October 2000 - VOLUME 21 - NUMBER 10
T H E F R O N T
Melbourne - The tens of thousands of protesters who converged on the World Economic Forum's Asia-Pacific Economic Summit here to denounce corporate globalization failed to prevent the meeting from taking place, but they did succeed in preventing about half of the delegates from attending the Summit's opening day session. More importantly, they achieved a political victory in mobilizing upwards of 50,000 Australians and in unmasking the World Economic Forum (WEF).
The World Economic Forum bills itself as "the foremost global partnership of business, political, intellectual and other leaders of society." It has 968 member organizations, including the largest and most powerful multinational corporations in the world. Its member organizations include the dominant players in virtually all leading industries: petroleum (Exxon, Chevron, Shell), automobiles (Ford, General Motors, Mitsubishi), computers (Microsoft, IBM, Yahoo), media (Time Warner, Viacom), pharmaceuticals (Pfizer, Dupont), banking (Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Deutsche Bank), mining (BHP, Rio Tinto), agriculture (Novartis, Cargill, Monsanto), food products (Coca Cola, Nestle), clothing (Nike), tobacco (BAT, Philip Morris).
The WEF's primary activity is to organize conferences and forums at which senior politicians and corporate heavyweights can rub shoulders, engage in dialogue and mould consensus. By far its largest event, and the one for which it is best known, is its annual meeting, held each January in the Swiss ski resort town of Davos. It also holds summits each year in each of its regional areas, which are generally smaller than Davos and focus on regional issues.
The street actions against the Melbourne WEF summit - known by the moniker S11, for September 11, the day the summit and protests began - spurred a furious response from the Australian establishment. Politicians, both Labor and Liberal, accused them of being "fascists" who opposed free speech. Business analysts said they were working against the world's poor, by denying them the bounties of free trade. Newspaper editors condemned them as a "violent mob," even when their own pictures proved the opposite.
When words failed to stop the protesters, hundreds of riot police baton-charged them with a viciousness with few parallels in modern Australian history. More than 50 protesters were hospitalized.
But the protesters would not be intimidated. Each time the protesters were baton-charged, they came back, not with violence of their own but with a new affirmation of the slogan: the people united will never be defeated.
By 8 a.m., the blockades were established and solid. The Green Bloc of Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups had sealed off the parking lot entrances on Whiteman Street, and S11 Alliance marshals were getting people to link arms and settle in at more than a dozen blockade points.
The early birds were reinforced by a constant stream of reinforcements and, at noon, by a march of 500 high school students who walked out of class.
The numbers, which had swelled to 15,000 to 20,000 by lunchtime, surprised police. Stunned by the turnout, they stayed within their concrete and wire barricades.
The only major police operations on the first day were a brief push through a blockade of hundreds on Clarendon Street, from which the police were soon forced to withdraw, and a mission to rescue Western Australia Premier Richard Court, who had driven his car straight into a blockade line on Clarendon Street and was stuck inside for an hour.
By midday, Community Radio 3CR was able to report that no member of staff had been able to get into the complex since 7:45 a.m. and that at least a third of WEF delegates had also been prevented from entering.
Victorian Liberal leader Denis Napthine admitted to delegates that the "protesters have unfortunately won the first round."
Days Two and Three
Humiliated by the protesters, bolstered by orders from Labor Premier Steve Bracks and incited by media hysteria about protester "violence" which never occurred, hundreds of riot police attacked the blockade lines the following morning, in an attempt to regain the initiative.
With batons drawn, police set upon a seated blockade line on Queensbridge and Power streets, trampling, beating and kicking the protesters before police on horses were unleashed on the crowd. The blockade lines were cleared, allowing delegates' buses into the complex. Twelve protesters were hospitalized.
Police kept the initiative for only a few hours before protesters wrested it back. Weeks of tortuous negotiations between the S11 Alliance and the Trades Hall labor federation had led to a final agreement that, while Trades Hall would not back the blockade itself, the mass union rally for labor rights, scheduled for Tuesday, would at least march to the blockade site at Crown Towers.
Up to 20,000 unionists filled the city streets with sound, color and people chanting "Stop global sweatshops" and "The workers united will never be defeated."
Hubbard held to the position that the Labor Council would support only the protests and not the blockade. But many more militant unionists ignored Trades Hall's injunction, and several thousand marched around the casino where the WEF meeting was held before joining the blockaders at different entrances. Many were members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, whose militant Victorian leaders had backed the blockade all along.
The most brutal incident of police violence occurred that night, when delegates' buses sought to leave. Five hundred riot police set upon a blockade line of 200, viciously clubbing not only protesters but even establishment journalists. This time, 30 protesters were hospitalized and treated for head and neck injuries.
A spokesperson for the legal observers' team at the protests, Damien Lawson, said police created a "potentially lethal situation," while prominent lawyers and civil libertarians have not only called for a full ombudsman's inquiry but are also planning civil action.
Meanwhile, inside the WEF meeting, WEF president Klaus Schwas denounced the protesters as uncivilized and misguided in their targeting of the WEF.
"It is a great pity," he said, "that those who feel so passionately about issues like globalization and its impact have chosen to protest against an institution that has done so much to bring clarity and purpose to economic and social development around the world - an institution which actually coined the expression of responsible globality' and which was already years ago urging decision-makers to pay attention to the backlashes of globalization by integrating the social, environmental, human and cultural dimensions into the process of globalization."
The third day of blockading followed a pattern similar to previous days. Hundreds of riot police attacked an understaffed blockade line in the early morning to get delegates' buses in, hospitalizing at least one demonstrator, then were forced to retreat back inside their barricades by the force of protesters' numbers.
The blockaders' piece de resistance came at noon: a joyful "victory march" through the city streets. An estimated 10,000 marchers made their way through the city, stopping at Nike's superstore and then at the Australian Stock Exchange before looping back to the blockade site.
One achievement was to maintain unity among the alliance of forces which kept S11 together - environmentalists like those in Friends of the Earth, socialists like those in the Democratic Socialist Party, militant unionists like those in the AMWU and many other committed activists of different political complexions, whether anarchist or feminist or independent.
Unified, the protesters won the political battle at Melbourne.
The World Economic Forum had pumped out the message that its mission was to improve the state of the world, by "bringing the fruits of globalization to the people." The protesters displaced that message with a focus on the violence of corporate globalization.
Holed up inside the casino complex or stuck in buses for hours trying to get in, not able to get out except by boat, helicopter or baton charge, the assembled CEOs seemed glum, confused and somewhat fearful whenever caught on camera.
"We're extremely proud of what we've been able to achieve here," says S11 Alliance spokesperson Jorge Jorquera. "We have had an impact on the agenda of the World Economic Forum and we have added our city's name to the growing list of those which have stood up against capitalism: Seattle, Washington, Buenos Aires, Quito."
The Jungle 2000
The U.S. meat and poultry supply is contaminated, and federal inspectors are handcuffed from cleaning up the industry.
That is the message which emerges from an extensive survey of federal inspectors, the results of which are published in "The Jungle 2000: Is America's Meat Fit to Eat," a September report issued by the Government Accountability Project and Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project.
One federal meat inspector summed up the situation like this: A new regulatory system "ties our hands and limits what we [federal meat inspectors] can do. If this is the best the government has to offer, I will instruct my family [and] friends to turn vegetarian."
The federal meat and poultry inspection system took a turn toward deregulation with the adoption in 1996 of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. As originally designed, HACCP was supposed to supplement the traditional meat inspection process, in which inspectors could demand that a product be condemned or trimmed as soon as they saw a problem. HACCP was supposed to involve additional company inspections at self-identified critical points.
In fact, "The Jungle 2000" shows, HACCP has become a substitute for the traditional food inspection system. Now the meat packers themselves are in control of the inspection process in processing plants. Inspectors find themselves limited to observing at company-determined critical points - or confined to reviewing company documents showing that the company has complied with sanitation requirements.
"Our survey warns consumers that on a good day, their meat and poultry are inspected under an industry honor system - federal inspectors check paperwork, not food, and are prohibited from removing feces and other contaminants before products are stamped with the purple USDA seal of approval," says Felicia Nestor, a co-author of the report and food safety project director with GAP.
"It is not infrequent that industry workers secretly ask the inspectors for help because they're pressured to put profits ahead of public health. On a bad day, extensive shortages [of inspectors] mean that inspectors are not in the plants at all."
In July 1999, GAP sent a 14-page survey with 114 questions to about 2,340 HACCP inspectors, and 451 responded. The respondents had spent an average of 18.5 years as federal meat and poultry inspectors.
The survey results show widespread concern among inspectors that the new system has undermined their ability to do their job and guarantee a safe food supply.
Two thirds of inspectors said that since HACCP began, there have been instances where they have not taken direct action against contamination - including feces, vomit and metal shards - that they observed and would have taken action against under the old system.
"Under HACCP," says Nestor, an "inspector who sees feces at the top of the line cannot do a thing about it. He or she cannot check that meat again until it has passed every single critical control point established by the plant. That can be very far away in the plant. And the meat can have gone through all sorts of processes. It could have been cut up into many small pieces. They are not allowed to follow the meat down the line. The USDA supervisors repeatedly instruct inspectors not to play gotcha.' That is what they are told. That is like trying to entrap the company. That's bad faith and the USDA doesn't want to play that role - they now want to work with the company."
More than 85 percent of inspectors responding to the survey said that company employees secretly ask them for help with problems in the plant, because they fear supervisor reprisals for speaking out against dirty conditions.
Plant management appears aware of this secret reporting. One inspector told GAP, "Management has posted written warnings for their employees not to talk with USDA."
Not surprisingly, inspectors say company monitoring cannot replace independent efforts. "You can't allow the company to do their own inspection on the kill floor," one inspector commented. "Companies are in business to make money. When you put them in charge of inspecting their own product, I think money becomes the determining factor."
More than three out of four respondents said that they cannot enforce the law as well under HACCP as before.
"This program was sold to the union as a consumer protection enhancement," says Arthur Hughes, president of the Northeast Council of Food Inspection Locals. "Instead, it ended up deregulating food inspection by shifting the responsibility of meat and poultry inspection to the industry. USDA calls it the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system, while the inspectors call it the Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray.'"
"The USDA says it has zero tolerance for fecal matter, but the survey clearly shows that such contamination is occurring," says Wenonah Hauter, "The Jungle 2000" co-author and director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.
"Slaughter and meat-processing lines are moving faster than ever, with as many as 400 cows an hour and over 200 birds per minute being killed. At the same time, inspectors' authority to remove feces and other contamination has been curtailed. It's The Jungle all over again."
Meat-packing conditions may soon get worse, "The Jungle 2000" warns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed extending the system of privatized self-inspection beyond processing plants (where carcasses are further processed for consumption) to also cover slaughterhouses (involving killing, skinning, cleaning and chilling the carcass). A federal judge has ruled this illegal, but the meat industry is lobbying Congress for new legislation to authorize privatized inspections.