Todd Williams, a senior field representative for Carpenters Local 22.

“This” was a 2012 agreement with the city of San Francisco and the America’s Cup that the race would hire local labor and pay prevailing wages for workers hired to build infrastructure, paint signs, run public concerts, and generally make the July to September event happen. Race officials initially projected that the America’s Cup would bring in $1.4 billion, create almost nine thousand jobs and generate $24 million in hotel, payroll and retail tax revenue for the city.

But no sooner was the ink dry on the agreement with the America’s Cup Event Authority (ACEA), than racing teams began dropping out. The projections for economic activity slipped below $1 billion, more than 2,300 hundred jobs disappeared, and tax revenues were almost halved. What unions soon found out was that organizers were also quietly subverting the prevailing wage agreement, and, along with City Hall, establishing a precedent that could roll back wages and benefits for public events that could include a Super Bowl and a future Olympic games.

In what appears to be a direct violation of the original agreement, the city waived the prevailing wage standards for corporate sponsors, which, among others, include Louis Vuitton, Puma, Lexus, Charles Schwab, Red Bull, and Kaiser Permanente. According to Article 27.1 of the contract signed by San Francisco and the ACEA, Cup organizers agreed, “that any person performing labor in the construction of any work, shall be paid not less than the highest prevailing rate of wages….”

Since most large public events these days are underwritten by corporate sponsors, the implications of this waiver are profound.

“The carpenters were out front on helping out” with the huge regatta, says Williams, “and the America’s Cup just pissed on that.” Michael Theriault, secretary treasurer of the San Francisco Building Trades Council, agreed that there is “tremendous disappointment” with the yacht race, “which was sold as something that was good for working people.”

It was the carpenters who uncovered the violations. “We found out by going to the job sites and talking to the workers,” says Local 22 Marketing Representative Manuel Flores Jr. What the union found were workers recruited from Virginia, Louisiana, and Texas, laboring for sub-standard wages.

Other unions found that it was almost impossible to get their people onto to jobs. According to Owen Murphy, a Business Representative for Local 510 of the Sign, Display and Allied Crafts Union, “we saw signs, banners and displays spring up along the waterfront,” but none displaying “identifiable logos or union bugs.” When the union asked how they could get their contractors in on the bidding they found themselves in an Alice in Wonderland world.

“We were directed to Port officials, San Francisco City officials, and America’s Cup representatives,” says Murphy, “which provoked tail chasing, finger pointing and repeated responses of ‘have you talked to the other guys?’” Local 510 soon found out “all unions have been getting the runaround from the America’s Cup.”

Murphy says his local still has “no idea how the bidding process is carried out,” or if “local hire and prevailing wage agreements are monitored or enforced.” In his opinion what is needed is a “labor liaison who is familiar with the unions and the city and port.”

Nor is it just trade unionists who are up in arms. Sam Singer, president of Singer Associates, is embroiled in a battle with Cup authorities over $460,000 in back wages owed to workers who were short-changed in last August and October’s America’s Cup World Series races. Singer Associates represents a who’s who list of corporate clients, including Visa, Chevron, Ford, Nike, Coca-Cola, Sony, and locally, the San Francisco 49ers. “It is very disappointing to have to fight with America’s Cup over this,” says Singer, “Hopefully, we don’t have to go to legal action to get them to do the right thing.”

There is a certain irony in America’s Cup “just being cheap,” as the Northern California Carpenters Council Regional Director of Organizing Jay Bradshaw puts it. The America’s Cup Event Authority is a creature of Larry Ellison, the third richest person in the U.S., and according to Forbes, the fifth richest in the world. Because he won the 2010 Americas Cup races, Ellison had the right to choose the site for the next race and to create the Authority to organize it.

Until 2012—when Ellison cut his annual Oracle salary to $1—he made $960 million a year, and his overall worth is estimated at $43 billion. Forbes, which tracks the individual daily income of the world’s richest people, found that on May 2, 2013 Ellison pulled in $521.47 million.

At a cost of $200 million-plus the billionaire built a home in Woodside, Ca. modeled after a 16-century Japanese imperial palace, and in 2012, he purchased 98 percent of the Hawaiian island of Lanai for between $500 and $600 million.

Part of the original deal was that the city would pony up $32 million to host the race, a figure that has now dropped to $22.5 million as racing syndicates have bailed from the event. That money was supposed to be underwritten by the America’s Cup Organizing Committee, a private fund-raising effort that features local luminaries and financiers, as well as Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Governor Jerry Brown.

The drive, however, has fallen short and the city is currently on the hook for several million dollars of taxpayers’ money. That deficit represents less than five minutes of Ellison’s May 2 income.

Former San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin is circulating a petition aimed at getting Ellison to pick up the bill. Peskin told the San Jose Mercury News, “The normal philanthropic givers aren’t really interested in defraying the hobby costs of the third richest man in America.” Supervisor John Avalos has also been critical, but as Flores Jr. notes, in general, “The supervisors all know about this but they don’t say anything.”

But much of the leadership in the city seems to have fallen head over heels for the software billionaire. “Ellison has carte blanche with San Francisco,” says Local 22 Field Representative Adrian Simy, “the guy is playing the city like a Stradivarius.”

According to ACEA CEO Stephen Barclay, the prevailing wage agreement was only for the development of Piers 30-32 on the San Francisco waterfront, and when that fell through because of the billionaire’s excessive demands, the Authority was no longer bound by the contract, and unawares that it was required to meet the local standards. However a series of emails between Hartmann Studio President Mark Guelfi and Oracle Marketing Director Mirko Groeschner suggests that the Authority was fully aware of the prevailing wage agreement, but was trying to reduce expenses, and “union labor” was a major concern.

For its part, the city argues that it had always “intended” that the corporate sponsors would not have to pay prevailing wages, although that language never appears in any of the agreements. “How do we know what someone ‘intended’ if they don’t put it down in writing?” asks the Carpenters’ Williams.

That Ellison and his Authority would have difficulties with unions is hardly a surprise. Ellison has a long record of laying off workers, and the computer and software industry is largely unorganized. It is no accident that the sub-standard workers who the carpenters found were from anti-union, right-to-work states—Virginia, Texas and Louisiana.

The Authority is also currently advertising for “Team AC 34 Volunteers” to hold down jobs that are normally paid, including “logistics,” “media operations,” “client services,” and “commercial engagement.” The “volunteers” would have to commit themselves to between 10 ½ to 12 days of free labor. In return they would receive “a meal and refreshments,” and an “official volunteer uniform” that they can “keep at the conclusion of the event.”

The war over paying prevailing wages is one unions feel they cannot afford to lose. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most expensive areas in the country, but strong union traditions in defense of wages and benefits have kept the region livable for working people. It is those living standards, unions argue, that are under attack, and not just for their own members.

“Standards are for everyone in San Francisco,” points out Augie Beltran, Marketing Director for the Northern California Carpenters’ Regional Council. Trying to bypass those standards and recruit workers from low-wage areas “undercuts the city’s own people and cheats them out of jobs.”

According to Williams, workers have been brought in from other areas in California. “There are not enough trained carpenters in San Francisco?” He points out that building trades workers have lost work to sailing team workers who are also exempt from being paid prevailing wages. “They come in from places like New Zealand and build facilities for their team, work that should be going to local workers.” He adds the non-Bay Area workers tend to be “unskilled, untrained, and underpaid.”

The whole bru-ha-ha has created some tensions between the unions and the city. “Labor is highly disappointed with City Hall,” says Flores Jr. “For years we have worked together, but this puts a strain on the relationship.”

The Carpenters’ Executive Officer Bob Alvarado adds, “San Francisco should be the last line of defense for the workers,” instead of carving out exceptions to the rules that end up undermining the city’s workforce and lowering standards of living for residents. Part of the problem, says Alvarado, is that “there is literally no oversight” over the America’s Cup event.

However, it was the Carpenters that successfully pushed the city’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE) into going after contractors who were paying sub-standard wages. According to Donna Levitt of the OLSE, a number of sub-contractors had never been informed that they were required to pay prevailing wage. Levitt told Organized Labor, the official newspaper of the San Francisco Building Trades Council, not only did some of the contractors not pay regular overtime, some “failed to pay the San Francisco minimum rate of $10 an hour.”

Each of the super-fast 72-foor carbon-fiber catamaran boats initially costs around $8 million, although that cost is considerably higher when sails and wear-and-tear are figured in. A mainsail runs $100,000 and jibs cost $30,000 to $40,000 apiece and may only last a few hours.

In an effort to pump up interest, Oracle Team USA CEO Russell Coutts is hyping an edgy style of racing, which may involve collisions and serious risk-taking. One of Ellison’s boats was “pitch poled”—blown end-over-end—last October, a maneuver that destroyed a $2 million wing sail.

The entrance fee alone is $200,000, and teams spend anywhere from $25 million to $100 million.

As hundreds of millions of dollars of high-tech yachts ply the waters of San Francisco Bay this summer in the 34th America’s Cup race, many of those in the work force that keeps the boats in the water and service the estimated 2 million spectators will be pressured to work for less than the area’s prevailing wage—in some cases for little more than a soft drink and a sandwich.

But not if the local building trades and allied unions have a say in the matter. If Ellison and the America’s Cup Authority try to avoid what they agreed to two years ago, they may find themselves hard aground. “San Francisco was built by working people,” says the carpenters’ Flores Jr.,” It is not a playground for the rich and their toys.”

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Poison Gas and Arabian Tales

Poison Gas & Arabian Tales

Dispatches From The Edge

July 4, 2013

“It is not unlike Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark. It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it is that we are not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”

Jean-Pascal Zanders, former senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies

Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, cracked the case of the “Silver Blaze” by concluding that a murder and theft had to be an inside job because the watchdog never barked. It would be a good idea to keep this in mind when it comes to determining whether the Syrian government used poison gas against its opponents. And since the Obama administration is citing “proof” that the chemical warfare agent sarin was used by the Syrian government as the basis for escalating its intervention in the two-year old civil war, this is hardly an academic exercise.

Like Holmes, start with the facts.

According to French, British, Israeli and U.S. intelligence services, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad            used sarin on at least 10 different occasions, resulting in the deaths of some 100 to 150 people. The “proof” for this is based on tissue and blood samples—British intelligence claims contaminated soil as well—from victims of the attacks. The samples were gathered in Syria, taken to Turkey, and turned over to the intelligence services and the United Nations.

The French newspaper Le Monde also reports that one of its reporters suffered blurred vision and nausea during one of these attacks, and the paper has published photos of purported victims being treated. There is, as well, a video of insurgent fighters donning gas masks. Besides the photos and video images, no evidence has been released to the press.

What about the beast itself?

The chemical was invented in Germany in 1938 as a pesticide. It is a nerve agent—as opposed to a “blistering agent” like mustard gas—and kills by blocking the body’s ability to control the chemical that allows muscles to turn themselves off. As the Office of Emergency Management puts it, “Without an ‘off switch,’ the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.”

You suffocate.

Sarin is a colorless and odorless liquid, and it is “volatile”—that is, it quickly turns into a gas. Even in small concentrations, it is very deadly and can kill within minutes. It is absorbed through the skin or lungs and can contaminate clothing for up to 30 minutes. The British created a far deadlier and less volatile variant of sarin called V. It was an errant VX cloud from the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground that killed some 6,000 sheep in Utah’s Skull Valley in 1968.

Many countries have chemical weapons, but some, including the U.S. and Russia, are in the process of destroying them under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Sarin is considered a “weapon of mass destruction” under UN Resolution 687, although that label is a bit of a misnomer. It is certainly bad stuff. In 1988 Saddam Hussein used sarin to kill several thousand Kurds in the city of Halabja, and sarin and mustard gas were used during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). It is estimated that gas inflicted about 5 percent of Iran’s casualties in that war.

But poison gas is generally considered more of a nuisance than a weapon capable of creating large numbers of dead and wounded. It only accounted for 1 percent of the casualties in World War I, and doesn’t compare with a real weapon of mass destruction. The two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed some 250,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands more. And by today’s standard of nuclear weapons, those bombs were tiny.

While chemical weapons are scary, they are no more indiscriminate in what they kill than 1,000 lb bombs and cluster weapons, indeed much of the arsenals of modern armies. Small arms, for instance, inflict 90 percent of civilian casualties.

In any case, President Obama made the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war his “red line,” a barrier he claims has now been breached.

Has it?

Philip Coyle, a senior scientist at Washington’s Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has his doubts, telling the McClatchy newspapers that from what he has observed of the evidence, it doesn’t look as if sarin was used.

Jean-Pascal Zanders, former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm international Peace Research Institute questions some of the reports in Le Monde. For instance, the newspaper reports that victims traveled a long distance for medical care, which he suggests is unlikely if sarin was used. He also points out there are no reports of medical workers dying from exposure to victims, even though sarin clings to clothing for up to a half hour. He also questions a Le Monde report that one victim was given 15 shots of the antidote atropine, a dose that would surely have been fatal.

“In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos showing bodies of the dead, the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the afflicted,” he says.

While the French claim they have an “unbroken chain of custody” from the attack to the lab, even experts who believe the intelligence reports disagree. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association says that while his “guess” is that the poison gas was used, there is a lack of “continuous chain of custody for the physiological samples from those exposed to sarin.”

One “Western diplomat” told the Washington Post, “The chain-of-custody issue is a real issue,” in part because the “red line” speech was an incentive to “prove” chemical weapons had been used. As Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who headed the UN’s weapons inspections in Iraq, said, “If you are the opposition…you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used.”

According to a report in the New York Times, samples gathered in Aleppo were carried by a civilian courier from that city to the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, “a journey that took longer than expected. At one point,” reports the Times, “the courier forgot the blood vials, which were not refrigerated, in his car. Ten days after the attack, the vials arrived at the Turkish field office for the Syrian American Medical Society.”

In short, the samples were hardly secured during the week and a half it took them to get to Turkey, and they were delivered into the hands of insurgency supporters.

Carla del Ponte, former war crimes prosecutor and currently a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, says it was the rebels, not Syria, who are the guilty party.

Damascus refuses to allow the UN to test for chemical weapons inside of Syria, which certainly raises suspicions. On the other hand the UN has not exactly been a neutral bystander in the civil war. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon has demanded “unfettered access”—an unlikely event in the middle of a war—and while sharply condemning Iran and Russia for supplying arms to Assad, has muted such criticism of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the main arms suppliers for the rebels.

There is a certain common sense factor in all this as well. Would the Assad government really “cross the red line” in order to kill 150 people?

When U.S. Special Forces invaded Syria in 2008 to attack what they claimed was a “terrorist gathering”—it turned out to be carpenters and farmers—the Syrians protested, but did nothing.  At the time, Syria’s Foreign Minister told Der Speigel that Damascus had no wish to “escalate the situation” with the U.S. “We are not Georgia” he added, an illusion to Georgia’s disastrous decision to pick a fight with Russia in the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

Nor has Syria responded to three bombing raids by Israel, knowing that challenging the powerful Israeli air force would be suicidal.

Western intelligence services want us to believe that Damascus deliberately courted direct U.S. intervention for something totally marginal to the war. Maybe the Assad regime has lost its senses. Maybe some local commanders took the initiative to do something criminal and dumb. Maybe the whole thing is a set-up.

Shouldn’t we wait until the dog barks?

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