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Thrust into the limelight: Farmer Percy Schmeiser. Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Betting the Farm
Facing the full might of biotech giant Monsanto, Percy Schmeiser defends his right to save his seeds—no matter who pollinated them

A folk hero came to town on Monday. Percy Schmeiser is a 73-year-old canola farmer from Saskatchewan who has gained international notoriety from his 5-year battle with agribusiness giant Monsanto, who has sued him for alleged infringement of patent rights. Well over 200 people packed the hall of the First Lutheran Church in Albany to standing room only Monday night to hear Schmeiser, who was invited by the Regional Farm and Food Project. Earlier in the day, about 30 people gathered with him for a more intimate “interfaith dialogue” on genetic engineering.

Schmeiser’s battle began when Monsanto sued him for growing its genetically modified “Round-Up Ready” canola, which is resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Round-Up, without a license. Schmeiser said Monsanto’s gene must have showed up in his fields as a result of contamination—from wind, “direct seed movement” from animals, or blowing off grain trucks. And far from being a benefit to Schmeiser, the gene actually destroyed his variety of canola, which he had been developing for decades to match the climate, soil conditions, and diseases of his specific locale. He said he never used Round-Up on his crop, and so never made use of Monsanto’s patented gene.

Nonetheless, he lost the case and his first appeal on the grounds that he had saved and replanted seeds he “knew or ought to have known” had Monsanto’s gene. The case has gone to the Supreme Court of Canada, where it was heard on Jan. 20. A decision isn’t expected for six months, since along the way the case has become a referendum on the intellectual-property rights of corporations and farmers, whether life forms can and should be patented, and the wisdom of genetically modified food.

In both his Albany appearances, Schmeiser told rapt crowds a detailed story about Monsanto harassing small farmers. He spoke of Monsanto’s security force trespassing on fields, monitoring farmers’ movements, and threatening farmers’ wives with the loss of their farms. Monsanto, predictably enough, denies that it engages in any such behavior. “There are all kinds of rumors, including ones that Mr. Schmeiser makes on a regular basis,” said Trish Jordan, spokeswoman for Monsanto’s Western Canada division. Monsanto does encourage farmers who suspect their neighbors of growing plants with Monsanto’s genes in them without paying Monsanto’s technology fee to provide them with tips over a confidential hotline.

This, said Schmeiser, is one of the often-overlooked consequences of genetic engineering: the breakdown of the rural social fabric, as farmers who’ve been visited by Monsanto wonder who called Monsanto on them. Schmeiser provided copies of what he called extortion letters sent to his supporters. The letters are from Monsanto, and say the farmer is suspected to be growing Round-Up Ready canola without a license, and ask for a payment (usually from $20,000 to $200,000, depending on acreage) to prevent a lawsuit. The farmer is not allowed to mention the settlement, but Monsanto may disclose it at will. (This prompted a knowing hiss from the crowd.)

Schmeiser went on to lay out a three-pronged case against the growing of genetically modified crops, focusing on the danger to property rights of farmers who want to save their seed and protect their own strains, potential health hazards from genetically-engineered food (human allergens have been accidentally added into several varieties and plants that produce prescription drugs are also escaping into the wild), and the ecological concerns of reducing the diversity of the gene pool.

One main point of contention in Schmeiser’s case—and the debate over GM food—has been the extent of GMO contamination by cross-pollination. Jordan said the incidence is very low, and that when a few “volunteers” show up in a farmer’s fallow fields, the company accepts the cost of removing them. But some studies have shown that around 15 percent of the “conventional” canola seed supply in Canada has been contaminated by the herbicide-tolerant genes. “Once you introduce a life form—we call it a ‘life-giving form’—you can’t contain it,” said Schmeiser. In fact, Schmeiser claimed to have heard Monsanto representatives and other GM proponents discuss “getting around” popular resistance to GM food by encouraging contamination, so nothing could be called “pure.”

One of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit brought by Canadian organic farmers to stop the approval of GM wheat has said that he had to stop growing canola because a customer found his crop was GM-contaminated and refused to buy it. Ninety percent of canola grown in Western Canada is now herbicide tolerant. “Organic farmers have had their choice taken away,” said Schmeiser, who has farmed with conventional methods since 1947.

Although canola and soybeans—the two most heavily GM crops—aren’t common in the northeastern United States, farmers here are still worried. Mike Scannell, a livestock farmer in northern Columbia County who also grows some crops, said his farm is “surrounded by Monsanto seed.” He’d heard about Schmeiser’s case, and was interested because he also is a seed saver. “It’s your only chance for independence,” he said. Scannell seemed resigned to the prospect of cross-pollination, however. “It’s such a contaminated world,” he said. “It’s part of life.”

In December, Monsanto forced Oakhurst Dairy in Maine, which had been labeling its products as free of Monsanto’s recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, to add the disclaimer “FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.”

New York’s Green Party, a sponsor of the event, is promoting legislation to ban GM foods in New York state.

Monday’s crowd raised over $2600 toward Schmeiser’s legal defense.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

All together now: (l-r) Walter Sanders, Natarsh Clegg, Ricky Rawls, Paul Williams. Photo: John Whipple

Wanted: A Real Contract
Albany ARC/New Visions and CSEA butt heads over basic terms of labor agreement for janitors

‘Some days you can go to work and it’s cool, but some days you go to work and it’s like everybody’s at war with each other,” said custodian Natarsh Clegg, describing a scenario in which supervisors manipulate workers, and “sometimes you see animosity, racism a little bit, favoritism.” Clegg and his coworkers hope for change once they are unionized through the Civil Service Employees Association, Local 1000, but things are moving slowly.

New Visions, the nonprofit formerly called the Albany Association for Retarded Citizens, has programs for developmentally disabled people, those emerging from alcohol/drug rehab, and veterans transitioning into the workforce, including a custodial program employing about 75 people. New Visions obtains the contracts through the New York State Industries for the Disabled, which contracts with Office of General Services “for the purpose of putting people to work who meet handicapped or disabled criteria,” said Clegg. Most of the janitors are African-American men, about 60 percent of whom are veterans, like Clegg. They clean government buildings on the Harriman State Office Campus.

But this isn’t simply a matter of good works: New Visions has admitted that it profits from the janitorial contracts. “We have been told at the bargaining table by their lawyer and the manager of this program within the agency that they wouldn’t do this program if they didn’t make a profit on it,” said CSEA organizer Karen Carpenter. New Visions will not say how lucrative the program is.

Because they’re contracted through the state, janitors are paid the prevailing wage scale, so most of them earn close to $10 per hour, which is surely enticing. But as Carpenter explained, “they have health benefits, but they’re not great, and their benefits in terms of vacation and sick time are horrendous and don’t keep up with the rest of the agency.” People working in other programs in New Visions have a more generous policy, she said, and the janitors are generally treated as “second class.”

Consequently, the New Visions custodians voted to unionize in March 2003. This was no small task, according to Carpenter, who said that “they finally won after quite a bit of union busting” by New Visions, including the firing of a janitor for organizing. “They will do anything to stop a union from successfully representing the workers,” said Carpenter. “If they don’t bust the union at the voting booths . . . they’ll do it afterwards by not negotiating in good faith.” And this, she said, is precisely what has happened thus far.

“Right from the get-go they were dragging their feet,” Carpenter said, explaining that after the janitors voted to unionize, New Visions didn’t make it to the bargaining table until mid-July, and was reluctant to produce a list of contract-negotiation dates. But to Carpenter, what’s worse is New Visions’ desire to do “surface bargaining,” that is, bargaining on more peripheral matters instead of the union’s two major interests: the contract’s economic provisions, like wages and benefits, and securing a worker’s right to just cause for dismissal, with the possibility for binding arbitration through a third party. “Everything else is moot if we don’t get those things, and they know that,” she said.

“Either you have a contract which is real, and it’s one where employees have equal footing and representation, which the only way you get that is by having a real grievance process, or you’re ‘at will,’ meaning you really don’t have any guaranteed rights in a contract,” said Carpenter. New Visions indicated to the union “pretty early on” that it wants an “at will” contract, she said.

“They don’t want to bargain in good faith,” said Paul Williams, a janitor who’s one of five negotiating workers on CSEA’s bargaining team. “You’ve got to have a good contract just like everybody else, so that you can’t get fired, so that you can have a grievance procedure.”

Margie Sheehan, New Visions’ public-relations director, declined the opportunity to comment for fear of “jeopardizing” the contract’s success. “I can’t really go into the actual contract negotiations with you because at this point, it would be inappropriate to talk about anything that’s on the table,” she said.

Carpenter suspects that New Visions is simply stalling at the bargaining table, running down the clock until they can “circulate a [decertification] petition among the workers who they hope will be tired and exhausted by the end of this process and figure that they’ll do just as well without a union.” But workers like Williams and Clegg say they’re trying to keep the morale up among their coworkers, and Carpenter’s recently obtained access to their worksites helps as well.

To Carpenter, it’s clear that New Visions doesn’t actually “want a union—they want complete control.”

—Ashley Hahn

Last Straw
After a show of support, recently reassigned Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro is suspended by Albany Police

At last Thursday’s (Jan. 22) Albany Common Council meeting, two dozen people attended to show support for—and ask questions about—Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro, a popular community policing officer who was reassigned to an administrative job in October [“They Got Him Off the Streets,” Newsfront, Oct. 16]. Some spoke, and others carried signs that said things like “Quality of Life = Cmdr. D’Alessandro” and “One person really does make a difference.”

The next day, D’Alessandro was suspended from the force, ostensibly for possible involvement with a derogatory flier about another officer. Community residents who worked with D’Alessandro, and have been calling for his return to the streets, expressed disbelief that D’Alessandro would have been involved in such a thing.

“I find it completely preposterous,” said Isla Roona, executive director of the Social Capital Development Corporation. “It’s just not his approach.” As for the timing, said Roona, “Coincidences happen, but I have a strong feeling that this was no coincidence whatsoever.”

“It was reported on Friday, and then there was nothing, which is unusual when a high-level commander is suspended,” added Mansion Neighborhood resident Betsy Mercogliano.

Many who showed up at that council meeting also planned to attend the council’s caucus meeting scheduled last night (Wednesday), at which council members were to question Public Safety Commissioner John C. Nielsen and Chief Robert Wolfgang. Although she was disappointed that there was to be no opportunity for public comment, Mercogliano said, “We need to be able to listen at least.” That caucus meeting was canceled Wednesday after Metroland spoke with people for this story.

Arbor Hill resident Helen Black wouldn’t comment on the suspension, but stuck to her experience working with D’Alessandro and the police department in general. Her concerns run beyond the loss of D’Alessandro. “This didn’t start two weeks ago,” she cautioned.

“This is not just about D’Alessandro at all,” aggred Mercogliano. “It’s about the chain of power and use of power in the police department.”

Black said one of her main concerns was lack of timely communication from the police department to citizen groups, and the suspension of the Community Police Council [“Dialogue Disbanded,” Newsfront, Oct. 30], which Roona and Mercogliano also mentioned. “They gave no explanation [about the council’s cancellation],” said Black, who added that she had to call Wolfgang three times to find out that he did plan to reorganize it at some point. “There was still no communication,” she said. “I felt that was disrespectful to the members.”

The difficulty of getting information from the police department was also raised. “We shouldn’t have to file a Freedom of Information request to get basic crime statistics,” said Roona, noting that Councilman Dominick Calsolaro has been stymied in his quest to get information from the police department for the past two years.

Though Black, Roona, and Mercogliano all emphasize that they know and appreciate many concerned and effective officers in the city, frustration with these access problems at the higher levels of the department has been compounded by the shooting of bystander David Scaringe on New Year’s Eve by officers involved in a car chase, and D’Alessandro’s suspension, and they want answers.

“I hope that the hard questions will be asked,” said Black.

“[Nielsen] has consistently said to me and the public that he wants the department run like a business where the citizens are the customers,” echoed Roona. “He’s getting an F in customer service right now.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Trailmix: Know Your Rights

Civil rights and liberties as guaranteed by the Constitution are subject to constant reinterpretation. How an administration stands on these issues can determine what kinds of legislation a president vetoes or supports and who an administration might nominate to federal benches. President Bush restated his socially conservative agenda in his State of the Union address last week: He hopes Congress will extend the Patriot Act, and has expressed distain for the trend of state courts ruling in favor of civil unions. The Democratic candidates have also been stumping with civil rights and liberties, including reproductive rights, the rights of nonheterosexuals, the right to bear arms, and the Patriot Act as key issues.

Supporting a woman’s right to choose has become a mainstay of most Democratic platforms. Each Democratic candidate supports a woman’s right to choose and pledges, in varying degrees, to appoint judges who would uphold the constitutional right to privacy, and thereby keep Roe v. Wade intact. Dennis Kucinich, however, consistently voted pro-life until his bid for the presidency, though he voted against the “partial birth” abortion ban last year and says he’s now pro-choice.

In his State of the Union, the president declared that the “sanctity” of marriage is under attack in America thanks to “activist” judges who have started to redefine the institution as anything other than the union of a man and a woman. He stopped just short of recommending a constitutional amendment that said marriage can only be a man and a woman. The Dems, on the other hand, are advocating for varying degrees of equal rights regardless of sexual orientation.

Howard Dean was the first governor to sign legislation recognizing same-sex unions, granting homosexual couples the same legal rights as heterosexual ones. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Dean said, “I didn’t know anything about the gay community when I signed the civil-unions bill. . . . You don’t allocate civil rights by who makes you comfortable and who doesn’t.” When he was given the rare opportunity to chime in about his passage of Vermont’s civil union bill in a debate, Dean dodged the question.

It should be noted that Wesley Clark, John Kerry and John Edwards are opposed to gay marriage but support civil unions and the extension of employment benefits to partners. Kerry also voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, a law that Bush applauded during his address. Lieberman, Edwards and Dean all believe that the legality of same-sex partnerships should be left up to the states. As a state senator in Connecticut in the ’70s, Lieberman voted to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Clark, Kerry, Dean and Edwards each have brought up Second Amendment rights, but have noted the difference between a shotgun and hunting with an AK-47. Dean advocates that states legislate on guns given their particular and differing needs. Edwards is advocating extending the Brady Bill rather than letting it sunset, and believes, as Kerry and Dean do, that closing the gun-show loophole is essential.

The Patriot Act has been widely decried as destructive to our constitutional rights. As Clark said at the last debate, “You can’t win the war on terror by giving up the freedoms we’re trying to protect.” Kerry, Lieberman, and Edwards voted for the passage of the Patriot Act, whereas Kucinich did not and has expressed the desire to repeal it entirely. Kerry and Edwards and have recommended that it be allowed to sunset, and think, as Clark does, that generous “sneak and peek” surveillance provisions need to be applied in a more restrained fashion. Dean says he’ll repeal the parts that “betray” our civil liberties.

—Ashley Hahn

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