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February 15 - 19, 1999

Tuesday, February 16, 1999

The United States of Incarceration

It reads like a scene from a lousy film set in a stereotypical third world country: "A prisoner...was treated for more than 20 open sores and ulcers after being held for two weeks in a bare cell in wrist-to-waist metal shackles and leg-irons as punishment in 1995. Two years earlier a man had his right leg amputated after he was strapped to a bed for eight days." But these atrocities took place in the first world, not the third. The open sores and ulcers resulted from incarceration in the Halawa Correctional Facility in Hawaii, and the amputation from a stay in Los Angeles County Jail.

Jay Siripongs' execution last Tuesday, in the aftermath of Governor Davis's refusal to grant him clemency, sent me to a report released in 1998 by Amnesty International, detailing these and other human rights abuses in the United States. It's a chilling document, particularly for those of us who would prefer to see our country as a defender of civil and political liberties.

Using testimony from U.S. human rights activists and its own on-site research teams, "Rights for All" rebuts paranoid accusations from both sides of the political spectrum by blaming many of the problems in the American prison system on poor oversight rather than any deliberate program of brutality: "The weakness of independent scrutiny, together with public demands for harsher treatment of offenders, have created a climate in which serious violations can occur and continue without being effectively challenged." (It is less benign toward our criminalization of immigrants seeking asylum in this country and toward the role of the United States as supplier and trainer in human rights abuses overseas.)

But the report makes clear that, in addition to individual incidents of blatant mistreatment, the American justice system is becoming increasingly infected with a cold inhumanity. Take the state-of-the-art supermax facilities erected since the late 1980s, where prisoners live --- if that word can be used in this context --- alone in tiny cells, often with little access to natural light or fresh air, often with remote-controlled devices to reduce their contact with other people, often without radios or television or books or newspapers to keep them from going mad or, in some cases, sliding further into madness. To those who argue that inmates' incorrigible behavior earns them isolation in places such as Pelican Bay, in northern California, Amnesty International lists a variety of reasons for inmate transfers, including complaints about mistreatment, minor infractions and overcrowding elsewhere.

Or take Jay Siripongs' "humane" death by lethal injection. It took 15 long minutes for Siripongs to die. But he may have been lucky. "Rights for All" cites the case of Luis Mata who, in 1996, lay strapped down, needle in his arm, for 70 minutes while the Arizona Supreme Court reviewed his case. Nor did death come easily after the court ruled against him: the report adds that as the poison entered Mata's body, his face contorted and his chest and stomach jerked in a series of sharp spasms. "From hanging to electric chair to lethal injection: how much prettier can you make it?" says Scott Blystone, a prisoner on death row in Pennsylvania. "Yet the prettier it becomes, the uglier it is."

And the more politically charged. Amnesty International would concur with Tom Meyer's cartoon in the Sunday Chronicle, where Gray Davis --- dripping with blood --- says plaintively, like a yuppie Macbeth, "The stain comes out, right?" At his side, hand resting comfortingly on Davis's shoulder, the figure of Death says, "You'll get used to it, Governor." And he undoubtedly will. The report notes that the death penalty has become so politicized in the United States that politicians are driven to illogical extremes in their desire to appear tough on crime. In his decision last week, Davis may have recalled another governor, Bill Clinton, who left the presidential campaign trail to review a capital case. Clinton showed the world what he was made of when he denied clemency to Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally retarded man who understood so little of his circumstances that he asked if he could save the dessert of his last meal "for later."

Violent crime does indeed loom large on the U.S. landscape, but recent attempts to stem its perceived rampage have focused almost exclusively on punishment. Nearly two million people now reside in American prisons and jails, a percentage of the population equaled in few other countries. They inhabit a nation within a nation, an entity apart from the general populace, governed by its own rules and culture, and apparently exempt from international conventions of humane treatment.

In the United States crime is linked to issues of race. Among young African Americans, homicide is the leading cause of death. At the same time African Americans, who constitute 12 percent of the general population, supply half of the inmates in U.S. prisons --- a disproportion due not to murder but to drug convictions. And these men and women were sentenced by an army of judges who are predominately white.

We know all this. Stories of prison horrors and raw deals for minorities appear daily in the news and even more graphically in films and TV dramas, to the point where they have lost their reality. But they take on a different complexion when viewed through the eyes of an outsider. When the researchers at London-based Amnesty International look at the United States, they see a nation whose very existence symbolizes the promise of basic human rights for all people, a nation that gave the world its own Bill of Rights and contributed significantly to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An air of sadness hovers over the report as it traces our attempts at implementation and finds instead "a persistent and widespread pattern of human rights violations in the USA."

A promise is a promise. It's time to keep it.

More information on "Rights for All" can be found at Amnesty International's web site ( or by calling its New York office (212 807-8400).

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, February 17, 1999

Memorandum of understanding

It's time we had a chat, Willie. Sala sends her regards, but I'm afraid the niceties end there.

Let's not dick around: You're in trouble, and the city's in trouble, big time. The one follows from the other, and at this point I don't have a goddam bit of sympathy for you. I thought I'd left things in good shape, and how anyone could stand by and let our enemies take this great city apart makes me fucking sick.

Make no mistake, this is personal. Look out your window this morning and across the street you'll see Sister Bernie, Father Vitale and others beginning a 21-day fast. Two people Rome will probably canonize some day --- sticking it to you over the Presidio and housing for the homeless. Like you really need the churches using Dr. King's tactics now, on top of this rousting shit you've pulled lately in the U.N. and Hallidie plazas.

The Presidio's my baby. I damn well made sure it was provided for when I set up the GGNRA, and that it should revert to the Park Service, so the mucky-mucks couldn't subdivide it into another Walnut Creek.

You bet your ass that's my legacy. But preserving open space was only the finale to the rest of what I did. I shouldn't have to blow smoke up anyone's butt as a reminder, but with you, I'm wondering where in the hell you've been for the past 15 years. It's difficult for me to imagine that the guy I once knew who felt it a point of honor to defend pimps and whores would eventually become so thoroughly asshole-buddies-comfortable with real estate developers.

We go back a long way, don't we. From the days when we took the state party away from Bill Malone, Harry Truman's boy, and paved the way for the Stevenson wing. We did a lot of good things along the way. Worked hard. Partied harder. Groomed others. Had a fucking ball. I thought I had set it up well; I don't think I overlooked much. But when it came your turn I watched you turn cozy with the corporations and all that funny money moved you beyond pragmatic politics and into that celebrity horseshit. Yeah, you had some successes; but mainly you just held the line and consolidated a career. I had my misgivings about you accepting a coalition with the Republicans so you could gain the Speakership, and now I know why.

Reagan goes to Washington and you get snared in his wash in Sacramento and you never notice. The erosion, the take-aways, the sniping at the agenda we crafted for decades --- the Republicans in the legislature let you think you were stymieing them with Willie magic as the dough from big business increased and enabled you to slop it around to solidify your majority voting bloc. Except it didn't fucking matter: The winning side was always the contributors. And that money had every last one of you up there, regardless of party, by the nuts.

You get out of Nehru jackets and into Wilkes' stuff. New image for you; just right for the whole new tone sounding across the country. You cave in to Deukmejian on prison construction. It's one of the biggest industries now, because you gotta send all those niggers somewhere. You roll over like a dog on three-strikes sentencing. You can't bend over fast enough for the tobacco interests. What dingleberries you get as a trade-off from this sort of shit you call political victories.

You remember the night me and Tip O'Neill and our wives had dinner in L.A? I did what I always did --- drank, didn't lower my voice, talked politics. Some people came over and made some comments and the discussion got a little heated. I held my ground, wagged a finger a bit, made my points. O'Neill pissed his pants. I guess he'd never seen me like that. I knew right away that he wouldn't support me in a challenge against Jim Wright for Speaker of the House. But you know what? I was still Phil Burton, and that's what fucking mattered.

And I guess that's where you and I part company, pal. I've realized it since Clinton's been in office. He beats up on working people and the poor and turns the government into a pig trough for corporations and people like Willie Brown say nothing. The one guy in the country who can best tell him to cram it --- you --- and instead you jitterbug with the asshole. You deliver for him, and Gore has you on his short list for vice president. Kee-rist!

Like I said, it's become personal. This morning the Presidio Trust issues bids for redeveloping the Public Health Service Hospital, and I can imagine the type of pricks eyeing that site, KY jelly in hand. Meanwhile, the clergy kneel in front of City Hall prepared to waste away rather than let the Wherry Housing sit vacant, and your unionized cops drive the homeless like cattle out of downtown. In the past five years 682 people have died on Duh Mayor's goddam streets.

Sixty million dollars, is it, that the city spends on homelessness? And you've got around $90 million surplus in the General Fund, as well as $65 million set aside in economic development money for welfare-to-work transitions? And you're gonna tell me you can't find a fucking solution to this problem? Is Uncle Phil missing something here, Mr. Malone?

Pelosi goes around saying the park's mission and housing the homeless in it are incompatible, and you help her cover her ass. That's bullshit. A couple hundred years ago the Presidio was where it all began. It was the first political district in town. The Spanish fathers, mestizo soldiers and settlers, people from Baja, the local Indians --- they rumbled, haggled and improvised, and cut the deal. That beautiful setting overlooking the Gate shaped them just as they shaped it. Good politics, good turf --- both contributing to making us and the city what we should be.

And that's what I had in mind when I protected it for the future. Does that tell you something, my man? If I could, I'd come back and run against you and wipe the floor with your sorry ass. My first day in office Clinton would pick up his phone and hear this: I got 1,000 skilled homeless workers in a city conservation corps that I want hired as contract employees with the Park Service. We're gonna cover their salaries, and you're gonna open those empty barracks for them to live. We stood by you when you got your cock sucked, and now you're going to satisfy us. That's how it works, Bill. Take your time. I just bought a 14-day advance ticket for Washington, so you've got a cushion. But if I do show up, I won't be alone. I have this knack for getting people together. You'll know it's me out there because I yell louder than anyone else. And we'll be there for a while because we'll have manacled ourselves to the White House fence. At your mealtimes you'll be able to smell my farts.

In some form I'm always going to be around, Willie --- with or without you. I once said I liked people whose balls roar when they see injustice. To them I send my regards.


--- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

Friday, February 19, 1999

Anatomy of a murder

In the summer of 1998, the gate into the Friction auto brake plant in Irvine swung shut for the last time. Its 110 production workers gave the boxy building a last look, and moved on with their lives. It's not unknown for factories in the U.S. to close as production moves south. But this Orange County plant closed, not just because its production was moved, but because its workers reached across the border to help their co-workers at a Mexican plant belonging to the same company.

Friction belongs to a Connecticut-based transnational auto parts manufacturer, Echlin, Inc. Throughout 1996 and 1997, workers at Echlin's ITAPSA brake plant in Mexico City endeavored to form an independent union in their factory. During the summer of 1998, three ITAPSA workers visited their Irvine counterparts to find out about conditions in U.S. plants. The largely immigrant Mexican workforce at Friction identified with the effort, and ITAPSA workers needed all the help they could get.

* * *

When Ruben Ruiz got a job at ITAPSA in the summer of 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had been in effect for just a few months. Ruiz had hardly begun his first shift when workers around him began yelling out: a machine had malfunctioned, cutting four fingers from the hand of the man operating it. "I was very scared," he later remembered. "I wanted to leave." But he needed the job, and stayed.

Accidents were only part of the problem. Ruiz later testified at a hearing into labor violations and health and safety problems at the plant that asbestos dust from the brake parts manufactured at ITAPSA coated machines and people alike. Workers were given X-rays, Ruiz says, and later some would be fired.

Echlin says its ITAPSA plant complies with Mexican health and safety laws. "Medical records indicate that since Echlin has owned the ITAPSA plant, there have been no work-related employee deaths," a company statement says.

As ITAPSA workers organized, they discovered that they already had a union --- Local 15 of the government-sanctioned Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). The 300 employees had never even seen the union contract.

When ITAPSA managers discovered the independent union effort, they allegedly began firing the organizers. In early June 1996, 16 workers were terminated. Ruiz was called into the office of Luis Espinoza de los Monteros, ITAPSA's human relations director. "He told me he had received a phone call from the officials of the Echlin group in the U.S., who told him that any worker organizing a new union should be discharged without further question," Ruiz recounts. "He told me my name was on a list of those people, and I was discharged right there and then."

Despite the firings, many ITAPSA workers moved to join STIMAHCS, an independent Mexican metalworkers union. The union filed a petition for an election with Mexico's labor board, but more workers were fired as the date approached.

The evening before voting took place, a member of the state judicial police openly unloaded a car filled with rifles in the plant. The next morning, two busloads of strangers entered the factory, armed with clubs and copper rods. They formed a gauntlet which workers had to pass as they came to vote. At the voting table, employees had to state aloud --- in front of management and CTM representatives --- which union they favored.

Predictably, STIMAHCS lost.

After the election at ITAPSA, a new trinational alliance of unions filed a complaint over the violation of workers' rights, before the administrative body set up to enforce NAFTA's labor side-agreement. At a hearing before the National Administrative Office of the U.S. Department of Labor, in Washington on March 23, 1998, over two dozen ITAPSA workers and other union officials submitted testimony. Echlin never showed up.

On July 31, the NAO issued its report, declaring that workers "were subjected to retaliation by their employer and the established union in the workplace, including threats of physical harm and dismissal."

* * *

In Irvine, Friction workers signed a petition, demanding that Echlin rehire the fired workers and recognize the independent union. Maria Villela, president of Local 1090 of the United Electrical Workers, and other union members presented it to Friction plant manager Mark Levy. "We could see in his face how angry he was. He told us we had drawn a line between the union and the company," she recalls.

In February 1998, Echlin formally notified the union it was closing the Irvine plant. The move came as a shock to Friction workers, who had an average of 11 years on the job.

Echlin spokesperson Paul Ryder confirmed that the work was being moved, although he said it was only going to other U.S. factories. "We have overcapacity for that product line," he said. He wouldn't respond to the allegation that the closure is revenge for workers' solidarity actions.

But the company may have had other reasons for its hostility to the Orange County workforce. Workers organized their union there in 1994. In a letter to another union, company senior vice-president Milton Makoski wrote, "We will fight every effort to unionize Echlin employees." He noted approvingly that, despite "60 years of determined and relentless efforts" by unions, a majority of its employees are still unorganized. "There is only one [operation] in existence," he regretted, "where the employees, while they were part of the Echlin organization, have elected to be represented by a union." That operation was the Friction plant.

Once they organized their own union, the Irvine workers became the sparkplug of a NAFTA-zone alliance of unions with contracts in Echlin's factories, including the Teamsters, the United Electrical Workers (UE), the Paperworkers and UNITE in the U.S., and the Canadian Steelworkers and Auto Workers. "Our primary purpose," said Bob Kingsley, UE director of organizing, "has been to achieve a situation where we're all sitting down at the table with the same company, and bargaining together."

According to STIMAHCS attorney Eduardo Diaz, Mexico's labor law is "very advanced and progressive," But its government, he said, is afraid to offend companies by enforcing it, as it pursues an economic policy dependent on foreign investment. And NAFTA's labor side-agreement contains no penalties for companies or governments which violate workers' labor rights. Neither does it protect workers like those at Friction, who take cross-border action to support their coworkers in other countries.

U.S. trade policy seeks favorable conditions for U.S. investment. According to University of California Professor Harley Shaiken, "in Mexican plants U.S. investors get first-world rates of productivity, and a workforce with a third-world standard of living."

To meet this challenge, "a growing number of unions are trying to deal with each other across borders," observes the UE's director of international solidarity Robin Alexander. "Maybe there is no single answer to their problems, but we won't find any answers at all without looking for them."

Perhaps that was the sin of the Friction workers. They looked.

--- Copyright David Bacon 1999

Photojournalist David Bacon ( is an editor at Pacific News Service.


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