Behind the Lines

Great Whale on Ice

THE NEWLY-ELECTED GOVERNMENT of Quebec has put plans for the Great Whale hydro-electric mega-project on ice.

 "The current government in Quebec does not put any priority in Great Whale," Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau told reporters in November 1994. "We don't need Great Whale," he said, adding it would be postponed for "quite a while."

 The $9.7 billion Great Whale project, envisioned by former Premier Robert Bourassa, would have flooded 1,312 square miles in northern Quebec in order to generate 3,200 megawatts of electricity, primarily for export to U.S. markets. Hydro Quebec initially planned to complete the project by 1996, but a fall in the growth of demand, partly due to cancellation of electricity contracts by New England states over environmental and cost concerns, had already pushed the target completion date back to 2003.

 Environmentalists and Native representatives sharply criticized the project, claiming it was an economic boondoggle and an environmental catastrophe. They argued that the project should be scrapped and replaced with conservation initiatives and smaller-scale projects. Native Cree who live in northern Quebec said the dam would flood their hunting lands and destroy their traditional lifestyles. Following Parizeau's announcement, a Cree representative told Reuters he was "very happy" that the premier shelved the project, because it would allow the Cree to continue their way of life.

 Hydro Quebec, in a statement, said it will "exclude the Great Whale project from the strategic plan on which the corporation is currently conducting public consultations."

Cat Union-Busting

THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD (NLRB) has found Caterpillar, Inc., guilty of more than two dozen unfair labor practices against its striking workers and their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW). The ruling covers only four of the 107 unfair labor complaints issued by the NLRB's prosecutorial arm against Caterpillar.

 Thousands of Caterpillar workers have been on strike since June 1994. The current strike follows a five-month walkout in 1991 to 1992, which ended in a high-profile union capitulation in the face of a company threat to permanently replace strikers.

 NLRB Administrative Judge James L. Rose determined that Caterpillar illegally fired a worker for distributing union literature and illegally suspended 23 workers who displayed union slogans at the company's York, Pennsylvania plant. The judge ordered Caterpillar to "cease and desist from discharging, suspending or otherwise discriminating against employees because they engage in union or concerted activity." He ordered the company to reinstate and pay back wages to the workers.

 A Caterpillar statement justified the suspensions as based on "the company's right to maintain a business-like atmosphere in its facilities." It called the labor charges "a smoke screen to divert attention from the UAW leadership's refusal to negotiate a contract that is fair to Caterpillar employees, while enabling Caterpillar to maintain its leadership in the global marketplace."

"Judge Rose's decision spells out very precisely the rights and responsibilities for union members - and for the company - inside the workplace." says UAW Secretary Treasurer Bill Casstevens. "We're prepared to meet with Caterpillar immediately and begin addressing all of the pending unfair labor practice complaints on that basis."

Fighting the Seed Monopoly

W.R. GRACE'S EFFORTS to gain monopoly control of soybean seed is headed for rough waters. The Ottawa-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), supported by a wide range of international non-governmental organizations, has filed a complaint with the European Patent Office asking it to revoke W.R. Grace's controversial soybean "species" patent.

Grace has obtained various "species" patents in Europe, North America and India that allow the company to control all research and applications of genetically-engineered versions of the patented species.

 The December 1, 1994 complaint charges that Grace's soybean patent fails to meet standard criteria for patentability, since it is neither "novel" nor "non-obvious."

RAFI also cites ethical reasons for revocation of the patent. Valued at $27 billion per year, soybean is a crucial world food crop. Grace's patent allows the company to dictate the terms for developing genetically-engineered versions of the crop and makes it illegal for farmers to save transgenic soybean seed that they harvest [see Patenting the Planet," Multinational Monitor, June 1994]. "A patent granting a single corporation monopoly control over genetic research on one of the world's most important food crops ... is a threat to world food security, and demonstrates that the patent system is recklessly out-of-control," says Patrick R. Mooney, RAFI's executive director. "If the soybean patent is allowed to stand, the door will be wide open to yet broader patent claims on additional food and industrial crops."

 Grace refused to comment on the filing, but in the past has stated that it will allow free licensing of its patent to all government and academic researchers upon request. RAFI calls this offer "nothing more than a clever public relations gimmick for the purpose of deflecting criticism of their patent and clearing the way for additional broad patents to be issued in the future." RAFI points out that the offer of free licenses is legally unenforceable and could later be revoked.

 In addition to the European challenge, Grace's broad crop patents have been challenged in India and North America. The government of India announced earlier this year that it intends to revoke the company's species patent on cotton; RAFI and the Canadian Environmental Law Association have challenged the soybean patent in Canada; and shortly after the European filing, the U.S. patent office repealed Grace's U.S. patent on genetically-engineered cotton.

 - Aaron Freeman