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Smile and say NAFTA: a delegate taking Polaroids of Mexican children. Photo by: Brian Brown-Cashdollar

Firsthand Free Trade
Local students head south of the border for a closer look at NAFTA

Thirteen teens from the Capital Region and elsewhere in New York state spent their February break in the warmer Mexican border towns near Texas’ southern tip. They were not, however, beach bumming on the Gulf Coast. Instead, they went with elder members of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition to learn hard truths about what life looks like for Mexican workers and their families living with the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The delegation met with labor leaders, workers who are employed in maquiladoras, factories near the border where products for export are made by many foreign companies, and who live in colonias, the makeshift communities where workers live mostly in homes made of scrap cardboard and metal, often located near dangerous dumps and landfills.

Maureen Casey, who has led all 14 of the coalition’s trips since they began in 1997, said that they keep coming back to the same places so they can watch the effects of NAFTA in the same communities over time. She has worked hard to build relationships with people there.

NAFTA turned 10 in December, and the anniversary was marked with mixed reviews: Critics noted that America has lost about 750,000 jobs to Mexico, in that “giant sucking sound” Ross Perot famously forecasted, while others, including former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Reich, contend that consumers benefited from lower prices. In the program’s first seven years, manufacturing jobs doubled in Mexico, but the current trend is that companies are closing up shop to head overseas for cheaper labor. According to Casey, this threat is used by companies who operate where the delegation visits to undermine organizing attempts to improve conditions and pay scale, but few have actually moved.

“We met with different workers’ groups who are trying to educate other workers on their rights because Mexican labor law is actually very strong, but it’s just not enforced, especially if it’s a U.S. company,” said returning delegate Camila Levia, a 16-year-old student at Guilderland High School who went as a translator this year. A recent victory for one union—something that would be elementary in America—was the installation of fire escapes at one factory.

This is the fourth trip that has included youth delegates, which the coalition believes is an important experience for a new generation of act ivists. “These are the people who are going to be living with the consequences of what I call corporate free trade for the next several decades, and they have a right to know what the costs really are,” Casey said, adding that the adults are energized by the youth who help them keep in touch with “that sort of moral outrage that you can feel when people are abused. Kids keep us in touch with that, and that’s a healthy thing.” But that’s not to say that the experience was an easy one.

“Especially for people who haven’t seen such poverty, at first there’s a reaction of anger because essentially the workers that we met along the border, along the free-trade areas, are sort of supporting our way of life,” Levia said. But she found that the more people the delegates met, they realized “that feeling despair is not going to get you anywhere. Then I think begins more of a need to do something about it, at least for me,” she said.

Reed Dunlea, a 16-year-old from Averill Park High School, said he was particularly affected by the children, whose apparent resilience in the face of difficult living conditions was “heartwarming.” The delegation visited several schools and the students said it was a real highlight to play with the young children.

The average daily earnings amount to about $4 per day, on which it’s hard to support a family because, as Casey pointed out, prices there “are comparable to prices in my local Hannaford and Price Chopper.” To drive this point home, the delegates split into “families” and mock grocery shopped on their earnings at a local supermarket. Levia said her family could barely afford milk, giving her a sense of how helplessness feels. “At one point we had a discussion in our ‘family’ if we would buy lettuce or toilet paper.”

Returning home has been hard for youth delegates, though all of them feel empowered by their knowledge and are determined to confront fair-trade issues locally. Students said that their schools had adopted “sweat-free” purchasing policies for apparel, though implementation has been difficult. “I want to work with that because I know that at the moment I can’t change the entire system,” Dunlea said. “I can have a direct impact if I don’t buy stuff made in sweatshops.”

Dan Van Wormer, a 16-year old from Guilderland High School, thinks simply talking about his experience will help to inform others. He thinks “if people actually know and understand more about what is happening, then if they’re as moved as I am they’ll want to do something too.”

—Ashley Hahn


Time for action: Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood’s Blue Carreker. Photo by: Teri Currie

March Into April
Reproductive-rights advocates join together in preparation for an upcoming march on Washington, D.C.

In an election year when many feel that the future of a woman’s right to choose hangs in the balance, preparations are in the works nationwide for a major march and rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C., later this spring.

Roe v. Wade is slowly being subjugated and now is a good time, with the upcoming presidential election, to show solidarity among all who believe in a woman’s right to chose,” said Kate Bower, 27, an organizer with Medical Students for Choice at Albany Medical College.

Bower was one of approximately 70 people who gathered at DeJohn’s Restaurant in Albany for an educational fundraiser earlier this week. The event was a primer for this spring’s March For Women’s Lives, to be held in Washington, D.C., on April 25. The rally, being billed as the first of its kind, is an organizing effort of hundreds of family-planning, women’s and student groups from across the country.

“We’ve got to make a stand now to preserve everyone’s right,” Bower added. “Whatever you believe in, this is about freedom, this is about democracy. You shouldn’t have a government that decides for you what you can and cannot do.”

Bower and others who attended Monday’s event expressed concerns that another four years of the Bush administration—four years without another election to hold them accountable—could lead to a disastrous erosion of the progress in achieving women’s health-care rights over the last 30 years.

“It wasn’t that long ago that that women were given the ability to determine when and whether to have children,” said Blue Carreker, director of marketing and public affairs for Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood. “Until that point, women have not been able to fully participate in society.”

Monique Radman, 26, also with Albany Medical College’s Medical Students for Choice, echoed Carreker’s comments. Radman stressed the need to organize around reproductive rights issues at the college level and younger.

“There are a lot of us that grew up with Roe v. Wade, so I think the reality that it could [be overturned] is sort of surreal and not hitting some of the younger crowd,” Radman said. “Supreme Court justices are going to be turning over here pretty quickly, and you have a president right now who is extremely vociferous about being against abortion. We need to get the word out that this is a reality.”

Radman pointed to President Bush’s signing into law a ban on a late-term medical procedure commonly, and some say shrewdly, referred to as “partial-birth abortion” last November as evidence that women’s rights are in jeopardy. Lawsuits have been filed in New York, California and Nebraska challenging the law.

“I think what it comes down to is, the choice to become a parent is the biggest decision a person can make and the ability to say you’re not ready is an equally important decision,” said 29-year-old Kathy Kearnan, who is six months pregnant. “This was my choice.”

Kearnan, a Planned Parenthood Young Leader, has been organizing various social-action events in the region in preparation for the march, including a local March For Women MeetUp, http://marchforwomen.meetup.com, the turnout for which has steadily ballooned, she said.

Gregg Bell, a 57-year-old consultant from Albany, opposes the president’s view on choice, stating that it is just another example of the divisive tactics the Bush administration has used to address a range of issues since taking office. Bell said that he was hopeful that a large turnout at the march in April could have an impact on how reproductive rights and women’s health-care issues are addressed in Washington.

“I think the march will be a good predictor of how things will go this fall,” he said.

—Travis Durfee

Travis Durfee can be contacted at tdurfee@metroland.net or 463-2500 ext. 144.


Photo by: Teri Currie

Questions That Bother Us So

Why do signs on the Madison Avenue end of the Empire State Plaza always say the plaza is closed for the winter?

This time of year, the Empire State Plaza resembles much of Albany: cold and barren, without a hint as to its actual depth.

From Madison Avenue, there is no evidence that there are spacious courtyards and benches a few hundred yards away. There is no indication that the ice-skating rink Gov. Pataki has called “one of the favorite winter activities of Capital Region families and visitors to the City of Albany” exists only just around the bend.

Instead, the stairs leading to the white marble buildings are guarded with metal fences and signs proclaiming “Plaza closed for winter.”

Closed for the winter? The plaza building? The ice-skating rink? As recently as this weekend, Albany citizens of all ages could be seen enjoying the ice or strolling through the windy public square. Didn’t they read the signs?

The people who answered the phone at the office of the plaza manager and at the plaza visitors’ bureau cited safety problems from ice as the cause for sealing off the stairs, and suggested that patrons “walk around” through one of the other entrances, or up from the concourse below. But they said the plaza, of course, isn’t actually closed. They had no explanation yet for the signs that claim exactly that. These signs and barriers are “consistent with our policy every winter,” said Jennifer Morris, spokeswoman for the Office of General Services.

It will soon be a moot point this year, anyway. The ice-skating rink was closed Monday—and the closed signs should be just about ready to come down, said Morris. In the interest of people feeling welcome in our city’s public spaces, maybe next year they should take the leap to signs that say “Stairs closed” or even “Just go around.”

—Ariel Colletti

Trailmix

Kerry Carries; Albany County Confused

Voters statewide joined the Kerry bandwagon while voters in Albany County still have to wait for the final outcome of yesterday’s county legislative primary.

After voters in 10 of 11 states taking part in yesterday’s primaries, referred to as Super Tuesday, selected Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts appears to have the Democratic nomination for president all but wrapped up. Only Vermont chose otherwise; 58 percent of Green Mountain voters gave the nod to the state’s former Gov. Howard Dean, despite the fact that he dropped out of the race last month.

Approximately 61 percent of New York’s Democrats voted for Kerry. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Kerry’s closest rival, garnered 20 percent of the vote.

Though numbers haven’t been officially totaled, Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections, said that voter turnout for this year’s presidential primary appears significantly lower than it was four years prior. Daghlian estimated that only 13 or 14 percent of registered voters went to the polls yesterday, compared with around 20 percent in 2000.

“No one cared,” Daghlian said. “There was no contest really. All the polls were predicting that [Kerry] would win, voters thought that it was a forgone conclusion, and they turned out to be right.”

Daghlian added that primary turnout is typically low, stating that a 25-percent turnout would be a big deal.

In Albany County yesterday, primaries were held in six legislative districts, but the results were still up in the air as of press time Wednesday.

In the day’s most troublesome primary, incumbent Wanda Willingham clung to a slim four-vote lead over challenger Jestin Williams, 217 to 213, with 100 percent of the machines counted, but problems at and away from the polling place led a state judge to order two voting machines and all absentee ballots impounded.

Willingham filed a formal complaint with the BOE after a mailing error sent 40 people from her district to the wrong polling place. Republican Elections Commissioner John Graziano Sr., who said the error resulted from the county’s redistricting process, said that at least 10 of those 40 lodged votes in the wrong district.

Willingham also filed a complaint over the handling of some 150 absentee ballots by Third Ward Democratic Leader Jamie Gilkey, who had asked the BOE to hold the ballots for him to deliver to shut-in or disabled voters in his ward. While no law forbids the practice, Graziano said, the sheer number of ballots Gilkey requested presented at least the appearance of impropriety.

In other races, unofficial polling numbers from the county’s board of elections showed incumbent Democrat George Infante leading Nell Stoke-Holmes, 312 to 203, in District 1; insurgent Marilyn Hammond holding a sizeable lead over incumbent Lucille McKnight, 210 to 177, in District 2; incumbent Virginia Maffia-Tobler leading Ward Dewitt in the district 4 primary, 168 to157.

Independence Party voters in Guilderland’s District 31 placed their support behind Republican Jeff Perlee, 16 to 14, over Democrat William Aylward. Scott Paton beat William Gardner III, 305 to 261, in the Republican primary in Colonie’s District 20 with 100 percent of the machines.

A protracted redistricting process—where it was determined that the county’s voting maps provided inadequate representation for a growing ethnic-minority population—postponed last fall’s regularly scheduled legislative elections. Legislators were to hold their seats until this fall, but a federal judged ordered yesterday’s special primary. On April 27, all 39 seats in the County Legislature will be voted on. Those elected in April will carry out the remaining three years of a regular term, which would have started Jan. 1.

—Travis Durfee


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