Monday, January 26, 2009

the York University strike

As a resident of Toronto, with friends who work and study at York University, I have, like many Torontonians, followed the strike by contract faculty represented by CUPE local 3903 with great interest. The voices that seem to be aired in this labour dispute seem to be of those who do undoubtedly lose out: the students. Nonetheless, while I have a great deal of empathy for the difficulty that the 50000 undergraduates at York have faced, I sometimes wonder if they 'get it'.

CUPE 3903 has 3412 members, and, like many universities in Canada and the US, does more than 50 per cent of all undergraduate teaching at York. The union wants a wage settlement that is above the rate of inflation, a 2 year contract to harmonize the York contract with those of other CUPE university locals, job security, better working conditions, an end to the student code of conduct at York, and post-residency fees. Utlimately, though, this strike is about improving job security.

It is, in my view, important to remember just who are striking. Within the membership 871 are 'contract faculty' who sign a contract to work a certain number of months a year. The remainder--teaching assistants and graduate assistants--work part-time. So the York strike is above all else a strike by part-time workers for improved terms and conditions of employment, including some job security. It is the sort of thing that sensible people take for granted.

In this light, that the provincial government feels that it is necessary to pass back-to-work legislation to force the local back to work should be seen as an affront to sensible people. Back-to-work legislation, which I disagree with in principle, is usually passed to get essential services back up and running. This is what happened last year, for example, when the Toronto Transit Commission, which runs public transport in the city, went on strike. However: how can part-time workers be deemed an essential public service? If their work is essential, why don't they have a properly paid and secure job? These are the key questions that are missing in discussions about the strike.

The reliance of North American universities on part-time and insecure faculty demonstrates the extent to which neoliberalism has reconfigured tertiary education. Neoliberalism in the public sector relies on insecurity and fear to get the job done. However, casualization and flexibilization are not the basis by which to create a worldclass tertiary education sector where students actually learn. The strike demonstrates that some people are not prepared to kow-tow to such a regime. CUPE 3903 continue to deserve the full support of the people of this city.

Friday, January 23, 2009

the contradictions of hope

Last week there was near euphoria around the world when Barack Obama was inaugurated as 44th President of the United States. I must confess that I spent most of the day glued to the television, watching a remarkable event unfold: one of those moments when you had to be there, at least watching, as when 9/11 occurred, Nelson Mandela walked free, the Berlin Wall came down, or Nixon stepped into the helicopter to leave the White House for the last time.

Obama has been extremely active in his first 6 days in office, and has already done some remarkable things. There was widespread press coverage of Barack Obama signing a Presidential order on 22 January 2009 mandating that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba be closed. In the same order it was decreed that all detainess held by the US would be covered by the Geneva Conventions. Less well noted were the fact that in the same order Obama ordered the closure of the Central Intelligence Agency's network of secret prisons, and that the CIA had been banned from using interrogation methods that are not contained in the US army field manual. At last, water boarding will come to an end as the official policy of the US government.

I don't expect the CIA or the US military not to resort to torture, or rendition; but if they do, at least now they can be held, to some degree, accountable. That is a positive return to a previous status quo--and after 8 years of Bush, a positive return to a status quo appears fresh and new.

Most remarkable of all, from an international development perspective, was a Presidential order that once more allows US aid agencies to deal with global groups that advocate family planning, like Marie Stopes and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. George W. Bush had imposed a moratorium on dealing with these groups within days of taking office; there can be little doubt that lifting the moratorium will save the lives of thousands of women throughout the developing world. This move reinforces the emphasis on development made by Hillary Clinton when she first addressed State Department staff last week--she is going to try and have development activities that lie under the control of the Defence department moved to State, where they clearly belong.

Cynics might decry these immediate--and fairly politically easy--changes under the new US President. I don't. These former US policies were an afront to the American people, served to galzanize opposition to the United States around the world, violated international law, and violated the rights of women. It was important that these wrongs be righted.

Nonetheless, it is still necessary to confront these changes against a more mundane and messy reality. On 23 January a US missle strike in North Wazirstan, Pakistan killed at least 21 people, including 3 children. These were the first such strikes--there were 30 in 2008--under President Obama, and as such must have received the direct approval of the President. On 24 January a US military raid in Aghanistan killed 22, including 2 women and 3 children--although the US military, with no observers on the ground, claimed that all the dead were militants. It is likely that a raid of this sort, in a civilian area of Afghanistan, was also explicitly authorized by President Obama. Thus, with the hopes that Obama has raised comes the contradictions of continuity. Such contradictions, however, are inevitable, as Barack Obama cannot and will not transform the US political economy. His role is to manage it better: and as such, President Obama will do much that will disappoint.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

voices from Gaza

From the Financial Times of 23 January 2009:

'Sabah Abu Halema lies on her bed in Gaza's Shifa hospital, her arms and legs covered in once-white bandages and her hands covered in brown scabs.'

'Mrs Abu Halema is a victim of white phosphorous burns after being caught in a bombing early in the 22-day Israeli assault on Gaza...'

'Mrs Abu Halema and her family were eating lunch during the second week of the conflict when three bombs hit her house. Her husband and four of their nine children were killed.'

'"You should tell everyone about these scandalous acts by the Israelis', she told the Financial Times yesterday.'

From the Financial Times on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration, 20 January 2009:

'When an Israeli airstrike destroyed the Imad Akl mosque in the Jabaliya area of Gaza City that night, it also took his house.'

'Tahreir, 17, Ikram, 14, Samar, 12, Dina 7 and Jawaher, 4, were all killed when the mosque collapsed through their bedroom wall. Baraa, who was only 12 days old when the war began, was saved when the force of the explosion flipped her cot over and gave her shelter.'

'"Before, I used to count my children when we went out for family lunch or dinner, to make sure all 9 were there," says Mr (Anwar) Baalousha, 37. "Now I don't need to."'

'The airstrike has change Mr Baalousha's life in more than one way. "I'm ready to become a martyr now", he says dispassionately.'

'His brother, Nafez, chimes in: "The thing is, he wasn't political at all before the attack"'.'

From The Economist, 17 January 2009:

'"My brother was bleeding so much and right in front of my eyes, he died. My other brother Ismail, he also bled to death. My mum and my youngest brother, they are gone. Four brothers and my mother, dead. May God give them peace."'

1500 dead. 5000 wounded. Why?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Gaza's silent victims

The Israeli Defence Force's air and ground assault on Gaza has been disproportionately deadly on one group of Palestinians: children. It is not widely enough known that of the 1.5 million people that live in Gaza, half are children under the age of 15. In any military operation, then, it was inevitable that children would die. Since the assault began, of the 636 Palestinians that have been killed, at least 115 have been children, according to reports in the Financial Times.

The Israeli assault on Palestinian children is easily seen in the repeated bombing of schools, which has been roundly condemned around the world. The latest tragedy, in which 40 civilians, including children, were killed when a United Nations school was bombed, reminds the international community that despite repeated assertions by the Israeli Defence Forces that they seek to minimize civilian casulties the reality is that civilian populations, whether they be in private homes, schools, or medical facilities, are systematic targets, and this includes children.

Who can forget the murder--for that was what it was--of Rami Jamal al-Durra in September 2000? French television filmed the scene of the 12 year old huddled next to his father, hiding, as his father pleaded with the Israelis to stop shooting. In response, the Israelis shot at the father, wounding him, and killing Rami Jamal al-Durra. It is a scene that we have, unfortunately, had to witness again this month.

Prior to the assault, as a consequence of the Israeli blockade of the territory, some 50000 children were malnourished; as in Iraq in the 1990s, there can be no doubt that some children have died as a consequence of the conditions created by the blockade. To this horror must now be added the horror of the deaths of far too many wholly innocent children.

The irony of this assault on children is not lost on the Israeli leadership: as Ehud Barak, the defence minister who is directing the assault, once said when asked what he would do if he were a Palestinian facing the Israeli Defence Forces, 'I would join a terror organization'. In attacking Gaza's children, the Israelis are creating the conditions that perpetuate the cycle of violence that plagues the region.